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Richard Donner
Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Trevor Howard, Margot Kidder, Jack O'Halloran, Valerie Perrine, Maria Schell, Terence Stamp
Writing Credits:
Jerry Siegel (creator, Superman), Joe Shuster (creator, Superman), Mario Puzo (and story), David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton

You'll Believe a Man Can Fly!

The Superman myth is well told, from his birth on the doomed planet Krypton to his childhood in a small Kansas town and beyond, in Richard Donner's blockbuster. After he comes of age, young Clark Kent, as his Earth parents have named him, learns the truth of his alien birth on a voyage of discovery to the Arctic. It is there that he learns - through a link to his long-dead birth parents - of his superhuman abilities and his responsibility to preserve and protect "truth, justice and the American Way." Once he adjusts to life in the big city, Metropolis, he discovers that hiding his superpowers as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) isn't easy as he flirts with hard-nosed Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and battles supervillain Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman). The film's all-star cast includes Jackie Cooper, Marlon Brando, Ned Beatty, Glenn Ford, Terence Stamp, and Valerie Perrine, among others, all camping it up wonderfully.

Box Office:
$55 million.
Opening Weekend
$7.465 million on 508 screens.
Domestic Gross
$40.925 million.

Rated PG

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1

Runtime: 151 min.
Price: $24.98
Release Date: 5/1/2001

• Audio Commentary with Director Richard Donner and Creative Consultant Tom Mankiewicz
• Music-Only Audio Track
• Three Behind the Scenes Documentaries
• Screen Tests
• Deleted Scenes
• Audio Outtakes
• Trailers and TV Spots
• Cast and Crew Filmographies


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Superman (1978)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 1, 2006)

While I try not to be excessively nostalgic, I must admit that one reason I like 1978’s Superman is because it reminds me of a time when movies were events. Although records indicate that Superman was released on December 15, 1978, that’s not entirely true. Much more so than we see today, in that time period lots of movies came out in staggered release patterns. There weren’t any 3000-screen openings, and it often might take a while for a film to get to your part of the world.

Since I’ve lived my whole life in the Washington DC area, one would expect that I never really suffered from those delays that affected many others, but in an odd way, I did. When I was a kid, I was told that Virginia exhibitors were not allowed to sign up for a new film sight-unseen. I’m quite vague on the details, and could be wrong about the specifics, but I know that something such as this existed just because we so often had to wait for movies. For example, Star Wars didn’t get to us until a month or more into its run.

However, because Maryland and DC didn’t have any similar prohibitions, we were still able to check out hot new flicks - when our parents would deign to schlep us across one bridge or another. As such, soon after the calendar turned to 1979, my friends and I were transported to the darkest depths of Oxon Hill, Maryland to check out Superman.

To say that we were dazzled would be an understatement. For kids at that time, Superman presented a terrifically exciting and compelling experience. Yes, we actually did believe that a man could fly. Of course, we also believed that our morning glass of milk came from a cat, so take that all with a grain of salt.

It can be dangerous to revisit childhood favorites at a much later date, as they often don’t age well. A clear lesson in this respect came when I reviewed Jaws 2, and I was a little afraid that I might also feel negatively toward Superman.

I looked forward to my new viewing of Superman on DVD, though it occurred with a little trepidation. Happily, even 28 years after my first experience with the film, it still holds up well, and I found the movie to offer a very entertaining experience.

Not that it lacks flaws, however. Superman follows the full chronology of the character, as it begins with his infancy on Krypton and goes along with little Kal-El as he grows up in the rural Midwest and ultimately ends up as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent in big-town Metropolis. There the Man of Steel (Christopher Reeve) himself emerges, and we also meet love interest/coworker Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), megavillain Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), and a bunch of others.

Superman spends an amazing amount of time developing the back story. It’s literally almost halfway through the film before Superman himself actually makes an appearance. For the most part, the early parts of the movie are interesting, but I felt the pace dragged a bit at times, especially as we develop teen Clark. The scenes are important to develop his sense of morals, but I think they went on for too long and didn’t add a ton to the movie.

Superman is an odd beast in that on one hand, it feels it needs to give us a complete telling of the back story, but on the other, it clearly recognizes that we already have a tremendous familiarity with the character. Superman contains enough “in-jokes” to communicate that it knows we’re already quite well-acquainted with the legend. For example, as Kent rushes to find a place to make his first clothes change into Superman, we see him head straight to the nearest phone booth. However, it becomes a gag since it’s not an enclosed apparatus. Since we’ve never seen Kent approach any other booths, the film assumes that we already know the cliché.

