The 1978 Superman film set the standard for what a quality comic hero film should be. The tagline promise: “You will believe a man can fly” was kept. All future comic films would be judged by this standard. Superman II had its faults. Certainly it was not the modern classic like the first film. The plot was bogged down with a rather silly love story that broke down the barriers of the Kent/Superman identity for Lois Lane. Luthor, while played again with style by Gene Hackman, is reduced to a comedic backseat to the real villains. Plot contrivances abound, along with plenty of corny lines. Yet, even with these limitations, this has always been a rather enjoyable film, particularly when compared to the dreadful sequels that followed.
“You will believe that a man can fly.”
With that statement we were all drawn to what I like to describe as the first modern-age superhero movie. Christopher Reeves stars as both Clark Kent and Superman, of course. He delivered something that Zack Snyder should have paid closer attention to. This version of Superman was a man in awe of the people and things around him. He always believed in the best of a situation, but he was always ready to help when those expectations were not realized. He didn’t brood, and the world around him was brightly lit. This was the Superman of the comics, and those comics were very much alive in this film. The plot was a bit campy, but not so much that it distracted from the marvel we all saw play across our screens in 1978.
The film begins where the Superman legend begins: on the cold, dark world of Krypton. Jor-El (Brando) is both the planet’s leading scientist and the leading prosecutor. He’s wrapping up some justice business by sending three criminals to the infamous Phantom Zone. Pay attention to these three, headlined by Terence Stamp as General Zod. They’re gone for this film, but they’ll be back for revenge in the second. Since Donner was filming elements of both films at the same time, it was a nice and inexpensive way to introduce the next danger. The footage, of course, would be reused.
After Jor-El finishes his justice job, he’s debating the same council that just supported him and who are now threatening him about his prediction that Krypton is doomed. No one will listen, so he and wife Lara (York) send their young baby, Kal-El, to Earth in order that he might survive the devastation of his people. Kal crash-lands on Earth and is adopted by Martha (Thaxter) and Jonathan (Ford) Kent. We get a montage of the now Clark Kent growing up and dealing with his powers and the need to hide them. When Jonathan dies, Clark heads to the big city, Metropolis. Here he finds work as a reporter for the Daily Planet, working along with the familiar names of editor Perry “Don’t call me chief” White (Cooper), reporter-with-a-nose-for-trouble Lois Lane (Kidder), and cub reporter/photographer Jimmy Olsen (McClure). When Lois is suddenly in danger, he reveals Superman to the world, granting her an exclusive, and a buzz around the world in the famous scene where Lois speaks, not sings the words to the film’s hit song, Can You Read My Mind.
Things get serious when a certain Lex Luthor, played by Gene Hackman, worries that this new Superman might get in the way of his plans to hijack a couple of nuclear missiles and create some oceanfront property in Nevada, all owned by himself. Luthor also must suffer the presence of his henchpersons. Ned Beatty is wonderful as the bumbling Otis, and Valerie Perrine serves as the equally not-altogether-there mole, Ms. Teschmacher. These characters are not in the comics, but did make appearances after the film. In one of the fastest bits of reasoning, Luthor decides that a rock from Krypton, called kryptonite, would weaken and kill his new nemesis. The trap is set, Luthor is betrayed by his own thoughtlessness, and Superman tries to save the day. We get a cool montage of rescues, but the most important rescue of all, at least to Supes, is the one he is too late to make. Lois is killed in the earthquakes caused by the detonation of the bomb. Of course, when you are all-powerful, you find a way to set things right, and he does.
Superman II (1980) & Superman II: The Donner Cut (2006)
“The people of your planet are well pleased with you, Kal-El … you have served them faithfully … and they are grateful for it. And yet you have returned to reason with me once again. My son, I have tried to anticipate your every question. This is one … I had hoped you would not ask …”
Parts common to both films involve the release of the Kryptonian criminals who bully the world around while Superman and Lois are having something of a honeymoon at the Fortress Of Solitude. Meanwhile Zod (Stamp), Ursa (Douglas), and Non (O’Halloran) reach the White House and force the Prez, played by E.G. Marshall, to his knees. The world asks, where is Superman? Of course Luthor, having broken out of prison, thinks he can hook up with these guys and deliver them Superman in exchange for Australia. Superman eventually gets with the program, but he has to break his Fortress to regain his powers which he gave up to have a life with Lois. A little trickery and Supes is back on top.
Richard Donner, who brought us the first film, was about a third away from finishing the second when he was unceremoniously fired from the project. While Richard Lester, who took over, used much of this footage (he had little time or money to do otherwise), the heart of this film was released along the way. Lester added unnecessary jokes and diverted the story to a strong degree away from its intended flight plan. Now, finally, we are able to see at least a hint of what Donner had originally intended. I say only a hint because he was unable to film everything he intended. This version does end up using some of Lester’s stuff as well as screen tests to fill in some of the unfilmed blanks. Still, it is as close to the original concept we are ever going to see. While even this version retains many of the flaws, it is a marked improvement over the original version. Unfortunately, the stories of this intended version have reached almost mythical proportions. Our expectations have likely been inflated to a point where no version could meet them. For those of you expecting something akin to the first film, you must remember that at its soul this is not that film. It’s still Superman II, complete with all of the baggage that infers. The politics over this fallout are no longer important. Hollywood is overrun with similar stories. Even as we watch this film for the first time, a storm is brewing over Peter Jackson and the proposed Hobbit films. It never ends.
