SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE – HD DVD review

“Superman: The Movie” opens with a history of the super guy’s lineage, but everybody knows his real story. Created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joel Schuster, he first appeared in “Action Comics” #1 in 1938. From there it was on to a daily newspaper strip, a radio show, a pair of movie serials in the 1940s with Kirk Alyn, a TV series in the 1950s with George Reeves, a Broadway musical, the film we have here (the first of four epic motion pictures starting in 1978 and starring Christopher Reeve), a flock of animated and live-action television shows throughout the years, and then the movie resurrection of the superhero in 2006.

Connoisseurs may argue the relative merits of “Superman: The Movie” vs. its sequel, “Superman II,” but for my money, I enjoy this two-part opening stab at the man from the planet Krypton, which provides background on his origin along with a tongue-in-cheek adventure. With the HD-DVD edition filled with glorious sights and sounds, an expanded 2000 version of the movie, and extra goodies, this release is as good a way as any to spend your video dollars.

Two things were absolutely essential to making the movie work: The filmmakers had to find a credible Superman, and they had to make him fly. Not infrequently in the past the Man of Steel had looked too old, too puny, or too overweight. In Christopher Reeve, the casting department found someone with just the right charisma to pull it off, even if his physique didn’t quite match the muscular torso of the man in the comic books. Reeve, a former soap-opera star, was tall, dark, handsome, boyish, shy, and athletic. Close enough. What was important was that he could charm the hood off a cobra. His smile and wink were so disarming that even his most severe critics had to admit he was the best Superman for the time. Then, there was that little matter of making him fly. Remember, the filmmakers made this movie before the age of digital special effects. They did it all the old-fashioned way. And does it work? Of course, it does, and splendidly. There’s never a moment in the film when we can say Reeve’s aerial aerobics look phony. The special flying effects looked good then and they look good now.

Before the producers ever hired Reeve, however, they retained the talents of Marlon Brando as Superman’s father, Jor-El, and Gene Hackman as the super-villain, Lex Luthor. This, too, was inspired casting, although one wonders at the decision to assign Brando top billing, given that his part in the two-and-a-half-hour film lasts less than twenty minutes. But a mega-star is a mega-star, and his name alone was worth millions at the box office. Hackman, on the other hand, feared his role in the film might be too lightweight and tarnish his reputation as a serious actor. He needn’t have worried. The role merely confirmed what we had already known–that Hackman could play anything from light comedy to heavy drama with equal ease. More veteran actors filled out the other parts, people like Glenn Ford as Superman’s foster father, Jonathan Kent, and Jackie Cooper as the editor of the Daily Planet, Perry White, and Ned Beatty as Luthor’s comical henchman, Otis, and Trevor Howard as a member of the ruling Krypton Council. Plus, there were Susanna York, Terence Stamp, Phyllis Thaxter, Maria Schell, and others in minor roles. And relative unknowns also did splendid work, like Margot Kidder as Superman’s love interest, Lois Lane, and Marc McClure as the cub reporter, Jimmy Olsen, and Valerie Perrine as Luthor’s sexpot girlfriend, Miss Teschmacher.

With a story and screenplay by Mario Puzo (“The Godfather”), heroic music by John Williams (“Star Wars”), and a capable director in Richard Donner (“The Omen,” “Lethal Weapon”), the only thing the film needed was enough money to carry it out successfully. Warner Bros. afforded the film one of the biggest budgets they had ever given to a production, and their reward was the highest-grossing motion picture in their history up until that time.

As I mentioned above, “Superman: The Movie” is divided into two distinct parts. The first part traces the history of the amazing superhero from his childhood on the doomed planet Krypton through his adoption by parents on Earth and his young adulthood in Smallville. This first part is fairly serious and straightforward, attempting to dazzle the audience with visual effects like the destruction of Krypton and the baby’s star flight to Earth, with Brando’s voice-over narration. Critics have often lambasted this opening section for being too pompous or self-important and not getting right to the main plot. On the other hand, I’ve always liked this section because I enjoy learning how these superheroes came into being. It’s why I enjoyed M. Night Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable” more than other people did. It was all prelude and no actual silly superhero plot.

