It's typical to see a film franchise's fan base split up for a host of different reasons - Sequels often end up beating the same dead horse over and over again until people stop throwing their money at them, the content might be dumbed down a bit to pull a larger demographic in the theaters, or, the subsequent films could just be complete garbage. The Superman Motion Picture Anthology has its own unique set of hindrances however - For example, the first two films were filmed back to back... that is, until creative differences between the director and producers left an unfinished sequel to be completed by someone else, and fans felt cheated that they weren't going to see the see the film they were intended to see. Superman III and IV? Each practically a comedy in many respects, albeit both for very different reasons - One acts as a showcase for an iconic comedian whereas the other kind of... well, just plain stinks. Superman Returns ignores the third and fourth films entirely and picks up where the second one left off, while acting the part of a remake/reboot at the same time. Confused yet? Don't worry, you're not alone. Even seasoned Superman film veterans can't help but scratch their heads over its frustrating history, which spans over three decades. Even so, there's still much to appreciate when it comes to the Superman Motion Picture Anthology, and now that the entire collection is available in a single Blu-ray set, there's never been a better time to revisit that history.
Of course, Superman - The Movie is the one that started it all... and just so I'm clear, when I say 'all', I'm talking about legitimate comic-book films in general. Although this wasn't the first time a superhero made the transition from paper to celluloid, it was the first time it was done while presenting the source with some dignity. The idea for a Superman film came about in 1973, and after a bunch of different names were attached to it at one time or another, it was Richard Donner that was eventually chosen to bring it to life. Having a lot of passion and respect for the story of Superman's origin, Donner felt the original script was a little silly and brought in another writer, Tom Mankiewicz, to pretty much rewrite it from scratch. It was evidently for the best, as the final product pretty much speaks for itself. With all the superhero films we're inundated with nowadays, it's easy to forget just how ambitious a project like this was. After all, audiences were accustomed to seeing their heroes chasing cartoony looking bad guys, flipping their cape in victory and dropping campy one-liners. On-screen comic-book adaptations were always designed to be fun and funny, but Richard Donner was setting out to break all of the previously established 'rules' and give the audience some substance. Instead of focusing on 'oooh' and 'ahhhh' heroics, the core of Superman - The Movie is its thematic elements of identity, isolation, sacrifice, choice, love, and loss. To say there was a lot of risk involved is an understatement, and the fact that the final product was nearly two and a half hours long was another big risk - If these thematic elements weren't implemented well, the movie would have dragged on forever, but the risk Donner took was worth it. Donner's film is pieced together so well, you would never know it was 143 minutes if you weren't looking at the clock. Without making a pun here, the time just seems to fly by. Don't get me wrong, it's not a perfect film - The way in which Superman 'fixes' everything is probably the most preposterous thing I've ever seen, and there's still some minor elements of camp here and there. Despite these minor quibbles, this is an impressive film and still stands as the example for superhero flicks to build upon. Indeed, there would be an undeniably bright future for the genre, but unfortunately the Superman franchise itself wasn't meant to share the same fate.
Despite the fact nobody really knew how Superman - The Movie would fare at the box office, it was decided that it would be filmed back-to-back with its sequel. Not knowing how audiences would react to the first film, Donner had to trust his intuition and continue to remain faithful to the source, at least as far as the film's tone was concerned. As difficult as it was to create a successful follow-up to a film that still had the potential to flop, there were bigger issues for the director to contend with behind-the-scenes, as his relationship with the producers was growing increasingly volatile. The producers wanted the director to lighten things up a bit and throw some camp in the mix, but of course, Donner wasn't willing to sacrifice his artistic vision. Furthermore, the producers were furious that the film was going over their intended budget, and when the rift between them and their director was overflowing onto the set, Donner was 'let go'... after already filming 75% of Superman II. Richard Lester took the helm after Donner was dismissed, and provided the producers with what they wanted all along - More camp. He had his work cut out for him though, as Gene Hackman refused to continue filming under a different director. But regardless, after all was said and done and despite all the behind-the-scenes drama, Superman II was released and met with critical acclaim. Even still, there were still an army of fans that felt cheated out of the film they were supposed to see, and complained to Warner Bros. tirelessly over the next couple of decades. Eventually, the studio saw fit to find Donner's original footage and reconstruct Superman II in a way that would depict his vision as accurately as possible, and thus, Superman II - The Richard Donner Cut was born. With over 80% being material that Donner shot himself, many consider this to be the superior cut of the film, and I'd have to agree with the vast majority. It's still not a perfect film, but with much of the humor absent except where actually appropriate, the stakes actually feel like they're higher, improving the impact most of the plot points were originally intended to have. With Superman II in the can, one would think we would have seen the last dark mark in the franchise's history, but there was more drama yet to come.
