I guess there are plenty of adults now too young to remember when Christopher Reeve made his debut as The Man of Steel. It was a massive hit across the full spectrum of moviegoers. Warners is taking good care of everyone’s favorite undocumented visitor from Planet Krypton, and has assembled two separate cuts of his big-screen premiere.
Superman: The Movie
1978 / Color / 2:40 widescreen / 188 min. Extended Cut + 151 min. Special Edition orig. 143 min. / Street Date October 10, 2017 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Trevor Howard, Margot Kidder, Jack O’Halloran, Valerie Perrine, Maria Schell, Terence Stamp, Phyllis Thaxter, Susannah York, Jeff East, Marc McClure, Sarah Douglas, Harry Andrews, Diane Sherry, Randy Jurgensen, Larry Hagman, John Ratzenberger, Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill.
Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Film Editors: Stuart Baird, Michael Ellis
Production Design: John Barry
Assistant Director: Vincent Winter
Miniature Effects: Derek Meddings
Zoptic special effects: Zoran Perisic
Original Music: John Williams
Creative Consultant: Tom Mankiewicz
Written by Mario Puzo, David Newman & Leslie Newman, Robert Benton; story by Mario Puzo; from the character created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster
Produced by Pierre Spengler
Directed by Richard Donner
Enough time has passed to give the mega-hit Superman, or Superman: The Movie more than a fair re-appraisal. When it opened in late 1978, Star Wars of fourteen months before was still playing in theaters here and there. Pierre Spengler and Illya Salkind’s show was the next ‘really big one’ to come down the line. Two years before I had come across a script for Superman on a coffee table at Future General; apparently the producers had tried to interest Doug Trumbull in doing some of the special effects. The fat script was split in halves; part two would later become the foundation of Superman II. Every other page contained a special effect of the kind that just couldn’t be done well in the 1970s, except by a few experienced, highly paid experts. The conclusion of part two was an orgy of super-violence in the streets of Metropolis, with buildings blowing up and transit buses being tossed about like toys.
When working on location on 1941, Spielberg did something unexpected one day during a break and pulled me into his trailer. A package had arrived — John Williams had mailed him vinyl check discs of the newly recorded Superman soundtrack. I think Steven said he was eager to hear if his close collaborator could top the rousing, patriotic fanfare that we remembered so well from TV’s old The Adventures of Superman. After hearing the title theme it was obvious that Williams had done that and more — it sounded terrific, and it wasn’t at all derivative of Star Wars.
While waiting in line, I remember thinking about the buzz around the picture — Marlon Brando being paid millions of dollars for a few days’ work. We wondered how a movie could live up to the ad tagline ‘you will believe that a man can fly.’ How would the new Superman Christopher Reeve would shape up in comparison to the actor firmly anchored in our brains from childhood, George Reeves? Reeve captured the essence of Superman even better — his success was a much bigger deal than this year’s celebration of the new Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot.
Superman was produced by the same shifty internationals that had floated The Three Musketeers five years before. They had tried to pull off a classic slick trick: paying the actors and crew for one movie, and then dividing the result into two. That appears to have been the plan for Superman soon after beginning, but lawyers and egos and perhaps some misunderstandings got in the way. Although he’d filmed plenty of material for Superman II director Richard Donner was dropped and replaced by director Richard Lester, who partially reworked the film to suit his tastes, and re-shot all the footage he could that didn’t involve Brando and Gene Hackman. The ripples from that fracas lasted until the next millennium, when director Donner was asked to come back and assemble his own preferred versions of both movies. Superman II had a re-premiere at the Director’s Guild in 2006, which I was able to attend with Gary Teetzel. Richard Donner was there along with Margot Kidder, and the audience was packed with directors, writers and actors from the new decade’s DC and Marvel franchises.
Donner had already turned in his director’s special edition cut of Superman: The Movie in 2000, and in 2111 Warner released a big-selling Blu-ray anthology of all its Superman movies to date. This new release is a revisit of sorts — it has the Special Edition Cut, which adds eight minutes to the original running time, and also a new 2017 reconstruction of the Extended Edition, the extra-long cut that premiered on Network TV. Reconfigured in widescreen, remixed and re-timed, it clocks in with a full 45 minutes of additional scenes. That’s what I watched, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
A squadron / tag team of writers worked overtime to maximize the appeal of the Disco Era iteration of Siegel & Schuster’s original, undying superhero. The tone is light, but not too light, even though the chosen villain Lex Luthor is almost as fruity as one of the Caped Crusader’s TV foes. Lois Lane is now an emancipated, ambitious news hen. And for the first time, Superman’s super adventures would take place on the grand scale of the comic books: amazing super-feats, colossal disasters, world wide jeopardy. Plus occasional slapstick and show biz in-jokes.
