- Jeff Beck
Superman 5-Film Collection (1978-1987): The Man of Steel Gets an Upgrade (4K/Blu-ray)
Among the plethora of superheroes that have been created over the years, Superman has always stood tall as one of the most beloved in history. First appearing in comics way back in the 1930s, it didn't take long for the Man of Steel to make the leap to other media, including shorts, serials, and cartoons. However, it seems safe to say that the single most popular iteration has been when Christopher Reeve donned the cape for a series of four films over the course of a decade starting in 1978. As the original film celebrates its 45th anniversary, Warner Bros. is celebrating by upgrading the quadrilogy to 4K in a special box set, so naturally it's a great time to go back and explore the highs and lows of this classic series that has remained so beloved for several decades now.
Starting with the breakout hit that made Reeve a superstar, "Superman: The Movie" begins on planet Krypton, where scientist Jor-El (Marlon Brando) is trying to warn others of the planet's imminent destruction. Despite his best efforts, they refuse to believe it, forcing him to send his infant son to Earth to save his life. On the long journey, he learns about various subjects that his father included in his capsule, and upon arrival is adopted by Ma (Phyllis Thaxter) and Pa Kent (Glenn Ford), who give him the name Clark.
As Clark (Christopher Reeve) grows up, he learns how different he is from everyone else (including having various powers), eventually leaving home to take up a job as a mild-mannered reporter in Metropolis at the Daily Planet, where he strikes up a somewhat awkward relationship with fellow reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). After rescuing Lois from a dangerous situation one night, Clark decides to help others around the city, revealing himself to the people of Metropolis as a superhero (dubbed "Superman"), but keeping his other identity a secret. This happens to catch the eye of Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), a criminal mastermind who just happens to be planning a major crime, one that will put Superman's powers to the test.
The series starts off with a bang, with the entry that many consider to be the best and most defining appearance of the beloved superhero. With its nearly two and a half hour runtime, the film doesn't skimp on the backstory, taking nearly half the film to tell us everything we need to know about where Superman came from, how he grew up, and how he became the hero of Metropolis. It would be fair to say that the second half can feel a little rushed at times as it tries to fit in Clark's relationship with Lois, as well as Lex Luthor's diabolical plot to destroy a large part of the California coastline, but it never hurts the overall wonderful quality of the film (nor does the somewhat silly conclusion).
Reeve is the very embodiment of Superman, giving him the exact qualities the character requires, and turning in a performance that left little doubt that the right man had been chosen for the part. Kidder and Hackman may get less screentime, but they certainly leave an impact in their respective roles (the latter does play a somewhat cartoonish iteration of Luthor, but is quite fun to watch). Overall, it may have a flaw or two, but "Superman: The Movie" set the standard for just how fun & entertaining films featuring the "Man of Steel" could be.
Moving on to the original theatrical version of "Superman II" (the version credited to director Richard Lester), we find Clark (Christopher Reeve) settling into his role as a reporter at The Daily Planet. When he discovers that a terrorist threat in Paris has Lois (Margot Kidder) on the scene to report the story, Clark immediately dashes to the rescue as his super alter ego, which ultimately results in him hurling a nuclear bomb off into space. Unbeknownst to him, the blast ends up freeing the Kryptonian criminals General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O'Halloran) from their captivity in the Phantom Zone, where Clark's father had imprisoned them. Once free, they wreak havoc on Earth, attempting to fulfill their desire of absolute rule. The task of stopping them inevitably falls to Superman, whose relationship with Lois just happens to be hitting a critical point at the same time.
Despite having a very troubled production that resulted in original director Richard Donner being replaced with Richard Lester, "Superman II" is another fun & exciting adventure that, while it may not reach the heights of the first film, still stands as one of the better Superman outings. There is a bit of a tradeoff when it comes to the film's antagonists. General Zod and his two companions provide a little more excitement in terms of the levels of action, but they aren't nearly as amusing to watch as Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor. Speaking of which, Luthor is rather awkwardly shoehorned into the film without much purpose other than to give some slight help to the villains, though I guess you could argue he still provides some comic relief to offset the blander trio.
Strangely enough, some of the film's more exciting moments come when it's further exploring the relationship between Clark & Lois, with the latter attempting to confirm her suspicions about Superman's true identity. There are parts of this storyline that don't quite work, while other parts of it simply don't make any sense (the missing pieces of which could be a possible side effect of the troubled shoot), but it does act as a nice counter to the film's more action-oriented storyline (much like Luthor counters the Kryptonion trio). Overall, it ends up being a fascinating balancing act of its parts, resulting in a film that may not be particularly memorable in terms of its villains, but one that still manages to provide plenty of entertainment in most other areas.
Also included in the set is "The Richard Donner Cut" of "Superman II," which was completed with the director's help in 2006, giving us what he had originally envisioned for the film. The plot pretty much remains the same with three major differences. First, the film opens differently, explaining how the missile Superman sent into space at the end of the first film ends up freeing General Zod and his companions. This opening is not quite as good as the theatrical version because, first of all, it contains far too much recap of the first film (presumably for any viewers who had somehow missed it), and it also gives the film a much slower start, diving far too quickly into Lois' suspicions that Clark is Superman (and obviously not containing the Paris sequence that was written for the other version).
The second major change here is that the footage that Marlon Brando had shot for the film (footage that was excised over a legal dispute and subsequent cheapness of the producers) is restored, delving further into Clark's relationship with his biological father (and filling a major plot hole from the theatrical version). Lastly, the ending here is just a rather bland retread of the first film, making it rather fortunate that it got rewritten. Aside from these, there are several small changes, mainly consisting of using alternate versions of existing scenes with additional or slightly different dialogue. Most of these smaller changes don't really make much of a difference, but it is worth pointing out that a certain alternate key scene between Clark & Louis is not handled quite as well as in the original version (that is to say, it's not quite as believable). Overall, while it's great to have the Brando footage in there (by far the best addition made for this edition), I'd have to say that Richard Lester's version is ultimately better.
That brings us to "Superman III," which has Clark (Christopher Reeve) returning to Smallville to cover his high school reunion, where he reunites with an old friend, Lana Lang (Annette O'Toole). His trip is hardly uneventful, having had to stop a fire at a chemical plant on the way, while saving Lana's son from a deadly accident during a picnic. Meanwhile, back in Metropolis, Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) is having trouble finding a job, so he decides to become a computer programmer, which brings him under the employment of Webscoe CEO Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn). After a little embezzling trick brings Gus to Webster's attention, the latter decides to put Gus to work on hacking a weather satellite in order to influence his business dealings. However, when Superman puts a stop to it, he decides to put his full attention towards defeating the Man of Steel so that his future ambitions will go unimpeded.
Sadly, this is where the Superman films started leaning a bit too far towards the silly side. There is some excitement to be had with its action sequences, but for the most part, "Superman III" contains a number of nonsensical elements and others that just don't mesh very well into the story. For starters, the film tries to incorporate more comedy than before, including random slapstick thrown in here and there, giving the film a rather uneven tone when juxtaposed with its serious components. However, a lot of those don't work very well either, especially the parts where fake kryptonite has Superman getting drunk and then having a ridiculously metaphorical fight between his good & bad sides.
Then there's the matter of Gus, who apparently isn't bright enough to hold a regular job, but somehow becomes a brilliant master computer programmer in no time. It's always wonderful to see the legendary Richard Pryor (one of the greatest comedians of all time), and you can tell that he was meant to be the film's comic relief, but again, the filmmakers weren't able to mesh the larger doses of comedy very well into this entry (the previous films had a smidge of comedy, but it was never overpowering or awkward like it is here). All this is to say that the film is kind of a mess, with the filmmakers trying to connect several pieces that just don't fit together (including a new, random love interest for Clark). Being the third entry, it's understandable that they wanted to try something different. Unfortunately it just never comes together.
Finally, we come to "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace," where we find Clark (Christopher Reeve) visiting his old farm home and recovering an energy crystal from the capsule that brought him to Earth. Upon returning to Metropolis, he witnesses the takeover of The Daily Planet by David Warfield (Sam Wanamaker) and his daughter Lacy (Mariel Hemingway), who becomes the new publisher. Soon after, the news breaks that the arms race is getting out of control, eventually resulting in Superman helping to gather all of the nuclear warheads and throw them into the sun.
Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) escapes from prison with the help of his nephew Lenny (Jon Cryer). Lex immediately turns his thoughts once again to destroying Superman, so he hatches a scheme to steal one of his hairs from a museum and use it to create "Nuclear Man" (Mark Pillow) from genetic material that gets thrown into the sun on one of the nukes. The remarkably powerful being begins to wreak havoc in Metropolis, so once again it's up to Superman to save the day.
