If you've ever wrapped a towel around your neck and pretended to fly, humming or whistling John Williams' iconic theme song, you've known the joy - even if it's just momentarily - of being Superman. If recapturing that feeling is something you desire, I can think of no better way to accomplish that than through the monumentous Blu-ray collection of The Superman Motion Picture Anthology.
This astounding collection accumulates everything a Superman fan could possibly want: Superman The Movie, Superman The Movie: Extended Edition, Superman II, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, Superman III, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and Superman Returns. But not only does it include the films themselves (all complete with commentary tracks except Returns, itself loaded with a nearly three hour making-of documentary), this eight disk set contains over twenty hours of bonus features - enough to turn even the passing fan into a downright Superman historian.
I'm speaking from experience here: I went through and watched every film in this set (a couple of which I had never seen), and watched every bonus feature save for the original Fleischer Brothers cartoons (which themselves inspired the later Superman cartoon in the 1990's and, more importantly for animation fans, Batman: The Animated Series). In this review, I'll go through and give a few of my thoughts on each film. I can assure you, though, that this is the most definitive and authoritative set I've ever seen devoted to a single character. Through countless documentaries (one of which is feature length) and behind-the-scenes footage, including the original Making Of docs released analagously with each film, the origins of Superman are traced and detailed in an incredibly engaging way. Interviews with the various cast members through the years, archival footage, a tribute to Christopher Reeve, and even a never-before-seen failed TV pilot from 1958 called "The Adventures of Superpup" (it's insane, trust me) all contribute to this fantastic collection and all serve to impress upon us the sense of importance this character truly has in our society.
This is an incredible box set, the most complete and detailed I've ever seen. There's no question that your movie collection is not complete without The Superman Motion Picture Anthology, and I'd sincerely like to give a shout-out to Warner Bros. for putting together such an amazingly thorough product. You can check out the official site at SupermanAnthology.com. For more of my thoughts on this series, you can listen to recent episodes of The Not Just New Movies Podcast, in which I discuss various movies and bonus features in our "Media Consumed" section.
Superman The Movie
Richard Donner's 1978 film was the launching point for the modern wave of comic book movie adaptations. Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind sought to bring the iconic character to the big screen in an epic way, and what better way than locking down Mario Puzo (The Godfather) to write the story and bring on the Godfather himself, Marlon Brando, as Superman's father Jor-El? Envisioned as a two-film story, the Salkinds knew Donner was the man for this job. Little did they know what would happen soon after...
But anyway, on to the movie. This was my first viewing in probably 15 years, and, as with all of the discs in this set, the quality is stunningly good. Sometimes you run across Blu-rays that are barely better than a DVD version: this ain't one of 'em. Donner and company wanted to put an unknown in the lead role here, rather than go with the studio's request of putting Robert Redford or Paul Newman in that big "S". In order to sell the film, though, they needed some big names surrounding our hero: Brando and Gene Hackman were some of the biggest at the time, and they both do great work here. Brando kills it (naturally) as Jor-El in the early scenes, bringing such gravitas to the role that Bryan Singer used his voice in Returns to great effect almost thirty years later. As Lex Luthor, Hackman was ridiculous and over the top, but he was also conniving and viscious; he kills a man in this movie before we even see his face. I had forgotten about Lex's lackeys - Otis and Miss Tessmacher - seemingly unnecessary characters only present for comic relief and to make Lex's self-assessed brilliance shine by comparison.
But as everyone knows, the real star of this movie is Christopher Reeve, an untested actor who embodied every quality of Superman with such zest and enthusiasm that he's unquestionably the best representation of the character ever committed to film. And Margot Kidder, who I found violently annoying years ago in this role, is actually a pretty great Lois Lane; she's got just the right balance of schoolgirl crush and smart aleck sass that any Lois needs (Kate Bosworth, take note). In my opinion, this film is the best of the franchise so far; it's the only one in which Donner was able to capture that true Americana and innocence associated with the character, and seeing a man fly has never had quite the same effect as it did that first time around.
