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Old 03-07-2009, 02:27 AM   #1
Peter Marlowe
HDF's Resident Reviewer

Join Date: Jun 2008
Posts: 2,845
Default My Take On...SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (Warner Bros./DC Comics)

I know this title was recently "semi-reviewed" by a member here (can't remember his or her name) but I figured I would offer this more lengthy, analytical study of Alexander Salkind & Richard Donner's comic adaptation opus now that I had a chance to sit down with the high definition version this evening and really get into the film for the first time in a LONG time.

You know, I was always a much bigger fan of the sequel than this film -- I always loved watching Terence Stamp chew up the scenes as General Zod, and there was something so cool about that final fight scene over Metropolis between the Man of Steel and the three villains from Krypton, no matter how absolutely cheesy and ridiculous the special effects for the time were. Of course, with the launch of Superman Returns in theaters, Warner went back and issued the original stories in remastered and extended editions on DVD and Blu-ray; Superman II in particular got very special treatment, in that we finally got what the fans demanded: Richard Donner's vision of the film. I immediately ran out and bought Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut and the theatrical cut of Superman II on DVD that holiday season, as we didn't buy into Blu-ray as of yet, and I really couldn't afford (at the time) to invest in Warner's tin box set of all the films and I didn't really want Superman: The Movie -- to say nothing of the jokes that were III and IV.

Recently, the conversation came up that the fiancÚ had never actually seen the first Superman and being that she's a sucker for the origin comic stories on film, I figured it was as good a time as any to add this classic to our collection. The local Best Buy had no Blu-ray copies of Superman: The Movie nor did they have any copies of the Four-Disc Special Edition DVD, which I would have settled for. We found the disc online for a good price -- lower than the price of the DVD -- and ordered the Blu-ray.

I had seen Superman dozens of times as a kid on network TV, and it never really held my attention; as we get older, we seem to find a soft spot for older films and their simple approaches to dialogue, scenery and delivery -- sometimes this works the other way, in that costumes, etc. become laughable by today's standards. As most fans know, Warner and Richard Donner in 2000 went back and restored eight minutes of footage to the film, giving it "Extended Version" status amongst the countless other Hollywood titles carrying this title, and what Warner has provided on the Blu-ray version is just one cut of the film at 151 minutes running time -- the Four Disc Special Edition DVD carries the theatrical and extended cuts.

Revisiting Superman tonight on Blu-ray, I was jarred with many emotions; some having to do with the disappointment and combined joy of the technical presentation of the disc (more on this later) and others having to do with some elements that just didn't make sense or fit together well all these years later. For instance, when young Clark throws the green crystal and creates the Fortress of Solitude, and begins talking with Jor-El, we suddenly see him standing in the blue and red costume as Superman -- but did this happen after Jor-El takes him on that "journey" that explains who he is and where he comes from and all that? Is that why he's suddenly older when he wears the cape and goes to Metropolis? Then there's the uniforms themselves -- it's suggested that Lois named him "Superman" when she mumbles to herself, but that's after he's already wearing a big "S" on his chest. And that brings me to the "S" worn by Marlon Brando on Krypton -- what's the deal with this? Brando's black Superman symbol on his bright silver costume seems to suggest they come from a race of "Supermen"...but Kal-El wasn't called "Superman" yet, so why was his father wearing this symbol?

Then, there are some of the flying sequences -- are we to believe Clark wears his uniform under his suits at work? If that's the case, how does he simply "transform" into Superman after jumping out a window? Do the clothes just come off him at superhuman speed? These nitpicks can go on and on, but they were just some of the things I noticed while revisiting Superman: The Movie tonight. Also of note were the really dated special effects, made even more embarrassing by the 1080p Blu-ray encode; the matting and graph work to make Reeve appear as if he's really flying come off as severely laughable and distracting in many scenes -- although the film and the sequel still hold some kind of charm, indeed. I have always said nobody but Reeve could have played this role -- the bumbling Clark at work and the Man of Steel when a cat's stuck in a tree. His passing -- and the subsequent death of his wife months later -- was an absolute disaster and sad moment in the revolution of our culture. Brandon Routh filled the spot okay in Returns, but Reeve should have called it quits by part III because that's when the franchise really went down the toilet.

Memorable sequences to me in this original were the opening scene depicting General Zod and his gang being sent to the Phantom Zone, and Brando's chilling sentencing, plus the magic of the added extended material. The scenes are subtle, but effective. What else can be said? I thought Gene Hackman had a great deal of fun with the Lex Luthor role, and I always said they should have had him come back in the reboot as an older Lex, being that the script takes place with the same characters just years later. Ned Beatty as the idiotic Otis? I could take it or leave it. But I was always disappointed that in the sequels, only the Lex Luthor villain was explored -- I'm sure in the comic's run, Superman had more of a rogue's gallery of foes he faced. Why were these never explored? And Lex's schemes always seemed thin and irrelevant to me; blowing up California with a nuclear missile so he can have his own coast of land, Costa de Lex? And in the reboot, using crystals to destroy Metropolis so a new island he can rent out can be created? You know what...I'll take Alfred Molina as Doc Ock any day of the week.

