Active Essentials: Superhero DVDs
In the fourth of our new features, Chris Gould lists his top five superhero DVDs
It’s been a while since I last wrote an editorial for the site, mostly due to a lack of inspiration, but with the recent arrival of another comic book movie ( Superman Returns) and plenty more scheduled over the next couple of years, now seemed like a good time to share with you my picks for the best superhero film to DVD translations. That is, the films that have received outstanding DVD packages, regardless of their critical standing.
Superman: The Movie
Let’s start at the beginning, or at least the beginning for me. Cast your mind back to 1978, when I was just a wee lad and Superman: The Movie premiered. I know I’m going to get a lot of stick for this one, but as far as I’m concerned the granddaddy of all superhero films is still among the best. The whole film just feels like a comic book movie, with its over-the-top, almost pantomime villain and unashamedly garish costumes. The tone of Christopher Reeves’ performance in the dual roles of the Man of Steel and his bumbling alter-ego, Clark Kent, is spot on, while the presence of such legendary actors as Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman doesn’t hurt. Fast forward almost thirty years and I still believe a man can fly.
When it came to the DVD release, Warner pulled out all the stops to create what was, at the time, a landmark set. Featuring a beautifully restored transfer and an amazing Dolby Digital 5.1 remix of the John Williams score, it proved that even older films could be given the star treatment on DVD. It was no slouch in the extras department either, with a great commentary from director Richard Donner, deleted scenes, documentaries, vintage screen tests and more. This was truly the first great superhero release and the one by which all others should be judged. I, for one, can’t wait for the forthcoming releases of the Richard Donner cut of the excellent Superman II and Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, although the less said about the other sequels the better…
Fast forward more than twenty years and we come to our next entry, the follow-up to Marvel Comics’ first successful foray into film, Blade II. The original Blade, directed by Stephen Norrington, was a dark, edgy film that was aimed squarely at an adult audience with its graphic violence and frequent profanity. When a film performs well, or at least develops a core fan base, it is most often the case that the sequel will be sanitised to appeal to a ‘wider’ audience (read ‘make more money’). Thankfully this wasn’t the case with Blade II. Director Guillermo del Toro actually upped the violence and added even more swearing, along with a greater menace for our hero to face off against. While audiences remain divided as to which is the better film, there can be no denying that both are supremely entertaining. Unfortunately the franchise had a stake rammed through its heart with the woeful third instalment in the series, Blade: Trinity, and after Wesly Snipes tried to sue New Line I wouldn’t expect to see him reprise his role any time soon.
Blade II’s two-disc DVD set was one of the best around at the time of its release, and it still holds up very well by today’s standards. The set boasted a cracking anamorphic widescreen transfer and pounding Dolby and DTS tracks, along with multiple commentaries, an isolated musical score, deleted/alternate scenes, interactive documentaries, music videos and much more. Director Guillermo del Toro is certainly a man who embraces the DVD format, and his infectious enthusiasm for the project comes across loud and clear in the supplemental features. You can argue about which is the better film to your heart’s content, but there’s only one winner when it comes to the DVDs, and that is Blade II.
X2: X-Men United
Time for another sequel now, with the superior X2: X-Men United. The film was a significant improvement over the original X-Men feature, which in itself was largely responsible for the proliferation of comic book movies in today’s market. Whereas the original had the unenviable task of introducing the world at large to the X-Men universe, the sequel, unencumbered by such requirements, expanded the cast of characters and upped the ante. Pretty much everything was bigger and better. Whereas the first film concentrated primarily on the characters of Wolverine and Rogue, the sequel introduced us to Nightcrawler and Pyro, while expanding the roles of bit-players such as Strom and Jean Grey as they struggled against the oppressive will of a military madman. With its believable scenario, identifiable themes, spectacular effects and an excellent score by John Ottman, X2 is a shining example of how to make a successful comic book movie.
Featuring a phenomenal video transfer and excellent Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 tracks, the DVD release of X2 was labelled ‘reference quality’ by many reviewers. It also featured a more comprehensive collection of supplemental features than the previous release, with two commentary tracks, deleted scenes, and featurettes examining the history and members of the X-Men and all other aspects of the production. While the original film eventually received an improved release in the form of X-Men 1.5, I discounted it by virtue of the fact that it was nothing more than a cynical money-making exercise on the part of the studio. The additional features should have been included on the original release, which is why X2 takes the spot in this list.