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut
I'll group my thoughts on both the theatrical cut and Donner's version together here. For those unaware of the history, Donner filmed both movies back to back, but near the end of production on the second film - due to budget reasons and increasingly conflicting visions between Donner and the Salkinds - they decided to put the intended ending of the second movie onto the first one and call it a day. That means the "reverse the world" thing wasn't supposed to come into play until the end of Superman II, which makes a lot of sense considering the idiotic "amnesia kiss" the theatrical version currently has (improved upon by Donner in his take). Donner was unceremoniously replaced by Richard Lester, a man whose resume (as far as I'm concerned) is completely worthless, save for the Zero Mostel comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Though Donner had directed a majority of the movie since the projects shot simultaneously, Lester strolls in and takes all of the credit, and somehow managed to screw up what Donner had done.
Lester adds a scene in which Superman averts a bomb going off in the Eiffel Tower, taking Superman global for no reason other than a gimmick. In his version, Supes throws the bomb into space, an act which breaks General Zod and his minions out of the Phantom Zone which Jor-El had imprisoned them in during the opening moments of Superman The Movie. Donner's cut, however, makes much more sense: the opening scenes of his cut feature flashbacks from Superman The Movie, including a scene in which The Big Blue Boy Scout redirects a missile shot by Lex Luthor up into space. In his version, this is the explosion that breaks the villains free: a solution much more in kind with the expansive connectivity Donner hoped for between the two films.
Lester's theatrical cut also features a stupid subplot in which Lois hurls herself into Niagara Falls to prove that Clark is Superman, a scene wisely excised in Donner's cut. Though his take has Lois bailing from a Daily Planet window, his version also uses a screen test between Reeve and Kidder to enhance the character dynamic, a much better sequence involving Lois shooting Clark with a gun and him revealing he's Superman, only for her to reveal that she actually fired a blank. This is much more integral for Lois' character, an aspect for which Lester apparently has no appreciation.
The villain situation is cliched but interesting, with the slimey Lex Luthor popping in to team up with the Kryptonians to bring down his nemesis. Terence Stamp isn't quite as impressive a villain as I remember (or has pop culture has built him up to be), but Lex's interactions with them - including the betrayal of Superman in the Fortress of Solitude at the end - are right along the line of what we'd expect from these characters.
Overall, though, this movie isn't quite as fluid (in either version) as Donner's original predecessor. Though that scene where Clark kicks that guy's ass in the bar at the end gives the audience that rush of catharsis we'd been longing for...
This project, the first complete movie in the series directed entirely by Lester, proves the man's incompetence. There's no nice way to say this: Superman III is an absolutely terrible movie. From the bullshit slapstick opening sequence that rings totally false with the series' own history to highlighting comedian Richard Pryor as a comic force to battle Superman, this movie is the definition of "bad idea." Lois is put on a bus to Bermuda, leaving Clark to head back to Smallville to rekindle his feelings for Lana Lang (played by Annette O'Toole, future Martha Kent on TV's "Smallville"). There's no Lex Luthor to be found, instead replaced by some jackass businessman whose claim to fame is building a snowy hill on top of Metropolis skyscraper. Wanna know what kind of movie this is? Richard Pryor, in full skis, falls from the top of this building - at least 100 stories, mind you - and lands in the street upright, with no broken bones or ill effects at all. This movie features a sequence in the Grand Canyon in which the villains sit around a computer and essentially play a Superman video game on a screen, supposedly corresponding to them firing real missiles at Supes as he flies toward them. How is this technology possible? Spoiler alert - it isn't. There's also a junkyard fight sequence in which a now-drunken Superman battles himself, and yes, it's just as stupid as it sounds. This film is true idiocy at its finest, and should only be viewed in a ironic capacity to derive humor from its earnest awfulness.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
Though star Christopher Reeve cooked up the story - Superman rounds up the nuclear missiles of the world and hurls them into the sun - this one probably should have been shot down in the idea phase. It's a decent concept, but the lifeless direction of Sidney J. Furie can't make up for all the favors Reeve must have called in (including the return of John Williams to do the score and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor). Continuing the downward trajectory of this series, this movie features a young Jon Cryer as Lex's biker gang nephew, decked out in leather and essentially a copy of the Otis character from the earlier films. A tabloid purchases the Daily Planet, and while that idea actually has some bite to it, it never develops into anything interesting. After the ludicrous ending of Superman II, in which Lois no longer remembers Clark Kent is Superman, in this movie they go for broke and try the same gag AGAIN. Will this be the movie in which they finally evolve these characters' relationships and switch up the dynamic a little? Of course not - she forgets with another convienient "amnesia kiss." Well, I guess we know at least one person liked the theatrical ending of Superman II, and that was the writer of Superman IV.
