Superman appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. This was an inconsistent image.
Sharpness was the main – or only – concern, as I noticed a fair amount of softness. The softness fell into three categories: 1) softness caused by the use of intentionally diffuse photography; 2) softness caused by complications from visual effects; and 3) softness caused by I have no idea what.
I was fine with the first two, but the third gave me pause. The image’s clarity really jumped all over the place; we got plenty of accurate, well-defined shots, but we also found many that were soft for no apparent reason.
Were these always part of the photography and they just never stood out this much? Probably. I lavished praise over prior DVD renditions of Superman, but Blu-ray often reveals flaws that the lower resolution of DVD hides. I suspect that’s the case here and the movie has always had its soft spots but I just didn’t notice them until now.
Whatever the case, these make the presentation frustrating due to its inconsistency. The movie leapt from sharp to soft and back again so many times that my head started to spin, and I just couldn’t establish any real rhyme or reason.
Everything else about the transfer worked well. I noticed no jaggies or shimmering, and edge haloes remained absent. Source flaws also weren’t an issue. Some effects shots were grainy – especially during the climax – but that was inevitable. Otherwise, I discerned almost defects in this clean presentation.
Colors were often full and accurate. 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 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 I think this was the intention of the filmmakers to give the movie that particular diffuse look it often featured. Shadow detail seemed strong, without any problems connected to excessive opacity. Only the issues with softness made this a “B-“ presentation.
The movie featured a remixed DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack that I thought 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 30-plus-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. Bass was tight and deep and added to the presentation without overwhelming it. 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. Many of the effects were redone for this mix, and it does not totally represent the original track. For better or for worse, all I can say is that I really liked the modern mix.
In fact, I’m even more impressed with the remix after comparing to the movie’s original track, which also appears on the Blu-ray. When I watched the 2006 DVD, it promised the 1978 mix but someone goofed; sure, the disc offered 2.0 audio, but it provided nothing more than a downmix of the 21st century track. Apparently Warner Bros. corrected this and sent out fixed discs to those who requested them, but I never did that.
I checked the DTS-HD MA 2.0 mix on the Blu-ray, and it clearly offered a very different auditory experience when compared to the 5.1 track, so this wasn’t another botched job; the Blu-ray definitely provided the original 1978 sound. Normally I prefer to hear movies the way they were presented first run, but in this case, I have to admit I liked the 21st century remix a whole lot more than the original. The quality of the newer track’s audio was simply much, much better; if just for the score alone, it was a big upgrade. Nonetheless, I’m still happy the 1978 track appears here, as it’s great to have the choice,
When I looked at the Blu-ray’s extras, I found most of the same components from the 2006 four-DVD set, and the package also included some new elements. I’ll discuss those changes later, so look for blue print to denote the Blu-ray exclusives.
For the 1978 theatrical cut on Disc One, we get an audio commentary with executive producer Ilya Salkind and producer Pierre Spengler. Both sit separately for this edited piece. Salkind dominates this chatty and informative piece. The commentary looks at the creation of the opening credits and many issues related to how the filmmakers got the film off the ground. We find quite a few good notes about that side of things and also learn about the project’s scope, casting and performances, various effects and technical subjects, the score and working with John Williams, finding a director, promotion and release, and many other elements of the production.
The only moderate negative that emerges here comes from the way Salkind rambles much of the time. He heads off onto all sorts of tangents along the way; occasionally my mind boggled as I tried to figure out how he ended up where he was. Nonetheless, both he and Spengler cover the details well. The commentary consistently informs and entertains as it offers a nice primer on the production.
Next we go with a “vintage TV special” simply titled The Making of Superman: The Movie. Introduced by Christopher Reeve, this 51-minute, 50 -second show presents remarks from the actor along with Salkind, production designer John Barry, director Richard Donner, co-producer Alexander Salkind, DC Comics president Saul Harrison, and actors Susannah York, Marlon Brando, Marc McClure, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Glenn Ford, Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Valerie Perrine, Ned Beatty, and Jackie Cooper. We learn about Reeve’s physical training and his approach to the dual roles, sets, models, and locations, Brando’s work and other performance topics, the comic books, and a few additional production topics.
The package’s other documentaries and commentaries cover so much information that there’s only so much left to hear here. Happily, it manages to produce some useful new nuggets. The program’s strongest aspects come from its behind the scenes footage. We get many nice shots from the various sets, and these offer a strong glimpse of the production. Not just a promotional piece, this one gives us a lot of fine elements despite a number of factual mistakes. (According to this show, Superman appeared on the big screen in 1937 – even though Supes didn’t debut in the comics until 1938!)
