SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE - 4K Blu-ray (Warner Bros., 1978) Warner Home Video
In 1978, indie producers, Ilya and Alexander Salkind, along with their partner, Pierre Spengler, unveiled what can ostensibly be called the first ‘legitimate’ superhero movie - Superman: The Movie. Directed by Richard Donner with a sincere reverence for the American-bred mythology about this man of steel, Superman: The Movie became a box office bonanza for Warner Bros., the studio covering its production costs in a ‘negative pickup’ deal with the Salkinds. Interestingly, there had never been a big screen adaptation about this beloved Hercules in blue tights from the planet Krypton, perhaps due in part to Hollywood’s then natural aversion to sci-fi and comic books in general, and, also, as other attempts at bringing comic book heroes to life had quickly degenerated into ‘B’ or even ‘C’ grade hokum no self-respecting studio would dare attach its name. Warner Bros. did, in fact, own DC Comics, and hence, the legacy of our caped crusader, fighting for truth, justice and the American way already belonged to them. Like virtually all the memorable superheroes of yore, Superman was born during America’s collective yearning for a great salvation to spare the nation from the Great Depression. Yet, not even its creators, artists/storytellers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster could have foreseen the hour when Superman would rock the box office to become an international movie-land phenomenon.
In hindsight, Superman: The Movie is an uplifting fusion of time-honored faces and newcomers brought in concert to create precisely the sort of big-scale movie magic wanting in movies in general – and superhero movies in particular – for a very, VERY long time. Hiring the likes of Glenn Ford, Trevor Howard, Susannah York, Terrance Stamp, Jackie Cooper, and, Ned Beatty in a ‘Michael Todd-esque’ series of cameos, creates an immediate warm and fuzzy feeling, not only for the ground-breaking/full-scale visual effects Superman: The Movie promoted as cutting edge at the time, but also, as tribute to the heritage of movie-making lost to us since. And Superman: The Movie is really more a love story than an actioner – the romance between Clark Kent/Superman and Lois Lane the impetus that compels us to keep watching. The blessing that is the final product was achieved with many sweaty palms toiling in unison under Richard Donner’s creative aegis. It is one of those movies not only fondly recalled by those old enough to have seen it in 1978, but as ever-present and invigorating in 2018, regardless of mutable times, tastes and special effects that – let’s face it – are more quaintly informal to downright transparent by today’s standards. Again, SFX alone do not a great movie make – a lesson, Donner unreservedly appreciated, and reimbursed with a wonderful screenplay spanning many decades in Superman’s life.
A ‘negative pickup’ simply means that the studio agrees to an outright purchase of a movie already conceived, cast, financed and made by its producers; the ‘blank check’ covering all of these initial expenses in exchanged for exclusive rights and distribution of the product thereafter. To this, the Salkinds wholeheartedly agreed, particularly Ilya, who had first endeavored to launch Superman as a movie as early as 1973. Entering into critical negotiations with DC Comics proved something of a minor challenge. Indeed, they had not been satisfied by the rank Hollywood campiness heaped upon another of their beloved creations: Batman, in a thoroughly silly 1966 movie and subsequent spinoff TV series that ran from 1966-68. Eventually, Ilya Salkind won his battle, attaching the name of noteworthy screenwriter, Mario Puzo to the project. This impressed the studio, as did the subsequent hiring of Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman for the pivotal supporting parts of Superman’s father, Jor-El and his arch nemesis, Lex Luthor, respectively. While Brando willingly signed on for $3.7 million (barely 2 weeks work), Hackman was, at first, ambivalent, believing his appearance in a ‘superhero’ movie would wreck his credibility as a ‘serious actor’.