Three years after Superman II, Superman III made its theatrical debut. This is the first time we got to see how Richard Lester would helm an entire Superman flick by himself, and with more involvement from the producers, it's even more disappointing than one ever could have imagined. Superman III is the embodiment of a corporate cash-in, as the big wigs commanded the project with zero regard to the first two films, let alone the source itself. Margot Kidder (Lois Lane) was very vocal about how badly the producers treated Richard Donner, so she was virtually removed from the third entry, save for a brief cameo. Furthermore, Gene Hackman still wanted nothing to do with the series, not with Richard Donner absent from the directing chair. Nope, Richard Lester was brought back to direct, and who was the film's major co-star? Successful 70's-80's comedian, Richard Pryor. With that combination in tow, the film was turned into a slapstick comedy that, ironically enough, wasn't funny at all. The camp was over the top, the comical quips mind-numbingly bad, and the major plot point which features a corrupt Superman is tragically cheapened. Unfortunately, Lester was always looking for a new excuse to throw a gag into the film, a fact which Christopher Reeve even commented on during an interview. Four years later, Warner tried to cash in yet again with Superman IV - The Quest For Peace, and it's just as bad a film as its predecessor, albeit for very different reasons. It's still a comedy of sorts, but not because it tried to tie another funny-man to a co-starring role. No, it's funny because of just how bad it is. The plot deals with Lex Luthor breaking out of jail (once again played by Gene Hackman), courtesy of his nephew, Lenny Luthor. In an attempt to destroy Superman once and for all, Lex creates a powerful adversary in Nuclear Man, who happens to be armed with powerful... uh... fingernails... *coughs*. If there's any saving grace that Superman IV has to offer, it's that Lester and the producers which helped to destroy the franchise from the inside out, have zero involvement in its production. As far as the future of the Superman film series? Unsurprisingly, it was nearly two decades before Warner decided to give it another go.
Which brings us to probably the most confusing Superman film to date, Bryan Singer's Superman Returns. Just so I'm clear, I felt Superman Returns was a pretty decent flick. Singer's direction was excellent, everyone was cast perfectly - most notable of all being Kevin Spacey who I felt was a much better Luthor than Gene Hackman - and many of the emotional story elements that made the first two films so enjoyable were the primary focus once again. Where Superman Returns fails however, is that much like Clark Kent's childhood, there's no definable identity in this film. Ignoring the previous two films entirely, Superman Returns picks up where Superman II left off, which is clear to the audience due to the continuing romance saga between Lois and Clark. Despite the fact this is obviously attempting to continue the story that was brought to life by Donner and Mankiewicz, many plot points are lifted directly from Superman - The Movie and Superman II. Hell, much of the same memorable dialogue is lifted from them. So, what is this? A reboot? A continuation? A reimagining? The answer for all these questions is yes and no.
And that pretty much concludes the story of the Superman Motion Picture Anthology. I know all of the bad facts surrounding this iconic franchise's history screams 'stay away from these films at all costs', but honestly, you'd be doing yourself a great disservice. Again, the landscape of the superhero genre probably would have been vastly different than it is today if it weren't for the first two films. Superman III is easily a throw-away film, but Superman IV? It's a pretty bad film as well, but it's almost in the 'so bad it's good category'. Last but not least, despite the fact that Superman Returns is pretty much a blatant rip-off of Donner's first two efforts, it's still rewarding to see a director actually treat the source material with care once again. Undoubtedly there will be people out there that will whine about not wanting to purchase all the films together in a single pack, but for the rest of us? These films are a part of cinematic history for so many reasons, both good and bad, and there's not a single comic-book fan out there that should be without this in their collection.
