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Blu-ray Review: Superman: The Motion Picture Anthology (1978-2006)

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I should admit this going in: I am not a big fan of Superman. Not even sure I completely understand the character’s massive appeal. I get that people love heroes. I do too, but Superman is rather bland, a predictable do-gooder accurately teased as “the big blue Boy Scout.” Also, he is so powerful there’s never a doubt he’s going to triumph, so the stories aren’t very exciting. When he first appeared in comics, he was better than a human being in terms of strength and quickness, but then other abilities were added making him almost invincible. Yet, there’s no denying his decades-long popularity. If there’s a medium, Superman is there. Though how successful is debatable. This eight-disc Blu-ray set is the high definition version of the 14-disc DVD set Superman: Ultimate Collector’s Edition, presenting all five movies since 1978 along with a super amount of extras about the character and the making of the movies.

Disc 1 is Superman: The Movie. For those who don’t know the character’s origin, no one in charge of Krypton listens to Jor-El’s (Marlon Brando) claim about the planet’s impending demise, so he sends his only son, Kal-El, to Earth in an odd-looking spaceship that resembles a star. Three years later, the ship lands in the farm town of Smallville where he is discovered by John (Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter), who raise the child as their own and name him Clark. At 30, Clark (Christopher Reeve) heads to the big city of Metropolis and gets a job at the Daily Planet newspaper, working alongside fellow reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). A love triangle of sorts forms as Clark develops a crush on Lois who develops a crush on Superman.

Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) is supposed to be a criminal genius though the screenwriters haven’t made him too bright as his science knowledge is a bit off. He plans to become an owner of a great deal of beachfront property after triggering the San Andreas fault to dump part of California into the ocean. His brain is supposed to be a counter to Superman’s brawn and he inexplicably figures out kryptonite would be on Earth and could be used against Superman, revealed through an exposition dump on the audience. Lex is a lightweight character and not very menacing, more suitable for the comedic Batman TV series. Also, the relationship with his girlfriend Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) is nonsensical since neither likes the other one.

Another issue is Superman and Lois flying together. While it sounds like a great idea, and setting aside I don’t even understand how the yellow sun would enable him that ability, it’s hard to take serious that he could hold her body up just from her fingertips. Yet, the most ridiculous is saved for the ending where Superman travels back in time to save the day. He flies around the Earth so fast, appearing to change its rotation, in order to rescue Lois. It’s such a lazy idea the writers might as well have had Superman snap his fingers to make things better. Would be just as believable.

The whole movie is a bit dopey, but it has a few redeeming qualities. John Williams’ score is outstanding, creating a sense of majesty immediately evident as the opening credits roll. Christopher Reeve is a natural playing the dual role of bumbling Clark and heroic Superman. The miniature and effects work by the crew is very good and doesn’t look dated.

The Blu-ray has been remastered for this release and is presented with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode displayed at 2.40:1. Colors are bright and blacks are solid. Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth gives the film a classic look with a soft focus, but there’s still good definition and clarity, which adds to the realism of the effects. In fact, the details are so clear right before Krypton blows up the folds of black drapes can be seen. There are occasional banding issues involving suns and planets, and Jor-El’s recorded image and voice are a little tough to make out in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

The film has DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. It impresses right from the get go as the credits thunder through the surround system and past the viewer while they are immersed in Williams’ sweeping score. Objects move through the soundfield, such as the Phantom Zone prison as it soars across space. There’s a little too much LFE at times, particularly during Krypton’s house-rattling destruction. The track also offers great ambiance from Metropolis and the dam breaking. The main issue is Reeve’s ADR dub of young Clark, which sounds a tad flat.

The commentary track presents executive producer Ilya Salkind and producer Pierre Spengler, recorded separately, offering insight into the film’s creation and production. The Making of Superman: The Movie (SD, 52 min) is a 1978 TV special featuring behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the likes of director Richard Donner and actor Marlon Brando. Superman and the Mole-Men (SD, 58 min) is a 1951 movie starring George Reeves that served as the pilot for the syndicated TV series The Adventures of Superman. “Warner Bros. Cartoons” (SD, 19 min) feature three related to our hero: “Super-Rabbit” (1943), “Snafuperman” (1944), and “Stupor Duck” (1956 WB cartoon). “Trailers & TV Spot” are self-explanatory. (SD, 4 min)

Disc 2 is Superman: The Movie (Expanded Edition), a version that is eight minutes longer, but doesn’t off enough material to change my opinion of what works and what doesn’t. The video and audio qualities appear to be the same as the Theatrical disc. The major differences for the disc are the extras.

