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Warner Home Video presents
Superman: The Motion Picture HD-DVD (1978)

"For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son."
- Jor-El (Marlon Brando)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: November 27, 2006

Stars: Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder
Other Stars: Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Trevor Howard, Jack O'Halloran, Valerie Perrine, Maria Schell, Terence Stamp, Phyllis Thaxter, Susannah York, Jeff East, Marc McClure, Sarah Douglas, Larry Hagman, John Ratzenberger
Director: Richard Donner

MPAA Rating: PG for peril, some mild sensuality and language
Run Time: 02h:31m:40s
Release Date: November 28, 2006
UPC: 012569809680
Genre: fantasy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B-A-B+ A-

DVD Review

Comic book adaptations had often been treated dismally, with either incredible cheapness (such as in the Superman serial adaptations) or with high camp (such as the Batman series and accompanying movie. Not until the 1978 release of Superman: The Movie was there a serious, big-budget attempt at a comic-book adaptation using state-of-the-art effects and a mega-powered cast. While the results are mixed, the movie was undeniably a hit and is fondly remembered by many even today.

The adaptation unfortunately started the trend in comic-book films of needlessly spending a lot of time on the main character's origin, to the exclusion of telling an interesting story. Much of this can be traced to a desire to make the most of Marlon Brando, who was paid a then-amazing $3 million salary for two weeks of work. The first half hour is devoted to life on Krypton as Jor-El (Brando) condemns a trio of traitors to the Phantom Zone (not to reappear until Superman II), and prophesies the destruction of the planet. Despite his urgings for evacuation, the council disregards his warnings and extracts a promise that he and his wife will not attempt to leave. But they neglect to include their infant son in the bargain, and little Kal-El is sent off to Earth just as Krypton disintegrates, accompanied by educational crystals narrated by Jor-El. Landing in Kansas and found by Jonathan (Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter), Kal-El is informally adopted, taking the name Clark Kent and getting an education in simple living and morality. After Pa Kent's death, from a heart attack caused in part by his stepson urging him to run, the adult Clark (Reeve) heads to the city of Metropolis where he becomes a reporter for the Daily Planet, edited by Perry White (Jackie Cooper), and falls for fellow reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). His alter ego, Superman, begins his life's work, helping people and saving lives, and Lois in turn falls for his superhero side. But evil genius Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) is determined to take the big blue boy scout out of the picture. This story is relegated to the last part of the movie, though if you remember this and the sequel were conceived as one big picture, with shooting on both occurring simultaneously, the balance is somewhat better.

One of the big advantages is the amazing cast. The downside is that other than Reeve and Kidder, none of them get much screen time (for instance, Trevor Howard gets high billing, though he appears only as a disembodied head with a line or two), making it seem like a waste of talent. Brando actually gets a fair amount of screen time via crystal records that somehow interact with Clark long after Jor-El is dead; it must have been a very busy two weeks for him (though as Donner notes in the commentary, Brando never bothered to learn any of his lines and is reading cue cards strategically placed on the set). Glenn Ford makes an impression in the Norman Rockwell vision of Kansas, even though he ends up being a vehicle to swipe elements from Spider-Man's origin (one can see the scriptwriters sweating as hard as they can around "Great power brings great responsibility", while Clark's guilt in his stepfather's death is an echo of Peter Parker's responsibility for the death of his Uncle Ben).

But for all the name star power, what makes the movie work is Christopher Reeve, who was pretty much an obscurity at the time. He makes Superman believable (for the most part), a figure of nobility, charm and inner strength, even if he doesn't have a Schwarzenegger physique. He sells the character completely, which makes the latter half of the screenplay, as he melts Lois' cynical exterior, credible. At the same time, he's delightful as the klutzy, stumbling, and stuttering Clark Kent, offering some of the few truly humorous moments in the movie. On the other hand, Ned Beatty and Lex Luthor are played as high camp and for odious comic relief, and they manage only to be seriously annoying rather than menacing or entertaining. When juxtaposed against the half-baked theology, oversold messianic metaphors, and the self-importance of the rest of the picture (as underlined by John Williams' score in full bombast mode), they just feel utterly out of place. Although Donner professes that he wanted to avoid the camp of the Batman television series, for some reason he decided to let Beatty and Hackman go ape, to the detriment of the impact.

That said, nothing can make up for the risible ending, one of the worst finales ever slapped onto any movie, let alone a comic book adaptation. It displays an open contempt by the filmmakers of the comic book genre; even you can, as the marketing suggested, believe a man can fly, you can't believe that by flying backwards he can reverse time. The film starts off as a noble effort, but in the last lap it can't help but spit on the source material, as if to say "we're too cool for this subject matter." It can be infuriating to anyone with a fondness for comics, no matter how well the rest of the mix is assembled.

The Oscar-winning special effects, while no longer very impressive by modern standards, do have an undeniable charm. One fascinating piece of work is the costuming on Krypton, made from movie screen material, which glows in a convincingly alien fashion. The flying effects were the subject of a lot of trial and error, and the results are sometimes convincing, mostly due to Reeve making the movements look natural.

The version presented here is the 2000 recut by Donner that includes an additional eight minutes of footage, making a movie that was already substantially too long even longer.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.40:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: HD fans, keep this in mind: Geoffrey Unsworth shot Superman using a persistent soft focus, so there can be virtually none of the sharp, hard edges that many people expect from HD transfers. On the other hand, comparing it to the standard DVD, the style comes across much better in the HD version. One of the areas that HD can provide unexpected results is where that kind of soft glow is being rendered; in 1080i it has a very cinematic feel, without artifacting or similar issues. In the few shots that are hard focus (such as closeups of Daily Planet headlines), the expected clarity is definitely there. Black levels are excellent and color is suitably vivid. The source material is in excellent condition, with virtually no speckling or other damage.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
English, Frenchyes

Audio Transfer Review: The main title music seems rather tinny and thin, though the balance of the score sounds fine. The destruction of Krypton has plenty of LFE boom, and works just fine. Hiss and noise are practically nonexistent and dialogue is quite clear throughout. It's serviceable for the most part, though the opening isn't nearly as impressive as I rememberd it from the theatrical release.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Animated menu
Scene Access with 44 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 TV Spots/Teasers
Isolated Music Score with remote access
2 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Richard Donner, creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz
Packaging: Elite
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Screen tests
Extras Review: Director Richard Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz, longtime friends and collaborators, contribute a chatty commentary that pretty much avoids the problems that Donner had with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and his subsequent removal as the director of Superman II. They do discuss the effects and the casting in depth, though there are a few dead spots throughout.

A recent pair of documentaries, each running about half an hour, cover the development and the filming, and are hosted by Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure). Many of the principals are interviewed, including Reeve, and snippets from Brando's 1978 interviews are also included. The problems with the Salkinds are covered in some detail here, with Donner being philosophical at over 20 years' distance. Margot Kidder, cleaned up nicely from her well-publicized personal problems, is reliably the most candid commenter, and she doesn't hold back.

A 9m:21s selection of Reeve's screen tests, one scene each as Superman and Clark, with a different actress playing Lois, shows how quickly he nailed both characters. John Williams' score is presented in an isolated track, an excellent extra feature that shows up all too seldom due to rights issues. The package wraps up with a TV spot, and anamorphic widescreen renditions of the memorable teaser trailer and the theatrical trailer. It's a solid accumulation of extras that is refreshingly light on the fluff. For some reason, however, the deleted scenes found on the 2001 DVD have gone missing here.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

The first successful comic book adaptation hits HD DVD, but even a stellar cast can't rescue that abysmal ending or subdue its bloated self-importance.


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