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Superman: The Motion Picture Anthology (1978-2006) (Blu-ray Review)

2 Jun, 2011 By: John Latchem

Street 6/7/11
$129.95 eight-disc Blu-ray
Rated 'PG-13'
Stars (Superman I & II) Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, Jackie Cooper, Marc McClure, Susannah York, Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, Jack O'Halloran, Ned Beatty, (Superman III) Richard Pryor, Annette O'Toole, (Superman IV) Mariel Hemingway, Jon Cryer, Mark Pillow, (Superman Returns) Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, Frank Langella, Sam Huntington, James Marsden, Parker Posey.

Warner’s new Superman Anthology is essentially a Blu-ray upgrade for the DVD boxed set Warner put out in 2006, with a few additions, such as the long-awaiting original opening sequence for Superman Returns.

In general, the Blu-rays of the film look great throughout, and Warner has done a great job with the upgrades to restore a lot of the luster to films that are 25-30 years old. The set makes it very easy to introduce new fans to the franchise (especially with Man of Steel planned for next year) and allow long-time fans to renew their love for character and his adventures.

Taking a look at the set film by film:

Superman (1978)

Until The Dark Knight came along I had the original Superman pegged as the best superhero film ever made. This is an epic film through and through, the story of a father who sends his son to become the protector of the Earth. The religious parallels should not be lost on anybody. Christopher Reeve is the all-time Superman (there really isn’t a debate about that, is there? I know George Reeves has his fans, but come on), and he so perfectly captures the dichotomy of Superman and Clark Kent that you can actually believe they might not be the same person.

A huge factor in selling the movie's credibility is John Williams' powerful music, which was inexplicably not awarded the Oscar that year. The music not only perfectly embodies the tone of the film, but it also makes everything seem that much bigger, letting us older, jaded fans forgive that a few of the visual effects are a bit dated. Some of the stunt wires are clearly visible in a few scenes, most notably as Superman begins to take Lois Lane on the famous "Can You Read My Mind" flying sequence.

The Blu-ray carries over all the extras from the previous DVD releases, including the Lois Lane screen tests that make it pretty clear why Margot Kidder got the part.

I prefer the director’s cut of the original film since it includes the gauntlet scene where Lex Luthor tries bullets, fire and ice to slow down Superman, all to no effect.

Superman II (1980)

The sordid history of this film has been well documented and even spawned an Internet campaign for a director’s cut that was finally realized 26 years after the film came out, though the reconstruction is a bit sloppy as a result of too much pride and ego entering the mix.

Just to recap, the original vision for the first two Superman films was to shoot them together, but the scope of the task became so great that the filmmakers focused on finishing the first film with hopes of returning to the sequel if it were a hit. It was, but original director Richard Donner was replaced by Richard Lester after a famous feud with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler. (You can hear both sides of the story on the commentary tracks for each film.)

The Salkinds then had the script for the sequel rewritten with more of a comic touch, which is at odds with the deadly serious core story elements that remain from the original concept — that three Kryptonian criminals would take over Earth just as Superman has decided to sacrifice his powers to pursue a life with Lois Lane. Lester re-shot a lot of the film and paired it with some of the existing footage to create the final version.

Both the original theatrical cut and the 2006 Richard Donner cut of Superman II are included in the boxed set for easy comparison. I tend to favor the theatrical cut on the whole, but there’s a lot of aspects about the Donner cut I prefer. I just wish they would combine the two and make the ideal Superman II.

What frustrates me about the whole saga, though, is how both versions kind of work against each other. You can’t watch the Donner Cut without wondering what might have been, and after seeing the Donner Cut you can’t watch the theatrical version without seeing all the seams in it. I was perfectly fine with Superman II the way it was (well, aside from a few of the cornier jokes), but that was before I knew better.

Superman III (1983)

Though it has been oft maligned over the years, I would argue Superman III is a defensible movie. It’s certainly not unwatchable, though the same basic story elements could have been put to a lot better use more worthy of the character.

The biggest criticism of the film of course is its campy attitude, which is driven by the stunt-casting of Richard Pryor. There are several long stretches of the film that are simply turned over to Pryor to perform his shtick, which play in sharp contrast to some of the darker scenes involving Superman turning to the dark side thanks to some off-brand Kryptonite.

The production values are good, and clearly the Salkinds had a good system in place for cranking out Superman movies had they wished to continue. There’s enough to like about Superman III to not dismiss it entirely. Reeve is as good as ever in the title role, and Annette O’Toole is charming and beautiful as Clark’s Smallville sweetheart Lana Lang. It was a good choice to focus on this aspect of Superman’s history, a nice departure from the previous two films. And despite its overreliance on slapstick, some of the gags are pretty good, especially Superman straightening out the Leaning Tower of Pisa (a leftover element from the script of the first two films).

Superman III has also made significant contributions to the fabric of pop culture, from the scheme to collect discarded half-cents from paychecks (reused in Office Space) to Superman’s junkyard fight with Clark Kent.