Early on, the executive decision was made to film two movies simultaneously. The Salkinds now turned their efforts to finding a director and multi-national sources to finance their ambitious enterprise. Again, for cache, they aimed high with yet another ‘name’ in the industry – James Bond alumni, Guy Hamilton to direct. Meanwhile, Alexander Salkind hired Robert Benton, David and Leslie Newman to rework the Puzo treatment. Alas, preproduction in Italy fell apart when inflation caused the Lira to skyrocket well beyond what was financially feasible. Electing to shoot Superman in England instead, the Salkinds were now faced with another dilemma: Hamilton’s inability to work at home as a tax exile. Mercifully, the Salkinds had a replacement in mind: Richard Donner, whose success with The Omen (1976) had caught their eye. Donner would later affectionately recall taking Alexander Salkind’s call while seated on the porcelain throne, being offered a million dollars to direct 2 movies – well above and beyond his current pay grade. Donner was instructed to get on a plane and get ready to shoot as the Salkind’s options on both Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando’s participation was fast approaching its expiration date. Now, Donner turned to friend/screenwriter, Tom Mankiewicz for inspiration; Mankiewicz uncertain he wanted any part of the exercise. Charismatically, Donner put on the makeshift Superman costume sent by the Salkinds, charging Mankiewicz as he approached up the front lawn. “I really believed I could fly,” Donner later admitted.
Evidently, the effrontery of witnessing Donner in full Superman regalia and the director’s built-in charm were enough to convince Mankiewicz to change his mind. He began by declaring Puzo’s 500+ page script unwieldy, and starting over with a complete rewrite. Donner and Mankiewicz both agreed that any movie about a fully-grown man running around in blue tights would either soar of crash land on the merits of the actor who could deliver authenticity and verisimilitude to the part. While the Salkinds encouraged Donner to look at bona fide stars of the period like Robert Redford or Warren Beatty, Donner went in completely the opposite direction, desiring a virtual unknown. What he quickly encountered was a rich spate of muscle men who decidedly looked the part but could not act, and a franchise of solid actors, appearing rather anemic to downright silly in blue tights. In desperation, Ilya Salkind’s wife even suggested her dentist as a viable candidate. The dentist actually tested for the part and was quickly and quietly dismissed. Along the way, the name and head shot of Christopher Reeve kept coming up for consideration – repeatedly rejected by virtually everyone except Donner, who eventually agreed to screen test the then unknown Reeve. According to Tom Mankiewicz, attending the shooting of the test, the moment Reeve casually stepped down from the makeshift balcony set to address Lois Lane (a part yet to be cast), he caused the hairs on the back of both Mankiewicz and cinematographer, Geoffrey Unsworth’s neck to stand on end with giddy excitement.
Reeve was tall, but lanky and looking somewhat thin in his tights. Nevertheless, his underplayed delivery of the lines perfectly caught the tenor and mood of the character. Years later, Reeve would admit that he stole a little from Cary Grant’s befuddled professor in 1938’s classic screwball, Bringing Up Baby, when playing Superman’s alter ego, the mild-mannered reporter, Clark Kent – perfecting an air of light comedy with a polite stutter to make the contrast between both halves of the character all the more pronounced. Content with his choice for Superman, Donner launched an extensive search for the ideal Lois Lane; auditioning every actress of the enviable age – including Anne Archer, Leslie Ann Warren and Susan Blakely. None suited Donner’s tastes. But Margo Kidder’s initial introduction to Christopher Reeve horrified him. She arrived in a pair of cowboy boots and tripped during her audition. Worse, Reeve’s deadly seriousness was countermanded by Kidder’s ‘kidder’ personality – preferring on-set pranks between takes, like snapping her fingers against Reeve’s ever-changing metal codpieces – to staying in character 24/7. Nevertheless, on-camera, Reeve and Kidder possessed that elusive spark of romantic chemistry Donner had been searching for as his centerpiece and anchor for all of the action.
As shooting began, Donner was faced with the fact the Salkinds had already spent $6 million during Guy Hamilton’s brief tenure on the project, resulting in not one usable strip of film. Instead, Donner began from scratch – hiring production designer, John Barry to conceive an ambitious three-act structure: the first, encompassing the epic scale of the planet, Krypton, and later, its reconstitution as Superman’s Fortress of Solitude; the second, invested in a bucolic evocation of the hamlet, Smallville from Clark Kent’s youth and teenage years, inspired by the impressions and artwork of Andrew Wyatt and Norman Rockwell, and finally, a full-on comic book interpretation of the fictional city of Metropolis. Curiously, outside of redressing the 476-foot Daily News Building as ‘The Daily Planet’, Barry and Donner allowed such iconic Manhattan landmarks as the World Trade Center, the Chrysler Building, and, the Statue of Liberty to be clearly visible in the background. So, in the film’s bizarro-world, Metropolis is New York and vice versa. On March 24, 1977, cameras began to roll on Superman: The Movie; Donner, tirelessly embracing the project with one mantra – to bring plausibility to the story while keeping everyone’s spirits invested during the arduous, and initially budgeted, 9-month shoot. Very quickly, Donner discovered he had bitten off more than the Salkinds were willing to chew. Without ever being given a definitive schedule or final budget, Donner concentrated on making the best movie he could with all of his creative powers entrenched; the time line doubling, then tripling as Superman went way over budget, leaving the Salkinds to renegotiate their ‘negative pickup’ with Warner Bros. Mercifully, the studio absolutely loved what they saw in Donner’s daily rushes. Nevertheless, they used this as leverage to gradually squeeze the Salkinds out of more and more of their initially agreed upon profit-sharing.