When it comes to "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace," it's unfortunate to see that it's plagued by pretty much the same overarching problem that its predecessor was. That is to say that it too is a strange mish-mash of elements that don't fit together well or simply don't work at all. The main plot of Lex creating the Nuclear Man is very half-baked, and more than a little lazy. It feels as though they tried to course correct a bit from the previous film by having an actual villain for Superman to fight, but all they could come up with is a generic strongman for him to face off with. This adds a little excitement as far as the action goes, but doesn't really do much for the overall quality of the film.
Then there's the random subplot of The Daily Planet getting taken over by some rich tycoon, which contributes nothing to the story and is easily (and, once again, lazily) wrapped up at the end. The whole intent of the subplot seems to be a reason to shoehorn Lacy into the story, but she too adds nothing to it. Speaking of adding nothing to the story, you also have the bizarre sequence where Clark/Superman attempts to keep a date with Lacy & an interview with Lois at the same time. The scene feels very out of place, as though it was lifted from some random rom-com, and ultimately just leaves you shaking your head at the absurdity of it. The tone may have been a little more consistent (the humor was tuned back down from the previous outing), but the writing is just all over the place, leading to a final entry that's simply another mess. It's a shame that the series ended on a low note like this, but at least we'll always have those first two classics.
All films in the Superman: 5-Film 4K/Blu-ray Collection are presented in 2160p UHD/1080p HD transfers of outstanding quality. The films undoubtedly look the best they have since their original releases. A lot of the flying scenes may still look iffy, which is to be expected, but otherwise the films look absolutely wonderful. Likewise, the Dolby Atmos TrueHD/DTS-HD MA audio tracks are marvelous, giving you all of the dialogue, sound effects, and the unforgettable music in excellent quality. Overall, Warner Bros. has done a fantastic job with the upgrade, which will no doubt greatly please the multitude of Superman fans.
Superman: The Movie
⦁ Commentary by Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spangler
⦁ The Making of Superman – vintage featurette
⦁ Superman and the Mole-Men – vintage featurette
⦁ Super-Rabbit – 1943 WB cartoon
⦁ Snafuperman – 1944 WB cartoon
⦁ Stupor Duck – 1956 WB cartoon
⦁ TV Spot
⦁ Teaser Trailer
⦁ Theatrical Trailer
Superman II (Theatrical Version)
⦁ Commentary by Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler
⦁ The Making of Superman II – 1980 TV Special
⦁ Superman’s Soufflé – Deleted scene
⦁ Fleischer Studios’ Superman vintage cartoons
-The Mechanical Monster
-Billion Dollar Limited
-The Arctic Giant
-The Magnetic Telescope
-Terror on the Midway
⦁ Theatrical trailer
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut
⦁ Commentary by Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz
⦁ Introduction by Richard Donner – featurette
⦁ Superman II: Restoring the Vision – featurette
⦁ Deleted scenes
-Lex and Ms. Teschmacher head north
-Lex and Ms. Teschmacher head south
-The villains enter the fortress
-He’s all yours, boys
-Clarke and Jimmy
⦁ Famous Studios vintage cartoons
-The Mummy Strikes
-The Underground World
⦁ Commentary by Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler
⦁ The Making of Superman III – 1983 TV special
⦁ Deleted scenes
-Save my baby
-To the rescue
-Going to see the boss
-Hatching the plan
-Boss wants this to go
-Hanging up on Brad
⦁ Theatrical trailer
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
⦁ Commentary by Mark Rosenthal
⦁ Superman 50th anniversary special – 1988 TV special
⦁ Deleted scenes
-Nuclear Man’s prototype
-Metropolis after hours
-Flying sequence (extended scene)
-Battle in Smallville
-Battle in the U.S.S.R.
-Nuclear arms race
-By my side
-Lark and Lacy say goodbye
⦁ Theatrical trailer
Each film comes with a good helping of extras, with a commentary track for each, deleted scenes for all but the original, a making of for all but IV, and Superman (or Superman-related) cartoons for the original & both cuts of II. Definitely more than enough here to make any Superman fan very happy.
The Superman 5-Film Collection (1978-1987) is an outstanding set that gives the Christopher Reeve series an impressive upgrade, with the bountiful bonus features from the previous Blu-ray releases included. The films may vary greatly in quality, with two being solid classics and two that start to show the series' decline (as well as an alternate cut of "Superman II" that's a fascinating piece of film history), but they all have things to greatly enjoy about them (even if it's their sillier qualities). Overall, this is a wonderful collection that any fan would find worth adding to their shelf.
Available on 4K/Blu-ray starting tomorrow.
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.