For a look at pre-1978 attempt to bring the character to the big screen, we find 1951’s Superman and the Mole-Men. Starring George Reeves as Supes, the 58-minute, five-second flick shows a race of radioactive earth-dwellers who spook a little California town. Superman comes onto the scene to fix problems.
I’ll say this: despite tremendously bad makeup, the mole-men themselves are darned creepy-looking. They’re the only effective element of this otherwise inane and tepid adventure. The mole-men never seem like they merit the attention of someone as powerful as Supes, and the fact he doesn’t appear until the story’s almost halfway done doesn’t help. Indeed, our hero really doesn’t have much to do in this tedious tale. It’s fun to see the movie due to its historical value, but it displays precious little entertainment value. It hasn’t held up well at all and I doubt I’ll ever choose to watch it again.
In addition to two trailers and one TV spot, Disc One finishes with three cartoons. I thought this area would include the nine Fleischer cartoons from the 1940s, but those appear elsewhere; they’ve been shifted to the Blu-ray for Superman II.
Instead, “Cartoons” provides three Looney Tunes efforts: 1943’s Super-Rabbit (8:12), 1944’s Snafuperman (4:34) and 1956’s Stupor Duck (6:40). As one might guess, Bugs Bunny stars in the first, and Daffy Duck plays the lead in the final one. A World War II-based effort, Snafuperman acts as an educational short of sorts; it stars dopey GI Private Snafu and uses his idiocy to convince soldiers to read their training manuals. It’s mildly entertaining but more interesting as a war-time curiosity.
As for the others, they’re fairly similar; in fact, both use a nearly identical gag related to costume changes. Super-Rabbit acts as the funnier of the pair, perhaps partially because it seems fresher. Duck is okay but not quite as amusing and distinctive.
Disc Two gives us the movie’s Expanded Edition along with an 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.
Next comes a feature that will definitely delight fans of movie music. Here we get John Williams’ famous score presented on its own in Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. Since Williams’ work is so popular, I thought this was a generous addition to the package.
After this we get three documentaries originally found in the 2001 DVD release. 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, 14 seconds, while Making Superman: Filming the Legend goes for 30 minutes, 41 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 modern interviews with Donner, Mankiewicz, actors Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, and Gene Hackman, editor Stuart Baird, casting director Lynn Stalmaster, composer John Williams, editor Stuart Baird, costume designer Yvonne Blake, optical supervisor Roy Field, and Warner Bros. Marketing president (1978-80) Andrew Fogelson.
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 have been 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, 45 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.
Disc Two ends with a collection of cut footage. Only two of these are true deleted scenes, meaning they don’t show up in the Expanded Edition. Both of those repeat here under the banner Additional Scenes. They take place in Luthor’s underground lair, and they connect to each other as we learn or Lex’s “pets”. The first lasts two minutes, five seconds, while the second goes for one minute, 17 seconds. They’re vaguely fun but nothing memorable.
The rest simply show the sequences placed into the Expanded Edition of the film. We get 10 Restored Scenes for a total of 11 minutes, 14 seconds of footage. We find “Jor-El and the Council” (3:21), “Security Council Meeting” (0:29), “Baby Kal-El’s Starship” (0:09), “Young Lois With Parents On Train” (0:18), “Mrs. Kent Opens Up House” (0:37), “Clark and Jimmy” (0:26), “Jor-El and Superman” (2:24), “Pedestrian and Clark” (0:30), “Fire and Ice” (2:43), and “Hollywood Sign Falls” (0:17). You’ll nothing unique here, but it’s nice to have the added segments all in one place.
Some audio material appears here as well. There are eight Additional Music Cues that fill a total of 35 minutes, 44 seconds. 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!)
Superman doesn’t qualify among my favorite comic book adaptations, as I prefer the Batman and Spider-Man movies. Nonetheless, it holds up well after more than 30 years and remains a class act. The Blu-ray provides excellent audio and supplements but suffers from inconsistent visuals. The image issues can frustrate at times, but this remains a very nice release for an entertaining movie.
Note that as of June 2011, you can only purchase this Blu-ray edition of Superman as part of an eight-disc “The Superman Motion Picture Anthology”. This includes Superman, its three 1980s sequels, 2006’s Superman Returns and Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, and a disc of bonus materials. I’m sure the films will be available individually at some point, but that date is currently unknown.