The new Superman Blu-ray set has arrived with much fanfare and ballyhoo, and it certainly provides a handsome package. The big question, of course, is whether owners of previous sets should spend the extra money on this one or not. The studios’ perpetual habit of double-dipping has made buyers skeptical, and before they pony up $100 on a new collection – even one as good as this – they want to know if they’re getting anything new. In this case, the Blu-ray set perfectly duplicates the 2006 “tin case” DVD collection (which is no longer widely available). It has absolutely nothing on top of that, and if you already own that collection, this new one offers only improved sound and picture quality. Having said that, there is so much awesome stuff here – duplicated or no – that any fan worth his super salt absolutely needs it in his collection. Hit the jump for my full review of Superman: The Motion Picture Anthology (1978-2006) on Blu-ray.
The Blu-ray collection delivers two separate version of the masterful Superman: The Movie and both the Richard Donner and Richard Lester versions of the admirable Superman II (as well as “we threw them in ‘cause there’s no way you’d pay for them otherwise” copies of Superman III and IV). Bryan Singer’s Reevian Superman Returns rounds out the movies in the set: comprising the very best and the very worst in superhero adaptations. The copious extras run a similar gamut: some extraordinary, all informative, and a few existing solely as perverse curiosities. They’re spread out across eight discs: a little more than half as many as the older DVD set, making them much easier to maneuver through.
We’re going to break the set down by movie: with a brief review of the film itself as well as a discussion of the bonus features on the appropriate discs.
Superman: The Movie
With all due respect to The Dark Knight, Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie remains the final word on comic book adaptations. Epic, humorous, tragic and stirring in equal measures, it encapsulates everything we love about the Man of Steel in a lengthy (but never dull) two-and-a-half hours. Donner’s famous refusal to surrender to camp brought deep respect to the storyline while still retaining its light-hearted elements. He also employs a surprisingly economical storytelling style that delivers each key beat without letting anything feel rushed or overlooked. The destruction of Krypton, Clark Kent’s (Christopher Reeve) childhood in Smallville, his life at the Daily Planet, his assumption of the mantle of Superman and his unorthodox foiling of a very nasty plot by Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman)… all of it comes at a crisp pace and with an unparalleled sense of wit.
Reeve is the straw that stirs the drink in all of these movies. He was never better than here, presenting Superman’s innate decency with humor and affection (as well as selling us wholesale on the notion that he could deceive an entire building full of newspaper reporters with nothing but a pair of glasses). Reeve is Superman the way Bela Lugosi is Dracula: others may play the role, and play it well, but they’re really just borrowing it from him for a little while.
The set contains two versions of the film on two different discs: the original theatrical release and the extended “director’s cut” with ten minutes of additional footage. The longer version actually works a little better, with extended speeches from Marlon Brando as Superman’s father Jor-El and a lengthier prelude on the planet Krypton that enriches and deepens the overall story.
The extras on these two discs rank among the most interesting of the set. They include an old TV special on Superman: The Movie, three contemporary documentaries, informative audio commentaries on both films, a bevy of deleted scenes, and trailers for the theatrical cut. We also get three classic Warner Bros. cartoons inspired by Superman (two of which include some fascinating bits of WW II propaganda), and the theatrical disc contains a feature-length film from 1951: Superman and the Mole-Men, which launched the hit TV show starring George Reeves. It’s a tasty combination, befitting the best superhero movie ever made.
“Donner vs. Lester” is rapidly becoming the “Kirk vs. Picard” of the new millennium. Donner was originally slated to direct the first Superman sequel – in which a trio of evil Kryptonians escape the Phantom Zone to wreak havoc on Earth – but a disagreement with the producers led to him being dismissed with only three-quarters of the picture done. Richard Lester came in to finish the film, and his name appears on the credits of the final product. Years later, Donner assembled a version of his original cut: cobbling together completed footage, filmed rehearsals and protean effects shots to demonstrate what he originally hoped to achieve with the film.
The Blu-ray contains copies of both movies, giving fans a chance to properly compare and contrast. The theatrical version contains audio commentary by producers Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler, while Donner and creative consultant Tom Manciewicz provide the commentary on the Donner cut. The discs also feature a brief documentary, “Restoring the Vision,” which lends further insight to the clashes that led to the two separate versions. You can sense the egos involved as well as the genuine creative differences that caused the split, and how – once engaged – neither side wanted to back down.
Personally, I prefer the Lester version, which handles the question of Superman losing his powers more logically and avoids a rehash of Superman: The Movie’s ending. The Donner version contains some great material with Brando, however, and generally feels more closely linked to the first Superman. Both versions succeed admirably as follow-ups to the original, and both toy elegantly with Superman’s enormous burden of responsibility. He wants only to be with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder)… and he can’t because he has to be Superman. The tragedy of that equation helps the second film (regardless of which cut you prefer) stand apart from its predecessor, and tinges Kal-El’s “never-ending battle” with a real sense of darkness.
In addition to the features covering the film’s various controversies, and the expected collection of trailers and bonus scenes, the two discs include seventeen vintage 1940s Superman cartoons from the Fleischer Studios. Justly hailed as classics, they feature exciting stories and truly gorgeous animation (as well as some uncomfortably nasty racial stereotypes).
And just like that… it was over. Whatever pretensions to quality the franchise had effectively crashed to the ground with Superman III, due to a number of bone-headed creative decisions from which it could never recover. Lester stayed on as director and it soon became clear that – left to his own devices — he lacked the respect for the material that Donner did. He helmed a campy, children-friendly story in which a meek computer programmer (Richard Pryor) and his evil bosses (Robert Vaughn and Annie Ross) decide to destroy Superman on the way to making millions in various hi-tech swindles.
The plot is a mess of half-baked clichés and cheap one-liners: inspired by the emerging computer revolution without understanding a thing about it. The producers could have scored an easy hit by letting Brainiac (a well-established Superman baddie) serve as the nemesis here instead of creating a gang of wet-noodle businessmen. Instead, we get Vaughn and Ross vamping it up, while Pryor (who actually gets more screen time than Reeve) looking completely at sea in every scene. Considering how funny the man could be, and how much of Superman III gives itself over to comedy, his utter failure to transcend the material is thoroughly depressing.
Reeve alone seems impervious to the surrounding drek: keeping Superman’s soul intact throughout and doing wonders with sequences in which a flawed piece of Kryptonite turns him into a Super Asshole. (The fight between his good and evil halves midway through stands as a lonely high point.) Annette O’Toole does her best to match him as Clark’s childhood sweetheart Lana, but they’re both fighting too many bad ideas to elevate the proceedings.
Extra materials on the lone Superman III disc are pretty sparse: Salkind and Spengler provide a feckless audio commentary, and a by-the-numbers TV documentary from the film’s initial release is almost tacked on as an afterthought.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
If Superman III was bad, Superman IV is positively sickening: an undeniable low point in a pantheon that includes the likes of Catwoman and Howard the Duck. Reeve himself angeled the project and made the fatal mistake of pitting the Man of Steel against a real-world problem, as he sets out to rid the planet of nuclear weapons. Hackman returns as Lex Luthor, bored out of his mind as he creates a nuclear-powered strongman to send against his old nemesis. A vastly reduced budget, poor continuity and the sense that everyone is just going through the motions sink it all from the get-go. Even Reeve’s seemingly infinite charm can’t make a dent in it, and his well-meaning message feels alternately heavy-handed and phony by turns. Then there Lex Luthor’s nephew Lenny (Jon Cryer), who may give Jar Jar Binks and Scrappy Doo a run for their money as Most Annoying Genre Character Ever. Superman IV attains the strange sort of hypnotic fascination typical of Ed Wood at his worse; it’s a poor swan song for a performer who made us believe that a man could fly.
The lone documentary on the disc — featuring Dana Carvey hosting a funny and irreverent look at the Man of Steel’s history — is actually much more entertaining than the film it’s supposed to support. The disc also contains a trailer, some cut footage, and an anemic audio commentary from screenwriter Mark Rosenthal.
Bryan Singer’s much-maligned Superman Returns actually holds up much better than its critics contend. Despite the occasional boner (like casting a way-too-young Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane), it succeeds in capturing the spark of the first two films: married to outstanding effects and an inspired sense of nostalgia. Brandon Routh is eerily reminiscent of Reeve in his portrayal of the Man of Steel, and Singer delivers the right combination of cool set pieces and respect for the character. Modern audiences may have missed its deliberate nods to the Reeve films, but sets like this can hopefully remind people how well it succeeded at its appointed task.
Extras on the disc include a seven-part documentary on the making of the film, a sequence about “resurrecting” Marlon Brando to appear as Jorl-El, Singer’s video journals, and another round of trailers and deleted scenes. All of it appears on earlier editions of the film, but it helps with the sense of completion here.
The eighth and final disc in the collection gives itself over completely to extras. It includes three full-length documentaries about Superman, a TV special on “The Science of Superman,” a retrospective on Reeve’s legacy, and perhaps the single oddest element in the entire set: a 1958 pilot entitled The Adventures of Superpup. It features little people wearing cartoon dog heads in a children’s version of the Man of Steel, and has to be seen to be believed. The latter aberration notwithstanding, the rest of the material on the disc is solid and informative: providing a nice way to round out the set for casual viewers and Superman experts alike.
All eight discs feature superb sound and image quality, ensuring that both cinematic classic and gobbling turkey look fantastic on your screen. The handsome case is well-designed (though not as sturdy as the older metal DVD set), and the menus make reaching the well-balanced supporting features a breeze. The only thing missing is the 1984 live-action Supergirl adaptation starring Helen Slater. Frankly speaking, it’s awful, but it’s no worse than Superman IV and Slater makes a perfect fit for Kal-El’s golden-haired cousin. Beyond that, you couldn’t ask for a better collection to sit on your shelf; if you’ve been waiting to pull the trigger on a Superman Blu-ray, now’s the time. The Superman Anthology delivers a sharp, classy look at one of pop culture’s most beloved icons – at his best, at his worst and everywhere in between.