So what’s different, you ask. Marlon Brando’s role is fully restored. You might recall that Superman’s mum filled the role for Lester. When Donner was fired, the Brando footage was the first thing to go to avoid some of Brando’s payment. Gone is that silly Eiffel Tower scene in the film’s beginning. We get into the meat of the story much faster this way. Less time is spent on the one-liners. More time is spent on the prisoners’ release from the Phantom Zone. Lois discovers Clark’s identity without jumping from the Falls. The climactic fight is pretty much intact, but Superman returns to power far sooner and in a much more satisfying way. Again, less time cuddling with Lois. There’s no bed scene. As for the new ending … Let’s just say it’s deja vu all over again.
Superman III (1983)
“I ask you to kill Superman, and you’re telling me you couldn’t even do that one simple thing.”
That is kind of what started happening here. Richard Donner was gone, and now Richard Lester got his own way. It all started to go downhill when Richard Pryor appeared on The Johnny Carson Show and said that what he’d love to do is be in a Superman movie. He claims he was joking, but Richard Lester thought that was a grand idea, and it all kind of went downhill from there.
Gus Gorman (Pryor) was pretty much a loser, and his unemployment checks have run out. He sees an advertisement for computer classes on the back of a matchbook cover and enrolls. Turns out he has a skill after all. He’s a whiz at computers and lands a job at the huge corporate empire of Ross Webster, played by Robert Vaughn, and his sister, Vera (Ross). He discovers that checks are always rounded and that tens of thousands of dollars get lost between the cracks. So he programs the system to send him all of those fractions, and it ends up netting him over 80 grand. Ross catches him, but instead of prosecuting or firing him, he decides to exploit his brilliance. First he has him destroy the Columbian coffee crop from a weather satellite and next scan the universe for the formula for kryptonite. But there’s a small fraction marked unknown. Gorman just types in TAR, and they create a synthetic kryptonite, which works a lot like red kryptonite in the comics, and particularly Smallville later down the road. It turns Superman into an evil copy of himself, and he travels the world doing super pranks like straightening the Leaning Tower Of Pisa and blowing out the Olympic Torch. Meanwhile, they are building a supercomputer to run the world.
The worst scenes in the film have Superman battling Clark Kent in a salvage yard. It goes on forever and leads to pretty much a miracle cure for the Man of Steel. There’s a final confrontation at the computer base, and Gorman has a change of heart, because he didn’t really want to hurt anyone.
Both Reeve and Kidder had protested the firing of Richard Donner. Reeve decided not to return, but Kidder had a contract she couldn’t break. The result was that her role was cut back big-time and quite limited with dialog. To trick Reeve into returning, they cast Tony Danza in the role. Of course, that was such a bad idea that they knew Reeve would return to stop such an idiot move. I don’t know if Danza knew at the time he was being used.
Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987)
“I’d want to tell him that I cherished the time we spent together, and I never expected anything from him. Even if I only saw him for a few moments, it made me happy. And I’d want to tell him that I love him and that I’ll always love him. And … no matter what happens on this world, I know he tried his best to help us.”
He always did his best. Christopher Reeve was awesome in the role, and as the scripts got worse, he did his best to play it straight, but not even Superman could save this sinking ship.
The film rights left the Salkinds and reverted to Cannon Films. The problem was they didn’t really have a lot of working capital. The money ran out before the film was even finished, so they edited what they had and released what was basically an unfinished film. This would end this incarnation of the franchise, and it might have happened two films too late.
Superman decides to remove all nuclear weapons from Earth. When he does this, he doesn’t know that Luthor has planted a box on one of them. It has Superman’s DNA, and when it gets blasted into the sun, it creates a Nuclear Man. Luthor pits the crazy supervillain against Supes, and you can guess the results. ‘Nuff said.
Each film is presented in its original aspect ratio. The first film shows a lot of improvement. With HDR the colors pop like never before. The contrast looks powerful when we’re in space against a bright starfield amid the blackness of space. The Donner cut looks the cleanest because of its more recent assembly. There doesn’t appear to be much work done on the final two films. They are loaded with artifacts and other issues. I get why the decision was made, but maybe you’re better off picking up the original and the Donner cut.
The Dolby Atmos audio presentation defaults to 7.1. Anything more would ruin the atmosphere of the original films. It would be a mistake to try to expand the audio field. The dialog and the wonderful John Williams’ score come through just fine. There’s no distortion, and a clean audio presentation is all I’m looking for here. That’s the first two films. Things get messy particularly on III. Dialog often goes into a muffled sound that I suspect is the result of bad dubbing. The subs are alive best on the Donner cut, and it almost feels like it doesn’t belong in this collection.
The legacy extras are found on the Blu-ray copies.
I was pretty excited to get this set. Honestly, I’d forgotten just how good the first film was and equally forgotten how bad the last two were. There is considerably less effort in any restoration beyond the first two films. I consider the Donner cut the definitive version of that film and will likely not watch the original again. You might think about buying these two, because your Blu-ray copies of the final two are good enough. The ups and downs here drove me a little crazy. “Not only have I lost my mind; I’ve lost my comb.”