Warner Brothers supplied a good deal of supplemental material on the Blu-ray version of Superman, of course nowhere as detailed and delving as on the Four Disc Special Edition DVD, but while a bit overkill in that regard, the payoff is a supposedly better audio and visual presentation. These extras included commentary tracks by Director Richard Donner and Creative Consultant Tom Mankiewicz, "Taking Flight: The Development of Superman," "Making Superman: Filming the Legend," Superman Screen Test, Music-Only Audio Track and trailers/TV spots.

ASPECT RATIO: 2.4:1 (2.40:1)

From the other aforementioned member who "overviewed" this title some time back on this site, I was expecting to be blown off my sectional with vibrant colors, a depth of field that was intense and all kinds of evidence that this wasn't a film from the '70s. I was very disappointed. I never saw any DVD incarnation of Superman so I can't compare them, but from the very beginning, this disc just didn't look all. The opening Krypton sequence is littered with a twitchy noise that softens the image and intensely overblown whites that makes you think the contrast on your display is up too high -- even though you know it's been calibrated. As the film progresses, the image sharpens and tightens up somewhat, with the outdoor Smallville sequences looking decent, but this is absolutely not reference grade video -- even for the time period. In comparison, Warner's Blu-ray release of A Clockwork Orange looks better and more defined in high def. Colors are drab, even when looking at the green fields of Smallville High's football stadium, and fleshtones take on a tepid, almost pinkish tinge. Sure, Supey's blue and red costume glow when they're onscreen -- but how hard is that for a transfer?

The majority of the film just looked lifeless and flat to me; almost as if you're watching this on standard DVD. I understand the materials and film stocks are dated -- I'm completely aware of this, and I always interpret these elements before making final decisions in my reviews. But what we have here simply makes me feel like someone could have given this gem more attention -- the 1080p encode doesn't really exhibit any real popping, astonishing depth or that "razor sharp dimensionality" that even old Blu-ray transfers do, or are supposed I said, I own Clockwork Orange and that film, even with its age, looks more detailed and "high def like" than this did.

Believe it or not, film grain -- which always bugs me -- wasn't a real problem here. The source just looked bad, as if it were struggling to shake off dirt, debris, damage and noise. The biggest problem areas were the aforementioned opening Krypton scene and the sequences where Reeve was flying -- in particular, the "Can You Read My Mind" sequence with Lois; this scene exhibited banding and ghosting around the two of them as they flew around Metropolis. Most flying night scenes exhibited this "noisy ghosting" for lack of a better term which got distracting after awhile. I also noticed some color shifting in certain scenes and a strange "pumping" that made the image appear as if it were flashing lighter and darker for a bit. The last time I saw this in severity was on the original DVD transfer of Commando and Amityville II: The Possession.


Warner is becoming infamous for this -- slapping every Blu-ray release with a lossy Dolby Digital audio mix. Sure, some offer the choice of Dolby Digital or Dolby TrueHD, such as I Am Legend (but still default to the Dolby Digital track), but standard practice has been to offer lossy sound mixes on these high def discs. As a head scratcher with newer releases such as Superman Returns which only carries the DVD's Dolby Digital track, I was willing to let it go for a film as old as Superman: The Movie. And you know what? The audio absolutely KICKED ASS on this disc -- much better than the video fared. From the beginning title sequence (prefaced by a very cool black and white comic reel piece narrating some of the origins of Superman) this Dolby mix spread the powerful Williams score through all the channels, exploding with powerful, rumbling LFE when Krypton blows up and breaks apart. Every channel is fully utilized here -- I was expecting a very front-heavy mix as on the remixed Superman II theatrical DVD soundtrack, but this mix sounded brand new with crashing crystals attacking the surround channels, explosions, whooshes as the Man of Steel flies by and much more. Awesome work in the sound department.

I believe Warner may have been working from the newly remixed stems prepared for the Four Disc Special Edition DVD's Dolby Digital track, but encoded at a higher bitrate on this Blu-ray, the sound is simply incredible. Standout moments include the aforementioned Krypton destruction sequence where you can sense every shred of broken glass and crystal coming down around you, the earthquake scene and any flying sequence where Reeve whooshes from front to back. What stood out to me most when demoing this disc was the way the surrounds were pin-point-utilized: Any time an object or the Man of Steel flew from front to back, the sonic accuracy of the transition into the rear soundstage was incredible -- if one of Lex's missiles or Supes shot over your head and into the right surround channel, you heard that element go completely into that channel and remain there as if the experience was real in your theater, before fading out. Very nice sound work here. It was as if Superman's soundtrack were brand new; some purists would call this "out of place" and would scream for an original mono track -- but I thought it was a great ride.

Well, there you have it, folks. At 151 minutes, I'm not sure how many times I am going to take this off the Blu-ray collection shelf to walk it into our theater, but it is nice to have the original in this franchise; the problem is, the way we bought the films in this collection, we own Superman II and The Richard Donner Cut on standard DVD, and Superman: The Movie and Superman Returns on Blu-ray so they're not even on the same shelves. There's a part of me that wishes I would have just bought the complete tin box set Warner released of all the DVDs so it could be complete, because to be honest, the two Superman films I have on Blu-ray don't look all that much better than standard DVD anyway. I may consider selling all these and buying a Blu-ray box set if they ever release one, I suppose.

Anyone think a Man of Steel Blu box is in the works?

Anyone with any questions regarding this review, please fire away, and thanks for reading!
Peter Marlowe is offline   Reply With Quote