Director Richard Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz, a title Donner gave him when the WGA wouldn’t grant a writing credit for his work on the screenplay, recorded their commentary together, though Mankiewicz is heard off in the right front speaker and sounds slightly quieter. They help flesh out the story of the film’s creation. Recorded in 2001, “Taking Flight: The Development of Superman” (SD, 30 min) is hosted by Marc McClure (the movie’s Jimmy Olsen), who looks odd with a beret and glasses tucked in his shirt collar, like he showed up last minute to record these as he was headed somewhere else. “Making Superman: Filming the Legend” (SD, 30 min) uses the same interview sessions and presents a good behind-the-scenes look with more focus on the crew’s work. “The Magic Behind the Cape” (SD, 24 min) is a more extensive look at effects and miniatures. This is great for tech nuts as the feature shows test footage and the optical printers used.

Casting director Lynn Stalmaster hosts “Screen Tests” (SD, 22 min) for the role of Superman (Reeve), Lois Lane (Kidder and others including Anne Archer, Lesley Ann Warren, and Stockard Channing), and Ursa (a number of unknowns). There are “A Selection of Restored Scenes” (SD, 11 min) and “Additional Scenes” (SD, 3 min). Some are too short, so it’s not clear why they bothered to put them back in. A ridiculous one reveals the young girl who sees young Clark running faster than the train in Smallville is Lois Lane. John Williams’ work is highlighted with “Additional Music Cues” (36 min) that play under a picture of Superman flying over city and the “Music Only Track (Donner Cut)”.

Disc 3 is Superman II (1981 Theatrical Release). Richard Donner shot the two movies at same time, but after about 75% of the work was done, the producers had him focus on the completing the first due to budget and schedule overruns. Donner’s relationship with the producers was tumultuous and he ended up not returning to complete the picture. Richard Lester replaced him and had to shoot a certain amount of new material to earn the directing credit, which is the main reason for continuity errors and even poorer plotting than the first film.

It opens with a reboot of how the evil trio of General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran) end up in the Phantom Zone without Jor-El’s involvement so the producers could avoid paying Brando’s fee and percentage. After an eight-minute recap, Superman heads to the Eiffel Tower where terrorists have a nuclear bomb. In defeating them, Superman hurls the bomb safely into space, or so he thinks, as the bomb’s explosion releases the evil Kryptonians from their prison, which has taken 30 years to get to Earth while it took baby Kal-El three. They learn of the powers the yellow sun provides their race and wreck havoc in their efforts to take over the world.

But before news of their exploits gets out to the world, Clark and Lois head to Niagara Falls to cover a story for the Planet, posing as honeymooners. After Superman appears to rescue a little boy, Lois thinks it’s more than a coincidence. She throws herself in the waters but Clark devises a way to save Lois without revealing his identity. Yet back in their suite, he accidentally confirms her suspicion. With both his identity and their feelings for one another out in the open, he takes her to the Fortress, which is close as he can get to have her meet the family. For some inexplicable reason, aside from poor writing, Clark has to give up his Superman abilities in order to marry Lois. Although he doesn’t bother to consider that his powers were part of attracted Lois, he goes through a procedure.

When he learns of the evil trio, he goes back to the Fortress to see if there is some way he can restore his powers. No surprise that there is. Superman goes looking for the villains and they, in turn, go looking for him in Metropolis at the suggestion of Lex Luthor who reveals Superman’s identity to them. Lex hopes that by working with them they will give him Australia to rule. The effects team creates an impressive battle on and over the streets of Metropolis, but in a nice touch, Superman eventually defeats them with his intelligence. The ending is bizarre as Superman reveals yet another power. He kisses Lois and she forgets his identity.

The Blu-ray disc has also been remastered for this release with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode displayed at 2.40:1 with similar pluses and minuses as the previous discs. On a positive note, Lester’s cinematographer Robert Paynter mimics the look of Donner’s Geoffrey Unsworth, so the scenes blend together very well, although that’s not necessarily a good thing for those who don’t care for the soft focus. There is good clarity and detail, but the high definition ruins the illusion of some of the effect work, particularly the flying.

