"You'll Believe a Man Can Fly!" That was the tag-line for 1978's blockbuster film Superman. Touting both the innovative special effects and the exciting nature of the film, this was enough to get an unapologetic comic book geek like myself into the theaters to see the movie. At the time I enjoyed the film, mostly. While I was very disappointed in the ending, the rest of the film was a great ride that got me back into the theater for a second look. Of course I hadn't known about the arduous shooting or the conflicts between the producer and the director, but that only showed up on screen indirectly. It has been over a decade since I saw Superman: The Movie and I was afraid that it wouldn't hold up as well as I had remembered it. While there are some dated parts, the movie still is a lot of fun.
The movie starts on Krypton, where Jor-El (Marlon Brando) is sentencing three villains led by the traitorous General Zod to an eternity of imprisonment in the Phantom Zone. After his task has been completed, the doomed man once again insists that Krypton is going to explode in a matter of days, only to have the council laugh at him once more. Returning home, the scientist puts the finishing touches on the space craft that will save his only son, Kal-El. He finishes just before the planet disintegrates and launches his son towards a distant planet called Earth.
Three years later the craft lands in the field of John (Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter). They take the small tot who emerges and raise him as their own instilling a sense of honesty, truthfulness, and morality into the lad. They name him Clark and soon discover that he has "powers above and beyond those of mortal men," and train him to hide these in order not to attract attention to himself.
Eventually Clark (Christopher Reeve) leaves home and goes to Metropolis. There he gets a job as a newspaper reporter alongside ace reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and photographer Jimmy Olsen. When danger strikes however, Clark sheds his 50's business suit to reveal the red and blue costume of Superman.
It's not long before danger does strike. The criminal genius Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) has a plan to make himself incredibly wealthy. He has bought up a lot of desert land just east of the San Andreas fault, land that will be worth millions once the nuclear missiles Lex has reprogrammed detonate on the fault line and cause much of California to sink into the ocean. The only person who can stop this mad man is Superman, but Lex has thought about that too.
This is a really fun movie in a lot of ways. Even though the Man of Steel's origin is known to almost everyone, seeing it play out on film is really enjoyable. Watching a baby Clark hold up a pickup truck when the jack slips is sure to bring a smile to viewer's faces, likewise the scene where Clark outruns the high school kids in a car who were teasing him. Superman's first deeds in Metropolis are also highly enjoyable and keep the movie moving along at a good clip.
Christopher Reeve does a fantastic job as Clark Kent/Superman. He has Clark's nebbish qualities down pat while still being impressive as Superman, a trick that few other actors can pull off. (Even George Reeves was never convincing as Clark in the old Adventures of Superman TV show.) Clark's 'just off the farm' act comes across as being believable and not a parody.
The special effects stand up very well, even today. Though the flying sequences lack the "wow" factor they had nearly 30 years ago, they don't look hokey and dated at all. Superman still looks realistic when flying and the other effects come across as natural too. There are one or two effects that don't work that well, when Luthor freezes Superman in a block of ice for example, and it's interesting to note that these were left out of the theatrical cut.
That said there are some aspects of the film that don't work so well. The goofy sided kick is a bit is dated now, even as it was when the film was made. At one point Lex Luthor even wonders out loud when he surrounds himself with idiots, something the audience had been wondering for a while.
The reprogramming of the nuclear missiles was also something viewers have to take with a grain of salt. The fact that military officers would leave nukes unguarded is rather laughable. The fact that Lex's idiotic sidekicks could reprogram them is even harder to swallow.
The worst aspect of the film is the ending, and it's not really the director's fault. Originally Richard Donner was supposed to direct the first two Superman films, and he managed to shoot much of the sequel while directing this first movie. This was the formula that the producers, the father and son team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind, had used with much success on the two Musketeer movies they made in the mid-seventies. For whatever reason, the constant fighting with the director or just getting cold feet, the Salkinds at the last minute decided not to end this first Superman film with a cliffhanger. Originally Superman was supposed have shot one rocket into space which explodes and released the Kryptonian criminals from the beginning of the movie. That would have worked much better than how the film currently ends. Even my 10 year old son turned to me after we screened the disc and proclaimed that the ending didn't make sense. I have to agree with him.
This Blu-ray disc presents the 2000 restoration of this movie, which incorporates some deleted scenes not shown during the film's theatrical release. This edit runs eight minutes longer than the original version.
The 2.40:1 video has been restored and looks very good. The first thing that jumps out at you are the colors. The movie is filled with bright bold colors that were influenced by the story's four color comic book origins. Superman's red and blue costume is especially impressive. It is rich and full and really leaps off the screen. The blacks are also solid and even. Print wise, the film also looks good with only a very rare speck being seen through the course of the film.
That's not to say this is a perfect disc. There were a couple of minor problems that cropped up. Grain was only minor through most of the film, but it was much more pronounced during the special effect shots. The building of the Fortress of Solitude, with all of the white snow that magically turns into Superman's base, had a fair amount of it. In the discs defense this is almost certainly how the film originally looked and not a compression artifact. The image is a bit soft too, but this is the way that Donner and DP Geoffrey Unsworth shot the film. They applied soft filters to give the film a unique look.
There was also some posterization in a few scenes. When Kal El's ship is landing the transition from the black of space to the multicolored Earth isn't as even as it should be, and when Zod et al are being shot into space it's also noticeable.
This disc comes with a DD 5.1 soundtrack in English and in French which sounded very good. There are some great audio effects used in this film, and they all come through wonderfully. The scene at the beginning where General Zod and his cohorts are exiled to the Phantom Zone worked well with their screams being heard only when their faces were shown and then zooming around the room. The earthquake sequence at the end is also makes good use of the full soundstage really putting the viewer in the middle of the action, and the scene where Luthor contacts Superman through high pitched sound was pretty impressive. The intensity of the noise took me by surprise and I jumped in my seat. The dialog scenes relied a bit too much on the center channel but this was a minor flaw.
The score was excellent and the full range audio made it sound fantastic. I really enjoyed the fact that the music wasn't mixed to the foreground though a lot of the film. This made it create atmosphere without being overpowering like many action scene scores are. This soundtrack can also be heard on an isolated music track.
While this disc doesn't port over all of the bonus features from the 2000 release of this movie, the most important ones are here, all presented in standard definition. There is a commentary track by director Richard Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz in which they talk in detail about the production and the problems they had with the producers. The two behind the scenes featurettes, Taking Flight: The Development of Superman and Making Superman: Filming the Legend run about half an hour each and are very interesting. Donner, Reeve, Kidder, Hackman and others give reminisce about the production and some of the technical problems that were encountered.
There are also a series of theatrical trailers and TV spots that haven't been restored.
It's been a while since I've seen this film, and I have to admit that
I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Much of the movie is still
very enjoyable and the special effects stand up well even after all these
years. While Luthor's bumbling sidekicks were an idiotic inclusion
and the end was, well, stupid, this is still a good movie that's a lot
of fun to watch. The BD image, while not perfect, looks very good
and the audio is exceptional. Recommended.