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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits


Superman Returns: Two-Disc Special Edition

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Two-Disc Special Edition
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14-Disc Ultimate Collector's Tin
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Superman Returns
Two-Disc Special Edition - 2006 (2006) - Warner Bros.

Film Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/A/B


Shortly after Earth's astronomers discovered what they believed were the ruins of the planet Krypton, far away in deep space, Superman mysteriously disappeared. Without the Man of Steel to testify at the trial for all his crimes, Lex Luthor was released and quickly began to plot his revenge. For five long years, Humanity endured without Superman... and finally moved on. Then one day, a strange spaceship crashes into a cornfield in Kansas. Kal-El, the last son of Krypton, has returned. But his family and friends have moved on too, including the love of his life... Lois Lane, who is now engaged and has a son. With an adopted home planet that believes it no longer needs him, where does a superhero... a Superman... fit in?

The first thing you need to know about director Bryan Singer's Superman Returns, is that it fittingly assumes that Richard Donner's original Superman: The Movie took place, along with - but to a lesser extent - Superman II. However, Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace have rightfully been relegated to alternate universe obscurity.

The second thing you need to know about Superman Returns... is that it's a pretty darn good movie.

For years, Warner struggled and failed to bring Superman back to the big screen... trying any number of ways to revamp the franchise. The reason for their failure, in my opinion, was that it was virtually impossible for fans to forget the image of Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. How DO you replace a man who went on to embody in real life EVERYTHING that the character of Superman stands for? The answer: You don't. The brilliance of Singer's approach to the material is that rather than trying to reboot the franchise from the ground up, he actually embraces the best of what's come before. Donner and Reeve already told Superman's origin story, so why rehash it? Singer's Superman and Donner's Superman are one and the same... and if he looks a little different than he did back in the late 1970s and 80s, well... all that traveling around in space at near the speed of light can do that to a guy. The effects of relativity and all that, right? Better still, by having Superman disappear for five years, and return to a world that's moved on, Singer deftly - and directly - addresses the reality for movie fans, and turns that potential franchise killer into an asset. You see, like the people of Earth in the film, we as fans WANT the Man of Steel to return. So we're mostly willing to forgive him for his absence... and welcome him back with open arms.

Key to the success of Singer's effort is Iowa-bred newcomer Brandon Routh, who deftly assumes the mantle as the big screen's newest Superman. He simply owns the role now. Routh cleverly honors Reeve's performance in any number of ways and then gradually, over the course of the film, adds his own sensitivity to the character. His Superman feels a little different than Reeve's, and yet also the same in all the important ways. Whereas Reeve played the role with a bit of a twinkle in his eye, Routh goes for a more straight-laced sincerity. In any case, Routh absolutely pulls it off.

The rest of the casting is excellent top to bottom. Kevin Spacey, as you'd expect, is simply the PERFECT Lex Luthor. His performance is less campy than Gene Hackman's and significantly more sinister, but he's no less funny and engaging, which is exactly what the character needs. James Marsden (you might recall him as Cyclops from Singer's X-Men), Parker Posey and Frank Langella are all very solid in their respective roles. Sam Huntington quietly shines in a number of scenes as Jimmy Olsen. There's a very young actor here as well, Tristan Lake Leabu, who I think gives one of the best performances in the film. So often child stars overact or come off as precocious, but this kid is just... you know... a sweet kid. It's nice to see.

And I must say that Kate Bosworth really surprised me as Lois Lane. She's a very different kind of Lois than the one played by Margot Kidder - more mature, more together. She's a capable parent now... and yet she still has trouble spelling (a nice homage to the Donner film). Bosworth has a wide-eyed, 1940s movie star quality that I think works particularly well in this sort of film. This is the bit of casting that was the most risky. It's the one performance that I think fans have the most difficulty with, but it worked for me. (Without getting into too much detail, I should also briefly note here that I appreciate the tactful way the film's romance, and particularly its romantic triangle, is handled. It's intelligent and surprisingly satisfying in its way.)

Speaking of references to director Donner's Superman, there are many here, not the least of which involve the use of Marlon Brando's likeness and voice (as Jor-El) from outtake footage originally intended for Superman II. There are nice cameos by Jack Larson and Noel Neill (the original Jimmy and Lois from the 1950s TV series, starring George Reeves). There are also lots of great little visual touchstone moments, honoring the comics or other iconic Superman imagery. At one point, Superman holds a car over his head in a classic recreation of the cover of Action Comics #1. In another moment, Superman floats in space over the Earth in a shot inspired by a well-known Alex Ross painting of the character. There's even a nifty little reference on a TV news report to events in Gotham City, presumably setting up the possibility of a future big screen meeting between Routh's Superman and Christian Bale's Batman.