I understood the desire to offer so much back story, however, as it does make Superman feel like a more complete film. However, I still think they could have cut to the chase a little more quickly. Interestingly, the next franchise-starting comic book-based blockbuster - 1989’s Batman - took almost the exact opposite approach. It began with Batman as a fully-formed force and only gradually revealed some of the character’s origins. Both approaches have their merits and their drawbacks, and I don’t fault Superman for the concept; it’s the execution that’s a little lacking.

After we finally got to the adult Kal-El, however, the movie almost uniformly worked well. Once the film arrived in Metropolis, it became quite fun and exciting, although it could appear a bit rushed at times. It occasionally felt as though the filmmakers had spent so much time with the back story that they needed to zip through the remaining elements. Nonetheless, character development seemed acceptable, and many scenes were very strong.

Probably my favorite sequence in the film showed Superman’s first night in Metropolis. This was terrific action flick material as Supes made some dazzling rescues and created a strong presence. After that, the movie cranked along at a pretty nice pace. Again, it may be a little too accelerated, but after the languid tone of the first half, it was good to watch things move more quickly.

It helped that Superman boasts a pretty solid cast, headlined by a terrific turn from Reeve as both the Man of Steel and Kent. Part of the silliness about Superman came from the fact that his “disguise” as Clark was so minor; he put on some glasses and no one could tell he’s the same person? Reeve made the difference quite believable; since he played the two roles in such varying ways, he really showed how folks might be fooled into not detecting Superman’s true identity. He’s appropriately goofy and wimpy as Clark, but he straightened up and became self-possessed when he’s in his tights. It’s not an easy role, but Reeve did a wonderful job.

Kidder also embodied the charms of Lane well. She’s attractive but not too sexy, and while she seemed smart and able, she still showed girlish vulnerability when she’s in the presence of Superman. Lois easily could have become something of a witch, but Kidder managed to keep her appealing.

Hackman added charm to his work as super-villain Luthor. This was a genuinely evil man, but since this isn’t the dark world of Batman, even when Luthor planned the nastiest schemes - with absolutely no regard for the lives of others - he still needed to be shown in a fairly light manner. Hackman pulled off this dual-capacity with aplomb and made Luthor a strong baddie despite fairly limited screen time.

Very few aspects of Superman fell flat. I genuinely loathed the “Can You Read My Mind?” segment in which Kidder spoke some lame lyrics to a song during her flight with Supes. Otherwise it’d be a great scene in which we got to feel her wonder and delight with this experience, but the silliness of the “song” dragged it down to a lower level.

With that aside, the movie continued to hold up pretty well. Superman was a phenomenal hit in its day, and quite a few people remember it fondly. I’m one of them, and while I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did when I was 11, I still find the film to provide a generally fun and stimulating experience.

Potentially interesting observation: when I saw DVDs like Gilda and The Loves Of Carmen, it took me a little while to get used to Glenn Ford as a fiery leading man. I’d only experienced his work as an older actor in roles like gentle Jonathan Kent here. However, because it’d been so long since I’d seen Superman and I’d taken in a few other Ford flicks in the interim, it now was weird for me to see him as a mild-mannered old dude.

My final dopey comment about the film: my favorite unintentionally-comic moment of Superman occurs right before General Zod and his crew are banished to the Phantom Zone. As Zod threatens Jor-El, he bellows that “one day you’ll bow down before me - both you and your heirs!” However, I always thought that Terence Stamp’s accent made it sound as though he shouted that “one day you’ll bow down before me - both you and your ass!” Considering the size to which Brando would soon grow, my interpretation of the line makes some sense; it might take more than one day for Brando’s ass to bow down with the rest of him.

Note that the DVD release of Superman offers a new extended version of the film. About eight minutes of additional material was reintegrated into the body of the flick. Frankly, none of it added anything to the experience, but none of it harmed the piece either, so I was happy to have a look at it. The new snippets did fit in well with the original shots; there seemed to be no deterioration in quality that made them stand out from the rest of the film.

The DVD Grades: Picture B+/ Audio A/ Bonus A-

Superman appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this double-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While the transfer showed some problems at times, as a whole they seemed to be fairly minor and were not concerns that appeared unusual for an effects-intensive movie from the late Seventies.

Indeed, the many special effects sequences caused most of the problems found during Superman. For the most part, sharpness appeared nicely crisp and detailed. A few sequences came across as mildly soft and fuzzy, an issue occasionally provoked by the film’s gentle white lighting; Superman utilized a visual scheme that gave much of the movie a quietly nostalgic look. As such, occasionally the film could appear a little hazy, but most of it seemed clear and well-defined. I detected no signs of moiré effects or jagged edges.

