[box cover]

Superman: The Movie

Warner Home Video

Starring Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder,
and Marlon Brando

Written by Mario Puzo (story), Tom Mankiewicz ("Creative Consultant"),
with Robert Benton, and David and Leslie Newman

Directed by Richard Donner


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Review by Mark Bourne                    


"I felt that a torch had been passed from previous generations of actors and readers who had loved Superman. So I felt that during the '70s and '80s I was the temporary custodian of a part that is an essential piece of American mythology."

— Christopher Reeve, from Making Superman: Filming the Legend,
one of three making-of documentaries on this new DVD edition


Has an entire generation already passed since director Richard Donner rebooted the Superman legend back to its roots while updating it for a modern audience? Has it really been almost a quarter of a century since 1978, when we first saw Christopher Reeve don the blue tights and red cape? As his Clark Kent would say — golly. These young'ns today, they have their Superman — a humanity-touched god solidly part of our 21st century world with its issues and concerns (e.g., all-powerful megacorp CEOs such as Lex Luthor) that would have been inconceivable to previous generations. My father had his Superman from 1938 through WWII, a simpler symbol of can-do Americana fighting Nazis, Fifth Columnists, fedora-wearing mobsters, and manic rogue scientists (such as Lex Luthor) whose genesis came in a crudely drawn and written comic strip created by a couple of Depression-era Cleveland teenagers.

For movie and TV screens, the "old school" Man of Steel can still be found in TV Land reruns of the black-and-white Kirk Alyn and George Reeves creakers from the 1950s. Generational updates continue to prove that there's something in all that silly comic strip stuff that attracts us hip, savvy modernites. They say there's a visual or verbal Superman reference in every episode of Seinfeld. WB's animated New Adventures of Superman is perhaps the best manifestation of the mythos ever given movement. Live action TV series such as Lois and Clark and the new Smallville demonstrate that the blue tights and red cape aren't going to be mothballed soon. (The less said about the much-rumored Nicolas Cage-as-Superman big screen possibility, the better.)

Not that these reincarnations merely repackaged the same old same old. Every generation recreates Superman in its own image. It's been happening to myths ever since the Greek gods. Both human and divine, Superman is Zeus, Moses, Arthur, Jesus — a mythic hero too archetypal to be just one thing to one time. Richard Donner understood this. So instead of a dismissive, low-brow approach to the material, Donner conceptualized Superman: The Movie as The Greatest Story Ever Told. But to accomplish that, he did have to simplify matters.

By the mid-1970s, the Superman story had grown to galactic proportions, accumulating almost 40 years worth of bulk along the way. Dozens of comic book lines had packed Kal-El's universe with regular and semi-regular characters, and while its basic components remained intact (the destruction of Krypton, Jor-El sending his only son to Earth, Smallville, Lois, the Daily Planet, the secret identity, Superman's core values, Lex Luthor, etc.), they had been updated and augmented again and again over decades. Any new Superman movie could potentially be populated with dozens of concepts and characters, human and otherwise, familiar to fans of the comic book series but totally unknown to the average movie-going audience. So it was best to stick with the basics, reinterpreting them for new audiences.

Remember too that in the 1970s the notion of a serious movie based on a — c'mon, Morty, you gotta be kidding me — comic book hero was a hard sell. The played-for-giggles high-camp Batman TV series and 1966 movie were fresh in everyone's mind. Most studio execs were old enough to remember George Reeves lying on a board, arms outstretched in The Flying Pose, as the "sky" moved behind him. As far as any major studio was concerned, the notion of a Superman movie played seriously was just too ... alien.

So when Donner and "creative consultant" Tom Mankiewicz rewrote the Bible-sized draft script written by Mario (The Godfather) Puzo, they stripped away Puzo's dopey, high-camp treatment of the material and injected the Superman legend with what it needed to succeed as entertainment relevant today : verisimilitude, or respect for the appearance of truth, even if that extended to the "truth" that a man can fly. Verisimilitude was Donner's guiding mantra. If the audience didn't believe in this Superman, the movie would be doomed to failure.