The Incredibles was a last minute inclusion, mostly because I hadn’t really given any consideration to animated features when compiling the list (of course I should have my knuckles rapped for that). I went to see The Incredibles during its theatrical run, and I remember coming away with a huge smile on my face. It was a film that tackled the superhero mythos from an entirely new angle, examining the domestic life of ordinary people with extraordinary abilities. The film was equal parts family-drama, spy, comedy, and action movie, and I loved the wonderful animation and perfect voice acting. I also loved the obvious references to recognisable superheroes such as the Fantastic Four, the Flash, the Hulk, Batman, Superman and Iceman. Hell, I just flat-out loved The Incredibles! The film definitely ranked as one of the more enjoyable theatrical experiences of 2004, and while I’m not the greatest Pixar aficionado, of the three titles I own this film is undoubtedly my favourite.
As one might expect, the DVD release of The Incredibles featured an amazing digital-to-digital transfer, with bold colours that virtually leaped off of the screen. Sound, too, was engaging, with a strong score and many impressive effects helping to bring the world of The Incredibles to life. However, perhaps the most impressive aspect of the release was the ‘incredible’ array of supplemental features packed into the two-disc set. The package included hours of commentaries, short films, featurettes, documentaries, outtakes, deleted scenes, character profiles, and even a smattering of amusing Easter eggs, putting to shame the DVD releases of titles based on infinitely more recognisable superheroes. That alone has got to be worth a place in the list.
It’s no surprise to find another Guillermo del Toro movie in this list. The man certainly knows his comic books. I wasn’t at all familiar with the Hellboy graphic novels prior to the release of the film, so it’s fair to say I approached the movie without any preconceptions or prejudices. While it didn’t do the same kind of business as films based on more ‘recognisable’ comic book characters, Hellboy was still a very entertaining, stylish feature, with a unique take on the battle between good an evil. Whereas most films dealing with the occult would feature a chiselled, square-jawed hero fighting against the forces of hell, Hellboy’s hero was a demon—a big red one who loves cats, pancakes and has a giant stone hand. Ron Pearlman completely owned the role of Hellboy, but the film also featured solid performances from a great supporting cast, including John Hurt, Selma Blair and Rupert Evans.
The original Hellboy DVD release was impressive by anyone’s standards, but the version that makes it into this list went even further. The three disc extended edition offers not only an extended director’s cut of the movie (featuring an additional ten minutes of footage), but an entirely new director’s commentary track, an isolated score in full Dolby Digital 5.1, and a video commentary from the cast and crew, while still retaining all of the extras from the previous release. That means the two-and-a-half hour documentary ‘The Seeds of Creation’, deleted scenes, DVD comics, set visits, factoids, character bios, animatics, storyboards, trailers, TV spots, scene deconstructions, production workshops, makeup and lighting tests, a Q&A archive, director’s notebook, still galleries and more. That’s a hell of a lot of material. In fact, there’s a very strong case for naming this edition of Hellboy the most impressive comic book DVD set ever to be released.
Now I’m sure this article will draw the inevitable criticisms about the omission of this film and that, but for me these titles represent the best superhero film to DVD translations I’ve seen. It was a close run thing, with Spider-Man 2 making a strong case for inclusion, but in the end the relatively poor video quality had to discount it. I also toyed with the idea of including the recent Batman Begins, but although the audio-visual elements of the set were definitely up to scratch, I wasn’t particularly blown away by the extras, even on the two-disc set. I consider commentary tracks to be mandatory for any major release, and the absence of such a track was a real letdown. The rest of the material was also relatively short, lacking the kind of in-depth documentary found on the majority of the titles that did make the cut.
Other films that lingered on the periphery of my mind were the original Spider-Man and Ang Lee’s Hulk. Yes, that’s right, I liked Hulk. Unfortunately, the DVD presentations of both films leave a little to be desired. Spider-Man suffers from the same image problems as its sequel, while Hulk lacks the sort of meaty documentary found on the titles in the list. Perhaps the hardest film to omit was the original Blade. It’s one of my favourite superhero movies, but the DVD is now starting to show its age. The observant among you will notice the absence of any Tim Burton movies in the list. I wasn’t a huge fan of Burton’s Batman (or any of the sequels), although I understand that there is now a particularly good DVD release. Perhaps one day I’ll pick it up and reassess the list, but for now my choices stand. I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief journey through the cream of the superhero DVD crop, and that you will post your own favourites for others to share. Thanks for reading.
Editorial by Chris Gould
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