The special effects in this film are absolutely spectacular. Trust me when I say that you have NEVER seen the Man of Steel in action like this before. I don't want to give away any of the film's major action moments, but there are a couple that will leave you gasping and they're entirely believable - a real surprise considering the fact that we're talking about a guy flying around in blue and red tights. The film is very impressive on this score. The only thing I didn't love effects-wise was the opening flight through space back to Earth. It's the same sort of sequence we saw in Contact, only in reverse, except the imagery here is just a bit too cartoonish for my taste. Maybe that was the point, but the lack of visual realism just didn't work for me when compared to the high caliber of digital effects in the rest of the film.

As for the music, it's certainly nice to hear some of the original John Williams score again, as sampled by composer John Ottman. You'll hear the famous opening fanfare and other classic Williams themes reused here and there, but Ottman adds some of his own flare to them. The opening theme presented in this film is crisper, tighter and more 'sparkly' sounding, if you will, than I remember it from back in 1978. It's good work, but I'm looking forward to hearing Ottman branch out more thematically for the next film.

All of this is not to say that Superman Returns is perfect. First, the religious metaphor is carried a little too far, I think. It certainly works, and it's always been part of the character's mythology, but it's a lot more hit-you-over-the-head than anything we've seen in the previous films. Returns is also... well... very predictable. If you're surprised by any of the twists, I'LL be surprised. Clearly patterned after Donner's original, I don't think this film is necessarily too long, but there are some pacing problems here and there, especially in the first half. Some of the intercutting between the Clark/Superman and Lex storylines doesn't work as smoothly as it should. At times the film begins to build real momentum only to let it slip away again. If anything, it felt to me as if we were missing moments here and there. We know that a significant opening scene, showing Kal-El on the remains of Krypton, was deleted, and there are other bits of footage as well - material that we'd seen in the trailers - that were missing from the final cut of the film (more on that in a moment).

If I had any single major complaint about this film, it's that Singer and company are trying so hard to thread the needle of respecting the previous Superman films, while also rejuvenating the franchise for a new generation of film-goers, that they sometimes forget to be bold. Luthor's criminal plot, in particular, is evidence of this. Sure, it's epic in size and scope. If it's successful, billions of people will die. And it ties in nicely to the first film in a couple of ways. But somehow, I want to believe that Lex's need for revenge against Superman would trump his desire for riches and power, such that he'd cook up something a little more sinister than his scheme here. The logic of his plan doesn't quite work either... for if he kills billions of people, who's going to be around to...? Eh. You just can't think too hard about it, I guess.

Still, Superman Returns offers warmth, optimism and savvy in spades. It largely manages to overcome what I think was one of the most difficult hurdles of recent film history. It successfully returns the Man of Steel... the Last Son of Krypton... to the big screen, where he belongs and where we've missed his presence all these years. In this era of ubiquitous digital trickery and jaded movie audiences, Singer's film makes you believe again... and that's a very neat trick indeed.

Warner is releasing Superman Returns on disc in a few different ways... a 2-disc DVD special edition, high-definition versions on both HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc formats, and the 2-disc DVD in an elaborate 14-disc box set with all of the other Reeve films, the new Donner cut of Superman II, all of Fleischer animated shorts and tons of newly-produced extras (see picture - we'll review the complete set at a later date, but you'll find the Superman II: Donner Cut reviewed below).

14-Disc Superman Ultimate Collector's Tin

The video quality of the anamorphic widescreen DVD release is good, although it's clear that the film's length and complex imagery posed quite a challenge for Warner's compressionists. Contrast is solid, if slightly lacking in the darkest areas of the image. There's generally decent detail, but the film looks a little too soft pretty much the whole way through. Colors are also slightly more muted than I'd prefer. The darker blue-grays of the new New Krypton scenes are a particular problem for the compression, with visible artifacting and a lot of fine image detail lost. Still, the image is smooth and on the whole satisfactory. Home theater enthusiasts will no doubt prefer the high-definition versions, but the DVD should satisfy most fans. The smaller your display, the more forgiving you'll be. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, on the other hand, is outstanding. This is a very active and natural sounding mix, with a smooth, unified soundfield and deep, gut-rumbling bass reinforcement.