Donner established Superman: The Movie firmly within our 1978 world. Metropolis was an undisguised Manhattan. Modern woman Lois Lane was a "you've come a long way baby" smoker with enough contemporary cynicism to respond to the Man of Steel's "I'm here to fight for truth, justice, and the American way" with a disbelieving guffaw. In the years after Vietnam, Watergate, and other sobering realities, that line will never be played straight-faced again, so her response reflects ours.

"This is no fantasy," Marlon Brando intones in the movie's first line of dialogue, just in case there was any question about it.

Superman: The Movie remained faithful to its roots while it appealed to post-Vietnam audiences, adults as well as children. By taking the work and the audience seriously (but not too seriously), Donner created a movie that went on to become one of the most popular Hollywood products in history. Debuting in December 1978, it topped the box office charts for thirteen consecutive weeks. Its success was international, and it was Warner Brothers' highest-grossing film for years. This success cemented a new standard for later comics-to-screen adaptations right up to the recent X-Men.

Now the movie is back again, finally given a loving home theater treatment that has reached the status of Event in some corners of DVDdom.

Whatever it is about the Superman story that keeps drawing us in — somehow I think it's more than just our seeing ourselves as Clark Kent inside the messy Metropolis of our lives — its hold on our culture remains strong. Future generations will have their own Superman for all seasons, but this one will always be my Superman.

Not bad for a crudely drawn comic created by a couple of Depression-era Cleveland teenagers.


"These are matters of undeniable fact." — Jor-El

So is the movie good? I'm pleased to report that after all these years, Superman: The Movie, especially in this superb new DVD, is still grand fun and a treat for the eyes, ears, and imagination.

Mostly.

Where this ambitious project loses points is in a problem that's existed since 1978. Never mind that the film's look and furnishings anchor it irretrievably in the 1970s. The more fundamental problem is a matter of story associated with the script's case of multiple personality disorder. It's not a problem until well into the running time's second hour, though as Donner and Mankiewicz state in this disc's scene-by-scene commentary track, this is really three short movies in one:

1. The Destruction of Krypton and Baby Kal-El's Trip to Earth.

Right from the get-go, these opening scenes ground the re-imagined legend with a sobriety starkly different from "that silly comic book stuff." Sure, Marlon Brando was paid more per minute of screen time than you and I combined will make all year. And yeah, in the commentary track Donner confirms the rumor that Brando hid his lines all over the set ("Those diapers are worth a fortune," he says of Kal-El's swaddling clothes. "They have Brando's lines on them.") But there's no denying that Brando is good. Assisted by John Williams' score, he gives Jor-El and the movie a dignity and weight that pervade the rest of the story. And that's both a good thing and a bad thing....

2. Smallville. Fortress of Solitude.

"Oddball" teen Clark Kent dreams of kicking a touchdown every time and showing the other kids at Smallville High that he can be much more than just the football team's towel boy. But Pa Kent (Glenn Ford) is on hand with loving wisdom and a steadying hand, so the superboy confines his powers to outrunning locomotives. Pa Kent's death, however, forces the issue of Clark's growing up and finding his own place in the world. It's a beautiful section of the movie. Smallville is an Andrew Wyeth pastoral dreamscape. The cinematography is lush and evocative. The script and performances are moving (let's give a special nod to Jeff East as teenage Clark). And John Williams' sweeping score again carries us through.

3. Metropolis. Lois Lane. Lex Luthor. Superfeats.

Coming an hour into the movie, with all the essential pieces introduced, the third act finally gives us villainous Lex Luthor's scheme to blast California into the Pacific by hijacking two nuclear missiles. It's action-packed when it needs to be. It's humorous and romantic in appropriate measure. Superman, Clark, Lois, Perry, Jimmy, and Lex all behave exactly as they're supposed to. It's rollicking good fun.

It's also not as grand as the two sections that came before.

Frustratingly, once the movie reaches its Action Hero story, what we get is the least impressive of the three parts, a particular problem because it's the final segment and therefore in the power position of the story.