The score continues to impress on this DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, though not sure why the film’s sound team decide to use the funky instrumental “Pick Up The Pieces” to play in the Idaho diner filled with rednecks. Dialogue is always clear and understandable, and unfortunately it’s obvious that Hackman’s lines were dubbed on a few long shots when he wasn’t available. Action scenes deliver satisfying LFE but surround activity isn’t as immersive as previous film.

There’s another commentary by producers Salkind and Spengler, who are willing to talk about what occurred without getting nasty or personal. The Making of Superman II (52 min) is another TV special that takes viewers behind the scenes. A “Deleted Scene” (SD, 1 min) finds Lois teaching Superman how to make a soufflé with his heat vision, but it’s too short to establish much beyond a chuckle. “First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series” (SD, 13 min) covers the animation work by the Fleischer Studio, led by brothers Max and Dave, and the disc includes Fleischer Studios’ first nine Superman cartoons (SD, 79 min): “Superman,” “The Mechanical Monsters,” “Billion Dollar Limited,” “The Arctic Giant,” “The Bulleteers,” “The Magnetic Telescope,” “Electric Earthquake,” “Volcano,” and “Terror on the Midway”. The Theatrical Trailer is also included.

Disc 4 is Superman II (The 2006 Richard Donner Cut), which is allegedly 83% footage he shot with the rest taken from Lester’s theatrical version and was released thanks to the efforts of fans pestering Warner Brothers. The film begins with a disclaimer about the quality of the footage used, some of which is taken from screen tests. Modern-day effects have been added.

Donner’s cut is more satisfying of the two for a number of reasons. The plots points are better connected and it’s obvious the scripts were written in conjunction. The Phantom Zone gets caught in the energy waves of Krypton’s explosion, which explains how it made its way to Earth. The terrorists in France are gone, and Superman is the cause of the villains’ release when he sends one of the rockets fired by Lex during first film into space. Lois is much smarter, which makes sense as a seasoned reporter, and discovers Superman’s identity rather than having it revealed by accident. Kal-El talks to his father rather than his mother through the computer system, which makes more sense as the father devised it. Cuts were also made to the some of the silliness Lester included like the bizarre powers of the memory-erase kiss, of General Zod shooting a ray out of his finger and lifting a guy, and of the shield design on Superman’s chest turning into a net. Unfortunately, the ending still finds Superman manipulating time, leaving the viewer to wonder why he doesn’t just do that every time there is any trouble.

The video foe the Blu-ray is the same as the 2006 release, featuring a 1080p/VC-1 encode displayed at 2.40:1. The different sources and mix of special effects from different decades keep the movie from having a consistent look. Colors and blacks are frequently strong, but both fade slightly during screen tests and deleted scenes. Details are sharp, but there doesn’t appear to be as much grain as previous films, so possibly DNR may have been performed on it. The audio was upgraded to a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack and is similar to the theatrical, but there’s a noticeable contrast between the pristine new sound effects clash with the limited dialogue scenes from screen tests

Donner and Mankiewicz appear together again for the commentary track and are just as entertaining. The pride Donner feels in his vision of the story finally getting out is evident. “Introduction by Richard Donner” (SD, 2 min) is self-explanatory. “Superman II: Restoring the Vision” (SD, 13 min) looks at how Donner’s cut was put together. There are “Deleted Scenes” (SD, 9 min) and the remaining Fleischer cartoons, now under the banner “Famous Studios’ Superman” (SD, 68 min) appear: “Japoteurs;” “Showdown;” “Eleventh Hour;” “Destruction, Inc.;” “The Mummy Strikes;” “Jungle Drums;” “The Underground World;” and “Secret Agent.”

Disc 5 is Superman III. Unfortunately, the producers, with Lester back at the helm, decided to go a more comedic route and rather than use a character from Superman’s Rogues Gallery, our hero battles against corrupt businessman Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn), who is not much different from Lex Luthor. Webster just wants to make money and he uses the computer know-how of August Gorman (Richard Pryor) to do so by manipulating weather satellite and oil tankers. Not really clear how a computer can create a tornado and rainstorm, but then the writers don’t appear to know either. Gus later builds the most powerful computer ever, which Superman has to defeat.

Since Pryor played him, Gus almost overshadows Superman. The comedic scenes aren’t very funny and will likely have modern viewers why Pryor is held in such high esteem. His character’s storyline ends in a cop out the way he switches allegiances. On a positive note, the film’s plot allows a break from the Lois and Superman love story and the Metropolis location as Clark returns to Smallville where he is reacquainted with childhood friend Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole) whose young boy Clark impresses since he “knows” Superman.

