The Superman Motion Picture Anthology Blu-ray Review
Most of the movies in this region-free US boxset are presented with an AVC encode that, with the exception of Superman II The Richard Donner Cut and Superman Returns (which, alone, hails from VC-1), have been the lucky beneficiaries of fresh hi-def masters. All are presented in their original 2.40:1 aspect.
Superman and Superman II (TC) look wonderful. There are some elements of softness to the frames, inherent to the original photography – one major case in point would be that otherwise tremendous tracking shot of Clark and Lois walking through the Daily Planet in Superman that I mentioned in the film review – and, of course, we get that soft-filtered haze that often smothers Margot Kidder in the sort of dreamy fugue that 70’s and early 80’s film and TV revelled in. This was also something of an intentional aesthetic to help disguise the disparages in weight that the actress underwent during the arduous production of the first two movies. It doesn’t really hide anything though.
Grain is retained throughout the series. Damage may be extremely light – there is still some, mind you – but there has been no overly-judicious use of DNR to rob the original Reeve films of their celluloid texture. The grain looks good to my eyes, never clumpy or sharpened or smeared. Black levels are very strong, and there could be some truth to the belief that some crushing is taking place, although I have to say I didn't anything too distracting about the quality of the shadow-detail. Contrast is also excellent across the board of the first four films.
With Superman you want strong vibrant comic-book colours to populate the screen – and there can be no doubting that the palette across the initial series is glorious, bold and exciting to behold. The patriotic primaries pulse with vibrant life, never smearing, shifting or taking on an unnatural cast. Superman, himself, should pop from the screen … and he most definitely does, with reds and blues and yellows that look positively radiant and visually arresting. Skin-tones are excellent too, despite a moderately warm push. Kidder and Reeve look almost anaemic, but this is how it is meant to be. Lois’ pale blue dress in that romantic flying date has the appropriately off-white, slightly icy appearance, which makes a wonderfully subdued contrast to the blazing costume of Superman.
Occasional wires can be seen, as can the creases in the black “space” curtain behind Krypton in Superman. The obviousness of the Moon set in Superman II – another revealing backdrop of black – and the little bits of animation such as the Phantom Zone cell breaking apart on the energy waves of the explosion of the terrorist bomb, and the skimmed manhole-cover that Ursa hurls at Superman are happily retained. They don't look bad at all. Whereas I appreciate the efforts made to correct Jason And The Argonauts – and actually applaud the removal of wires and the day/night lighting adjustments – if the makers don't want to mess around with their “time-capsule” movies, then I am just as pleased and appreciative. Some people have commented that the original theatrical cut of Superman looks visibly better than the Expanded Edition but, to be honest, I found it too close to call. Both look fabulous to me.
The Richard Donner Cut hails from a variety of different sources, the resulting image a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. The image alternates from sharp to soft, and contrast and black levels also fluctuate quite wildly. But there is little that can be done about this, due to the nature of the original elements and the way that the “film” has been put together. The transfer to disc does all that it can.
Without going into too much detail, both Superman III and IV look just as rich, colourful and vivid as their predecessors. Textures are film-like and detail is often marvellously rewarding. Quest For Peace, of course, suffers from some terrible FX shots, especially those set in space or on the Moon, and these elements stick out a mile – soft and utterly devoid of depth. But this is down to the source and not a problem derived from the transfer.
Superman Returns basks in that same overly processed, horribly soft and sepia-hued transfer that fans have lamented since its first hi-def debut. This just doesn’t look right, does it? And when you compare it to the older movies in the franchise, which look gorgeous, this just makes the blood boil. Singer used state-of-the-art equipment when he made the film, and yet the resulting image looks bland, ill-defined, waxen and lifeless. Of course, this is a stylised presentation … but it just looks awful. There is absolutely no three-dimensionality or appreciable cinematic depth to the image – the picture looks flat, muted and dead. The colours are dialled-down, the digital aesthetic robbing the image of any cinematic texture. DNR also seems to have been applied. There is even the dreaded banding taking place that makes a complete mess of the emerging New Krypton sequence, amongst others.