I think they’ve done an amazing job on this Blu-ray and really cleaned up the film. There are certain flying sequences for which I remember seeing the effects wires on the DVD version, but the wires are gone from the Blu-ray.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

A lot of fanboys inexplicably point to Batman and Robin as the worst superhero film ever made, presumably because of how far it strays from the ideal of a Batman movie. As misguided as it was, though, at least it represents what the filmmakers were trying to make. And clearly there are examples of far worse superhero films out there, such as Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, regarded far and wide as the black sheep of the “Superman” franchise. It's understandable, though, if a majority of film buffs overlook Superman IV because they simply don't want to acknowledge it exists.

Compared to the previous films, which were relatively consistent in their visual style, Superman IV is incredibly cheap looking. The Blu-ray version actually gives it an almost-cinematic feel I don’t remember it having before, but it doesn’t help much. The goal of “verisimilitude” established for the first film has all but eroded away for this one.

There’s really not substance to the story. Superman decides to rid the world of nuclear weapons, Lex Luthor breaks out of prison and creates a Superman clone named Nuclear Man, and Superman fights Nuclear Man for most of the second half of the film. Luthor has a subplot in which he tries to sell nukes back to the countries that lost them to Superman (Yep, that’s Jon Cryer as Lex’s sidekick).

The concept of giving Superman a villain with his same powers is a timid rehash of Superman II, but the portrayal of Nuclear Man is too unintentionally comical to be menacing.

According to writer Mark Rosenthal in his commentary by writer Mark Rosenthal, who basically apologizes for the film, the production company that licensed the rights from the Salkinds (who had nothing to do with the film) cut so many corners with the budget it’s a wonder the film ever got finished. Superman IV never shakes the feeling that most of it was shot on a soundstage, and the special effects are so lousy it’s impossible to take the film as seriously as it wants to take itself.

The film displays nuggets of interesting story ideas, but it comes across as fan fiction written by a 10-year-old. Still, there must have been something more interesting in the original script to convince Gene Hackman to come back to play Lex Luthor. (Or maybe not, judging by an anecdote from the filming of the original Superman, which recounts how Christopher Reeve asked Hackman what his motivation was for playing his part, to which Hackman replied, “You mean other than the million dollars?”)

Another big problem I have with the film is how undisciplined Superman seems to be treating his powers. Let’s put aside the major issue of how Superman decides to disregard the territorial sovereignty of the world’s nations by removing all nuclear weapons (for which he receives a standing ovation at the U.N. … really?) There’s a scene in which Clark Kent feels depressed, so he reveals himself as Superman to Lois Lane to take her for a flight. Then at the end, he kisses her so she forgets his secret identity (like at the end of Superman II, only not as poignant). This to me is a very cavalier use of his powers, and certainly not respectful of Lois’ character.

There are a few good moments in the film. Reeve maintains his commanding presence as Superman, and there’s a scene in which Superman and Clark Kent are supposed to appear together on a double date, which is a nice idea that would have played better in a more developed film. Also good is a nice throwback to the Smallville scenes of the first film, as Clark returns to his family farm, which he is now trying to sell, and swats a baseball into orbit. And the music, another adaptation of John Williams’ themes, is also not bad.

Prophetically, the film’s final line of dialogue is “See you in 20,” which leads us to

Superman Returns (2006)

The strength of a great film is that you might notice something new or different about it each time you watch it that makes it better. But to me, Superman Returns keeps yielding new details that only make me dislike it more every time I see it. Superman Returns always seemed off to me, and I think a lot of it has to do with the casting and tone of the film. To compare it with one of its superhero contemporaries, the cast is as badly chosen here in contrast to as good as the casting was for Batman Begins.

At the center of this mess is Kate Bosworth, who may be the worst choice to play Lois Lane that ever was made. Brandon Routh’s slight resemblance to Christopher Reeve only invites comparisons he can’t live up to, and his physique never seems bulky enough to effectively suggest Superman. It gives the feeling of a bad Superman-themed costume party. The rest of the actors, primarily Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor and Frank Langella as Perry White, just seem to be walking through their parts because the script is just going through the motions of a Superman story, which in this case seems to be a retread of the 1978 original film. Singer seems to have cherry-picked which plot elements from the earlier films he wanted to carry over, which I guess is his way of winking to the hardcore fans, but it never really gives this film a chance to shine on its own.

The production values are very good, however, and when the film shines it’s in individual moments best considered outside the context of the main plot. The Blu-ray finally includes the long-awaited deleted opening sequence during which Superman visits the ruins of his homeworld, Krypton. The scene’s special effects were completed before it was cut, and it’s a fascinating, poignant scene for a Man of Steel in search of his roots, cut for pacing, but it has a nice resonance with the later scenes of the film as Superman must dispose of Luthor’s New Krypton.

So, if you’re planning yourself a Superman marathon, I’d recommend the director’s cut of the first film, the theatrical cut of the second, and the third film because the more Reeve you can get the better.

I’d save the Donner cut more for an alternate take of Superman II, but you for sure should check out the intended original opening (designed as a cliffhanger for the first film) and the restored Marlon Brando scenes.

Treat Superman IV more as a curio but don’t dwell too much on it, and take or leave Superman Returns as you please.

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