Donner concurred that Superman: The Movie would be dead in the water if the audience did not believe a man could fly. Hence, he spent an inordinate amount of time perfecting the visual effects that would allow Christopher Reeve his uncanny defiance of the laws of gravity. At times, suspended on a gimbal, at others by wires, Superman’s flying sequences were costly, cumbersome and draining on the energies and patience of both cast and crew. Nevertheless, Reeve employed all of his body to bank from side to side, smoothly cutting the air with his arms extended, thus adding another layer of transition to make these sequences convincing. Having story-boarded the entire movie, Donner remained steadfast to working fifteen-hour days – a grueling schedule, complimented by cinematographer, Geoffrey Unsworth’s deep-rooted determination to establish a softly focused artistry that could perfectly compliment what is essentially a modern-age American fairy tale. At Shepperton Studios, Donner and Barry employed at least ten different cinema tricks to make Superman fly; some, like blue-screen and rear projection, time-honored; others, truly experimental. Such manual finessing took time. It also cost a lot.
While Christopher Reeve engaged in a daily exercise regimen to ‘buff up’ for the part, costumer, Yvonne Blake established ‘the look’ of Superman’s trademarked outfit. For costumes in the Planet Krypton sequence, Blake employed the same reflective fabric used to make theater screens, comprised on thousands of minute beads of glass. Cotton gloves were required to stitch and handle these costumes, as any contact with human hands immediately diminished the gloss of its reflecting surface. Meanwhile, John Barry monopolized the vast resources at his disposal, constructing massive sets depicting Lex Luthor’s half-submerged, underground bunker – a fascinating amalgam of faux stone, marble and concrete Grand Central Station turrets and stairwells. As Donner completed scenes, they were rushed to editors, Stuart Baird and Michael Ellis, whose expertise made the most of Donner’s directorial prowess. Occasionally, Baird and Donner clashed over creative decisions. However, these rebuttals only served to strengthen their working relationship, as well as improve the overall quality of the final cut. Nevertheless, Donner would become the unwitting sacrificial lamb of the Salkinds during the final months of post-production. The Salkinds, while secure in their decision Donner was the right man for the project, were nevertheless unimpressed by Donner’s due diligence having resulted in delays that cost them in their financial re-negotiations with Warner Brothers. As both time and money ran out, the Salkinds slashed plans for Superman II in a last-ditch effort to shore up their deficits and meet the agreed upon Christmas release (Aside: Superman: The Movie was originally slated as a summer blockbuster release).
Superman: The Movie opens larger than life with ‘swooshing’ main titles heralding its impressive cast and an orchestral feast put forth by John Williams. We dissolve from the farthest reaches of outer space to the planet Krypton where Jor-El (Marlon Brando) a member of the Kryptonian high council is concluding his trial of a trio of villains, including General Zod (Terrance Stamp), whom he banishes to eternal death in the phantom zone. Jor-El has concluded Krypton is on a collision course with its nearby sun and will implode before the month is out. The high council disagrees and Jor-El, in danger of being charged with high treason for his views, promises neither he nor his wife (Susannah York) shall leave the planet. However, he never said anything about his infant son. And so, baby Kal-El is launched in a spacecraft bound for earth on the eve Krypton is vaporized, just as Jor-El had predicted. This craft crash lands in the wheat fields not far from Smallville, U.S.A.; Kal-El, barely three-years-old, discovered in the smoldering wreckage unharmed, and thereafter reared into teenage adulthood by his ‘adopted parents’, Jonathan (Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter).