Detail is certainly still there, although predominantly found in the most intense of closeups, but this is not a good look, by any stretch of the imagination and does not make you think that you are watching a successful hi-def presentation.
With the backlash that the initial release of Superman Returns had in 1080p, you would have thought that Warner would readdress the situation and properly remaster the film … but they haven’t. Sorry.
Asides from Singer's film, fans are going to be extremely pleased with how Warner have treated this franchise's Blu-ray collection.
All the movies have a DTS-HD MA makeover that is bound to impress.
Superman The Movie now carries a lossless track boasting that much-demanded original stereo source … which sounds terrific. But, to be perfectly honest, I much preferred the 5.1 mix on offer here, which absolutely rocks, making good, though understandably limited use of the full soundfield, bringing in plenty of bass bombast, well-thought-out steerage and effective use of the surround channels. The score hits its stride right away, and the full sweep of the orchestration is beautifully established and maintained with colour, depth and warmth. The spread across the front is very wide, really enhancing the large-scale and epic feel of the film. Effects are often dazzling in their precision and added spatiality. The spinning cage for Zod and his accomplices, the approach of the Phantom Zone cell, the explosions, impacts, roaring trains, crashing vehicles and cascading rocks, the high-pitched whine of Luthor's signal and his subsequent speech that only Superman can hear all have a degree of genuine directionality and a presence across the soundfield that convinces without ever once sounding bogus or tacked-on.
Bass is wonderfully deep and the action flows into the room with a reassuring fluidity and a terrific sense of weighty impact.
Superman II and III are also terrific in their audio presentations. Laser-beams sizzle, walls and buildings tumble, the Superman theme soars with power and instrumental clarity, and the steerage of FX, from bazookas and Ursa-kissed helicopters to combine-harvesters and Super-hoofed missiles, around the set-up is crisp, clean and engaging. I wouldn't say that either sounds better than Superman The Movie, though, as I've some people comment. All three offer a pleasingly wide soundstage that is full of detail and activity, but I think that the first film, perhaps because there is just so much more of John Williams' score coursing through it, sounds the richest and the most satisfying of the Reeve collection.
Although Quest For Peace only carries a lossless stereo track, it still offers a nice dynamic range, some pulverising impacts, a warm and responsive delivery of dialogue (possibly even making the lousy dubbing-over of Nuclear Man even more glaringly overt) and a musical mix that can be finely rich, broad and emphatic. But even if Quest has some oomph to it, it doesn’t compare in any way to the immersive, activity-filled dynamics of the others in the series. Bicker-banter in the Daily Planet fizzes about and the bombast comes through with clarity. Let’s put it this way, fans of the film will seethe over the lack of a surround remix, but, to be fair, this still sounds pretty decent. Comments that I’ve seen about the Canon Group being notorious for not maintaining their original audio masters may have played some part in this … but I also know that their archiving of music stems is actually more than satisfactory, judging by a fair few soundtrack releases that have come out from Chuck Norris flicks, for example. Thus, I would place the absence of a 5.1 remix mainly at Warner’s feet.
And then we come to Superman Returns.
Now Singer’s movie may well divide the fans, and certainly court disdain for its video appearance, but nobody could possibly argue that its audio mix, heard here, for the first time, in DTS-HD MA 5.1, doesn’t bring the house down and put a Super-smile on the face. This sounds amazing. Bass is heavy, full of convincing weight and generous with its dispersal of impact. The effects are liberally and credibly distributed around the set-up, and the busyness of the track is finely sieved to provide an energising, evocative and engrossing experience. There is never a problem with the dialogue, which comes through with clarity, smooth positioning and a natural warmth. Ottman’s score, which is a belter, is celebrated with a rich and detailed full-range spread and a clear passion that flows through the set-up with a naturally smooth and enveloping ease. The front soundstage is extremely wide, the depth of the audio highly rewarding. The film may lack spectacle, but such things as the rumblings that Luthor's train-set seems to undergo, the slamming of Lois around the plane once they lose gravity, the massive collapse of a New Kryptonian mountain, Kitty's out-of-control car-ride, the mighty machine-gunfire and roar of flaming gas will certainly trick you (and your neighbours) into believing that it's got much more than its fair share.