All of the extras are included on Disc Two of the set, which means, of course, that there's no director's audio commentary with the film. (I happen to know that Singer did record commentary that was enhanced with In-Movie Experience video, but it's not here or on the high-def versions either.) That should tell you right away that Warner plans a more elaborate special edition of this film on disc at some point in the future. What you do get starts with a series of interesting deleted scenes - 11 in all. Some are better than others, and all are in anamorphic widescreen. Missing among them, however, is the alternate opening we mentioned earlier - another clue that a second DVD release is already planned. The film's teaser and theatrical trailers are here, also anamorphic, as are preview trailers for the 14-disc box set and a pair of related videogames (ugh - I wish the thrilling Comic-Con preview were here instead of product commercials). There's also a brief video demo reel showing how effects house Rhythm + Hues resurrected Jor-El using outtake footage of Brando. And there's an Easter egg clip of Kevin Spacey's attempts at nailing the "Wrong!" line from the film. It's all fine for what it is, but none of this is really particularly worth checking out more than once. Thankfully, this isn't all you get, or this DVD would be damn disappointing.

What saves Disc Two, and the set as a whole, is DVD producer Robert Meyer Burnett's 3-hour, 5-part documentary on the production, Requiem for Krypton: Making Superman Returns. Presented in anamorphic widescreen, it's a highly entertaining and enjoyable look behind-the-scenes. Burnett followed the production right from the beginning and Singer seems to have given him virtually unlimited access. That's absolutely crucial to this documentary's quality, because you SEE key moments of the process. For example, the piece starts in 2004 with Singer talking to the camera, introducing the idea that he and his writers just had for bringing Superman back to the big screen, BEFORE they even pitched the idea to the studio. You see things coming together and the production design shaping up. You see Brandon Routh's final screen test for the title role, before which Burnett asks him questions (with Singer's complicity) as if he's already got the part... except that he doesn't KNOW yet that he's already got it! Burnett previewed this scene at our DVD Producers panel at Comic-Con last summer, and it's awfully fun to see - a big moment in the history of the franchise. You're there as the first scenes are shot on the farm in Australia. You there for every step of the production, with each actor as they step into their parts. Most importantly, Singer and his team (both cast and crew) clearly TRUST Burnett, so they open up to him in a way I haven't seen in very many "making of" documentaries before. Requiem for Krypton is reminiscent of the excellent The Beginning documentary from the Star Wars: Episode I DVD, but I have to say I enjoyed this one even more. It has greater scope and depth, and is more personal... more satisfying somehow. The documentary itself easily merits an A, and it brings this otherwise lackluster DVD special edition up from the D range up to a good solid B - no small achievement. Our hats off to Burnett for his best work to date.

Superman Returns isn't quite as good as Batman Begins or Spider-Man 2, but then I think it was a significantly harder challenge, and it's a LOT closer to those films than the ranks of such 'classics' as Catwoman and Batman and Robin. Despite some flaws, Superman Returns works. The franchise is thankfully alive and well again, and the future is wide open. I'm definitely interested to see what happens next. Something more intense, I hope. Something truly daring. Superman Unleashed, anyone? DVD-wise, this is far from the best special edition you'll ever see, but Burnett's outstanding documentary alone makes it worth a purchase.


Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut

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Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut
1980/2006 (2006) - Warner Bros.

Film Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B+/B


You should know right off the top, that this review is going to feature MAJOR spoilers for both cuts of this film. There's just no way to really talk about Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut without getting right down to its nuts and bolts. Consider yourself warned.

Still with me? Okay.

You all know the story of the original Superman II, so I won't bother rehashing it. Not all of the footage shot by Richard Lester is gone in this new version, and not all of the footage shot by Donner has been restored. When Donner was replaced, DGA rules stated that a director had to direct at least 50% of the film in order to have his name on it. Donner had already shot about 70% of it, at the same time as he shot the first Superman. So when Lester took over... he had to reshoot a significant portion of the film to comply with Guild rules. He therefore proceeded to rewrite and reshoot many of the scenes with actors Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, in particular, as they were among the lowest paid actors on the film.

