Superman 4K Puts a Shine on the Man of Steel
We review the new five-film collection from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. Even the bad look good.
Some films are worth the double dip. Or the triple dip. Or the quadruple dip. The new Superman 4K Ultra HD 5-Film Collection from Warner Bros. Entertainment is a solid brick that stands heroically on the shelf. Sure, it's surrounded by the last Blu-ray and DVD sets. However, any opportunity to revisit Christopher Reeve's colossal performance is worth taking, especially when our 4K televisions can present these frames better than ever.
Forty years after Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster gifted the world Superman, the character found his way to the big screen. Richard Donner's original 1978 movie remains a beloved masterpiece. The director brought a tremendous affection for the source material to his adaptation, but such earnestness was not always as obvious.
The first screenplay drafts for Superman: The Movie were self-important mockeries, poking fun rather than celebrating the icon. In what must have been one of his last interviews, Donner told our pal Shawn Eastridge of the Missing Frames podcast, "When I read it, it seemed to be a parody on a parody." The director owed it to his childhood self to rescue the Man of Steel and present the character as idealistically and gallantly as Siegel and Shuster intended.
Sequels were always part of the plan, but plans are meant to be broken. Or, in this case, shattered and shat upon. Too harsh? Probably. Richard Donner got the boot, and Richard Lester entered the picture. Superman II carries much of what was great about the first film, but Donner's aborted vision stains everything, which is why Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is so damn fascinating.
What about Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace? For the most part, those films are universally reviled. We wouldn't spend too much time convincing a hater of any other opinion. And we'd likely agree with most of their heated complaints. Although, the great thing about getting a new Superman box set is the excuse to revisit the supposed crud with an older and hopefully fresher perspective.
We recently hosted a back-to-back screening of Superman: The Movie and Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut at the Alamo Drafthouse in Winchester, Virginia. Seeing them in a theater with a deeply invested crowd was a profound experience and highlighted the persisting power these stories still have on us. Initially, I didn't plan to watch either film again for this review. I merely wanted to pop the discs in and scan the transfer. But, dangit. Both are too good, and I ended up rewatching them.
The next night, we tackled Superman III and IV. Whatever your disgust is regarding these films, I can't hear it over Christopher Reeve's radiance. The actor embodies Superman. Even when the screenplay, direction, and special effects fail him, he never fails himself or us. Never before have I enjoyed the franchise's back half as much as I have with this revisitation. That could say more about me and where I am on this journey, but I must thank the new Superman 4K Ultra HD set for allowing me to reconsider Lana Lang and Lenny Luthor.
Have I lost you with that last bit? No? You're still here? Great. Let's dig a little deeper into my feelings and how I left each of these films in the new collection.
Superman 4K: The Movie
The superhero movie gold standard. That was the case in 1978, and that's the case in 2023. Superman: The Movie emits pure optimism. Absorbing Christopher Reeve's Kal-El into your person makes you a brighter, more hopeful human being. As the credits roll, you not only believe a man can fly, you believe Superman's right when he tells the warden that we're all in this together. United, humanity can accomplish wonders.
In the past, Gene Hackman's take on Lex Luthor grated my nerves. His supervillain is not the supervillain I read on the page. Today, it's easier for me to leave those comparisons outside the film. Superman: The Movie may drag just a tad during those sequences where Lex, Otis, and Miss Teschmacher plot their real estate scheme, but the absurd camaraderie between Hackman, Ned Beatty, and Valerie Perrine is infectious. I'm sad we never got a spin-off feature with them as the focus.
In Superman: The Movie, I swoon whenever Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder are on screen together. Their chemistry is bubbly and adolescent but in all the right ways. It's got that first-love energy, the romance that's jittery, warm, and chaotically magnetic. They're dopey and lovable, equally.
Centering a film on their flirtations and giving their characters everything they wanted while unknowingly, the world is burning around them is viciously delicious. Tonally, Superman II flounders, but there's way more good than awkward or bad. And Terrence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, and Jack O'Halloran as Zod, Ursa, and Non chew scenery like it's an Olympic sport. Gold medals all around.
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut
In 2006, twenty-six years after the original release, Richard Donner was allowed back into the editing room to tinker with Superman II. The result is bizarre but compelling as hell. Gone is the opening Eiffel Tower terrorist sequence. So are a batch of Superman's sillier powers - the Saran Wrap suit symbol is sorely missed. Also nixed? Superman's ability to mind-wipe Lois Lane with a kiss. In its place, the Kryptonian solves his relationship/earth savior issues with another several spins around the planet and a time travel rewind. In an effort to bulk up the runtime, Donner inserts the chemistry test between Reeve and Kidder as a genuine scene. It's odd but flippin' cute too.
You must watch The Richard Donner Cut within context. The director's removal from the franchise was cruel and possibly ruined an absolutely banger sequel situation. That being said, I still prefer Richard Lester's theatrical cut. It's the one I grew up on, and while I can see why many of its goofier bits would grind on the original director's nerves and could be considered out of whack with what the first film delivered, they contain a charm I cannot deny.
Finding nice things to say about Superman III is more challenging than Superman II, but possible. Clark Kent's return to Smallville provides great bits for Christopher Reeve to flex his skills. Pairing him with AnnetteO'Toole's Lana Lang almost creates a situation where the audience wishes for Lois Lane's removal altogether. They're dynamite, and forcing Clark back into his high school geek status against his emotionally-stunted romantic rival screams with dramatic irony.
Richard Pryor's inexplicable computer whiz is far less appealing. As are Robert Vaughn, Annie Ross, and Pamela Stephenson as the Lex, Otis, and Teschmacher stand-ins. Of course, I'd be lying if I said Pryor accidentally skiing himself off a skyscraper and landing on the street below completely unscathed didn't raise the slightest chuckle from my embarrassed insides.
HOWEVER, Superman III's greatest triumph is the big versus match between the cloned Kryptonited Superman and the struggling to free himself from within Clark Kent. The chance for Christopher Reeve to play evil, or, at least, to play asshole, is wickedly enthralling. Sometimes, all a movie needs is one brilliant sequence to make the whole thing worth it. Here's proof of that philosophy.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace may have released nearly ten years after the original, but it looks like it was made ten years prior. After Superman III's disappointing critical and commercial defeat, as well as Supergirl and Santa Claus: The Movie's colossal failures, producers Alexander Salkind and Ilya Salkind dumped the Superman rights upon Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the brilliant maniacs behind Death Wish III, Masters of the Universe, Enter the Ninja, and many more trash treasures. Their Canon Group were also suffering monetarily and could not afford to give the sequel the money it required. Respectively, Superman IV looks like bargain basement junk.
Director Sidney J. Furie sure does try, though. With A Passage to India's Ernest Day shooting the whole cheap thing, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace features some pretty frames (see the image above). And you have to respect the nuclear disarmament narrative that got Christopher Reeve back in the tights (along with a fat wad of cash). And Nuclear Man! Gosh, he sure is something.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is easily my least favorite entry in the franchise, but Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder cloud your mind, helping you ignore the shoddiness surrounding them. Also, Mariel Hemingway? She's kinda great. Her chasing Clark Kent, while Lois Lane tries to help her succeed, is sweet and appropriately cumbersome. Like Lana Lang's romantic invasion in Superman III, I almost want the new girl to win Clark's heart. Someone has to eventually.
"Hey Brad," you might be saying, "didn't you mention a new appreciation for Jon Cryer's Lenny Luthor?" Yeah, sorry about that. It was a lie to get you to keep reading. Thanks for taking the time for all my words. Clearly, you love Superman. So do I.