Superman: The Movie Review
Superman is the acme of comic book films, the first to have the technology available to illustrate its world on the big screen (thereby avoiding the need to resort to parody as in 1966’s Batman: The Movie) and the courage to approach the material seriously – a feature shared by Tim Burton’s Batman, Bryan Singer’s X-Men and most other subsequently successful comic book adaptations. It’s also a prototype for the modern blockbuster, perhaps even more so than the comparatively idiosyncratic Star Wars (released the year earlier). The dynamite cast, pounding score and eye-popping visuals, combined with a snappy script designed mainly to sketch the characters prior to putting them in ever-increasing peril has been recycled in ever more big-budget fashion ever since, although few achieve the kind of warmth and panache achieved by director Richard Donner (The Omen, Lethal Weapon) and his team here.
The film begins with what is essentially a 50-minute prologue. The background of Kal-el’s flight from the doomed planet Krypton (its fate predicted only by his father Jor-el, played with brooding presence by Marlon Brando) to the sanctuary of Earth and subsequent childhood in all-American “Smallville” was obviously an essential part of the story and could have been tedious. Fortunately Donner plugs directly into the “myth” of Superman (even starting with a phoney 1938 newsreel illustration of Metropolis’ ever-present journal of record, The Daily Planet) and deftly establishes Superman’s heritage and background. The most surprising thing is what a misfit this hero is – far from the “truth, justice and the American way” platitudes he coyly espouses later in the movie, this stranger is a misfit in 50’s America, isolated by his powers and social awkwardness.
This carries through into the main plot as Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) travels to the Metropolis of today (actually an almost completely undisguised New York of the 1970’s) to become a reporter at The Daily Planet and, presumably, find his destiny here on Earth. It turns out he couldn’t have picked a better place to do this, thanks to the twin terrors of sassy reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), pursuing trouble as an occupational hazard, and psychotic master criminal Lex Luther (Gene Hackman), plotting world domination from his bunker beneath Central Station. Clark/Superman has to flip-flop between the daily grind at the Daily Planet, competing with the twin trials of New York life and the elusive Miss Lane, and the more serious business of busting New York’s scum (of which there was obviously a lot in the New York City of 70’s prior to its subsequent re-invention in the 80’s and 90’s).
The plot from here on in (such as it is) is a dotty delight that stays just the right side of parody (although Superman’s method of “altering human history” is pushing it a bit), and thanks to the superior cast and Donner’s tight grip it hangs together to form a delightful and colourful ride. Reeve’s performance as Superman absolutely anchors the movie – he excels both as the bumbling yet dignified Clark and the invulnerable, almost threatening, Superman. Kidder as Lois Lane provides a unique energy and, thanks to her on-screen chemistry with Clark AND Superman provides an unexpected whiff of sexuality. Elsewhere, the big names do their stuff with aplomb – Hackman plays Luther with a light touch which makes his psychotic acts all the more perplexing and disturbing, Ned Beatty (as sidekick Otis) provides a lot of laughs. Only Brando seems more interested in his ticket back to Hawaii or wherever – although his iconic presence constantly reinforces Superman’s amazing origins.
Warners have apparently done a lot of work on restoring the film elements of Superman for this release, and it shows here to powerful effect. Much of the movie is filmed using softening filters, presumably to achieve that “epic” look and this, combined with the so-so film stock commonly used during the 70’s means that Superman has often looked grainy and lacking in detail on TV and video. Not here though! Although the soft look remains, real detail is visible at all times, and colour tones are quite startling. Superman’s red and blue suit is the obvious bench test for this, and it looks vivid throughout. Realism is obviously not the primary intention for the look of this movie, and the DVD truthfully reproduces the spectacular intentions of the filmmakers throughout.
Although originally released in a 70mm, six-track sound presentation, one is hardly prepared for the audio impact of this film! Once you have witnessed the devastatingly powerful impact of the opening John Williams score and subsequent apocalypse on the planet Krypton though, you will release that this is one of the most involving and dynamic DVD soundtracks so far produced. Apparently Warners have seriously revamped the soundtrack (introducing modern technology) – to the chagrin of Superman purists. It would, however, be churlish to argue with the sonic results, which perfectly convey the atmosphere of the original film, while simultaneously making it sound totally contemporary. A great example is Luther’s ultrasonic message to Superman, his diabolical voice coming from every speaker to really startle the viewer. Amazing!
Although emerging from a rather humble-looking Warners cardboard snapper case, this rather ordinary looking disc is actually a DVD-18 (double-sided, double-layered) including a huge amount of interesting bonus material. The first thing to mention is the film itself, which is extended from the original by about 8 minutes. Another apparent piece of “sacrilege” is instantly forgiven when the extra scenes turn out to be very worthwhile and seamlessly integrated with the existing film. The main new sequences added include Superman confessing how much he enjoys helping mankind to his father (who gently chides him for his “vanity” but also offers some useful advice), and a spectacular if somewhat pointless sequence when Superman invades Luther’s lair – he has to withstand bullets, fire, ice etc.
Making up side 1 is a commentary track from Director Richard Donner and Creative Consultant Tom Mackiewicz which is interesting and rather jovial. The affable Mr. Donner is content to regale us with droll anecdotes about the making of the film, although at times you wish he would dish a little more dirt on the Salkinds (who seem rather shambolic producers, sacking Donner upon Superman becoming a hit and throwing him off Superman II). Many interesting points are included though, for example the revelation that the film was to end with one of the warheads freeing Krypton super-criminal Zod (Terence Stamp) from his multi-dimensional trap in order to set up the sequel. Also included is a stunning-sounding 5.1 music-only track, displaying John Williams essential score to amazing effect.
Side 2 includes documentaries, screen tests, trailers and more. The documentaries (actually almost like three parts of the same programme, all narrated by “little” Jimmy Olsen himself) cover the pre-production, production and post-production stages in some detail, and feature copious amounts of both on-set footage and modern interviews with the participants. Perhaps a little more “corporate” than the kind put together by Criterion or Anchor Bay, this is nevertheless a charming and fascinating look at the making of the film, a groundbreaking blockbuster in its day. Screen tests (including Anne Archer and Stockard Channing as Lois Lane) absolutely confirm that the casting for the final film was spot on. The tiny amount of additional film footage suggests that most of the usable stuff actually made it into Superman (and Superman II) itself, so who’s complaining?
This is a fine package by Warners that should satisfy all those who have been waiting for this film since the inception of the DVD format four years ago. Although this reviewer was definitely swayed by a revelatory first viewing of this film on the BIG screen at age 5 (making a truly objective reasoning of the film quite impossible!) there’s no doubting the place of this movie in blockbuster or comic book history. It’s quite magical, and this disc does it full justice. Very highly recommended.