Key among the scenes Lester redid with them were the build-up to the "love" subplot. He also created a new opening sequence, featuring nuclear terrorists in Paris. Since Donner hadn't yet shot the key moment in which Lois finally discovers that Clark Kent is Superman... Lester rewrote that scene too and shot it himself. Donner also hadn't yet shot the ending of Superman II. Actually, that's not quite true. Donner and screenwriter Tom Mankeiwicz HAD scripted and shot the ending of Superman II... in which Superman flies around the world and turns back time. But as they were finishing the FIRST film... they hadn't yet figured out how that would end. They quickly realized that the ending planned for Superman II worked BETTER on the end of the first film, so they moved it there. The pair figured that they'd write and shoot a new ending to Superman II later, but Donner was fired before they had the chance, so Lester wrote and shot a new ending of his own. Also abandoned by Lester, reportedly to save money on the actor's hefty fee and as an easy way to up his director's percentage of the film, were lengthy scenes with actor Marlon Brando as Jor-El. His part in the film, which was originally intended to be substantial, were partially rewritten. Actress Susannah York was then brought back as Superman's mother, Lara, and the scenes were reshot with her. The result of all these changes is the film you ultimately saw in theaters.

Twenty-six long years passed.

When it came time to create this new "original" cut of the film, Warner's DVD team and reconstruction producer Michael Thau struggled to find all of the footage that Donner had originally shot. Much of it was found in various places in Europe - six TONS in all. Thankfully, most of it had survived destruction and age-related deterioration. With this footage and the original script in hand, Thau began piecing together a new cut of the film that was as close as possible to the version Donner originally intended. As you can imagine, there were significant problems. First, many of the special effects were unfinished. Second, there was the problem of the fact that Donner hadn't shot his big "revelation" scene with Lois and Clark. And there was no original ending. Thankfully, Donner himself was gradually drawn into the process to give his blessing, and he eventually became actively involved, making notes, suggestions and decisions... and having final approval.

All this brings us back to the question of what's different about Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. To start with, the opening. Donner's cut is fittingly dedicated to Reeve, which is enough to make you love it right there. Then, whereas Lester's cut begins with Zod, Ursa and Non being caught in the act of their crime, the new cut simply begins with a recap of them being sentenced by Jor-El and imprisoned in the Phantom Zone (remember, Jor-El never appears in Lester's cut of the film - in the new cut, different camera angles have been used to freshen up the scene). Lester's version then quickly moves into the credits and a montage over music that recaps the events of the first film. The new Donner cut abandons much of the montage. Only a small bit of it is retained, intercut with shots of the Phantom Zone flying through space, and then we get a brief recap of the very end of the first film. We see Superman being freed from the Kryptonite and then sending one of the nuclear missiles out into space. It's the explosion of this missile that releases Zod and his thugs from the Phantom Zone, tying the first film together very tightly with the second. We see them released, hear Zod's "FREEEEEEE!" and then we get the film's new opening credit sequence. Obviously, Lester's whole Paris subplot is abandoned, and the film presents an entirely new scene in which we see Lois reading her own story about how Superman just saved the world. She looks at a picture of Superman in the story, standing with his arms crossed... and happens to see Clark standing nearby in exactly the same position. She uses a marker to draw the hat and glasses on Superman's picture... and figures it out. She tells Clark she knows who he really is, and jumps out of Perry White's office window to prove it. Thinking fast, Clark manages to save her without revealing himself.

The next major difference is that scene I mentioned that Donner never got to shoot, in which Lois again decides that Clark is Superman and he finally reveals himself. It was also intended to take place in the Niagara Falls hotel room. They're getting ready for a party, and she pulls out a pistol and shoots him with it. He breaks character, revealing himself to be Superman, and chews Lois out, saying that Clark would be dead now if she'd been wrong. Lois reveals that the gun held blanks. Donner never got to shoot the final version of this scene... but luckily, he did shoot the complete scene with a number of actors as a screen test, including both Reeve and Kidder. So the version that appears in this cut is edited from this screen test footage. It's very rough, but they're in costume and it works.

As in Lester's version, Superman flies Lois to his Fortress of Solitude and romances her, revealing his love. After they sleep together, he goes down to talk with Jor-El (instead of Lara) about his feelings. In a series of extensive scenes, Brando now appears in the role to console his son. As he's about to give up his powers to be human, there's a great moment where Lois, wearing nothing but Superman's S-logo shirt, sneaks in and watches part of his conversation with his father. There's an even better moment, as Superman is surrendering his powers, where Jor-El looks up and gives her this perfectly Brando, perfectly subtle glare - it's just a delightful little insert shot that MAKES the scene. This was all intended to continue the notion of Superman I and II as a story of fathers and sons. It ultimately pays off later in the film, when Superman returns to the Fortress to try and get his powers back. He finds the last surviving crystal... and Jor-El appears once more. Jor-El tells him that he CAN restore his powers, but doing so will use up the last of the crystal's energy, meaning that Superman and his father will never meet again. Jor-El says the lines recently used in Superman Returns: "The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son." And then he's gone forever... and Superman's back to full strength.

