Nearly a quarter-century has passed since the release of Richard Donner’s 1978 blockbuster “Superman,” and it is still considered by many to be the standard to which all film adaptations of comic books are measured. Arguably, nothing has quite matched it, not even the two most artistically and commercially successful page-to-screen translations in the intervening years: Tim Burton’s original “Batman,” which, while staying close to the Dark Knight mythos, was more a showcase for Burton’s splendid sense for atmosphere than a solid piece of storytelling; and Bryan Singer’s “X-Men,” which for all its faithfulness to the spirit of the comics didn’t get all the visuals quite right (read: what was up with those costumes?).
Donner isn’t known to be a filmmaker of much personality; his best work has a workman-like precision but lacks a truly unique imprint. That fairly anonymous quality, however, is a perfect match for the Man of Steel and, come to think of it, comic adaptations in general. He doesn’t force any quirks onto the famously wholesome character or his familiar story, instead presenting them in a manner that is straightforward and respectful–in short, the very qualities one would want and expect from any adaptation of that more highly esteemed form of literature, the novel. It seems ridiculous that no one had used such an approach before; after all, for all their erroneous stigma as being “kids’ stuff,” comics have produced some of the most enduring icons and attached mythologies–not because they hold some camp appeal (the wrongheaded notion behind the ’60s “Batman” television series and Joel Schumacher’s misbegotten “Batman & Robin”), but because the characters and their stories all somehow resonated on an intimate level. In the case of Superman, not only is there the ultimate fantasy fulfillment–to be strong, to be invulnerable, to be fast, to FLY–but his story also taps into the universal feeling of being an outsider in the world.
One common knock on “Superman” is that Donner and “creative consultant” (in actuality, script rewriter) Tom Mankiewicz are a bit too reverential, and that’s understandable. While their careful attention to detail in recounting baby Kal-El’s journey from the doomed planet Krypton to the too-aptly named Smallville, the rechristened young Clark Kent’s transformation into Superman, and adult Clark’s (Christopher Reeve) life in Metropolis offers many savory touches (e.g. the brief appearance of Clark’s high school sweetheart Lana Lang) and indelible sights (e.g. the crystalline structure of Krypton and the Fortress of Solitude; the living Norman Rockwell landscape that is Smallville), it also is responsible for a pace that is sometimes ponderous and a film that is ultimately a bit overlong (and even longer still in the DVD’s expanded special edition). The balance of the film also weighs heavily toward exposition and dangerously light on the side of narrative and conflict (Gene Hackman’s light take on Superman archnemesis Lex Luthor can be called a lot of things–but _not_ a convincing threat).
That shortcoming is excusable in light of Donner and Mankiewicz’s original game plan, which was for the simultaneously-shot “Superman” and “Superman II” to essentially make one big movie (and, in fact, the two films were based on a very epic, very long script by “Godfather” author Mario Puzo). The plan didn’t completely pan out due to Donner’s conflict of personalities with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who fired him from “II” after he had already completed well over half of it. Ample background on this and other aspects of the original “Superman”‘s production is offered in Warner Bros.’ superlative DVD edition of the film. This jam-packed, double-sided platter includes a trio of documentary featurettes tracing the film’s development from basic concept to final product, including an in-depth look at the extensive visual effects work; amusing and insightful feature-length commentary (that slightly overlaps with the documentaries) by Donner and Mankiewicz; theatrical trailers and a television spot; and, most delicious of all, screen tests for the roles of Superman, Lois Lane, and “II” villainess Ursa.
While only Reeve’s screen test is included on the Superman end and relatively little space is (understandably) devoted to Ursa, quite a few tests for Lois are included, and the clips are fascinating. For someone who’s never been the biggest fan of Margot Kidder’s interpretation of Lois, the test footage is a revelatory watch. She may have been too screechy for my taste at times, but when viewing her next to the failed applicants–among them, a too-soft Anne Archer, a too-hard Stockard Channing, and a giggly and altogether frightening Lesley Ann Warren–there’s no question that she was only one who really nailed the balance essential to Lois: that between intelligent, ballsy independence and romantic vulnerability. Despite whatever hang-ups I’ve had about Kidder’s work, I never denied her potent chemistry with Reeve, and that effortless rapport was quite evident even in these early tests.
All the supplements on the disc may be a bit much for the casual fan who just wants a copy of the movie, and no one will be disappointed by the presentation of the main feature. The new digital transfer sparkles, and remastered soundtrack is just as impressive; John Williams’ classic score is also given its rightful due in a music-only track (and a separately-featured section of deleted cues). Purists may be a little upset by the fact that the sound effects have been completely re-recorded, but when the film sounds better than it ever has, why complain?
Along with the super-special edition of the original film, Warner Bros. has also issued disappointingly barebones (movie and trailer only) DVDs of the other three films in the series, both separately and as part of a box set, “The Complete Superman Collection.” If it’s quality you seek, stick with the original film and 1980’s “Superman II.” A number of fans of “Superman” do not like “II,” but I chalk that up more to loyalty to the unfairly dumped Donner than anything else. Granted, replacement director (or is it simply “film finisher”?) Richard Lester makes an occasional dive into the campiness that Donner and Mankiewicz (who still retains “creative consultant” credit here) made great pains to avoid, but he deserves credit for assembling a wonderfully entertaining popcorn flick that still ranks in the upper echelon of comic-based movies. As according to the original plan for “Superman II,” the meat of the story that was so carefully set up in the first film takes place here: Superman finally meets his formidable match in the form of the three evil Kryptonians (Terence Stamp, Jack O’Halloran, and Sarah Douglas) that were banished to “The Phantom Zone” at the beginning of the previous film; and the ever-intensifying relationship between Clark and Lois reaches its full, complex blossom, with Clark making the ultimate sacrifice for love and happiness. The spectacular battle scenes, the tenderly poignant love story (driven by series-best performances by Reeve and Kidder), and the still-amusing work by Hackman make such broad transgressions as the “Houston, Idaho” interlude quite forgivable.
In including 1983’s “Superman III” and 1987’s “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” along with the wildly enjoyable first two films, “The Complete Superman Collection” makes for an intriguing study in how a terrific franchise can go horribly awry in the wrong hands. The fateful changing of the guard between Donner and Lester on “II” reveals itself to be a move akin to Joel Schumacher’s takeover of the “Batman” series. Much like how Schumacher’s serviceable–and, more importantly, financially successful–efforts on “Batman Forever” were rewarded with what proved to be way too much “creative” freedom on the next movie, “Batman & Robin,” Lester, credited with the success of “II,” was given free rein to do whatever he wanted on “III.” Apparently, his intent was to turn Superman into a joke. A really bad joke. The grandiose opening titles of the predecessors is dumped in favor of a drawn-out slapstick sequence that feels like it came from a completely different film; Hackman’s Luthor is replaced by even jokier villain (Robert Vaughn’s business tycoon Ross Webster); and, worst of all, Supes himself is made a virtual second banana to Richard Pryor, who plays computer programmer Gus Gorman. Pryor is normally an insanely funny individual, but he’s hamstrung by the lame PG-rated antics handed him, not to mention the fact that he and his character are simply out of place in the world of Superman. Another change made by Lester and the Salkinds is the fleeting presence of Lois, apparent payback for Kidder after publicly commenting against the decision to sack Donner on “II”; Clark’s leading lady this time is Annette O’Toole as the resurfaced Lana Lang. O’Toole is certainly easier on the eyes than Kidder, but small town single mom Lana is a pallid stand-in for spunky Lois, and O’Toole doesn’t strongly connect with Reeve. “III” does have one big highlight, though, and that is a knock-down, drag-out fight between Clark and a lapsed Superman, who are split in two after exposure to tobacco-tainted Kryptonite.
However wrongheaded a number of their decisions may have been, the Salkinds always made sure that their “Superman” films at least passed muster on a technical level; they always looked the part of a big blockbuster. With the passing of the production torch to the Cannon Group and infamous budget tightwads Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus for “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” it was clear that the worst was yet to come. A little grudging credit, though, has to go to them and director Sidney J. Furie, for they at least make some attempt to restore the original spirit of the series: the lengthy opening title sequence is back, if in far less elaborate fashion; and two of the more famous elements of the first two films are lifted, if for no real point: Superman and Lois’s famous flight in the first, and the “kiss of forgetfulness” that closed the second.
That, and the fact that familiar faces Kidder and Hackman are restored to prominence, just about covers all the negligible good in what is otherwise an insultingly inept film. Reeve, who receives story co-credit, may have his heart in the right place with the nuclear disarmament theme, he and scripters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal come up with the most idiotically literal way of going about it: introducing a new supervillain named… Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow, all blond and beefy à la Malibu from “American Gladiators”). Nukie (who rather hilariously speaks in the voice of Luthor) is but one of the dud new characters brought into the mix: then-hot Brat Packer Jon Cryer is in full-annoyance mode as Lex’s bumbling nephew Lenny (a horrid replacement for Ned Beatty’s rather endearing bumbler Otis, of the first two films), and Mariel Hemingway turns up in a role whose only apparent purpose is to be dragged out into outerspace–and still somehow managing to breathe!–in the film’s final stretch.
Amazingly enough, I still haven’t covered the absolute worst element of “Superman IV,” and that is the cheesy effects work. There are moments where you can swear someone just moved cardboard cutouts across the frame (as in when Superman pushes the moon); and the matte lines get so thick that characters have blotchy rings around them. The big showstopper, though, is the chintzy moon set, where the outer space backdrop is so obviously made of ratty black curtains (dig those drape pleats).
“Superman IV” originally clocked in, as with the other three films, at over two hours, but disastrous test screenings led Warner Bros. to hack it down to a lean 90 minutes. Of course, there are some Super-fans clamoring for the release of a restored “director’s cut” someday, but if those remaining 90 minutes are any indication, then this is a case where the test audiences did know exactly what was (or, should I say, what _wasn’t_) good for them.
With two of the four movies being quite bad and only one of the four discs being a true special edition, “The Complete Superman Collection” is a DVD box set that will only hold much appeal for Superman fanatics. For the rest of us, the exceptional “Superman” disc should be good enough–and if not, “Superman II,” the real conclusion to Supes’ cinematic saga, should satisfy any remaining Last Son of Krypton cravings.