Superman: The Movie – Four-Disc Special Edition

Superman: The Movie – Four-Disc Special Edition (1978)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Ned Beatty, Margot Kidder
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Documentaries, Deleted Scenes, Bonus Cartoons, Much More

Look! Up in the sky! It's…well, you know. We are all more than familiar with the Superman mythology by now, and over the past few weeks, it seems that every incarnation of the comic book legend has been spruced up, repackaged, and placed lovingly back on shelves wrapped in pink ribbon. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as Superman fans are probably salivating over the royal treatment their beloved hero is receiving just in time for the holidays. One of the most attractive releases in this fantabulous celebration is Warner Home Video's four-disc edition of Richard Donner's 1978 "Superman," which for many is still THE definitive interpretation of the famed comic books. As a film, it is the embodiment of sheer Hollywood magic, and it shines a little brighter in this new special edition.

As certain doom looms over the distant planet Krypton, the wise elder Jor-El (Marlon Brando) places his infant son in a spacecraft bound for Earth to save him from the coming destruction. After three years of traveling through space, the now-toddler lands in a field in rural Kansas where he is discovered and taken in by a childless, Midwestern couple (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter). Advanced by thousands of years, both physically and mentally, over his earthly counterparts, the boy finds himself a social outsider, comforted only by the thought that he has been sent to fulfill a greater purpose.

He does, in fact, grow up to be Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve), mild-mannered reporter for The Daily Planet in the big city of Metropolis. As an adult, he is no less awkward than he was as a kid, stuttering and bumbling his way around attractive co-worker Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). But when he slaps on a blue leotard with red boots and a flowing cape, it's all Lois can do not to swoon in his presence. That's because nerdy Clark is really Superman, the man of steel who is determined to fight for truth, justice and the American way. No matter where trouble lies, nothing is too treacherous for Superman, who can save his lady love in one hand and hold up a falling helicopter in the other, and who is not above rescuing cuddly kitties stuck in trees.

While the general American populace rejoices at their latter-day savior, arch villain supreme Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) only sees him as a hindrance to his evil real estate schemes. Aided by well-meaning dimwit Otis (Ned Beatty) and bubble-headed Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), Luthor plans to pull off the greatest real estate swindle in history, which of course will require the deaths of several hundreds of people, but he spares no expense when it comes to land. Will Superman be able to stop him in time to save all of those innocent lives and appear in the pre-planned sequel?

Silly as it may seem at times, the Superman character is a bona fide American icon, made popular during the war years, representing a perseverance and decency of character that was so important during those years. Although updated to the 1970s, the film retains all of the charm, wit, and excitement of the original stories, and Christopher Reeve is ideally cast in the title role. Although this was only his second screen appearance, Reeve displays complete assuredness and control while also bringing a fresh spin to the familiar character.

The movie was filmed in epic scale, no doubt drawing on the recent popularity of "Star Wars," examining in great detail Superman's backstory and journey to become a hero. There are three distinct parts to the film, beginning with the Krypton sequences and giving way to the Kansas scenes and ultimately to the Metropolis chapter. The first two parts are mostly serious, especially the opening, which has elements of biblical tragedy. The third part is where Donner and his writers (who included Mario Puzo) most radically shift the tone, moving from the deliberately paced drama of the first two thirds to a smartly comic, even screwball quality (Reeve based his Clark Kent on Cary Grant's performance in the classic screwball comedy "Bringing Up Baby"). Margot Kidder nails the hardboiled reporter persona and adds a quirkiness that works perfectly for the more comical moments. Gene Hackman also finds the right balance of menace and humor in Lex Luthor, bringing out his flamboyance but never allowing it to become too cartoonish.

The main reason why "Superman" has endured as long as it has is the fact that it is just plain fun to watch. Cinematically, it is a visual feast with scope and style to spare. Superman and Lois Lane's flying sequence remains an exciting and heartfelt romantic interlude that dazzles regardless of how many times it is seen. The action sequences are taught and suspenseful, impressive in their magnitude and still capable of gripping you, even in the age of computer graphics. The film ranks among the greatest crowd pleasers in cinema history, an achievement it will surely hold for a long time.

For Warner's new special edition, they graciously opted to include both the original theatrical version of the film and the 2000 expanded edition, which was previously the only version available on DVD. At 151 minutes, eight minutes longer than the theatrical version, the expanded edition contains a few restored moments, including a poignant conversation between the grown Superman and Jor-El that is by far the most significant addition. The rest of the additions range from clever to superfluous, especially for a movie that is already very long. Between the two versions, I prefer the original, as it feels more tightly edited and efficient. Each version is contained in its own disc, which are housed in an attractive slimcase.