At school, Kal-El – rechristened as Clark – is seen as a bit of a dud by his classmates. Reluctant to show off his superhuman gifts of strength and speed, Clark (now played by Jeff East) is heartbroken when an innocent challenge to race his dad home results in Jonathan suffering a fatal heart attack. Not long thereafter, Clark discovers a glowing crystal imbedded in the barn and is compelled to leave home, journeying to the farthest reaches north where the crystal recreates the architecture of Krypton as Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. From here, Clark is reunited with Jor-El’s spirit; educated in the ways of his birthright, and provided with the impetus to return to Metropolis to serve humanity as ‘the man of steel’. Guarding his secret identity, Clark gets a job as a mild-mannered reporter for caustic editor, Perry White (Jackie Cooper) at Metropolis’ Daily Planet newspaper. There, he befriends the young photographer, Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) and becomes enamored with an ambitious reporter, Lois Lane (Margo Kidder). Despite his obvious attraction to her, Lois is oblivious to Clark’s interests. Nevertheless, when Lois is saved from a near-fatal helicopter crash by Clark’s alter ego, she becomes hopelessly kittenish toward this flying stranger, whom she nicknames ‘Superman’.
As Superman, Clark grants Lois an interview for her newspaper; then, proceeds to take her on a memorable flight over Metropolis’ skyline. Meanwhile, criminal mastermind, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) becomes personally invested in ambushing Superman with a sizable chunk of Kryptonite stolen from the museum. Luthor sees Superman as a distinct threat to his crime wave. Given Luthor’s superior intellect, it seems rather curious and silly he should employ as his cohorts, the bumbler, Otis (Ned Beatty) and buxom – but not altogether brilliant, Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). Learning of a joint U.S. Army/Navy nuclear missile test launch, Luthor buys up hundreds of worthless acres of desert, then reprograms the two 500 megaton missiles to detonate California's San Andreas Fault, thus sinking everything west of the fault into the Pacific Ocean and leaving him as the new property manager of the West Coast. Luring Superman to his lair, Luthor exposes him to the Kryptonite. It renders Superman powerless. As Superman begins to suffer radiation poisoning from this deadly meteorite tied around his neck, he implores Miss Teschmacher to help him. After making him promise to save her mother first, Miss Teschmacher removes the Kryptonite from Superman’s neck.
His strength restored, Superman rushes off to destroy the bombs. Although he manages to divert the eastbound missile into outer space, nothing can prevent the other bomb from exploding within the San Andreas Fault. A massive earthquake ensues. And although Superman is adept at saving many in mortal peril from the after effects of this quake, including a bus-load of school children set to plummet off the Golden Gate Bridge, and, Jimmy Olsen, who narrowly takes a tumble from the crumbling Hoover Dam, Superman is too late to save Lois Lane. Her car swallowed by a fissure in the earth’s crust, Lois has died from suffocation after being buried alive. Enraged, Superman flies into outer space, reversing the earth’s rotation, and thereby, rewinding time back to the moment just prior to the second bomb going off. He returns to earth to find an impatient Lois unable to start her car, and criticizing him for coming to her rescue too late. “The trouble with a man of steel is that he’s never around when you need him!” Amused by her feistiness, Superman departs. He is next seen depositing Luthor and Otis at San Quentin, before flying above the earth’s atmosphere and surveying the planet he so obviously is impassioned about preserving from its modern ills.
As Richard Donner gathered his troop together for a farewell cast party, Christopher Reeve was well aware his participation was only half over. There were process shots to complete – hundreds of them, and more flying sequences to perfect. Donner, Unsworth and his crew worked tirelessly to finish these in record time. As the interim between the actual final shot, editing and scoring of the film and the world premiere was separated by a mere span of weeks, no one associated with the project, much less the general public and/or critics were privy to a sneak prevue before the official launch. What followed all this heady last-minute activity would prove a double-edged sword for Donner. Critical praise for the movie was unanimous. The public flocked to see Superman: The Movie. Alas, amidst all this heady elation, Donner was informed by the Salkinds he would not be returning to the trenches for Superman II – the sequel for which he had already shot quite a lot of footage before the purse strings were cut off. Nevertheless, buoyed by John Williams’ exuberant fanfare, and an exhilarating underscore that perfectly caught the popular zeitgeist, Superman: The Movie went on to gross over $300 million, easily eclipsing its initial $55 million outlay.
