Superman flys again
SUPERMAN SE DVD: The SUPERMAN Web Central Review--Take Two
by Bill Williams
April 17, 2001

The Man of Steel is back, looking and sounding better than ever, in the newly expanded and remastered version of "Superman: The Movie". In the years since its theatrical release in 1978, Richard Donner's classic film has remained to this day the standard by which all film and television adaptations of comic book stories must meet, and after viewing the new DVD release I can say that it still remains the standard that to this day has never been surpassed.

Of course, the main question that needs to be answered here is, how does the new version of the film hold up against the original release? The majority of the comments I have read prior to the DVD release have ranged from excellent to not as good as the original, from the differences in the sound quality to Donner's choices in restoring certain scenes and not including others previously viewed in the various extended television versions. This DVD serves as a compromise between the purists wanting to protect the integrity of the original film and the completists wanting the full package in their hands. And thanks to the ever-expanding usage of DVD technology, this special edition of "Superman" truly delivers in many areas.

The quality of the picture is, in a word, beautiful! Past home video and television releases have varied from dark and murky to reddish, from poorly panned-and-scanned versions (remember the very first VHS release that looked as if it were recorded with a camcorder and time accelerated to fit one tape?) to static editing that took the focus off Christopher Reeve's character in many places, to the widescreen laserdisc release from the early 90's with extremely tinny sound and almost washed out flesh tones in areas, to sometimes washed out color in the television versions. The print here is bright and colorful in all the right places, thanks to digital technology. Little things I'd overlooked in the past I could pick up this time around - the solar flares of Krypton's red sun, the starfields in the galaxy, the smallest details in the cityscape of Metropolis. The most noticeable changes can be seen in Superman's costume itself. Once greenish due to inadequacies in matting and blue-screen technology, it now shines in bright blue and red as it is supposed to look. The majority of dirt and dust that was evident even in the extended versions are gone, and I hardly noticed any dirt in the film. The quality is that good.

The quality is especially noticeable in the inclusion of the eight extra minutes of new footage selected for the SE. Until now the only way to see these extra scenes have been in the various extended versions as seen on ABC in 1982 and on KCOP in 1994. The details really come alive as these scenes make their home video premiere in the SE. The choices made by Donner and SE producer Michael Thau represent the scenes that further the story and character development in the film. This is evident in the inclusion of the additional scenes on Krypton, Lois Lane as a child, Clark's first day on the job interacting with various people, and in the two most notable inclusions of Superman speaking with the interactive image of his father Jor-El (Marlon Brando) after his first appearance and of Superman running the gauntlet of doom devised by Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman). To see these scenes in their full widescreen glory makes me wish that they had been in the initial film to begin with. My only regret is that the SE did not contain the extended version of the destruction of Krypton. The extended versions as seen on television, with the additional footage and complete John Williams musical cues in place, seems much more dramatic than in the theatrical cut. There is a separate menu in which you can view these extra scenes by themselves and determine their quality on their own merit apart from the movie.

The most noticeable difference between this version and the original version, other than the extended scenes, is in the sound. Even through my two-speaker television the film sounds so much clearer and cleaner than ever before. I could pick up so many new and subtle changes in the sound, as well as the many all-new sound effects created for the SE. My initial concern was that the film would wind up sounding like the "digitally enhanced" version of the Fleischer Superman cartoons from Winstar Home Video a few years back. Those fears went out the window with this DVD. I didn't think the new sound mix detracted from the film at all. In fact, for Donner to have signed off on this film meant that he certainly approved of the new sound mix. And in today's digital age I certainly don't want something sounding tinny, I want the quality to be there. In this SE, it's there.

The DVD comes with an incredible assortment of extras that round out the complete package. The audio commentary by Donner and Tom Mankiewicz is very insightful, as they share their thoughts and love in making the film, even in the jokes they share about the duration of filming (Donner: "June 1938 - did we start filming that long ago?") to Brando's lines ("That kid's diapers are worth a fortune") to Mankiewicz's rib about the gauntlet scene ("How many days did you waste shooting this stuff?"). This is one audio commentary that I did not want to see end.

On a separate audio channel is the John Williams score by itself. In certain spots it's absolutely amazing to listen to the score in tandem with the images on screen. However, the edit points in many places are painfully evident, as the score was nipped and tucked in certain spots and dialed out in other spots. One regret I've always felt is that in many of Williams' scores for his films ("Superman" and "The Empire Strikes Back" most notably) the dialouts of certain cues seem unnecessary in places. It was a little jarring to listen to the music-only channel and hear those dialouts very evident. I'm one who prefers to hear the music intact in the film itself. Some of these musical outtakes can be found in a separate menu on the DVD. Initially believed to be even more alternate versions of certain cues, these cues represent the complete musical cues as originally recorded by Williams. There are very little new gems to be discovered here, as the majority of the score can be found in last year's 2-CD release from Rhino Records. The only cues that are new to this release are an unusual edit of the Prologue (where you can hear the conductor's voices and the London Symphony Orchestra's tuneup prior to the beginning of the selection) crossfading into the End Titles to represent a "new" version of the Main Theme, and a longer, previously unreleased disco version of the Love Theme with Margot Kidder's vocals. Overall, while the sound quality of the music on the DVD is a vast improvement over the original release, the additional cues should have been remixed and included in context with the film. Oh well, at least we have the Rhino CD to fall back on.

