Superman: The Movie

Superman: The Movie (1978)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Ned Beatty
Extras: Commentary Track, Music-only Track, Documentaries, Deleted Scenes, Screen Tests, Audio Outtakes, Trailers and much more

Wednesday, December 20, 1978. I had just gotten over a bout with walking pneumonia. One benefit was it kept me out of the 10th grade for four days. The down side was that it prevented me from seeing "Superman: The Movie" during its opening weekend. With school out for holiday vacation, my friend and I took the bus from our suburban enclave to see "Superman" in glorious 70mm Dolby stereophonic sound at the historic Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. That day still resonates in my memory.

From the moment the credit "Alexander Salkind Presents" blasted off the screen, my friend and I completely surrendered any misgivings we had about our favorite superhero translated for the "Me" generation. All through the Kryptonian trial scene, I had so much adrenaline coursing through my veins I literally had the shakes.

Everything about Richard Donner’s epic interpretation of the American Odysseus felt right: the tone of plausible reverence, big name stars acting believably with their two-dimensional roles and above it all, Christopher Reeve’s towering portrayal of selfless omnipotence. Inverting the old saying that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely," Reeve’s Man Of Steel eschewed the stoic hands-on-hip stance and the cardboard coda of "up, up and away." His depiction of unassuming super heroism will live for the ages.

Alas, the film almost did not. Unlike other classics of the time like the "Star Wars Trilogy," "Apocalypse Now," or the "Alien" franchise, "Superman: The Movie" never received high profile anniversary tributes. On video, the title never strayed beyond the kiddie fare shelf. The laserdisc release in 1990 may have preserved Geoffrey Unsworth’s marvelous <$PS,widescreen> vistas for the small screen, but the washed out image quality had purists and fans alike crying "foul." A decade later, someone finally listened.

After years of campaigning by Internet groups and fans all over the world and with the advent of digital technologies allowing the needed repairs to bring the film back to better than its original visual glory, Warner Home Video’s new special edition DVD is nothing less than a virtual reincarnation of the film.

Everything about this DVD is an utter joy to behold. Whether it’s the luminescent transfer and thunderous remastered soundtrack, or the pleasure of hearing director Richard Donner and screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz revisit the film frame by frame or the plethora of goodies charting the tumultuous path from concept to execution, the disc exemplifies the same "labor of love" feeling that has kept the film alive for the past two decades.

The DVD-18 sports a new edit of the film, incorporating eleven minutes of new footage including additional Krypton Council footage, a scene where a young Lois Lane sees Clark outrun the train she’s riding with her parents (restoring the cameo with ex-Superman Kirk Alyn and ex Lois Lane Noel Neill), a beautiful exchange between Superman and Jor-El after his first night in Metropolis, and Superman traversing Luthor’s gauntlet of doom. Side A (marked on the disc as 1013.1A) contains the film, the separate music-only track, commentary and notes on the production, cast and crew. Side B houses the documentaries "Taking Flight: The Development of ‘Superman," "Making ‘Superman:’ Filming the Legend," and "The Magic Behind the Cape," as well as two deleted scenes, the original theatrical trailer, TV spots and additional music outtakes.

Fans of the film, both ardent and casual, will find the restored picture nothing less than a revelation. The <$PS,pan and scan> VHS destroyed the carefully composed frame compositions and the <$PS,widescreen> laserdisc absolutely disappointed in its shoddy video (the disc was consistently voted "best in need of restoration" in Doug Pratt’s annual laserdisc survey – until the demise of laserdisc!). All transgressions are hereby forgiven. The colors on this transfer go beyond brilliant or stable. They sparkle. The magic of the film’s color scheme has returned. Krypton still has its groovy glow, but not at the expense of the actors’ fleshtones or sucking the detail out of Jor-El’s laboratory or the Krypton council chamber. I vividly remember how "Superman" looked on the 70mm screen; what always stuck out was how in all of Superman’s scenes I could not take my eyes off the costume.
Deep, pure black levels and superb detail delineation make for an exceptionally crisp image. Take the interview scene (Chapter 26) for example; one can almost measure the distance between the foreground and the edge of Lois’ terrace.

Some grainy scenes still remain (Superman flying into the clouds after Lois’ "accident"), but are much more manageable now. Another benefit of the restoration is color correcting the infamous "green suit" process shots. When Superman flies by the camera on the way to the dam (Chapter 39), his suit is once again gloriously blue. Some edge enhancement is apparent, but never to the point of making the video look "processed." Despite the complex visual elements, <$pixelation,pixelation> and digital artifacts are happily absent.

Much has been written about the remastered audio. Apparently the original sound elements were either beyond repair, lost or unsuitable for the demands of a modern soundtrack. I, too, have mixed feelings about the film’s new sound. First, the hosannas. The 5.1 <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio just rocks! Combining newly added sound effects, restored music cues and punching up the LFE channel to sometimes window-shattering proportions, the soundtrack finally has the power that I only previously experienced in the theatre. The <$DS,Dolby Surround> <$PCM,PCM> track on the laserdisc doesn’t even come close. In "Luthor’s Challenge" (Chapter 33), the high pitch whistle shrieks through all five speakers and Luthor’s voice emanates solely from the surrounds. When the Phantom Zone enters the frame from the right, the sound effect accurately pans from the right rear speaker to the front. The added LFE on the explosion of Krypton practically sent my subwoofer into arrest!

