Plot: Jor-El (Marlon Brando) has learned that the planet Krypton is doomed, but he is told to not only keep the planet-wide devastation to himself, but also that he cannot leave to find a new home. While he is forbidden to evacuate, he manages to give his newborn son the chance at a life and sends him off world in an escape vessel. The pod travels to Earth, where an older couple witnesses the crash landing and takes in the child, naming him Clark. From that first encounter, it was clear Clark was not a normal child, but his new parents encouraged him to blend him and keep his powers a secret. But when his adoptive father dies and he finds himself in an existential crisis, Clark (Christopher Reeve) seeks solace in isolation. When he returns, he is a changed man and seeks to use his powers to help mankind, but he finds himself distracted by both potential love and an enemy lurking in the shadows.
Entertainment Value: This review is based on Richard Donner’s director’s cut of Superman, though several cuts exist, including a three hour version created for television broadcast. The role has been played by numerous actors, but to me, Superman will always be Christopher Reeve. This movie has some b movie vibes, but feels like a comic book experience through and through, which makes it a breath of fresh air, when compared with more modern superhero cinema. The narrative is familiar for Superman fans and weaves a lot of the comic book elements in, with a pace that is deliberate and invests time in characters and development. I appreciate the time spent to add depth to Superman and his relationships, especially the scenes that explore his relationship with Lois Lane. The action scenes aren’t about explosions and constant cuts, but have more of an action/adventure texture. So we see Superman race a train, endure survival trials, and of course, fly all over the place, but this isn’t about city demolishing fist fights or epic invasions. If your main exposure to superhero movies is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it might take a little adjustment to this more classic style of superhero tale, but it is a lot of fun to watch.
Although the action is a different breed than most later superhero movies, Superman still shares the common thread of frequent special effects. The effects here are dated to be sure and a little hokey, but no worse than the low end CGI and slapdash green screen effects that would follow. I would classify them as quaint, but I think they’re still fun and retain a certain sense of wonder. And to me, the b movie feel the film has at times is part of the charm, especially the bizarre finale and the humorous visual of Superman’s last ditch effort to make things right. Reeve is good as Superman, perhaps a little too old fashioned for some, but I think his earnest take on the role works. He is iconic in the role and as I said before, remains my personal favorite Superman. Gene Hackman channels fun villainy as Lex Luthor and makes you wish he was more integral to the plot, with Ned Beatty as his underfoot henchman. Margot Kidder is terrific as Lois, while Marlon Brando’s brief, but insanely expensive performance is fine, but doesn’t have the power or impact you might hope. I think for the most part the cast embraces the comic book feel of the material and the performances reflect that, especially in the work of Reeve and Hackman.
The Disc: Warner Archive’s two disc Blu-ray release includes both Richard Donner’s director’s cut of Superman, as well as the three hour version that was crafted for television broadcasts. The television cut is assembled from less than ideal source materials, but looks much better than you might expect. A lot of work went into making sure this version felt natural and polished, so despite the problematic material involved at times, this is a terrific visual presentation. As for the content of this extended version, the scenes aren’t crucial by any means and don’t add much to the narrative, but it is still interesting to see it all here. I appreciated the extra scenes with Lex, as most had a comic presence that the other cuts of the movie lack.
The director’s cut has a slicker, more polished overall look and also features all of the extras found in this release. Donner provides audio commentary for the movie, while three featurettes provide a look behind the scenes and together, offer a feature length retrospective on Superman. These are well crafted, insightful pieces that follow the production from start to finish, so fans of Superman should find a lot of interesting and worthwhile information here. There’s also over 20 minutes of audition tapes, added scenes and musical cues, and the isolated musical score.