While it is annoying that kryptonite is again used against Superman, though can’t really blame the villains since he revealed it was his only weakness in an interview with Lois, the writers did have an interesting take on it. Gus analyzes the compounds in kryptonite and incorrectly guesses at an unknown element. He shows up disguised as a general and gives Superman a green rock, which looks suspiciously like kryptonite, as a thank you for his efforts and Superman cluelessly accepts it. But rather than kill him, it warps Superman’s personality and makes him selfish and a jerk. He hits on Lana rather than go save someone in danger and is shown straightening out the Leaning Tower of Pisa, blowing out the Olympic torch, and wrecking a bar. Somehow, and I am hoping it was intended as a metaphor, Superman splits into a bad and a good version and fights himself. The idea had great potential but the believable resentment Clark has in being Superman isn’t explored enough.

The Blu-ray disc has also been remastered for this release with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode displayed at 2.40:1. Those who enjoy this film’s story will be happy to know that the video quality is impressive. Primary colors are strong hues and blacks are rich. The dark tint that appears in blues and red of the corrupted Superman’s costume come through well. Though the soft-focus look still remains, the transfer boasts good object definition. The audio comes in a serviceable DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. Dialogue is always clear, helped by the fact that there’s not much coming from the surrounds to drown it out. There is occasional movement of sounds through front channels and the LFE comes to life during the action.

The features are similar to the previous discs though not as much content. Salkind and Spengler again deliver the commentary track. Also included are The Making of Superman III TV Special (SD, 49 min), a collection of “Deleted Scenes” (SD, 20 min) and the Theatrical Trailer.

Disc 6 is Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the final film with Reeves as Superman and what a terrible way to go out. Golan-Globus’ Cannon Films took over producing duties with a budget at least half of Superman III. Though Reeve contributed to the story, a new creative tram was at the helm with director Sidney J. Furie and screenwriters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal. It’s hard to tell from the poor results if no one knew what they were doing or didn’t care because this film is bad.

Superman IV has a few plotlines, but they don’t get executed well. The Daily Planet has a new owner, David Warfield (Sam Wanamaker) who looks to cut costs and generate revenue by having the paper take a tabloid turn. His daughter Lacy (Mariel Hemingway) helps him run operations and she develops a crush on Clark. With the arms race accelerating, Superman asks all the nations to give up their nuclear weapons, which they do, but Lex Luthor (Hackman), who has been broken out of jail with the help of his nephew Lenny (Jon Cryer), works with some arms dealers to resupply countries.

Lex also clones Superman, which he does by stealing a strand of his hair from a museum display and having an organism he creates brought to life through the massive nuclear explosion caused by the world’s weapons destroyed in the Sun. Although for a clone he’s not much like Superman at all, Lex calls his creation Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow/voiced by Hackman), whose weakness is a constant need of sunlight for fuel.

The film is filled with badly executed ideas. Cryer’s plays Lenny as a teenager from the Valley, and omigod, the performance is annoyingly terrible. Lacy and Lois plan a double date with Superman and Clark that is like a sequence out of a bad sitcom as he races back and forth between the two women. Clark reveals his identity again and they go flying, similar to the first film, but here he throws her around so she can fly solo. Truly bizarre. Nuclear Man is eventually defeated when Superman creates an eclipse by moving the Moon out of its orbit, obviously unaware the damage that would cause regarding tides, but at least he didn’t go back in time.

The Blu-ray disc has also been remastered for this release with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode displayed at 2.40:1, which should offer some satisfaction to whomever likes this film. The image looks good for the most part. Details are clear, blacks are solid, and hues are strong, though the latter isn’t always consistent. Where the video really stumbles is the low-budget effects that are diminished by the clarity of high definition. Further drawing attention to limitations of the source, the audio is only a stereo DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, but it delivers on reasonable expectations. Dialogue is always clear and understandable and is balanced well with the music and effects.

The extras include a commentary by co-screenwriter Mark Rosenthal, who should be commended for coming forth and be willing to talk about a film that underperformed. It’s very interesting as he discusses the limitations caused by the budget and some of the bad ideas involved with the production. He does pauses a lot so there are patches of silence and doesn’t fully accept the problems with the script. Superman 50th Anniversary Special (SD, 48 min) from 1988 is odd. Saturday Night Live‘s Dana Carvey is the host and there’s a bizarre lineup of guests that include Lou Reed and Ralph Nader. Nice that Kirk Alyn, Superman from the film serials gets some face time. There are “Deleted Scenes” (SD, 31 min), which the whole movie could qualify for and the Theatrical Trailer

Disc 7 is Superman Returns. Directed by Bryan Singer, this films ignores the third and fourth installments in the franchise and picks up about five years after the events of Superman II. Superman (Brandon Routh) returns to Earth after an extended trip off the planet. As Clark, he returns to find the gang are still working at the Daily Planet, including Lois (Kate Bosworth), who has a young child, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu), and a fiancee, Richard White (James Marsden).

Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has gotten out of prison and married a wealthy old woman who leaves all her money in her will to him. He heads off to the Fortress of Solitude and steals the Kryptonian crystals then goes to a museum where he makes off with a large chunk of kryptonite. Still focused on real estate, he plans to combine the two and create his own island to rule, unconcerned about the flooding this new land mass will cause or Superman since the whole place with be deadly to him.

Returns has pluses and minuses, but more of the latter, which isn’t good for a film that runs 154 minutes. Spacey’s Lex is much better that Hackman’s. He imbues the character with a sense of menace that elevates him from a mere comic-book villain. Unfortunately, Singer makes a huge mistake in casting the other two main leads who seem as if they were chosen for their looks rather than being able to bring the characters to life. Routh does make a good hero, but his Clark only seems different from Superman in what they wear. Bosworth is way too young and just not believable as seasoned reporter Lois Lane. Also, the film focused too much on their relationship and became a bit of a family melodrama.

The film has great, intense action, the biggest being when Superman helps the failed shuttle launch. The sequence delivers, but it came too early and nothing else matches it. I was disappointed to find Lex repeating himself with his land desire and use of kryptonite, but the writers made it all so simple, it’s hard to blame him.

Superman Returns has the same 1080p/VC-1 encode, displayed at 2.40:1, seen in the previous releases, which is a bit odd considering the backlash it received and the remastering performed on a few of the other titles. The film was shot on HD cameras, which contribute to the disc’s inconsistent look. Some scenes have dimensionality while others appear flat. The effects can creates magic and other times it’s very obvious they are in front of a green screen. Objects can have defined texture while others appear smoothed out from DNR. There are also a few digital artifacts throughout.

The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is the best audio experience in the collection delivering a wonderfully immersive experience. The dialogue is clear and engaging. Objects pass through the channels. LFE was too needlessly strong at times, causing a slight bit of distortion. The track shows great dynamics from the bombast to the quieter scenes.

The extras offer some of the most in-depth access about a production. Longer than the film itself, Requiem for Krypton: Making Superman Returns (SD, 174 min) is a mammoth seven-part, behind-the-scenes feature that takes viewers on the journey from the script to the screen. Singer’s reverence to the Donner’s first film is baffling, but for those that wanted an intensive look at all aspects at the film’s creation, this will satisfy. And if that wasn’t enough, Bryan Singer’s Video Journals (SD, 82 min) offer direct access to the director during production. Maybe if there had been more of a focus on the film instead of the home video extras, a better product might have been delivered. “Resurrecting Jor-El” (SD, 4 min) looks at how the late Marlon Brando reprised his role. Lastly, there are “Deleted Scenes” (SD, 16 min), including the never-before-seen original opening, and Trailers.

Disc 8 is a Bonus Disc that wraps up the set. Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman (HD, 110 min) is a great, thorough retrospective about the character. You Will Believe: The Cinematic Saga of Superman (SD, 89 min) is a five-part look at the Reeve’s Superman films and even gets into the troubled final two. From the National Geographic Channel, The Science of Superman (HD, 51 min) is slightly bizarre as it attempts to use real science to explain Superman’s powers. “The Mythology of Superman” (SD, 20 min) presents comic-book creators and others offering context to the character. “The Heart of a Hero: A Tribute to Christopher Reeve” (SD, 18 min) is held in his honor by friends. The Adventures of Superpup (SD, 22 min) is a 1958 TV pilot for a bizarre kids’ show with small actors wearing dog masks. One of the craziest things I’ve ever seen.

If Superman – The Motion Picture Anthology did anything, it made me feel sorry for Superman fans because they have yet to see their character star in a very good movie, but for fans that feel different, this is a great set to have in your own Fortress of Solitude, especially considering all the extras.  If you are a fan of a majority of the movies, well worth the upgrade.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS