Updated: Nov 8, 2018
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
“SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE”
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 1978; PG for some intense action violence; streaming via Amazon Video, FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play, iTunes (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube
Best extra: A 1978 making-of documentary
THE LAST SON of Krypton has enthralled the hearts and minds of Americans and others across the globe for eight decades. He’s one of the three most famous men who never lived along with Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan.
Warner Brothers has just released the 40th Anniversary Edition of “Superman: The Movie” on 4K, sourced from a new 4K master from the original film elements.
The brainchild of teens Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist) from Cleveland, Ohio, they originally conceived Superman as a villain, then made a switch, converting him to a force for good. He was a refugee from a distant planet. “A genius of intellect, a Hercules in strength and a nemesis to wrong-doers, The Superman!” was written on the original drawings. Superman also had a secret identity as Clark Kent, a “mild-mannered” newspaper reporter.
Initially, every newspaper rejected Superman as a comic strip, so Siegel and Shuster joined National Allied Publications, developing and working on other comic projects.
In 1938, Superman was resurrected by Detective Comics (DC Comics). Action Comics No. 1 saw the first publication of Superman wearing blue tights with a big "S" stretched across his chest. The full-color cover image showed him lifting a car over his head. His origin unfolded inside the 68-page comic from childhood to adult where he discovers his full potential and becomes a champion of the oppressed – a real social crusader.
Within a year, Superman zoomed to pop-culture status with a daily newspaper readership of 20 million, a massive balloon in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and his very own comic book series. Next, he became a weekly radio star and then a movie star flying across the silver screen in an Oscar-nominated animated series. “He made a big impact on me and everyone who read him,” says legendary comic book creator Stan Lee of Marvel.
By 1952, nearly every kid in America was watching “Adventures of Superman” starring George Reeves on television. One of Reeves’ biggest moments was when he co-starred on TV’s most popular show, “I Love Lucy” with Lucille Ball.
Then in 1959, the world was stunned; Reeves was found in his Los Angeles bedroom, dead from a single gunshot. Headlines blazed the news, “TV’s Superman kills self.” According to reporters, no fingerprints were found on the gun, so his death still remains one of most Hollywood's morbid mysteries.
For the first time, the superhero’s empire was at risk. The Man of Steel disappeared from television and settled back into the world of comics. Several spin-offs bombed, including a campy Broadway musical and a TV adaption, starring David Wilson (Superman) and Lesley Ann Warren (Lois Lane). It was so bad it only aired once at 11:30 p.m.
DC Comics made attempts to modernize Clark Kent, making him into a TV reporter and giving Lois Lane a feminist makeover. Superman did find a new TV home on Saturday morning cartoons with “Super Friends,” but it was a far cry from the heydays of George Reeves.
Then Superman got another chance.
In 1974, Russian/Mexican executive producer Ilya Salkind, still in his 20s, and his father Alexander – the team behind the brilliant “The Three Musketeers” films (1973, 1974) – wanted their next project to be an epic, a REALLY BIG blockbuster. They secured over $40 million, got the rights with partner Pierre Spengler, and hired “The Godfather” author Mario Puzo to pen the script. The Salkind’s planned to film two Superman movies simultaneously, just like they had with the Musketeers.
Director Richard Donner (“The Omen”) was contracted, and Warner Bros. was positioned for distribution, but the studio demanded they hire a superstar to be Superman. A laundry list of possibilities included Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Clint Eastwood, and even non-actors such as Muhammad Ali and Salkind’s wife’s dentist.
Donner kept pushing for an unknown actor to get the role as the Salkind’s settled on the ‘70s hottest actor, Robert Redford. “Thank God, Redford turned it down,” Salkind says in the documentary.
Eventually, the studio realized a new face was needed. Hundreds of young actors auditioned, but they kept coming back to a tall, skinny actor who wore an oversized sweater to make himself look larger.
His name, Christopher Reeve.