Superman - The Movie - 1080p/AVC
Superman II - 1080p/AVC
Superman II - The Richard Donner Cut - 1080p/VC-1
Superman III - 1080p/AVC
Superman IV - The Quest for Peace - 1080p/AVC
Superman Returns - 1080p/VC-1
All films are presented in an aspect ratio of 2.40:1.
Most of the films in the Superman Motion Picture Anthology have been treated to new HD masters for this release, but unfortunately, the two films that probably deserved and needed a facelift above the rest are left untouched. But, let's get to the good news first:
Superman - The Movie, both in its theatrical and expanded forms, look better than they ever have (it should be noted that only the theatrical cut was given a fresh new HD master, although the expanded cut is also relatively new). That's not to say that this film looks perfect, because it never will. There's still the same foggy/glowing photography in the same scenes that always displayed such lighting effects, but that's just the way Superman -The Movie had been filmed. I'm sure some painstaking restoration could be done with a computer in order to spiffy things up a bit, but honestly, I wouldn't care for the studio mucking up the original film elements in such a way. 33 years later, it's part of the charm of the film, and it shouldn't be tampered with. Everything else looks great as is - Black levels are immaculate, contrast is mostly spot-on (any contrast issues that do arise are again due to the source), color saturation is impressive as well are skin tones, and the amount of detail that can be seen is surprising more often than not. The only minor complaints that I can come up with in regards to both versions of the film (which look virtually identical), is that the film's grain structure can at times look ever so slightly noisy. There are also some instances throughout where some blocking even comes into play, but I never found these issues to be too distracting. Other than some minor banding, there's pretty much nothing else to complain about in regards to Superman - The Movie which for all intents and purposes, looks as good as it's likely ever going to.
With each subsequent film that was given a new HD master, the picture quality only gets better. Superman II boasts even better contrast, color saturation, detail, you name it. Superman II (Lester's theatrical cut) may be an old catalog title, but at times it's hard to tell just how long ago it was shot because of how good it can look. There are still plenty of shots that looks softer than others, but that's due to the source. Superman III and IV follow in Superman II's footsteps, albeit with a little more dirt on their prints. The strong points that group Superman I-IV together, are also met with the same issues of noisy grain and some occasional (minor) blocking and banding. All in all, I really can't complain with what's offered on all the films that have been given a shiny new coat of paint.
As for the films that were left with the same encode from 2006? I don't really think Superman II - The Richard Donner Cut was begging for an upgrade. Sure, it has a tendency to be softer more often than its theatrical counterpart, and even some of the contrast and color saturation can be inconsistent, but we're talking about a film that was dug up from whatever deep grave it had been buried, and pieced together for the first time 20 some odd years after the fact. Hell, there were pieces of footage that Donner shot that only existed in the form of a test-screening, so I'd say it looks respectable as is, and fans shouldn't be disappointed with what the 2006 encode has to offer.
Superman Returns is the biggest disappointment though, which is practically lunacy considering the fact it was filmed with some pretty high-tech HD equipment. What should be a pristine HD release in every respect, ends up being inconsistent in every perceivable way - Certain shots are highly detailed while others look like someone got happy with the DNR button, contrast and black levels range from murky to decent, atrocious banding and artifacting rears an ugly head on numerous occasions, you name it. While new HD masters were crafted for the earlier films in the franchise, I just can't understand why Warner wouldn't opt to give the film that needed the upgrade most of all, what it deserved.
All in all, this set offers more than enough reasons to upgrade, especially over your old DVD's... even if Superman Returns is still looking rather rancid. To put it simply, these films look pristine. Fans should have no qualms in upgrading. And just in case you needed another reason, Warner has actually removed the wires that were used to fly 'Superman' around digitally, enhancing the realism of the Man of Steel even more.
Superman - The Movie DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and DTS-HD Master Audio Stereo (!)