The film’s second part is, if anything, even more controversial. It recounts some of Superman’s first exploits as Clark Kent, “mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper” who “fights for truth, justice, and the American way.” But it does so in basically comedic fashion. Reeve plays Kent as klutzy, coy, cuddly, and cute, and plays Superman as impeccably forthright and noble, saving the world from jewel thieves and bank robbers, saving Lois from a helicopter disaster, saving a cat from a tree, saving the President from a disabled Air Force One, that kind of thing. His biggest problem appears to be finding a telephone booth suitable for changing clothes. Hackman as Luthor is a bona fide ham, “fiendishly gifted” and “the greatest criminal mind of our time” in Luthor’s own words. He is a comic-book character all the way, as are Beatty’s oafish Otis and Cooper’s blustering editor. They fit right in with a comic-book plot about Luthor’s attempt to drop the West Coast into the sea.

Just how well one can reconcile the seriousness of the first part with the silliness of the second part may to a degree determine one’s overall reaction to the movie. I mean, newspaper reporter Lois Lane lives in a penthouse garden apartment, if you can believe that. Only in the movies. Fortunately, there is a sweet love story that goes along with the comic-book action, and that partially redeems the film’s second half. Still, as a whole, “Superman: The Movie” gives us a little bit of everything, and that’s not a bad thing to have.

Video:
I had no complaint about the video properties of the standard-definition transfer of the movie, nor do I have anything to gripe about here. The new 1080 HD-DVD transfer is a tad wider than before, measuring out at about 2.20:1 across my television, and the picture continues to look a bit intentionally pale in the opening sections on Krypton, brightening up on Earth. The image in neither edition is exactly crystal clear, and one still notices some very minor grain, especially in the vast expanses of ice on Superman’s home planet. Since the high-bit-rate, anamorphic SD edition was already good, differences between it and the HD version may not be readily apparent except on direct comparison. Happily, I did have the opportunity to directly compare selected scenes, using HD-DVD and SD-DVD players side by side. As expected. the HD-DVD shows marginal improvements in definition, detailing, and color depth. Superman’s scarlet-and-blue costume is more radiant, faces display more natural texture, and objects generally stand out more crisply. Not big differences, but differences, nonetheless.

Audio:
In comparing the new Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio with the older Dolby Digital 5.1, I thought there was at least as big a difference as there was in the picture quality. That means there isn’t a lot, but it is noticeable when one switches from one to the other. In both versions, there is excellent multichannel separation, very wide dynamics, and deep-throated bass. When Krypton blows up, be assured it sends debris convincingly all around us. But in DD+ the sound appears more tightly controlled, the impact tauter and more explosive, the sound effects more vivid, the dialogue sharper etched. Bass and dynamics seem more powerful because of the added definition, rear-channel noises more lifelike, and voices more natural (although, to be fair, voices can vary from quite realistic and open to somewhat dry and nasal).

Extras:
Warner Bros. provide most of the same bonuses they include in their standard-edition package. The main things are an extra eight minutes for the 2000 expanded version, an audio commentary with director Richard Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz, and a pair of thirty-minute documentaries. The first documentary is “Taking Flight: The Development of Superman” and tells about the movie’s pre-production. The second is “Superman: Filming the Legend” and offers details on casting and the like. In addition, there are some Superman screen tests and a music-only audio track.

Things conclude with forty-four scene selections, a TV spot, a teaser trailer, a theatrical trailer, English and French spoken languages, and English, French, and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired. As always, WB also provide pop-up menus, a zoom-and-pan feature, an indicator of elapsed time, and a nifty little red case.

Parting Thoughts:
If you take your Superman comic books seriously, this 1978 “Superman” movie may not be quite up to speed. Christopher Reeve is not exactly the physical embodiment of the comic-book champion, and the simpleminded plot may seem further to trivialize the Man of Steel. But there’s no denying that Reeve has wonderful charisma, and the film’s epic qualities look and sound more spectacular than ever on HD-DVD. It’s about what audiences expected, then and now. The movie is frivolous but fun.

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