Review: ‘Superman: The Movie’

Time plays tricks on special effects blockbusters, and Old Man Time isn't always kind to "Superman: The Movie," now in an expanded, digitally cleaned edition. Handsome DVD package includes eight minutes of narrative gracefully edited back into the running time (resulting in pic now clocking in at 151 minutes).

Time plays tricks on special effects blockbusters, and Old Man Time isn’t always kind to “Superman: The Movie,” now in an expanded, digitally cleaned edition. Handsome DVD package includes eight minutes of narrative gracefully edited back into the running time (resulting in pic now clocking in at 151 minutes). The especially noteworthy new scene is Marlon Brando, as Superman’s Kryptonite father, Jor-El, explaining to his son, now on Earth, why he must stay there while respecting the laws of science and time.

The DVD’s goodies extend to three making-of docus; fascinating screen test footage recently discovered in a U.K. vault; amusing but expendable scenes deleted from the original release; a long-forgotten theatrical teaser trailer; an informative textual history of “Superman” (from the original Action Comics strip by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to ABC’s “Lois & Clark”); a soundtrack-length set of alternate cues from John Williams’ richly conceived score; and — for those equipped with DVD-ROM on their PC — a set of storyboards, sampler trailers and various Internet interactivity modes. Subtracting any noodling on the Web, the bulked-up “Superman” consumes five hours.

That was also about the total running time of the first film and its sequel, which were conceived as a unit by impresarios Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who arranged a negative pickup deal in 1975 with Warners (which owned copyright through ownership of Marvel Comics). The studio had previously hinted at next to zero interest in the property, and it’s one of the ironies of the project that it took Euro producers to get this all-American hero off the ground.

Neither the chatty running commentary by director Richard Donner and writer Tom Mankiewicz (credited on pic as “creative consultant” for his reportedly considerable rewrite job) nor the first docu, “Taking Flight: The Development of ‘Superman,’ ” explain why the project blew up into a two-film endeavor. But from scribe Mario Puzo’s original draft, the work grew to phonebook size care of writers Robert Benton and David and Leslie Newman — with Benton and David Newman supposedly hired because of their hit 1966 Broadway musical, “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman.”

After the key hirings of Brando and Gene Hackman (as archnemesis Lex Luthor), the Salkinds brought on vet Bond hand Guy Hamilton to helm, but since he was a fugitive of sorts from tax laws in the U.K., where most shooting would take place, Donner was picked as a replacement on the heels of his “The Omen.”

Donner brought on Mankiewicz to redo the massive script, which was deemed too campy. This is odd, since Benton’s and Newman’s musical was praised for precisely avoiding a campy Man of Steel adventure. The Salkinds fired Donner after finishing 70% of the second film and hired Richard Lester to pick up the pieces.

In any case, the discussion and docu coverage here are primarily concerned with the (pre-digital era) technical feats. Donner surprisingly reveals that the sequence in which Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane nearly falls out of a helicopter and is saved by Superman was pic’s most involved, taking more than 11 months to complete. Both Donner and Mankiewicz are wonderfully, and rightly, generous in their praise of their ace British technical crew (particularly designer John Barry and lenser Geoffrey Unsworth, both of whom died after filming), and in the third docu, “The Magic Behind the Cape,” host and head of pic’s optical and matte effects Roy Field pointedly explains the crucial role played by matte artist Les Bowles in such major set pieces as Superman’s so-called Fortress of Solitude.

Donner sounds nostalgic when commenting on various shots but can say little more about the gangbuster casting of unknowns Christopher Reeve and Kidder than “Aren’t they wonnnnderful?” He admits that “we were so stupid” to try several of the crane-and-wire shots which aimed to accomplish the original one-sheet’s boast: “You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly.” The ambitious rear projection work of Reeve in flight unfortunately looks hokey, and perhaps appears even more antique to young eyes in the new century than George Reeves’ flying in the TV version appeared to boomer eyeballs.

In an intriguing note, casting director Lynn Stalmaster comments about a strong variety of actors who vied for Lois, including the formidable Stockard Channing, and explains that Kidder nabbed the part because Donner was aiming to make the Daily Planet reporter less glamorous.

Warners has also released the complete four-part Superman film series as a boxed set.

Superman: The Movie

Release: May 8, 2001


A Warner Bros. Home Video release of the 1978 Warners Bros. film produced by Pierre Spengler and directed by Richard Donner. Screenplay, Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton.


With: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Marlon Brando, Valerie Perrine.
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