While Gene Hackman himself is fun to watch, his Lex Luthor is written and played too much for laughs and is costumed like Herb Tarlek on WKRP in Cincinnati. Plus, why he keeps his useless sidekicks (Ned Beatty and Vallerie Perrine) is a complete mystery. (Okay, maybe Perrine isn't such a mystery.) So his presence generates no feeling of believable threat or menace.

The "can you read my mind" sequence, loved by some and reviled by others, teeters the delicate balance between romance and schmaltz (I'm one of the most sentimental romantics you'll ever find, yet Kidder's lyrics recitation diminishes this otherwise lovely scene for me).

The turning-back-the-world climax doesn't stand up logically to any close scrutiny, a point that Donner and Mankiewicz joke about in the commentary track. Sure, Superman has been able to fly faster than the speed of light and thus zip back in time since the 1940s comics, but the way it's lazily handled here jumbles the rewound sequence of events, defying the crucial verisimilitude. Plus, as a dramatic pay-off it's weakened by the fact that Superman pays no price — physical, emotional, or otherwise — for his transgression of Jor-El's admonition against interfering with human history.

So the movie's story doesn't continue its rising dramatic arc in a fashion equal to the potential exhibited in the first two segments. The tone and dialogue at times degenerate back to old comic book levels (the most groan-inducing lines in the entire script are delivered at the very end) and so much of this third act feels like another movie from a different director. Now, does this section ruin the entire experience? No, not by a long shot. Does it live up to the promises made by movie's long set-up? Alas, no.

Still, there's plenty of good stuff to be found here.

Such as?

Christopher Reeve. There are few examples of an actor better suited to a role than Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent/Superman. His ability to hit all the right notes of both personas, sometimes sliding between one and the other before our eyes, is amazing. Reeve balances these two sides of his character's identity, and does so without resorting to camp clichés or broad shtick. Somehow he makes that costume look not at all silly. More than any other element in Superman: The Movie, he helps us believe.

John Williams' score. Superman: The Movie is arguably his finest soundtrack. It soars. It's grand. Every motif and musical nuance is exactly right for what's happening on the screen. It's perfect. And now that it's in Dolby Digital 5.1, it's never sounded better.

Geoffrey Unsworth. The cinematographer for 2001: a Space Odyssey here brings visual poetry to almost every scene. Because he died shortly after the project was completed, the movie is dedicated to him and he is lovingly eulogized by cast and crew in one of the documentaries found here.

John Barry. From Krypton to Smallville to Luthor's sub-Grand Central Station lair, his production designs blend fantasy sensibilities with a sense of grounded realism.

Margot Kidder. I confess, she's not my image of Lois Lane. Not by miles. Of the actors we see auditioning for the role (a special feature of this DVD), she is, in my opinion, the one with the least amount of the sex appeal required to equal Superman's Greek-god-with-a-spit-curl countenance. However, in those audition sequences she clearly nails the part. Hers is indeed the best screen test, and in the movie she delivers a strong performance of consistent wit and romance and Lois Lane pluck. After this incarnation, Lois is never again a simpering damsel in distress.

Gene Hackman. Similarly, as mentioned above, his Lex Luthor is far from the way Superman's best enemy is typically portrayed, even by 1970s standards. But this is Gene Hackman. That's plenty good in any movie. Here he reveals comedic skills that must have stunned those who knew him only from The French Connection.

The fact that it got made all. The overarching truth made clear throughout the special features on this DVD is that Superman: The Movie was a grueling project of mammoth pain and effort. From initial concept to crafting the right script to the frantic assembly that went right up to the film's opening (thereby negating any preview), time and again it came this close to never getting off the ground. New special effect techniques needed to be perfected in those days before CGI ease. The clashes between the producers and director Donner are legendary, and you don't have to read between the lines to learn that there's still no love lost between the producers and ... well, apparently everyone else connected with the project. While filming simultaneously with Superman II (there's plenty said about that on this disc too), the enormity and complexity of getting Superman onto the screen took its toll on Donner and others throughout the nineteen months of shooting. This was an achievement of Kryptonian proportions.