These films have never sounded better than they do here. The purists get their stereo track on Superman, but I have to say that the surround mixes are excellently engineered and really open the movies up.
Wow – where do we start with this lot?
Let's put it this way, if you are Superman fan then you are going to be in Super-Heaven as you plough through the extravagant smorgasbord of varying movie-cuts, commentary tracks, additional scenes, cartoons, vintage episodes and comprehensive documentaries that, all combined, chart the history of DC's most colourful poster-boy from his Action Comics debut, through his various guises on paper, radio, cinema and TV screen, right up to Bryan Singer's 2006 instalment. Everything from the lavish tin boxset that came out a while ago has been brought over, with a couple of extras, and the weight of material here is simply staggering.
I'm not going to go through all that is on offer here – just check the tech specs to see a full run-down – but I'm going to pick out the best elements that have been crammed into this beautifully indulgent package.
We have commentaries on all the films except for Superman Returns, and these chat-tracks are, by and large, superb. Richard Donner is excellent value. Honest, persistent and pretty much on the ball with his recollections of how shots were achieved, locations were found and how his actors handled the task at hand. He and Tom Manciewicz make for a good team on their discussions over the top of Superman 1 and the Donner cut of Superman II, although there is a horribly distant split-channel quality to their recording. Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler are also extremely good at providing a dense and interesting back-story to the films as they reminisce and dissect what it took to get the icon on the screen. Naturally, all the tracks are laced with innumerable anecdotes, asides, home-truths and considered, though often belligerent opinions that make for a splendidly personal and rigidly adhered-to approach. The differences between what Donner wanted and what the Salkinds wanted Lester to do are brought up … and this can end up being fascinating stuff. Although the films lacked singular vision and creative coherence, the commentaries carry the weight of intrigue, in-fighting and considered personal opinion. Whereas, for example, there is a uniformity of love and respect on the deluge of LOTR chat-tracks that, whilst possibly offering even better and more comprehensive coverage, lose that edge from a more angsty and personal affection for material that too many cooks had a hand in stirring.
The George Reeves-starring 1951 pilot Superman And The Mole-Men is a rare delight for fans of the more vintage brand of super-heroism. A clever and surprisingly sympathetic adventure about the big Boy Scout saving some unusual subterranean creatures from the hostility of frightened Mankind, this paved the way for a successful run for Reeves in the costume and cape, and is a very welcome addition to the set.
There are plenty of Deleted and Restored Scenes that have been culled from the entire series, with Superman IV providing the daftest and most unworthy of airing. But, by far, the most eagerly anticipated is that lost opening to Bryan Singer’s instalment.
Let’s be honest, we’ve all been looking forward to seeing the famous “Return to Krypton” sequence that Singer removed from his final cut of Superman Returns, and now here it is, presented in hi-def, a full five minutes of moody cosmic splendour that segues directly into Superman’s new crash-landing on Earth. In the funky silver-suit, Supes pilots an awesome version of the original crystal starship – much longer and more intricate than his baby-voyager – through the floating debris of his home world. He finds his father’s abode, signposted by that white emblazoned “S” on a chunk of planetary detritus and then has to evade some clashing Kryptonian asteroids, which damage his craft and prompt his return to our world. The visuals are dreamy, the mood haunting. Why it was cut is beyond me, although Singer and the execs have their reasons. Would its inclusion actually make for a better film? No, of course not. But it would enhance the overall ambience of the story and probably add weight to Routh’s performance.
I've already reviewed the DVD release of the Max and Dave Fleischer cartoons from the 40's separately, but it is great to see them all – yep, all 17 of them – presented here, although, sadly, they are only in SD. Spread over Discs 1 and 2, these offer a terrifically vibrant and nostalgic glimpse into the heady days of vintage heroism, and it is surprising just how well they hold up today as bravura action-packed escapades, combining, as they do, incredible art-deco animation and a pulp film noir vogue.
There are alternate Music Cues from Williams' score for the first Superman, though these will tend to sound somewhat familiar, anyway, as well as an isolated score track. Of note, would possibly be the pop version of “Can You Read My Mind” from the romantic night-time flyby.
Several of the documentaries naturally cover the phenomenon of Superman's cinematic success, with the lion's share devoted to Donner's original and to Singer's love-letter to it. There are vintage TV specials and retrospective studies on how they made us believe that a man could fly. It is possible that Superman Returns gets altogether too much attention, what with Bryan Singer's Video Production Journals and the huge 7-part Requiem for Krypton making-of. But, over on Disc 8, we get perhaps the more studious, more avant-garde and more reverential material. In the Science of Superman (which, alongside the Return to Krypton sequence, is something new to the package) we get a fairly detailed (52 mins) look at how feasible Superman's powers are, and an assortment of boffins try to explain the realities of super-breath, heat-beams, X-ray vision, colossal strength, the ability to withstand bullets and, of course, the power of flight. This gets points for trying hard not to be quite as wacky as it sounds, and becomes a big-time fun and often amusing exposé of the character's familiar traits. We learn lots about gravity, molecules and musculature. And the entire team pour scorn over the ability to turn back time by spinning the Earth in reverse.
The Myth Of Superman has Terence Stamp narrating a 19-minute piece that looks at how Superman fits into the cultural pantheon of mythological and folkloric heroes and the tales that have been passed down from generation to generation.
The real deal comes in the form of the vast 110-minute documentary, Look, Up In The Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman. Narrated by Kevin Spacey, this terrific chronicle charts every step of the character's evolution from telepathic madman to iconic world saviour and cultural ideal, with an enormous amount of clips from shows, serials, radio-plays, cartoons and films, as well as great interviews with the likes of comic-book god Stan Lee, comic-book acolytes Mark Hamill and Gene Simmons and a whole host of people involved with bringing the character to life on both the page and the screen. Really, you could count yourself happy just with this in-depth, cover-all-bases appreciation of the hero's life and evolution.
Put all of this together with the TV pilot for 1958's The Adventures Of Superpup, the films' trailers and a moving tribute to Christopher Reeve in The Heart Of A Hero, and you've got what certainly amounts to a Super set of extras.
It is very tempting to label this lavish boxset as containing a couple of great films and a few spare coasters. Many people, even devout fans, are only interested in the first two instalments and view the rest as merely extras, and probably unwanted ones at that. And there is an inevitable sadness that creeps over you as you watch how the once mighty Superman is reduced in stature and integrity by both Lester and Furie and the ill-thought-out steering of the Salkinds, and then the catastrophic Canon Group. But you can still enjoy the buffoonish third and fourth entries … well, okay, only bits of the fourth … once you accept them for what they are. Singer's Messianic rebirth should have been a masterpiece by comparison, but the melancholic mood that dominates it totally flies against the comic-book escapism that we all want to experience from a Kal-El who can be unleashed with all the technical whizbang of today's effects.
But this is Christopher Reeve's legacy, regardless. He shines out from these films with a grace, a humour and a humility that is the epitome of the character that Siegel and Shuster created back in 1938. And no fan of Superman could afford to be without their hero's cinematic adventures in this sumptuous collection. Even if Singer's misjudged blockbuster still bears that same ugly old image, the other films look simply incredible. And they all sound terrific too. Virtually everything you could wish for is here in this set, save for Helen Slater's misbegotten foray into derring-do with Supergirl (which I still quite like on account of those amazing thighs!) and although this US set is quite pricey, the same thing can be snapped-up faster than a speeding bullet in the UK for a lot less.
No matter what Zack Snyder does with the character in Superman: Man Of Steel, there are generations who are devoted to the phenomenon that Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve created. The first two films still resonate with integrity, style, fun and the sort of supremely exuberant comic-book panache that movie-makers these days struggle to come close to. The first one, unreservedly, gets a 10 out of 10, whilst the others succumb to the law of diminishing returns. Lester's theatrical cut of Superman II is still a strong personal favourite of mine and gets an 8, but III drops down to a 6 (yep, I'm being generous) and IV … well, let's just leave the scoring for now, eh?
But, clunkers aside, this set comes extremely highly recommended.
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