Both versions of the film are presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen. The video quality on both discs appears basically the same, boasting clean transfers with no noticeable dirt or artifacting. Some grain is evident, particularly in some of the flying scenes, but this is mostly due to the filming and not the digital transfer. Colors are sometimes intentionally pale, but black levels are strong throughout. All in all, the image quality is very pleasing considering the film's age and is probably as good as it will ever look in standard definition.

The theatrical version on disc 1 is accompanied by an English 5.1 mix and the original stereo recording, as well as a French stereo track. The expanded edition on disc 2 contains English and French 5.1 mixes. The audio sounds absolutely amazing on both versions, beautifully distributing the sound elements for an awesome surround experience. You will literally feel wrapped up in the action scenes as voices, crashes and ambience thunder around the room. John Williams' score sweeps through the speakers during the opening credits sequence. Dialogue comes through naturally, if a little flat sometimes, no doubt due to the film's age. Otherwise, this is just tremendous. Both discs contain subtitles in English, French and Spanish (the packaging lists Portuguese subs for disc 2, but there are none).

Bonus features on disc 1 begin with an audio commentary by producer Pierre Spengler and executive producer Ilya Salkind. Not surprisingly, their comments have less to do with the actual production or onscreen action than with the circumstances surrounding the film's development. The two certainly have a lot to say, sometimes about their own careers, but it is always interesting and well worth a listen. The only other features are a pair of trailers and a TV spot.

Disc 2 features the same commentary track from the previous DVD release, with director Richard Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz. Their conversation is more screen-specific and packs a lot of information as well. Once again, they keep it going and provide entertaining highlights for the film. A music-only audio track is also included on this disc.

Housed in another slimcase labeled "The Superman Archive," discs 3 and 4 contain the bulk of the special features. A trio of short documentaries, held over from the previous release, start off the third disc. "Taking Flight: The Development of Superman" runs 30 minutes and gives us a look at the circumstances that led up to the production, including the genesis of the idea and the casting. "Making Superman: Filming the Legend" also runs 30 minutes and focuses on the actual production. "The Magic Behind the Cape" clocks in at 24 minutes and gives a very detailed look at the creation of the visual effects. Marc McClure, who portrays Daily Planet photographer Jimmy Olsen in the film, hosts the first two documentaries and narrates the third.

Also featured on disc 3 are the individual scenes that were restored in the expanded edition, as well as a couple of additional scenes that were left out of both versions.

Up next, we get a look at screen-test footage for Superman, Lois Lane, and villainess Ursa. We only see Reeve's reading for Superman, although reportedly every conceivable actor in Hollywood tested. For Lois, it is quite a joy to see future stars Anne Archer, Lesley Ann Warren and Stockard Channing, as well as Margot Kidder, reading for the part. Casting director Lynn Stalmaster provides optional commentary over these.

Lastly on this disc, there are some additional, audio-only musical cues. These include an alternate version of the opening theme, music from Lex Luthor's lair, and a pop version of Kidder's famous "Can You Read My Mind" spoken song.

All of the features on disc 4 are new for this release, beginning with a vintage TV special "The Making of Superman: The Movie." At 52 minutes, it is a surprisingly informative feature, though not as in-depth as the newer documentaries on disc 3.

Next, we get the 1951 feature "Superman and the Mole-Men," starring George Reeves and filmed as sort of an unofficial pilot for the long-running TV series. The movie, which runs a mere 58 minutes, is as delightfully cheesy as the title suggests, putting Clark Kent and Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates) in a small village invaded by diminutive men from beneath the earth who may be radioactive. This movie was also included as a bonus on Warner's release of Season One of "The Adventures of Superman."

Capping off this amazing release are nine animated shorts from Max Fleischer, made for Paramount Studios between 1941 and 1942. In order, they are "Superman," "The Mechanical Monsters," "Billion Dollar Limited," "The Arctic Giant," "The Bulleteers," "The Magnetic Telescope," "Electric Earthquake," "Volcano," and "Terror on the Midway." These highly regarded cartoons have been released several times on DVD, but they look excellent here with clear images and vibrant colors. There is still quite a bit of damage, but they do appear to be incredibly well-preserved and bring back fond memories of TV airings in the 1980s.

Warner Home Video has just done a great job with this release, supplying the original version of "Superman" for the first time on DVD and decorating it with worthwhile, entertaining supplements. As a double dip, I would definitely recommend an upgrade, as this contains worthy new extras and all of the same great ones from the previous release. Superman is an icon for the ages, and Christopher Reeve played a major role in keeping him alive for contemporary audiences with his irresistible portrayal. Richard Donner's take on the comic book myth is Hollywood filmmaking at its most entertaining. Make way for this supper edition to fly into your collection.