The DVD

In brief, this is one of the finest DVD releases on the market. Its two-sided, double-layer volume (DVD-18) holds an expanded and enhanced movie transfer plus enough extras to keep you up plenty late.

Enhanced visuals. The transfer has been buffed and scrubbed, removing signs of dirt that, caused by the nature of special effects compositing, have been present since the original theatrical release. It's far and away superior to the previous hazy, washed-out Laserdisc release and to the non-widescreen VHS version. Because blue-screen flying effects meant that the Superman costume had to be turquoise in some scenes, the appropriate vivid blue has been applied where it belongs. Some visual effects have been "sweetened," in some cases recreated due to the poor shape of the masters. This transfer is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, getting us as close as possible to the original 70mm magnitude. In other words, from beginning to end, it looks great. In fact, it's never looked better.

Enhanced audio. For the first time in my experience with this movie, every word and every sound is finally crystal clear. The fidelity is broad and clean. The remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack doesn't make continuous use of modern surround potential, but it's effective where it's used, such as Jor-El's instructions to infant Kal-El and Lex's super-frequency call to Superman (where the voices fill out the soundspace, appropriately mimicking the way Superman himself hears them), or the fracturing planet Krypton crashing down around our ears. Like the visuals, sound effect sweetening and remixing has added new audio elements. Some are subtle while several are more obvious to those who have this movie memorized.

Which brings me to a point. There's already grumbling in some quarters that this disc's version of Superman: The Movie is not the "pure" original experience because the print has been augmented in so many ways. While I would scream bloody murder if Casablanca was "retouched" and "enhanced" in this way, the comparison is moot because Casablanca succeeded in completely envisioning its creators' intentions and artistry. This DVD version of Superman: The Movie is, for the first time, the finished product. The modifications present here really are enhancements. Whether that new sound effect or this new bit of footage is essential or gratuitous is a matter of opinion. Often enough they do add to the original experience. The two full scenes added to this release should have, in my opinion, been kept in the original. And besides, we have Richard Donner himself on board. If he gives it all a thumbs-up, what's to argue?

EXTRAS:

Feature-length audio commentary by director Richard Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz

One of the most enjoyable commentary tracks on any DVD I've heard. Spirited, nostalgic, and full of "bet you didn't know" info. Donner and Mankiewicz (the primary contributor to the script) josh and banter back and forth, and sound as though they're watching the movie for the first time in 20 years. They come across as former college chums meeting again to discuss old times. And they're perfectly happy to note, for instance, that the little miniature buildings Superman saves from the flood look "the worst!" and that the rewinding-time sequence doesn't make logical sense. It's clear that they love the movie and treasure their experience with it, but they're also big enough to point at its flaws — a rare quality in commentary tracks these days.

Added scenes

Throughout this new expanded edition, short snippets of footage have been restored. Reaction shots. The detection of excessive power usage in Jor-El's laboratory. A Kryptonian security enforcer. Ma Kent starting her day. A 16-second scene of Clark Kent discussing with a passerby the preposterous notion of a flying man. That sort of thing. While not materially essential to the story's progress, neither are they intrusive. And they add subtle points. In Ma Kent's case, we see that she's getting along fine after Jonathan's death. We find out that Jor-El himself discovered the Phantom Zone (as is true in the comics) and the Council's threat to banish Jor-El there ups the stakes a little before Kal-El can get away. Little stuff that may "pad" but never harms.

