A&E has opportunistically taken what would otherwise be a swell DVD extra and turned it into an entertaining if almost exhaustively comprehensive special, neatly latching onto the capetails of the upcoming “Superman Returns.” That pic’s director and co-star, Bryan Singer and Kevin Spacey, serve as exec producer and narrator, respectively, on this breezy production incorporating scads of fun minutia. Where else, for example, could one see not just a skinny Christopher Reeve’s audition tape for the role of Superman, but Lesley Ann Warren and Anne Archer’s unsuccessful tryouts for Lois Lane?
Wading through nearly 70 years of Superman lore, director Kevin Burns does a nice job weaving decades of American history into the character’s mythology, beginning with his Depression-era creation by Jerry Siegel and Jerome Shuster, both children of Jewish immigrants. (The one glaring oversight, actually, involves a failure to acknowledge the thorny matter of how the creators were shortchanged on profits from their creation, spurring several rounds of litigation.)
Almost from the beginning, “Superman” flew off the comic-book page to become a multimedia phenomenon, and some of the most interesting factoids relate to the Man of Steel’s evolution thanks to the radio program that began in 1940, which was where he first began to fly and introduced Kryptonite.
Drawing liberally from John Williams’ stirring movie score, the spec also delves into the way Superman sat out World War II, the scintillating Max Fleischer-produced animated shorts and cheesy Kirk Alyn serial, and the square-jawed hero’s struggle to stay relevant as comics adapted during the turbulent Vietnam era and 1970s.
Considerable time is also devoted to behind-the-scenes machinations and budget overruns that plagued the big-screen version starring Reeve, with fascinating footage of its miserable-looking stars suspended from wires. There’s also poignant exploration of the tragic fates that befell both Reeve and George Reeves, the TV series Superman who, trapped by his association with the role, committed suicide at the age of 45.
At its core, of course, “Look, Up in the Sky!” serves as an extended infomercial for the latest movie, though the detail and lengthy parade of interviews (including, somewhat incongruously, KISS’ Gene Simmons) indicates the copious level of research Singer has done immersing himself in the character.
In an example of synergy, meanwhile, after the premiere on A&E (not a Time Warner property), Warner Bros. will offer an on-demand stream of the documentary on AOL.com.
As for comic-book aficionados who have experienced their share of disappointment with spirits of Superman past, well, they can only hope the movie is this satisfying.