The final major change in the film is the ending. As Donner and Mankeiwicz originally intended, at least prior to ending the first film with the scene, Superman flies around the world and turns back time, undoing all the destruction that Zod, Ursa and Non have caused. Turning back time also means that Lois no longer remembers that Clark is Superman, therefore allowing the omission of the "magic kiss" that Clark/Superman gives her in Lester's version.

I have to say that I REALLY love all of the scenes with Jor-El in this new cut. I also love that it's Superman's actions in saving the Earth at the end of the first film that result in Zod being released. And I love the new scenes where Lois plots to uncover Clark as Superman, even if the second one of them is very rough. Unfortunately, though, because there's still footage that Donner was unable to shoot as he originally intended, the editing and pacing is quite rough. Particularly clumsy is the way this version intercuts the love story with the arrival of Zod on Earth. There are also some failures of logic, chief among them: WHY would Superman need to give up his powers to be with Lois? Presumably, Donner and Mankeiwicz would have addressed this in unshot footage. Plus, when Superman comes back to the diner at the end of the film, the people there seem to remember him, despite that fact that he's just turned back time. Ah well. As I said, it's sort of a rough cut. Many of the new effects shots here are also... well, budget rate. They look like something done for a direct-to-video project, which is a shame. And having the same ending to both Superman I and II just doesn't work at all. Given that he hadn't come up with a new ending of his own for the second film, I wish Donner and Thau had just used some of Lester's (though I can understand why Donner wouldn't want to). The good ultimately outweighs the bad with this new cut... but not by a lot. The flaws are enough that this film can't really be called the "ultimate" version of Superman II. Right after we watched the recent screening at the Director's Guild, a good friend of mine called this version the ultimate deleted scene, and I think that's a great way to think of it. It's the ultimate DVD extra: An entire, feature-length bonus item - Disc Three for the new Superman II: Special Edition. Still, if it doesn't quite replace Lester's version, fans have been hoping for this release (and actively campaigning to make it happen) for many, many years. That Warner was finally willing to do it, and Donner agreed to participate, can only be considered a rare and special gift.

The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen on DVD, and it's of decent quality. Obviously, some portions of the new footage are in better shape than others, thus the B- video grade. Mostly, it looks quite good, but there are patches of uneven quality and some effects that definitely don't hold up on large screens. I will say, however, that the effects look way better on DVD than they did in an actual theater setting. Audio-wise, the Dolby Digital 5.1 quality is better and more even, by and large as good as the original Superman II DVD release (though some music and effects cues are obviously different, and some of the dialogue has a rougher quality to it).

One of the best things about this DVD, in my opinion, is that Donner is actually a tangible presence in the extras. The film starts with an optional new video introduction, shot right after he first saw the final new cut. He and Mankeiwicz also appear in a fantastic and feature-length audio commentary track - something fans will definitely not want to miss. Donner is just a real character and a gentlemen... a very down-to-earth guy. He and Mankeiwicz obviously have a long friendship and their commentary is a great listen, full of interesting stories and revelations about the difficult making of the film. Six more deleted scenes are also included, Donner footage all, in anamorphic widescreen. There's also a short but interesting featurette on the restoration of the new cut, again in anamorphic. It's not a lot of material, but all of it is well worth your time.

What I can say without hesitation after watching this DVD, is that if Donner had been allowed in 1979 to finish Supeman II the way he intended, it could have been vastly superior to the film we ultimately saw in theaters. Superman I and II were originally meant to be halves of a single long film... and you get a much better sense of that here. The real shame remains that the Salkinds pulled Donner away from the task - it's one of the great injustices of cinema history. In any case, Warner's new DVD thankfully offers a tantalizing glimpse at a Supeman II that might have been... and it's sure to spark passionate debate among fans. Love it or hate it, I think you'll at least enjoy the experience and appreciate what a rare opportunity it is. Our hats off to Warner and everyone who helped make it happen.

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com
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