“Superman: The Movie” has it all – adventure, romance, action and groundbreaking Oscar-winning special effects (for its day). It follows the superhero from the planet Krypton to rural Smallville and then to the big city of Metropolis. The all-star cast includes Marlon Brando as Jor-El, who was paid over $4-million; Gene Hackman as the evil Lex Luthor; Ned Beatty as Luthor’s comic henchman Otis; Jackie Cooper as Perry White, the energetic editor of The Daily Planet; Glenn Ford as Pa Kent, and Margot Kidder as a delightful Lois Lane. Reeves was completely believable as the alien who hid his Superman identity behind the mask of meek human Clark Kent. He was, powerful, honorable, earnest and likable.
The making-of documentary is narrated by voiceover specialist Ernie Anderson and Christopher Reeve, who briefly recounts his acting career from childhood to the day he dyed his hair black and wore red boots as Superman. Donner and his production crew filmed in New York City, with Canada subbing for the plains of Kansas, and the Rocky Mountain foothills in Colorado. Two different studios in England, Shepperton and Pinewood, handled the enormous sets for Krypton, the North Pole, with an 800,000 gallon water tank, the Daily Planet newsroom, and Luthor’s cavern buried beneath the metropolitan Grand Central Station.
The 4K disc includes a commentary with Ilya Salkind and producer Pierre Spengler, with plenty of insider stories including how “Superman” initially ran three months straight starting Thanksgiving weekend in '78. There’s a bizarre story about ensuring the two major magazines, Time and Newsweek, got an early screening. The critics had to fly to London and were forced to watch it together, which was completely taboo. Normally, their critics got separate screenings, but “Superman’s” final prints were still a couple of weeks away. The unfinished screener was missing a few special effects shots, and the soundtrack wasn’t completely mixed. One critic sat on the left side, the other on the right of the theater. Both magazines produced enthusiastic reviews. But “our proudest moment was making the cover of Mad Magazine,” Spengler says.
Warner also includes cartoons (in one, Bugs Bunny becomes Superman). There’s also the wacky “Superman and the Mole-Men” (1951), a low-budget movie with George Reeves as Clark Kent/Superman, a warm-up for the TV series about the world’s deepest oil well, where a race of mole people from the center of the earth are discovered.
I only wished the two-hour documentary, “Look, Up in the Sky: The Amazing Story of Superman,” from director Bryan Singer was included. It was a highlight in the Superman Anthology box set of 2011.
First off, “Superman” has never looked this good. Sourced from a new 4K master, overall sharpness is terrific as the 35mm film stock (2.39:1 aspect ratio) extracts top-notch clarity from foreground to infinity with those well-composed wide shots of the Canadian wheat fields. But, those darn old school composite special effects shots (a product of its time) take the visuals down a notch as sharpness suffers and the film grain enlarges, especially on planet Krypton in the first 20 minutes. Once baby Kal-El, the future Clark Kent/Superman, arrives on Earth and settles in with Ma and Pal Kent, the clarity bounces back. The contrast level is noticeably flatter compared to most films today. Donner and Oscar-winning cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (“Cabaret,” “Tess”) must have applied a diffusion filter on the anamorphic lens to soften and lower the contrast level for a periodic dreamy look from the Panavision cameras.
HDR toning with Dolby Vision is still excellent, with deep dark black levels. Highlights are within normal range. The color palette is bold and rich as seen in Superman’s traditional red cape and boots, and blue suit, while facial toning is natural and balanced.
Warner provides a new, aggressive eight-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which adds more depth to the vertical soundstage, but at times it gets heavy-handed especially when “streaking” sound effects are heard in the opening titles. The effect is so loud from the height speakers it nearly drowns out the “Superman Theme” from John Williams’ Oscar-nominated score. The rest is nicely balanced between effects, score cues and dialogue. The highlight is the love theme, "Can You Read My Mind?" where Superman flies Lois Lane over Metropolis.
Overall, the comic book movie is a delightful watch and a great addition to your growing 4K library. I wish Warner had also released the hotly debated “Superman: The Richard Donner Cut” on 4K, the second installment, which some consider the best of the Superman movies.
— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer