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Look, Up in the Sky - The Amazing Story of Superman

Warner Bros. // Unrated // June 20, 2006
List Price: $14.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted June 25, 2006 | E-mail the Author
The trick with releasing a documentary about the history of Superman a mere week before "Superman Returns" arrives in theaters: you don't want to make it feel like one big commercial for the new movie; you need to find a healthy balance between fun and informative, being careful that you don't wind up being fluffy or stuffy; you don't want to make it feel like one big commercial for the new movie; you need to present enough new material so you're not merely rehashing facts that everybody already knows and clips everybody's already seen; and you don't want to make it feel like one big commercial for the new movie.

"Look, Up In the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman" is very much a commercial for "Superman Returns" - as well as "Smallville," which continues to be a money-maker for Warner Brothers as well - but at least the filmmakers are kind enough to hold off on the sales pitch until the end. Director Kevin Burns (the chap behind the long-form making-of docs found on the DVDs for "Star Wars," "Planet of the Apes," and "Cleopatra") could have gone the tackier route, the kind we've seen too often before, the kind where one star guides us on a tour of the set of the New Hit Movie, interviews his/her co-stars, introduces clips, and oh, by the way, would you like to see the long history of this franchise boiled down to a few minutes of cheap montage?

In fact, Burns goes the completely opposite route (although he does bring us Kevin Spacey, star of the New Hit Movie, for narration duties); in just under two hours, he and his crew offer up the most complete history of the character I've ever seen. We get it all in extreme detail, from Shuster and Siegel's original "Super-Man" short story (the name was used to define an evil psychic) to long discussions on George Reeves and Christopher Reeve to DC Comics' ups and downs with the character on the comics page. For the newcomer, you get a detailed examination of the Man of Steel's many changes over the decades; for the hardcore Supes fanatic, you get ultra-rare clips of the 1950s "Superboy," "Superpup" (in which little people wore dog costumes!), and the infamous musical comedy "It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Superman!," seen here in a television adaptation starring David Wilson, who could not dance, as a dancing Superman. (A word of warning: Think of the worst thing you can possibly imagine. Now think of something even worse than that. Push yourself hard to think up something even worse still. Beyond that, dear reader, you will find "It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Superman!")

"Look, Up In the Sky!" works best in its first hour, when time is spent detailing the history of the comics, radio shows, cartoon shorts, serial, movie ("Superman and the Mole Men"), and TV series - perhaps because by the time we turn our attention to the 1978 film "Superman," we've seen a lot of this stuff before, either in previous documentaries or as DVD bonus features, unlike the earlier projects, whose behind-the-scenes shenanigans have remained relatively unseen. When the movie spends plenty of time on the Reeve era, one gets the feeling that Burns is holding back, perhaps not wanting this portion of the timeline (with its ample archival material) to overshadow the rest of the story, perhaps not to repeat too much of what's already been seen elsewhere, or perhaps to leave a little something for the supplemental sections of the forthcoming deluxe DVD releases.

Also, the documentary struggles in how to deal with the rest of the Reeve era. How to discuss Richard Donner being replaced on "Superman II" with Richard Lester without making either Donner or producer Ilya Salkind (who, after all, were both kind enough to be interviewed for this film) look bad? How to discuss the negative responses to "Superman III" and "IV" without delivering a drubbing so terrible that potential customers might not want the box set come autumn? Heck, how to discuss "Superman III" and "IV" without showing any of the behind-the-scenes material that made the look into the first movie so interesting? And what do you do with "Supergirl," a movie for which Warner Bros. obviously declined any effort in obtaining rights, other than to brush it off with a couple sentences of narration and a few stock photos?

By the time we hit the late 1980s, it becomes obvious that Burns has become rushed for time yet is obligated to tow the company line - he glosses over such important information as John Byrne's critical 1986 relaunching of the character, while giving plenty of extra attention to the late-80s syndicated series "Superboy," a show nobody remembers that much, but hey, Warner Bros. just released the first season on DVD, so we better hype it up.

We get an awkward potpourri, with Burns taking the time to discuss such important matters as the death (and, natch, rebirth) of Superman and the wedding of Clark and Lois, both which temporarily helped to boost comics sales, but then becoming very unsure as to how to handle the 1996 animated series and its follow-ups, concluding with the current "Justice League Unlimited" cartoon. (Both are mentioned, but in an ill-fitting obligatory tone.) "Lois & Clark" also gets a solid mention, but it again feels as if Burns is walking on tiptoes, trying to avoid anything that might wind up on a future DVD collection. (There's also an extremely odd breakaway to discuss 9/11, which gets tied back to Superman in the flimsiest of manners, as if Burns is now simply grasping wildly in an attempt to retain some connection with the viewer, or show the relevance of a character that at the time wasn't much in the pop culture forefront.)

The last chunk is spent singing the praises of "Smallville" and "Superman Returns," and it's here that it becomes very clear that the movie should've stopped somewhere around the mid-90s mark. There's not enough distance to properly analyze the impact of "Smallville," and the facts get purposely fudged to make the series feel more important than future generations may believe. (Getting the largest ratings of all shows on the WB sounds more impressive than it really is.) Without any chance at hindsight, there's no proper way to honestly gauge how the series fits into the history of the character, but instead of omitting anything, Burns merely turns on the hard sell.

And then comes "Superman Returns," and Burns is left with the unfortunate job of pushing it without sounding like he's pushing it, showing clips without giving away too much, making this present-day release sound like part of history. (Most awkward moment: Spacey refers to himself in the third person.) On the plus side, you do get to see the crazed ramblings of producer Jon Peters, who admits to having had some very bad ideas in his decade-long trek in bringing Superman back to the big screen; one wonders if anybody slipped him a copy of "An Evening With Kevin Smith" as a wake-up call.

The DVD

Warner Bros. has released "Look, Up In the Sky!" in two versions: a regular one-disc version and a two-disc special edition, which is simply a repackaging of the one-disc edition with a bonus disc tossed in. The special edition also contains five postcard-sized replicas of movie posters for the four Reeve-era movies as well as "Returns."

Video

The DVD cover mislabels the feature as being in a "scope" format; it is in fact in 1.78:1 widescreen (with anamorphic enhancement). All footage from projects not filmed in this ratio have been cropped, either on the sides (the movies) or tops and bottoms (the earlier TV shows). This is a nuisance, but these were not meant to be reference shots, so it's understandable. (Only once is the cropping noticeable, and that's in a tightly composed scene from the 1978 film.)

As this is a documentary using a variety of archival footage going back some eighty years, the video quality has quite a range, depending on the age and ownership of the material. The brand new interviews look quite sharp, if you'd prefer that as an indicator of what to expect.

Audio

There's simply no need for a Dolby 5.1 surround mix on something like this, but I'm quite happy they went with one anyway. There's plenty of playful use of all speakers when "swooshing" flying sounds come and go. And, of course, John Williams' masterful themes remain a treat for the ears. Optional French subtitles are provided; again, there's another misprint on the cover, as the promised Spanish subtitles are not included.

Extras

On the one-disc version, you get nothing, not counting trailers for "Firewall," "The Lady In the Water," "Poseidon," and a combo trailer for Warner Brothers' various "Superman" releases (which includes the teaser for "Superman Returns"), which play as the disc first loads; they are skippable, but not accessible through any menu.

If you go with the two-discer, all you'll get are 28 minutes of seemingly random clips from Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns" video production diaries. There's a lot owed to Peter Jackson here, although fans will most likely balk at not getting the entire set of "video blogs" that Singer posted to the Blue Tights website over the past year or so. Only twelve are included, and most have apparently been edited down from their original versions. Worse still: the "Returns" DVD set is reported to include all of these diaries, meaning the only real reason to upgrade is to get those poster postcards.

Final Thoughts

Debate between the one- and two-disc editions aside: "Look, Up In the Sky!" is a mixed bag, with a tremendously engaging first half and a clunky, repetitive, salesman-esque second half. It's most definitely a fluff piece all the way, little more than a beefed-up DVD bonus feature, but it's got enough of the goods where it counts. Considering the bargain price, the one-disc edition gets slightly Recommended to fans of the Last Son of Krypton who'd like to see some fun interviews with all the important players, or, at least, snag a confused peek at "Superpup." All others should just Rent It - especially when you consider all the talk that both the film and the complete set of production diaries will be included in an extensive box set due out in the fall.
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