To be honest, this one isn't worth talking about. It's the least respected film in the franchise for a reason, and that's because it's a horrible movie. It's basically a bad sitcom version of Superman, which - I kid you not - features an extended scene in which Clark has to switch back and forth between Clark Kent and Superman while he's supposed to be meeting two women in the same place at the same time. Let me put it this way - a regular human BREATHES IN SPACE at one point. That's how bad this movie is. Moving on.
Now here's an interesting project. The behind-the-scenes documentary for this movie gave me a lot more respect for it, and I'd highly recommend checking it out for the sheer exhaustive nature of it. It's the most in-depth production documentary I've ever seen, and it really details Singer's decisions and shows the scope and difficulties in making a movie of this scope. From the opening credits, Superman Returns is an homage to Donner's original, and though that's the film's strength, it's also its weakness. It's so close in certain areas that it could almost pass as a remake: Kitty (Parker Posey) is a modern day Miss Tessmacher, Lex Luthor (in a wonderful performance by Kevin Spacey) has the same real estate aspirations as Hackman's original, and the film has this reverence and almost spiritual quality to it that echoes the 1978 version.
Speed and power are portrayed much better through the development of technology since '78, Brandon Routh was fantastic, and the plane crash sequence is really solid, but beyond that, there really isn't much to say about this movie that separates it from its homage qualities. The whole subplot with the kid never sat well with me, though in a big reveal it's implied this was Superman's child from when he had sex with Lois in the Fortress of Solitude in Superman II. Regardless of whether that decision makes sense in continuity, it's such a cliched story point that never goes anywhere and just falls flat. We go nearly two hours of screen time before Lex even sees Superman, and when he does, it's anticlimatic. That's actually the whole problem with this movie, I think - it's anticlimatic. There isn't enough action (Supes never throws a punch), and Lex's whole "learning about Superman through the Fortress of Solitude" thing just seems like a rehash of what happened in Superman II (Returns is supposed to take place five years after that film and pretends the others sequels don't exist). This film has its share of cringe-worthy moments, many of which involve Kate Bosworth as an abysmal Lois Lane (whose computer password is "Superman" by the way), but as DC Pierson pointed out in our recent discussion of the movie, it aims to be completely unironic and genuine, and there's something to be respected in that direction. Singer's talented, to be sure, but he missed the mark a bit with this one.
Are you a Superman fan? Plan on picking up this box set? Let us know what you think of any of the Superman films in the comment section below.
Available now in superb hi-def, with new digital/hi-def film masters, the must-own comprehensive Superman: The Motion Picture Anthology (1978-2006) on Blu-ray includes all six versions of the films int he original Superman theatrical franchise - Superman: The Movie - Original Theatrical, Superman: The Movie - Expanded Edition, Superman II - Original Theatrical, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, Superman III - Original Theatrical, Superman IV - Original Theatrical, plus Superman Returns. The Collection also boasts 20 hours of bonus features including the never-before-seen original opening to Superman Returns. Also included are two documentaries in hi-def, Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman and The Science of Superman, as well as You Will Believe: The Cinematic Saga of Superman, deleted scenes, and much more. Fan-boys and technophiles will especially appreciate that all of the Superman films are being released with English DTS-HD-MA soundtrack for superior sound quality. Also included is Movie Cash good up to $8 off one admission ticket to see the newest Warner Bros. superhero film, Green Lantern, at participating theaters between June 17th, 2011 and July 3rd, 2011.
Superman: The Motion Picture Anthology is also available On Demand and for download through online retailers including iTunes and Amazon on Demand.