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Superman: The Movie
Special Edition - 1978 (2001) - Warner Bros.

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Superman: The Movie - Special Edition Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A/A

Specs and Features

151 mins, PG, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, dual-sided, dual-layered (DVD-18), Snapper case packaging, Side One is RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 79:48, at the start of chapter 24 - Side Two has no layer switch), audio commentary with director Richard Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz), music only track featuring John Williams' isolated score (in Dolby Digital 5.0), direct access to 10 newly-restored scenes (approx. 8 minutes in all), Taking Flight: the Development of Superman featurette (30 min.), Making Superman: Filming the Legend (30 min.), The Magic Behind the Cape (24 min.), screen test footage, 2 additional and unrestored deleted scenes, 8 additional and unused music cues from John Williams' score (in Dolby Digital 5.0, approx 30 min. in all), Superman: The Legacy text history, cast & crew bios, awards listing, teaser trailer, theatrical trailer, TV spots, DVD-ROM features (including storyboards, weblinks, access to future live events and more), animated film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (44 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1), subtitles: English, French, Spanish & Portuguese, Closed Captioned

"They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son."

When Superman: The Movie was released on Christmas, 1978, I was your average comic-book reading, 12-year-old boy... meaning that I still hadn't recovered from the thrill of seeing Star Wars little more than a year before. Every trip into a theater was taken with the hope of recapturing that same kind of rollercoaster fun. So it goes without saying that I remember Superman as one of the great movie experiences of my youth. I went with a whole group of my pals... and every last one of us burst out into cheers when we saw that great shot of Clark Kent tearing opening his shirt to reveal the classic Superman "S". I still get chills - don't ask me why.

Every good American should know the mythology of Superman by now - he's been a cultural icon in this country since his debut in Action Comics #1 in June of 1938. Superman: The Movie takes great care to tell his story, right from the start. As the film opens, all is not well on the planet Krypton. It seems that the planet's orbit is shifting, and only one man knows that this spells disaster - the great scientist Jor-El (played here by Marlon Brando). He knows Krypton is doomed, but none of his fellow council members agree. They make Jor-El swear that he won't leave the planet himself, thus starting a panic. But he's decided to send his only son, Kal-El, away to the planet Earth to spare him. Sure enough, Krypton is destroyed. And after travelling through space for many years, little Kal-El crashes to Earth in Kansas, and is found by a farm couple. Jonathan Kent (Glenn Ford) and his wife adopt the little boy, name him Clark and raise him right, with good old fashioned Midwestern values, in tiny Smallville. But it's not easy - Clark's got abilities far beyond the average human. He's faster than a speeding bullet and can leap tall buildings in a single... well, I'm sure you know the story. As Clark gets older, he feels the inexorable pull to learn his true heritage and his purpose for being on Earth. And when Clark finally discovers his destiny, and heads off for sprawling Metropolis (a.k.a. New York), the human race gets its very own superhero, Superman (played by Christopher Reeve), who fights for Truth, Justice and the American Way. In the big city, Superman will find both love (in the form of Lois Lane, played by Margot Kidder) and a villain to match wits with (the infamous Lex Luthor, played by Gene Hackman). And the world will never be the same.

Superman: The Movie is really a delight, with a grand story, wonderful production design and an amazing ensemble cast. In addition to Brando, Hackman, Ford, Reeve and Kidder, you've got Jackie Cooper, Ned Beatty (he's NEVER been funnier than he is here), Terence Stamp, Valerie Perrne... the list goes on. The film never takes itself too seriously, managing plenty of laughs, but still treats its "fantastic" subject matter with great respect. The special effects in this film were ground-breaking in their day - no one had any idea how to make a man fly in a convincing way back in 1978 (there was no such thing as a CGI effect). And then newcomer Christopher Reeve played the title character with so much straight-laced humanity and innocence (not to mention his funny Cary Grant-riffs as the bumbling Clark Kent) that he simply BECAME Superman for an entire generation of moviegoers. I know Warner is currently developing a new Superman franchise, but I will ALWAYS picture Reeve when I think of the Man of Steel.

Superman is one of those films you just can't help but remember fondly. Sure, the special effects are dated and the script is a little campy. Two of its three sequels are just plain awful (the only good one, Superman II, was written and filmed mostly at the same time as the original, with the same cast & crew). And for a while there, the film itself was deteriorating so much that it was in danger of being lost forever to the ravages of time. But against all odds, Superman continues to endure. And the film has just gotten a major boost, in the form of Warner's new special edition DVD.

Let me just say this right now, before going any further. This DVD is really a treat. Warner Bros. has outdone themselves on this release. There are certainly DVD special editions out there that are more comprehensive or more loaded. But for sheer fun factor alone, Superman: The Movie is hard to beat in my book.

Let's start with the video... the new anamorphic widescreen film transfer is tremendous. This isn't reference quality, but the film has absolutely never looked better. I don't know if this film COULD look better. The film itself has been lovingly restored and, while it does look a little soft on occasion, the contrast and overall clarity are excellent. And the color! Given that this is a comic book adaptation - one of the first of our generation - color is absolutely critical. And what you get here is extraordinarily vibrant color. Right from the opening credits, lush color just blasts off the screen. Flesh tones are always accurate and Superman's big red-and-yellow "S" has never looked so stunning. You will notice some grain given the film's age (particularly on some of the restored footage), and there is a measure of dust and dirt visible on the print. But I was really quite impressed with this video. And, as a fan, I'm more than pleased.

Better still, the newly-remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 audio actually manages to one-up the video. I can't tell you how cool it is to hear the opening percussion in John Williams' amazing score building as the titles fly in from behind you in full 5.1 sound. And when that big red "S" crashes onto the screen, my subwoofer rumbled but good. This audio may not be quite as good as the best 5.1 tracks on DVD, but it's going to blow fans of the film away. The sound stage is big and wide, with very active surrounds, plenty of nifty directional effects and lots of deep rumbling bass. The result is a completely encompassing audio experience. Listen, for example, to the subtle ambience in chapter 14, as Jor-El is tutoring young Clark in the Fortress of Solitude. Very nice. Occasionally, the dialogue will sound a little bit flat (particularly later in the film, in Luthor's underground lair). But on the whole, this is fun DVD sound.

And the extras are every bit as good as you'd expect. There isn't quite as much on this disc as I was expecting, but what you get is SOoooo cool! First of all, director Richard Donner has restored some 8 minutes of footage to the film that were unseen in its theatrical release - 10 scenes in all. The best of these involves Superman telling his father, Jor-El, how much he enjoys helping humanity. There's also a nifty bit with a young Lois Lane seeing teenage Clark running alongside the train she's riding in (the girl was in the original cut, but we never knew it was Lois before). Better still, you can access each restored scene directly from the menus.

Next up is a very good audio commentary with Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz actually rewrote much of the script for Donner, adding humor and creating a number of unique supporting characters, but was prevented from getting a screenwriting credit by WGA rules. But you can tell here just how much he was actually responsible for, and how much affection he and Donner have for each other. Clearly, these are two long-time friends and collaborators, and it's a treat to listen to them go back 22 years in their memories and recall the stories behind the filming of Superman. And they do have some great, and even funny, stories to tell. There's a wonderful bit about 49 minutes in, where they argue about why Superman, if he's so powerful, doesn't simply save everyone (the classic superhero conundrum). The track really draws you in and keeps you interested for the entire length of the film.

And here's an extra that's worth buying the disc for all by itself - the disc features an isolated, music-only track, presenting John Williams' entire score in full Dolby Digital 5.0 sound! This is really a coup. I know for a fact that it's getting harder and harder for studios to convince composers to license their movie soundtracks for isolated use on DVD. How they managed to convince Williams to allow it, I'll never know. But what a treat! Superman has long been one of my favorite film soundtracks, and to have it like this is absolutely wonderful.

Also included here are the film's theatrical trailer (in anamorphic widescreen) and a good text essay on the history of the Superman character. And everything I've listed so far is only on Side One of the DVD! Side Two gives you 2 more deleted scenes that weren't restored to the film (involving the feeding of Lex Luthor's "babies - I'll say no more). You get are almost 20 minutes worth of screen test footage, featuring Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, along with Anne Archer, Stockard Channing and other Lois Lane wannabes. The film's teaser trailer and a TV spot are also included (again, all in anamorphic widescreen). And get this - you even get some 8 unused music cues from Williams' score (almost 30 minutes worth in all), all in Dolby Digital 5.0! These include variations on the Main Title, along with the infamous "Pop" version of Can You Read My Mind (sheesh... I can STILL remember hearing that on the radio as a kid). And via PC DVD-ROM drives, you can access storyboards from the film, along with future "live" web events and other online sites. About the only thing missing are the various versions of the screenplay - Mario Puzo's original 500-page monster and the various rewrites. I would love to have been able to compare the different versions (but that's a small complaint).

But we're STILL not done. Side Two also contains a trio of very good (and original) "behind-the-scenes" featurettes, hosted by actor Mark McClure (who played young Jimmy Olsen in the film). The first 2 are roughly 30 minutes in length (the 3rd is about 24 minutes). Taking Flight: the Development of Superman covers the conception of the project, and describes the effort to convince Warner to back the project, the effort to get the screenplay completed and the search for the perfect actor to play Superman. Making Superman: Filming the Legend looks more in-depth at the actual production, and covers the many difficulties of 19 month effort (including the fact that many of the special effects had never been tried before). Finally, The Magic Behind the Cape looks at the actual effects process, and includes some great screen test footage shot in the effort to figure out how to make a man fly convincingly on film. Some of this stuff is VERY funny - I found myself laughing hard more than once. Best of all, all 3 featurettes include brand new interviews with Donner, Mankiewicz, John Williams and various members of the production team, as well as actors Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman and more. These aren't just the quick, EPK style interviews - what's included here is much more substantial and valuable. The result is that these documentaries really give you an excellent and well-rounded look behind the scenes at the making of Superman. You'll come away having learned a lot you didn't know, and you'll enjoy every minute of it.

My only real complaint with this DVD is the packaging. This disc is just too cool for a plain old Snapper case. I would have preferred a nice custom job with red and blue foil stamping or something - anything but a Snapper, which is my least favorite DVD packaging option. But, again, a minor quibble.

You know, I honestly had forgotten how much I loved Superman: The Movie as a kid... until now. This really is a wonderful DVD special edition. It's not as comprehensive as some, but I haven't had this much fun with a disc in quite some time. It absolutely deserves a place in the collection of every DVD fan. So don your best cape and fly... don't walk... to your local retailer when this baby streets. Whip up a bowl of hot buttered popcorn, sit back in your favorite comfy chair and enjoy an evening of great DVD entertainment. Highly recommended.

Bill Hunt
[email protected]

Superman: The Movie
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