Updated: May 9
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
Superman races to stop an ICBM missile from hitting its target after it was redirected by Lex Luthor.
(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)
“SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE”
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray & Digital copy; 1978; PG for peril, some mild sensuality and language; Stream via Amazon Prime Video (4K), Apple/iTunes (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)
Best extra: “The Making of Superman” featurette
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.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Warner Brothers Studio, five films featuring the iconic DC Super Hero have been released on 4K Ultra HD. The 1978-1987 box set collection includes “Superman: The Movie” (1978), “Superman II” (1980), “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut” (2006), “Superman III” (1983), and “Superman IV” (1987).
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.
The Trial & Baby Kal-El
(1) Marlon Brando was paid $4 million to play Jor-El. (2&3) Jor-El brings charges of treason against General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O'Halloran). (4) Susannah York stars as Lara with baby Kal-El. (5&6) Jor-El and Lara prepare Kal-El for his journey to planet Earth. (7) The small star rocket lifts off carrying Kal-El from the doomed planet of Krypton.
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 in 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 the late 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 Hollywood’s morbid mysteries.
Young Kal-El arrives on Earth
(1) Legendary actor Glenn Ford stars as Pa (Jonathan) Kent and Phyllis Thaxter as Ma (Martha) Kent. (2&3) Kal-El’s powers are shown to Ma and Pa Kent.
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 adaptation 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 Brothers 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.
Smallville, Kansas - The Teenage Years
(1) Jeff East plays teenage Clark Kent, the waterboy for the Smallville football team. (2&3) Clark races from the high school past a passenger train which includes Noel Neill who played Lois Lane during the 1950s “Adventures of Superman” TV series. (4) The Smallville High School cheerleaders are amazed that Clark beat them back to the road in front of his house. (5) Clark and his father developed a special bond. (6) The 4K master extracts fine detail as Clark rushes to his father’s side at their Kansas farm. (7) Clark and his Ma (Phyllis Thaxter) say goodbye to Pa Kent who died from a heart attack. (8) Clark is drawn to a mysterious green crystal hidden in the barn. (9) An emotional farewell as Clark tells his mother he must travel north.
“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. Reeve 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 specialists 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, who share 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.
The Daily Planet - Metropolis
(1) Jackie Cooper stars as The Daily Planet editor Perry White and Margot Kidder as Lois Lane. (2) Lois and Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) are confronted by a robber in a Metropolis alleyway. (3) Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) reveals his evil plan to Otis (Ned Beatty) to redirect two ICBM missiles. One will hit the San Andreas Fault and the other to hit Hackensack, New Jersey. (4) Superman saves Lois Lane after she fell from a helicopter. (5) The crowd below cheers for Superman. (6-8) Superman and Lois Lane meet for the first time at her apartment.
First off, the 4K disc included in the box set is basically the same disc from 2018. The 4K encoding is the same with its varying bitrate from 50 megabits per second to nearly 90 Mbps. And the HDR10 peak brightness is dialed the same at 3938 nits, with an average light level of 193 nits. Some encoding errors seem to pop up at times, but overall it’s clean and controlled with a light washing of natural film grain. Still “Superman: The Movie” has never looked this good.
In 2017 Warner scanned the original 35mm camera negative (2.39:1 aspect ratio), captured with anamorphic lens, and mastered in TRUE 4K for Superman’s 80th birthday in 2018. Overall sharpness is very good, extracting rich 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 Pa 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.
Lex Luthor & Disaster
(1&2) Superman arrives at Luthor’s cavern buried beneath the metropolitan Grand Central Station. (3) Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) removes the deadly Kryptonite from Superman’s neck. (4&5) Superman races to stop an ICBM missile from hitting its target and diverts one into space. (6) A gas station explodes during the earthquake, set off by the second nuclear missile. The 4K clarity shows the Alberta, Canada license plate on the truck, where the Kansas and California scenes were filmed.
Warner carries over the aggressive eight-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which adds more depth to the vertical soundstage. Still, 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.
On the previous 2018 4K disc Warner provided the Dolby Digital six-channel soundtrack mastered from the original six-track 70mm print, but it was compressed and encoded at only 700 Kilobits per second. On the new 2023 4K disc Warner dropped the 5.1 Dolby track for the original Stereo Theatrical track, remastered and uncompressed 2.0 DTS-HD MA, output with 1.7 Mbps of dialogue, music, and effects. The new track is clean and direct and only works from your front speakers - unless your A/V receiver is dialed to a Matrix decoder, which expands the sound to additional channels.
Many of Superman’s purest fans would’ve enjoyed a new uncompressed 5.1 track from the 70mm print. For myself, I’m quite satisfied with the 7.1 Atmos track and its enveloping sound and deep bass response even though it may be too aggressive at times.
Overall, the comic book movie is a delightful watch and a great addition to your growing 4K library. For those who already have the 2018 disc, and are not sure you want the lesser films “Superman III” and “Superman IV,” you can purchase “Superman II” and “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut,” which many consider the best of the Reeves’ films, as a 4K combo set from the U.K. Amazon site. That’s what I did, and got my “Superman II” four-disc set several weeks ago. In other territories including Europe, the five films are sold separately.
— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer
Superman Saves the Day
(1&2) A huge model of the Golden Gate Bridge was created for the practical effects shot during the earthquake, as Superman comes to the rescue. (3) Superman fills the gap keeping an Amtrak train from derailing. (4) Superman tries to save Lois Lane after an ICBM missile hit the San Andreas Fault and caused a major earthquake. (5) Superman delivers Lux Luthor and Otis to the Metropolis prison.