Colors were largely clean and accurate. Again, the lighting used rendered the hues a little on the subdued side throughout many portions of the movie, but this seemed to be a stylistic choice and wasn’t a flaw of the image. When appropriate, the colors came across as nicely bold and vibrant. They showed no signs of bleeding or noise and they presented appropriately clear and vivid tones.

Black levels generally seemed to be deep and dark, though these were affected slightly by the soft white lighting featured throughout the film. The latter made contrast appear a little “off” at times, as the whites looked as though they were “blooming” slightly, but again, I really think this was the intention of the filmmakers to give the movie that particular look. Shadow detail seemed a little heavy during one scene - in which teen Clark Kent emerges from bed at dawn - but otherwise the low-light segments came across as appropriately dense.

Print flaws caused the majority of the problems I observed as I watched Superman. However, that doesn’t mean that they were severe by any stretch of the imagination. Actually, most of the movie seemed wonderfully clean and fresh. When I saw defects, they almost always accompanied effects-heavy sequences. These were most prominent during the film’s climax. Prior to that, most of Superman’s flying segments - which make up the majority of its effects pieces - took place during nighttime scenes, and that factor helped obscure their flaws.

However, the climactic sections were all during daylight, and this made the problems much more evident. As such, I saw a lot of grain at those times. Really, grain was the main problem I observed throughout the movie, and it could be moderately heavy on occasion. A few specks and some grit popped up in a few shots as well, and sometimes I viewed these concerns during non-effects pieces. However, as a whole, I found the movie to appear nicely free of defects, and much of Superman presented a genuinely terrific image; there were many scenes that easily offered an “A”-level picture. While the flaws seen in a number of sections caused me to lower my overall grade to a “B+”, I still was pleased with what I saw as I watched Superman.

Ditto for the film’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, which worked incredibly well. The soundfield itself seemed amazingly active. All five channels were utilized on an almost constant basis. The movie featured a fine variety of discrete audio that appeared in the five different speakers, and the mix created a strongly convincing and compelling atmosphere at all times. Whether the cacophony of the destruction of Krypton or the activities of Superman’s first big night or… well, you name it; any action scene in the movie displayed active five-channel audio, and even the quieter scenes presented absorbing and effective ambiance. I’d love to pick out a favorite, but there are too many from which to choose. Forget whether or not this was a good soundfield for its era; this track rocked for a modern film.

Happily, Superman didn’t disappoint in regard to its audio quality either. Dialogue was easily the weakest link, as the mildly thin and reedy tone of the speech betrayed the movie’s late Seventies origins. However, most of the lines sounded acceptably natural for the era, and I never detected any signs of edginess; even when material was shouted, the dialogue still came across as clean and easily intelligible. Of all the soundtrack’s elements, only the speech really reminded me that I was watching a 25+-year-old film, but nonetheless, I still thought the material integrated fairly well with the rest of the track.

That may be a minor miracle considering just how good the music and effects sounded. John Williams’ terrific score came across with great life and verve. The high end appeared clean and clear, with nicely ringing horns and fluid strings, while the bass response replicated low notes with fine depth and accuracy. The folks who worked on this mix really did a terrific job with the music, as it sounded fantastically bright and bold; it presented higher quality audio than many - maybe most - scores found on more recent films.

Similar comments applied to the effects. Due to that remarkably active soundfield, Superman was an effects bonanza, and the track replicated them with excellent clarity and dynamics. Never did I hear a hint of distortion, even during gunfire or explosions, and the realism of the elements seemed terrific. On a couple of occasions, I noted a minor amount of hiss, but these were rare instances. As with the score, bass response also seemed phenomenal. Oh lord, the low end I heard during this movie! From the “whoosh” of the opening credits - which featured a deep “thump” when Richard Donner’s name appeared - to the theatrics of the finale, my subwoofer got a workout that would put many modern movies to shame. It thumped and roared so often during the movie that I thought my house might collapse.

However, I never felt that the low end presented excessive or inappropriate audio. The bass seemed to match the on-screen action well, and the sound didn’t present excessive atmosphere just for the sake of being. Instead, I thought that the mix matched the film nicely and it really brought the experience to life. Superman provided a simply amazing auditory experience.

Some controversy has surrounded this soundtrack, however. Apparently many of the effects have been redone for this mix, and it does not perfectly represent the original track. Frankly, I don’t know the film well enough to detect the differences and comment upon them. For better or for worse, all I can say is that I really liked the new mix. I wish that the original track appeared alongside it, though.