Yet I do have some reservations about the new sound. Frankly, it wasn’t the sound I grew up and loved over the years. When the "S" first blasted off the screen in 1978, the sound trailed into infinity. Now it slams like a vault door. The starship launch (Chapter 6) does not have the same immediacy as the original. For me, the heartbreaker on the new soundtrack is Clark’s goodbye to his adopted mother (Chapter 12). What made that scene so beautiful was not just the circular tracking shot of then embracing against a soft gray sky, but how the music melded with the sound of rustling wheat stalks. On the new soundtrack, the sound effect is only at the beginning of the music cue. I will miss that moment. There also appears to be some re-equalization of the dialogue. In a couple of Lex Luthor’s scenes, his shouts ("Get away from there! Get away!") sounded downright shrill. Not anymore.

The music only audio track showcases all the music cues, as they appear in the film in 5.0 discrete. Bereft of the sound effects and LFE, the music-only track does not have the same immediacy or impact of the 5.1 soundtrack. For fans interested in a CD soundtrack, I strongly recommend Rhino Records’ splendid 2 CD set. What I would have done is set up a second audio track with the original soundtrack, matching the unaltered scenes. That way, comparisons can be made and some fond memories would remain intact.

The added footage sparks some reflection. While some extensions enrich the narrative, especially the Superman/Jor-El scene, their inclusions work more as filmic footnotes than integral plot elements. Luthor’s tunnel of terror looks cool and has great gee-whiz surround effects, but is completely unnecessary in demonstrating Superman’s invincibility and should have been relegated to the deleted scenes section rather than incorporating it back into the film.

The <$commentary,commentary track> by Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz pleases as much as the film itself. For every remembrance of how a scene was shot or a special effect realized, they heap praise upon the responsible individuals. Mini-tributes to miniature effects man Derek Meddings, production designer John Barry and special effects whiz Les Bowie pepper the conversation along with Donner’s self-effacing humor and Mankiewicz’s praise of Donner. When Donner takes a moment to admire Christopher Reeve, saying, "Just look at him," one can see how his enthusiasm kept the beleaguered production from caving in.

Three specially produced documentaries give fascinating, heartfelt examinations of how the classic film came to be. Marc McClure who played "Jimmy Olsen" hosts two segments, "Taking Flight" and "Filming The Legend." "Taking Flight" recounts how the film went from an idea at a Parisian café to a big-budget epic starring the Godfather and Popeye Doyle, but still had no director, Superman and Lois Lane. New video interviews with Donner, Mankiewicz, Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, and casting director Lynn Stalmaster give first hand illumination on how the Salkinds’ concept of a big budget special effects epic was new for its day ("Superman" paved the way for imitators, continuing to this day) and the enormous difficulties of getting the project off the ground. "Filming the Legend," continues the first documentary, picking up with the actual production and subsequent release. The third segment, "The Magic Behind the Cape" is introduced by McClure, but actually hosted by Roy Field, Oscar-winning supervisor of optical effects. Roy discusses with candor and admiration the difficulties encountered in believably creating the illusion that a man could fly. Early special effects tests, coupled with behind the scenes footage of blue screen shots and the complicated devices used (optical printers, the Zoptic front projection system) show how the film’s special effects broke new ground. My descriptions of the documentaries are a bit scant for a reason. I would be doing a disservice to producers Jonathan Gaines and Michael Thau by revealing too much about their superb documentaries.

The original theatrical trailer and the TV spot showcase the streaking letters concept, trumpeting the film’s stellar cast against a cloudy sunset sky. The trailer is in decent shape but does not contain any scenes from the film. One curious omission here is the trailer for the restored film; it was a hit on the Internet but did not make it on the DVD. (What’s Warners trying to hide?)

A section on casting offers snippets from the screen tests for Superman, Lois Lane and Ursa. Casting director Lynn Stalmaster introduces the sections on Superman and Lois Lane, describing what they were looking for and how the eventual victors embodied them. In the Lois Lane section, Stalmaster even offers a running commentary on the tests with Anne Archer, Stockard Channing, Lesley Ann Warren and, of course, Margot Kidder. (Comparing them, it’s no contest: Kidder IS Lois Lane.) Only Reeve’s footage is included in the "Superman" section. Apparently every big name in Hollywood tried for the role, but clearing rights to include them on this DVD obviously didn’t come through.

The rest of the supplemental materials examine what didn’t make the first or final cut. Two deleted scenes revolve around Lex Luthor’s "babies," a pit of bloodthirsty animals (we don’t see them, but we hear their roars). Ten audio outtakes offer variations on the Superman theme, love theme and other musical themes. Animated menus keep in perfect step with the film, with clips superimposed over the encased "S," dramatically timed to the Superman theme. By the way, did I mention that all the aforementioned goods are on a disc that averages $20?

The only thing left to say now is thank you. I’ve already given my gratitude to Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz. For anyone who contributed to the film, my deep thanks. I also wish to thank websites like Superman Web Central and Superman Cinema. They kept the film’s memory alive even when the studio would not. The restoration is as much a result of their efforts as those listed on the credits.

At the end of the movie, right after Superman looks into the camera and flies off, Donner says on the commentary: "Man, I love this." Amen.