It is important to note that while Richard Donner had editorial control over the final cut of the movie version, the Salkinds held editorial rights beyond its initial theatrical release. Hence, when ABC approached for the network television rights to broadcast the movie, the Salkinds seized upon the opportunity to suggest a ‘new’ 3-hour cut of Superman: The Movie, featuring footage ‘restored’ – but likely never intended by Donner to be seen. As the Salkinds had sold virtually all rights to both the theatrical release and all home video reissues, there only revenue stream now became this 3-hr. TV edit, adding some 45 min. of excised footage to Superman’s girth. ABC exuberantly complied, agreeing to make this new cut into a 2-night television event. It debuted in February, 1982 and ran 182 minutes. This extended cut would continue to resurface on TV throughout the next two decades. By popular demand, in the year 2000, Warner Home Video began work on a restoration of this unofficial TV edit. It would eventually be released to Blu-ray in 2017, properly framed in Panavision. Regardless of the Salkinds’ tampering, Richard Donner’s version of Superman: The Movie remains a fondly recalled movie event from the 1970’s. Indeed, it has held up remarkably well. While the marketing campaign in 1978 declared, “You will believe a man can fly!”, some 40 years later, audiences everywhere still do.
In 1995, Christopher Reeve suffered a horrendous riding accident that severed his spinal cord and instantly made him a quadriplegic. Despite Reeve’s never-waning optimism for a cure and his ardent belief he would someday walk again – a promise wholeheartedly embraced by Donner – Reeve’s condition would steadily deteriorate. His death at the age of 52 in 2004 was followed by the uncannily-timed demise of his wife and confidant, Dana, barely 2 years later. She was only 44. And while Christopher Reeve’s professional career arguably never overcame his role as ‘the man of steel’ – his activism as an untiring spokesperson for those suffering from spinal cord injuries remains a beacon of faith for millions unaltered, except by sadness over the loss of the man.
Superman: The Movie was originally photographed on film: cinematographer extraordinaire, Geoffrey Unsworth (who died shortly thereafter) employing diffusion filters to create an intentionally romanticized image. This has been perfectly recaptured on Warner Home Video’s newly minted 4K Blu-ray, employing the original camera negative of the theatrical cut only. No doubt, not having the extended cut - also restored and remastered in 4K - will tick off ardent fans. Nevertheless, Superman: The Movie has been color graded in both HDR10 and Dolby Vision. What is here is positively transcendent. Always possessing a strong grain structure, this new remastering perfects the quality of that ‘grain-heavy’ image to produce an exquisitely film-like presentation. Colors are refined and far more accurately represented. Whites shine and blacks are velvety deep and enveloping. Virtually all of the fine detail and carefully crafted splendor built-into the original negative is on display here. Bar none: this is a gorgeous transfer that will surely impress film lovers.
Warner has also gone back to the drawing board for a Dolby Atmos 7.1 mix and a newly remixed 5.1 Dolby Digital, aimed at recreating the original theatrical audio experience. The 5.1 is obviously subtler than the 7.1. But it gingerly evokes the memory of what audiences heard in 6-track 70mm stereo in 1978, with clarity and spatiality ever so slightly improved. The only extra on the 4K disc is the Pierre Spengler/Ilya Salkind audio commentary. Warner has included a Blu-ray of the theatrical cut too. Regrettably, this does not derive from the same newly restored 4K files. It’s the old disc release from 2008 and includes, as extras, an hour-long ‘making of’, an episode from the old serialized Superman series (also running just under an hour), three Looney Tunes animated shorts, and, a theatrical trailer. In an odd marketing decision, the U.K. release of this 4K disc includes the SE extended cut with all its extra features – not the theatrical cut included herein. Bottom line: I suppose it would have been prudent of Warner Home Video to go back and remaster all of the various cuts of Superman: The Movie in 4K. Realistically, the time/cost factor is working against this. And truly, what we have now is the original theatrical release as audiences first fell in love with, looking very much like a vintage ‘night at the movies’ on home video. To paraphrase George and Ira Gershwin – “Who could ask for anything more?!?” Very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)