We find a slew of supplements on this DVD. Some of these appear on side one of the disc, starting with a running audio commentary from director Richard Donner and “creative consultant” Tom Mankiewicz. (In fact, Mankiewicz did a rewrite of the script, but union issues prevented him from receiving credit as a writer.) The two were recorded together for this screen-specific track.

Both Donner (The Omen) and Mankiewicz (Cleopatra, Live and Let Die) are audio commentary veterans, and their experience comes through during this track, as they seem comfortable with the format. As a result, we find a decent but not spectacular commentary. Neither man attempts to offer a real history of the film or the production, as the piece generally follows an anecdotal structure. The track tells us about the creation of the opening credits, various effects concerns, casting and working with the actors, cinematography, sets and locations, some story and script issues, various effects, and other filmmaking issues.

Donner’s always been irreverent, so he gets in some nice zingers, and Mankiewicz helps keep him grounded. Gaps become a consistent problem, as we find a fair amount of dead air. I learned some nice tidbits about the movie, and I largely enjoyed the commentary, but it doesn’t qualify as one of the great tracks.

Also found on side one is a feature that will definitely delight fans of movie music. Here we get John Williams’ famous score presented on its own in Dolby Digital 5.0 sound. (The DVD’s case states that it’s 5.1, but that’s not accurate.) Since Williams’ work is so popular, I thought this was a very generous addition to the package.

I also like Added Scenes. This lets you jump right away to the nine extra bits that have been reintegrated into the film. As an extra courtesy, the chapters in which the new material appears have been listed inside the DVD’s case. Oddly, however, there are only eight of these noted there, while the “Added Scenes” area clearly details nine of them. It turns out the new scene with Clark’s mom wasn’t mentioned in the package.

A few other minor extras round out the first side of the DVD. Superman - the Legacy gives us a nice text piece that traces the history of the character, from his start in comics through stage and screen adaptations. Cast and Crew includes filmographies for director Donner and actors Brando, Reeve and Hackman. As is typical for Warner Bros. DVDs, we see a lot of listed participants for whom no entries are offered. Awards indicates the sole Oscar won by Superman (for “Special Achievement In Visual Effects”), and we get one theatrical trailer for the film. The latter is 16X9 enhanced with monaural sound.

The meat of the DVD’s extras appear on the second side of the disc. We find two sections: Documentaries and Additional Special Features. In the first category are three strong programs. The first two really are separate halves of one piece. Both hosted by Marc “Jimmy Olsen” McClure, “Taking Flight: The Development of Superman” lasts for 30 minutes and 10 seconds, while “Making Superman: Filming the Legend” goes for 30 minutes and 40 seconds. The format for each is identical, as McClure takes us through a nice mix of interviews, shots from the set, and a few movie clips. In addition to a couple of archival sound bites from Marlon Brando and production designer John Barry, we get recent interviews with a slew of participants like actors Reeve, Kidder, and Hackman, plus director Donner, “creative consultant” Mankiewicz, editor Stuart Baird, casting director Lynn Stalmaster, composer John Williams, and others.

The first show looks at the movie’s pre-production, while the second examines the shoot itself. Although I don’t know why these weren’t combined into one program, I don’t really care, as the results are consistently compelling. I got a great look at the creation of the film, and the shows weren’t afraid to discuss controversial issues; we learn a fair amount about the reasons why Donner started to shoot Superman II but didn’t finish that flick. Ultimately, both shows were very entertaining and they gave me a nice examination of the movie.

I had only two minor complaints about these documentaries. For one, we see a card on which Donner took notes about the job when first called about the producers. On this card he jots the names of apparent participants, and in addition to “Hackman” and “Brando”, we see “Nick Nolte”. This is the first and last allusion to any possible involvement Nolte might have had in the movie. Maybe there was nothing to report, but that little card made me very curious.

The other aspect I disliked was more of a questionable call. Midway through the first program, it takes a few minutes to discuss Reeve’s bravery in the face of his 1995 accident. Frankly, I thought this segment felt a little patronizing and was unnecessary. It’s not presented in a tacky manner, but I’d really rather see and hear from Reeve without any specific discussion of his condition. That would seem to me to be a more respectful way to treat him.