Superman II - DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Superman II - The Richard Donner Cut - DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Superman III - DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Superman IV - The Quest for Peace - DTS-HD Master Audio Stereo
Superman Returns - DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Superman - The Movie and Superman II sound fantastic, especially considering their age (and yes, that includes Superman - The Movie's original DTS-HD Master Audio Stereo track). John Williams' score is majestic and perfectly suits the Man of Steel, and dialogue is crystal clear except for some instances where the source inherently has some hiss. The sound design on these 5.1 tracks is worthy of some acclaim as well. The sound effects may not live up to the standard that we've become accustomed to today, but these mixes surprisingly brings them all to the fold with respectable volume without distorting the sound, while maintaining a perfect balance with the score. The LFE isn't bombastic but it's pretty respectable for films that are 30+ years old. The rear channels are used more frequently than I anticipated for the action scenes, and do an average job at pulling me into the action. Sound effects are obviously not precisely pinpoint, and there are some pans that are kind of sloppy. All in all, Superman and Superman II sound amazing considering the source it had to work with. It's worth noting that the Richard Donner Cut of Superman II is less consistent than its theatrical counterpart, but it's still impressive, especially considering its history. Much the same can be said about Superman III, although its overzealous sound design near the end of the film does present some distortion. Unfortunate, yes, but it's not a big distraction.
Superman IV only offers a lossless stereo track. I guess nobody felt it was worthy enough to also be given the 5.1 treatment, and quite frankly, I'm not looking to blame anyone for that. It's a terrible film that practically screams 'B-movie' (OK, perhaps that's a bit of an overstatement), and it was the least successful film in the series as a whole. Still, Superman IV still does a decent job at providing a track that doesn't sound boring or flat.
Now, although Superman Returns video presentation is pretty horrific, the same can't be said for its lossless audio track. Honestly, this 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio offering is nearly flawless - Dialogue is crisp and clear throughout the film's entirety, directional audio has pinpoint precision except for some sloppy pans near the beginning of the film, rear channels work well in providing an impressive level of environmental ambience, and the LFE accompanies the action with a force that can't be reckoned with. After all is said and done, you're likely to be left sitting on your couch, grinning ear to ear like a villain. Superman Returns' sound design really makes you feel like you're a part of the movie, and is easily the best sonic experience the Superman Motion Picture Anthology has to offer in its entirety.
As I've said before, the Superman Motion Picture Anthology is an important piece of cinematic history for providing two of the best superhero films of all time, two important examples of why Hollywood should let artistic intent rule over money, and a serviceable reboot/remake... or whatever the hell it is. The anthology as a whole practically defines what's happened within the film industry over the last 30 some-odd years, and comic-book fans shouldn't be without. So, it's only appropriate that Warner Bros. provided this release with a very snazzy box that shouldn't draw a single complaint from consumers. The outer box has a design that represents Superman's crystalline Fortress of Solitude, and of course, it features the 'S' crest smack-dab in the center. To open the box, you'll pull off the top to reveal a multi-fold digipack which acts as a perfect contrast to the blue-ish outer box, as it's designed to look like Superman's cape. Now, we've seen quite a few package mishaps on Blu-ray in the last year or two, most notable of all probably being the Back to the Future Trilogy with its insane, hub-less design. Others have also complained about other popular sets housing discs in a cardboard sleeve/page design. If anyone is hinging their purchase based on the quality of the disc housing, fear not, as all 8 discs are held in place by plastic hubs. This is one of the nicer looking sets I've seen on Blu-ray to date, and Superman fans should be nothing short of proud to display this prominently in their collections.
Of course, it's the content on the discs that matters the most, and this set really goes above and beyond providing any and everything of relevance in regards to Superman. Despite all the usual informative features one would expect - such as audio commentaries, making-of documentaries, deleted scenes, etc - What's truly a surprise is the inclusion of the 1951 film, Superman and the Mole-Men, vintage cartoons from Warner Bros., Famous Studios, Fleischer Studios, and so much more. There's not much that's new in this set however, which may bum out people who already own the Superman Anthology DVD set, and as a result, most of the extras are only available in standard definition. One HD feature that's definitely worth noting however, is the Original Opening to Superman Returns, something that fans have been clamoring for ever since the film's initial release. 6 minutes in length, I really don't know why it was left on the cutting room floor. It's infinitely better than the beginning of the film as is, and there are other brief moments in Superman Returns that could, no, should have been trimmed in order to make room for this.