The origin story is presented with solemn reverence: “This is not a fantasy.” On the planet Krypton, Council Elder Jor-El (Marlon Brando) sentences the nasty supervillains Non, Ursa and Zod (Jack Halloran, Sarah Douglas & Terence Stamp) to the eternal prison of The Phantom Zone (from which they will return for Part 2, accidentally released by a nuclear explosion). The Council overrides Jor-El’s claim that global warming an expanding star will consume Krypton. Jor-El has promised not to flee individually, but he and his wife Lara (Susannah York) place their baby boy Kal-El in a space capsule and shoot him off to the safe haven of Earth. Kal-El will look just like the Earthlings, but with awesome super-powers. He is found and adopted by Ma and Pa Kent (Phyllis Thaxter and Glenn Ford), becomes the teenager Clark Kent (Jeff East), frustrated because his adopted Pa insists that he keep his speed and strength a secret. Clark eventually wanders to the North Pole, where a crystal saved from his space capsule grows an entire Fortress of Solitude out of the ice. Taking a reporter’s job in Metropolis, the adult Clark (Christopher Reeve) is soon donning his tights and cape to fly the skies, perform rescues, nab criminals and help children. He manages to keep his identity under wraps. Clark is just human enough to use his flying ability to charm hotshot reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). Things get serious when the arch-criminal Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), from his hideout in the Metropolis subway system, uses his bumbling henchman Otis (Ned Beatty) and his shapely henchwoman Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) to launch a horrendous criminal enterprise. By reprogramming a cruise missile to strike the San Andreas Fault, a Lex-created earthquake will drop California into the Pacific, and thus convert all that worthless desert property he’s bought into top-value real estate. Lex has done his homework: he’s obtained a meteor fragment from Superman’s home planet, a piece of Kryptonite. On Earth it affects Superman like poison. Once he eliminates the flying crusader, Lex will be free to proceed with his nefarious scheme.
Superman: The Movie is still as exciting as it was when new. Unless one doesn’t care for the clownish Gene Hackman, or can’t stand the variable pre-CGI special effects, there’s a lot to like here. The previous success of Star Wars surely gave the filmmakers the courage not to compromise. To everyone’s delight, Christopher Reeve is fully into the Superman spirit. His Clark Kent isn’t particularly inspired, but he compensates with a superhero performance that most people embraced as the Superman they know and love. Unlike TV’s Batman, Reeve’s Superman is the unsullied straight arrow and repository of decent values from the comics, 100% sincere. We loved Reeve’s friendly smile and unprepossessing attitude.
The deal is clinched in the scene on the deck of Lois Lane’s penthouse. Is she an heiress? On a reporter’s salary her apartment is a bigger fantasy than a man that can fly. Clark/Supe is no prude, and plays around a bit with Lois’s provocative questions about X-ray vision and the color of her underwear. But when she jokes that he’s not telling the truth, Superman’s answer is forthright MisterRogers earnestness: Lois, I never lie. The four words and straight face effectively break fifteen years of 007-era cynicism. Audiences recognized in one fell swoop the reassuring, uniting power of virtue long banished to children’s books. One minute we were all Watergate skeptics, and the next we felt the value of simple ethics, of Doing the Right Thing.
They used all the known visual tricks to make Superman fly, frequently inserting him into footage with traveling mattes. Those shots get only a B+, but for the seventies they look good — even Luke Skywalker’s spaceships were originally lumbered with fat matte lines. Other shots use miniature Supermen or trick dummies. In quite a few scenes Chris Reeve flies on wires, making elegant takeoffs and landings Peter Pan-style. But the method that made the news and fooled the rubes was a trick by Zoran Perisic called ‘Zoptic special effects.’ With Reeve mounted on a special rig, a combination of front-projection and zoom lensing allows a great sense of freedom in process shots. Some Zoptic shots have a slightly washed-out look, but the sense of being up there in the air is excellent. We truck along with Superman as he flies under bridges, does barrel rolls and changes direction suddenly. By coordinating the action on the front-projection background plates with Reeve’s gyrations and the zoom lens on the camera, Perisic pulls off the best audience participation trick since the 2001 Star Gate. Nobody saw anything like it before. It erased memories of the repetitive, static flying effects from the TV show, where We Believed That George Reeves Was Using a Trampoline.
The show uses its super-action set pieces well. The mostly English effects artisans achieve an overall graphic grandiosity, in good humor and spirit. Planet Krypton and the Fortress of Solitude aren’t over-elaborated. The faux- The Front Page banter in the Daily Planet is amusing without being wholly childish. The comedy comes off medium-rare, not as slapstick-y as Richard Lester would see things, but on an agreeable Sitcom-Plus level. Lois Lane’s poor spelling skills and dismissive behavior toward Clark are just okay, but witty gags poke fun at our perceptions of our favorite superhero. A joke with a modern booth-less phone booth gets a big laugh, as does the sight of a Manhattan pimp expressing admiration for Superman’s crazy costume “Woo! That’s a BAD, out-FIT!”
The miniature effects people I knew admired the destruction of Boulder Dam but winced at the toy houses in the path of the flood. But other, simple dissolve tricks work like gangbusters, such as Superman’s turning himself into a human drill to bore down through a sidewalk. A Sputnik-eye’s view of the San Andreas Fault opening up ought to look foolish, but it’s well matched to the level of graphic absurdity on view. I assume that Derek Meddings’ crew made the marvelous miniature of the Golden Gate Bridge for the school bus jeopardy scene, a gripping spectacle in 1978. Again, it’s all in the way the shots were laid out — when they first saw a hint of Superman through a bus window, coming to the rescue, the audience cheered.