The new documentaries by Michael Thau and Jonathan Gaines offers new insight into the production of the film and the creation of the visual effects. Hosted and narrated by Marc McClure, each documentary presents newly discovered information and behind the scenes footage, as well as all-new interviews with Richard Donner, Tom Mankiewicz, Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, and Margot Kidder among others. It's interesting to see how the creative team and cast look back on their days of filming with unabashed honesty and candor. The highlight of the first documentary comes in the touching tribute to Christopher Reeve in the years after his tragic 1995 paralysis injury. The heartfelt comments by Donner, Kidder, and McClure echo throughout and can be best summed up with Donner's ending words: "22 years ago Chris made me believe he could fly. Now he's making me believe that he will walk again." The same words can be said by many of us as well.

The other documentaries on the DVD reveal for the first time a look at Guy Hamilton's test footage for the film. Hamilton, the veteran James Bond director at the time, was initially tapped by the Salkinds to direct the film, and it's interesting to view his unusual and sometimes hilarious test footage. The scenes of Clark running and changing into Superman look as though they were filmed on the backlot in Mayberry, and the scenes of Superman communing with the Kryptonian elders at the Fortress of Solitude appear as if they were filmed during the 1960's and not 1976. Thankfully for us and for the film, Hamilton departed the project when the Salkinds shifted the film from Italy to England. Judging by the test footage, had Hamilton directed the final product, we would have certainly seen a disaster on our hands.

In the final documentary we get a glimpse into the creation of the special effects, specifically the most difficult effect of them all - making Superman fly. The test scenes harken back to the Superman and Captain Marvel serials of the 1940's, as they show a dummy being shot from a cannon, a puppet on a wire, a remote-controlled flying Superman, and an animated Superman flying through a real city. These test scenes served as a guideline for Donner and his effects team to create a way to make Chris Reeve fly convincingly throughout the movie, and the documentary shows the various methods used in the film. The documentary also reveals some of the test effects prepared for "Superman II" including an unusual psychedelic scene of Superman losing his powers, as well as other clips directed by Donner for the sequel. This is one area I was hungry for, more information on Donner's involvement in and departure from the sequel. Hopefully one day the full story will be told, and the rest of Donner's footage from the sequel will be shown.

During the documentaries we get to see some of the screen tests of various actors reading for Superman, including the hilarious test of Ilya Salkind's wife's dentist reading against Judd Hirsch as Luthor. The actors' screen tests are both a real treat to see and also a partial delight in seeing some of the lost scenes from "Superman II". Casting director Lynn Stalmaster reveals his thoughts on casting Christopher Reeve as Superman and the process in selecting the right Lois Lane. The two scenes represented during the actors' screen tests include Lois' interview of Superman, which comes off for Reeve much drier and lacking in any romantic interest he has for Lois, and in one of the lost scenes from "Superman II", in which Lois tricks Clark into becoming Superman. It's an interesting look to see some of the various choices for Lois - Anne Archer (who would later become known for her role in the Jack Ryan films of the 90's, "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger"), Holly Palance ("The Omen"), Susan Blakely, Lesley Ann Warren ("Victor/Victoria"), Deborah Raffin, and Stockard Channing (her take on Lois is very good in places, but for me she will forever be Rizzo from "Grease"). It's clear through these tests why Margot Kidder was far and away the best Lois. Also of interest are the screen tests for the various actresses in the running for Ursa, as they read through a scene in which a New York policeman attempts to arrest Ursa, another lost scene from "Superman II".

Speaking of lost scenes, only two scenes are included on the DVD, both of which center around Otis feeding Luthor's "babies". For the first time we get to see these scenes presented in widescreen format, and the sound and picture quality are quite good indeed. Both scenes, adding another three minutes of running time, were selected as representatives of scenes filmed that did not work as well in terms of pacing and humor in the film and, like the other scenes in the extended versions, more of a good thing.

The DVD also contains an 11-page textual commentary called "Superman: The Legacy", an insightful look into the 60-plus year history of Superman accompanied by rarely seen photographs from the film, tracing its origins from the 1930's through the present.

Three separate theatrical, teaser, and television trailers are also included on the DVD as well. I've always been a trailer buff, and the inclusion of these preview trailers are a treat indeed. Surprisingly absent from this section are the theatrical trailer featuring still photographs of the cast members, with the narrator's ending tag "He has come of age, our age! This Christmas Superman brings you the gift of flight" and the recent theatrical re-release trailer. One reason I have heard for the lack of inclusion of the still photograph trailer is the obvious parallel to Christ present in the narration, as evidenced by the narrator's tag line "Marlon Brando is Jor-El, who gave the world his only son..." Still, the trailers are a welcome addition to the DVD.

The other minus with this DVD comes in Warner Home Video's decision to place this DVD in a snap case. Many other high-quality special edition DVD releases come in a nicer display package, some with booklet inserts. Here all we get is a one-page foldout listing of the chapter titles. The packaging is one area in which Warner Home Video should focus on improving in the future.

The quality and care that went into the "Superman" Special Edition DVD by Richard Donner, Michael Thau, and Jonathan Gaines makes this a DVD worthy of repeat viewings and is a proud addition to my DVD library. A well-done package overall.

[ Go back to the main page...]