The 8th disc is the real star of the supplemental package though, as it features a new two-hour special that chronicles the history of Superman in its entirety, as well as a National Geographic special that dissects the science of Superman (90 minutes). The best part? Both of these feature length extras are in HD! There's much more on the 8th disc, but you'll see that in the breakdown below:
Disc 1 - Superman - The Movie
-Audio Commentary with Executive Producer Ilya Salkind and Producer Pierre Spengler
-The Making of Superman - The Movie
-Superman and the Mole-Men
-Cartoons - Looney Tunes shorts "Snafuperman", "Stupor Duck", and "Super Rabbit"
-TV Spots and Trailers
Disc 2 - Superman - The Movie - Expanded Edition
-Audio Commentary with Director Richard Donner and Creative Consultant Tom Mankiewicz
-Taking Flight - The Development of Superman
-Making Superman - Filming the Legend
-The Magic Behind the Cape
-Original Screen Tests
-Additional Music Cues
Disc 3 - Superman II - Original Theatrical Release
-Audio Commentary with Executive Producer Ilya Salkind and Producer Pierre Spengler
-The Making of Superman II
-Superman's Soufflé Deleted Scene
-First Flight - The Fleischer Superman Series
-Fleischer Studios' Superman - Includes 9 Max Fleischer Superman Cartoons
-Original Theatrical Trailer
Disc 4 - Superman II - The Richard Donner Cut
-Audio Commentary with Director Richard Donner and Creative Consultant Tom Mankiewicz
-Introduction by Richard Donner
-Superman II - Restoring the Vision
-Famous Studios' Superman Cartoons (6)
Disc 5 - Superman III
-Audio Commentary with Executive Producer Ilya Salkind and Producer Pierre Spengler
-The Making of Superman III
Disc 6 - Superman IV - The Quest for Peace
-Audio Commentary with Screenwriter Mark Rosenthal
-Superman 50th Anniversary Special - Hosted by Dana Carvey
Disc 7 - Superman Returns
-Requiem for Krypton: Making Superman Returns
-Bryan Singer's Journals
-Original Opening to Superman Returns
Disc 8 - Additional Bonus Material
-Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman
-You Will Believe - The Cinematic Saga of Superman
-The Science of Superman
-The Mythology of Superman
-The Heart of a Hero - A Tribute to Christopher Reeve
-The Adventures of Superpup Pilot
Honestly... how much more could one ask for? Although there may be a good number of people that will hem and haw over purchasing this set because they don't want to be forced to buy a couple of films they don't want in their collection, but the amount of supplemental material in this package more than makes up for cost of the set. Superman enthusiasts, and most likely even film enthusiasts overall, should find the offerings in this collection more than satisfying, and will spend a great deal of time wading through everything that's contained across all 8 discs. Warner Bros. really did a great job providing this iconic film franchise with everything it deserves and then some.
The Superman Motion Picture Anthology is mostly the definitive Man of Steel collection many of you have been waiting for. All high-def Superman films are finally packaged together for the first time, an impressive job has been done with wire removal, and even Superman himself would have trouble tackling all of the supplements in a mere day or two. Furthermore, the packaging looks stunning and the discs are secure as can be. The only thing this 8 disc set is sorely lacking, is a decent HD representation of the film that should have been the most visually appealing of all - Superman Returns. Sure, you might also argue that what this set is really lacking are five fantastic films, as for most people's money, only two or three are worth taking into consideration. That may be so, but each of these films are important to cinematic history for one reason or another, and besides, all of the extras contained in this set are probably worth the price Warner is asking for this set alone. Not only that, but if certain films weren't included in this set, then an even larger group of people would be causing an uproar. Nope, you can't please everyone, but the Superman Motion Picture Anthology will certainly come close. Highly recommended.