Two entire scenes cut from the theatrical release have been restored, and they do provide added value. The first occurs after Superman's first night revealing himself to Metropolis. In the Fortress, Superman speaks to Jor-El about how good it felt to be Superman for the first time. Jor-El counsels Superman on the dangers of vanity, a force common even on Krypton, where its people considered themselves indestructible. Although it looks like an early outtake — Reeve's hair is fuller, and when he reaches his arms out to Jor-El the action is unconvincing — as written the scene adds a portion of essential humanity to Superman's character. The second full scene occurs immediately before Superman forces himself into Luthor's underground lair. Luthor whales on Superman with machine guns, flamethrowers, and a freezing machine. Of course we know that fire and bullets and ice won't hurt Superman. It's already been stated flat-out in the dialogue. But part of the fun of Superman is watching bullets bounce of his chest and fire leave him unscorched and ice go flying as he breaks out of it. It's one thing to say it, it's another to show it — especially in a movie. Which is a point Donner makes in his lively dialogue with Mankiewicz, who hates the scene, in the commentary track.

Three making-of documentaries

A linked trio of new how-we-did-it documentaries take us into the conception and realization of this incarnation of the Superman legend. On board are Donner, Mankiewicz, Kidder, Hackman, John Williams, casting director Lynn Stalmaster, editor Stuart Baird, optical effects supervisor Roy Field, archived footage of Brando on set, and more — including Christopher Reeve from his specialized wheelchair. Marc "Jimmy Olsen" McClure is our host for the first two. All three are well produced and insightful. Taking Flight: The Development of Superman (30 minutes) looks at the preproduction work, such as the securing of "big names" (Brando and Hackman and Puzo) to give the project studio validity. Making Superman: Filming the Legend (also 30 mins.) chronicles the lengthy production: the script changes, on-set headaches and achievements, the political infighting between the producers and Donner, the scoring, the diabolical plot Donner performed against Gene Hackman's mustache, the secret of what's beneath Superman's red shorts, and lots more. The Magic Behind the Cape (20 mins.) is hosted by optical effects supervisor Roy Field, who digs into the "movie magic" behind the special effects, most importantly, of course, the extravagant flying effects.

Screen tests for Clark Kent/Superman, Lois Lane, and Ursa

Casting director Lynn Stalmaster hosts these special features. In the first one, Christopher Reeve works two scenes with actor Holly Palance (who worked with Donner on The Omen) in the Lois role. Reeve impressed everyone right from the start, and that's clear here. And as with the Lois Lane screen-test feature, it's special indeed to see young actors working their craft without the benefit of production gloss. Among the actors testing for Lois are the familiar faces Anne Archer, Lesley Ann Warren, Stockard Channing (who was second only to Margot Kidder in the final casting determination), and of course Kidder. Stalmaster's narration gives insight into the factors leading to a final decision, and it's fascinating to watch different actors approaching the same material. The sequence involving the Ursa screen test is a throw-away. A few women stand rather menacingly and flip a stuntman. Conspicuously absent is Sarah Douglas, who actually landed the role and was a stand-out in Superman II.

Two deleted scenes

Two short scenes cut from the theatrical print and from this DVD version, yet preserved here as special features, offer something of a paradox: both were wisely cut because they give us the overly silly and comic-bookish element of Lex Luthor's "babies," unseen growling beasts in a pit. Nonetheless, they give us some of the finest moments for both Gene Hackman and Lex Luthor. The first scene offers delightful lovers' interplay between Luthor and Miss Techmacher. The second has Luthor at the piano singing "You Must have Been a Beautful Baby" as he prepares to feed Miss Techmacher to the beasts. Why? "Because I love you." Hackman's line, "Otis, did you feed the babies?" may be his best delivery of all. It's a pity that the final cut of the movie couldn't have included these Hackman segments without the silly "babies," but here's a welcome supplement all the same.

Other supplements

Superman: The Legacy, a set of eleven static text screens devoted to the history of the Superman legend.

Filmographies for Brando, Hackman, Reeve, and Donner.

An index of added or expanded scenes so you can jump directly to each of them.

A music-only audio track (Dolby 5.1).

Alternate John Williams' music scores for seven separate scenes (in Dolby Digital 5.0) plus a tres '70s dance-pop version of "Can You Read My Mind."

Promotional material: The movie's "look at our amazing cast" teaser trailer and original theatrical trailer (both in anamorphic widescreen, monaural audio), and a short TV spot.

—Mark Bourne



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