Nonetheless, I liked the first two documentaries, and the third worked well too. That one was more specific as it looked at the film’s special effects. "The Magic Behind the Cape" lasts for 23 minutes and 40 seconds, and while it’s narrated by McClure, it’s hosted by visual effects supervisor Roy Field. The show offers a nice look at the elements used to create the movie’s effects, and it also provides a fine primer about a variety of techniques; for example, Field leads us through a good demonstration of how rear projection photography is achieved. The program presents a great variety of footage from the set, so we get to actually see a lot of the bits as the technicians work through their challenges. It’s a solid little piece that provided a fun look at the effects process for a ground-breaking film.

During the first documentary, we glimpse a few shots of various screen tests. Another area of the DVD offers more of these. In Screen Tests, we find three different sections. “Superman” devotes nine minutes and 20 seconds to shots of Reeve as he tries out both Supes and Kent. Introduced by casting director Lynn Stalmaster, we watch Reeve as he works with Lois Lane stand-in Holly Palance. (All of the three tests are accompanied by lead-ins from Stalmaster, and they also all show the same scenes; the Superman bits use Lane’s interview of him, while the Kent parts give us a scene intended for Superman II but not used.)

The second test footage shows a variety of actress as they try out for the role of Lois Lane. We see Kidder herself plus a slew of other notables: Anne Archer, Lesley Anne Warren, Debra Raffin, Stockard Channing and Susan Blakely all appear here. This 10 minute and 55 second section can be viewed with or without commentary from Stalmaster. Lastly, the third “Screen Test” segment takes two minutes and five seconds to examine the casting of minor villainess Ursa.

All of these snippets are fun, though the “Lois Lane” part is easily the most compelling of the bunch. It’s interesting to see Reeve work through the role, but it would have been nice to watch other candidates for the part. Conversely, the “Ursa” part suffers because it doesn’t feature Sarah Douglas, the actress who eventually got the job; instead, we watch a variety of unknowns as they audition. As such, the Lane part is the most satisfying. We get to see Kidder’s early attempts plus we watch a bunch of moderately well-known actresses give it their best. In that segment, Stalmaster’s commentary doesn’t add much; he clearly doesn’t want to say anything that might denigrate the performers who didn’t get the role, so he dances his way through his explanations of their drawbacks. Nonetheless, I really liked this area and though it was very interesting.

More disappointing are some Deleted Scenes. Of course, a few minutes of these clips have been restored to the body of the flick itself, but we find two addition segments here. Both of these take place in Luthor’s underground lair, and they connect to each other as we learn or Lex’s “pets”. The first lasts 125 seconds, while the second goes for 75 seconds. They’re both fun to see, but I wish that more unused footage had appeared. A ton of additional material exists, and these bits would have made a nice component to the DVD. The deleted shots have been anamorphically enhanced.

Some audio material appears here as well. There are eight Additional Music Cues. These snippets offer portions of the score that don’t actually show up in the film itself. Provided in Dolby Digital 5.0 sound, these will clearly make movie music fans very happy. (Amazingly, the “Pop Version” of “Can You Read My Mind?” makes that terrible tune sound even worse!)

The final components of the standard DVD are the famous “teaser” trailer and a TV spot. However, we also get some DVD-ROM materials. Most of these are pretty bland. We get a few links and find trailers and DVD listings for Superman plus its three sequels.

Somewhat more interesting is “Storyboard to Screen”. This feature allows you to compare five different filmed sequences to their original storyboards. In some instances, there are also alternate ideas for the sequences that were boarded, plus we get to check out a “Lost Scene” too. The execution is a little clumsy, and I think this should have appeared as part of the “regular” DVD, but it’s still a decent little extra. By the way, note that all of the links and the sampler show up on both sides of the disc, but “Storyboard to Screen” exists only on Side B.

Speaking of the dual-sided nature of Superman, I have to get in one gripe before I go. As was the case with WB’s release of Ben-Hur - another double-sided disc - it’s very difficult to tell the difference between sides “A” and “B”. Within the fine print along the inner ring of the DVD, you can find a tiny “A” and a wee “B” on the appropriate sides, but these are very small and do not stand out from the rest of the material. Warner, at least color-code the stupid things - this is ridiculous!

Despite that silly choice, I was very pleased with the DVD release of Superman. The movie itself doesn’t qualify as my favorite comic book adaptation - I still prefer the first two Batman flicks - but it holds up well after nearly a quarter of a century despite a few flaws. The disc itself provides consistently solid picture plus astonishing sound and a nice variety of extras. Since all that comes with a bargain list price of only $24.98, Superman falls into the “must have” category of DVDs - it’s a terrific package that should make most fans very happy.

To rate this film visit the Special Edition review of SUPERMAN

Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main