An unexpected plus is the ballet-like scene in which Superman takes Lois Lane on an evening’s flight around Manhattan. It’s an early femme-appeal inspiration, taking time out for a seemingly effortless ‘Fear of Flying’ substitute sex fantasy. The Zoptic tricks work well, and audiences responded as if they were seeing something poetic. Very astute commercial filmmaking, this.
I do remember at first not liking the scene in which Superman turns back time by causing the Earth to reverse its rotation. Since goofball, unrealistic things like that were a staple of the old comic books, the absurdity wasn’t an issue. But the fact that Superman can undo undesirable events sets a narrative-killing precedent. If everything is fixable, why worry about what happens? Whatever it is, Superman can fix it by giving the planet another dreidel-spin. A bottomless can of narrative worms opens up. Why does he limit his fix-up to saving Lois? What about the poor detective who died in the subway? Why not get serious about saving the world, and go back and strangle baby Lex Luthor in his crib? Why not save JFK in Dallas, or save Krypton and his Mom and Dad?
The concept of a man with Superman’s powers has always been a sticky wicket. Earthlings would hold Superman responsible for everything — why is he pulling cats out of trees when people are hungry in India? Why doesn’t he speed-read all the medical literature on file, and then race around the world giving everybody X-Ray vision health exams? I’d say that it’s best not to over-think these things, and I’ve been known to indulge excitable fans of Star Trek and Star Wars.
Superman: The Movie’s appeal persists because it takes the time to reestablish the innocent basis of the character, the guy who can honestly say “I never lie” and mean it. This Superman passes the Judex test of masculine invulnerability to femmes fatale – he doesn’t even pretend to be aroused by Eve Teschmacher, to more quickly rid himself of a nugget of deadly Kryptonite. Little kids need happy stories where virtue triumphs, and it felt good to cheer the totally non-ironic sentiments at the conclusion: “We’re safe again, Superman, thanks to you!” The last decade’s Marvel and DC movies sometimes play that card, but the sentiment is never as pure, and the escapism never as innocent.
Gary Teetzel says that when he met Valerie Perrine in person, he asked if when fans saw her, they sometimes bellowed “Miss TESCHMACHERRRRRRR!!!” He reports that she smiled and gave him an emphatic, “Yes.”
The Warner Bros 2-Film Collection Blu-ray of Superman: The Movie necessarily becomes an exercise in version surfing, much as with older multi-version disc choices of the troubled movies Dune (2 versions) Blade Runner (3 or 4 versions). In this case the ‘trouble’ was the detour / creative split between the producers and Richard Donner. The Extended TV version is the longest cut but not necessarily the best. Both it and director Donner’s Special Edition re-cut re-integrate scenes and scene trims dropped for the theatrical release. In these days of binge-watching whole seasons of TV shows, there’s no problem sitting through three hours of Superman. Is Gene Hackman funnier in the extended cut? Does the added character business throughout enhance the film, or slow it down? In the entire show, the only addition I felt was unnecessary is a no-payoff scene of Councilman Trevor Howard dispatching a hit man to see what treason Jor-El was up to.
A lot of good work went into these new constructions of Superman. Both shows look and sound pristine. Beyond the observation that some dirt and other goobers in the original effects seem to have been touched up, I see no significant effects revisions, which is a good thing. The movie is still accurate to what could be accomplished by the effects state of the art in 1977. Giant $$ dollar signs motivate these restorations, but we have no complaints. Warners is taking excellent archival care of this franchise.
The new Extended Cut is bare bones, leaving the Special Edition to carry an entire battery of extras for the super-fans. Richard Donner and the late Tom Mankiewicz provide a full commentary and four docu featurettes intercut behind the scenes views of the filming with interview input from the stars. Some screen tests are present — I recall that an un-filmed scene for Donner’s re-cut of Superman II was cribbed together by repurposing one of Christopher Reeve’s screen tests.
Of special note to John Williams fans is an isolated Music-Only Track. I know that many viewers would never think of listening to a commentary. But watching-listening to a movie you’ve seen ten times becomes a different experience with an Isolated Music track. Without the dialogue the action becomes a ballet and the audio a feature length concert — one becomes aware of picture/music interactivity normally blocked by sound effects. This Superman track promises to be a winner.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Final product for this review was provided free by Warner Bros.
Superman: The Movie
Supplements: Special Features (on Superman The Special Edition Disc): Commentary by Director Richard Donner and Creative Consultant Tom Mankiewicz. 3 Documentaries: Taking Flight: The Development of Superman, Making Superman: Filming the Legend, and The Magic Behind the Cape. Screen Tests, Restored Scenes, Additional Scenes, Additional Music Cues, Music-Only Track.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Two Blu-ray discs in keep case
Reviewed: October 9, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson