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Ah, another review, another excuse. I had hoped to deliver a full review of this set before the release date, but Warner was unable to supply a complete set of check discs and we don’t review incomplete releases here at DVDActive. Thankfully our webmaster stepped in and supplied a finished copy so I could bring you this review, so my thanks to him. As with most of my reviews I’m going to concentrate on the audio-visual quality of the release rather than the extras, but in a break from tradition brought about by my love of the films I thought I’d write a little bit about each feature to set the tone. So, without further ado let’s crack on.

Feature


The original Superman: The Movie is still my favourite superhero film. That probably sounds odd in this age of ‘dark’ comic book adaptations and advanced special effects, but Richard Donner’s iconic 1978 film is, for me, just about perfect on all levels. It has just the right mix of comedy and drama, with some superb performances from both established stars and rising talents, along with some genuinely exciting action sequences. Even thirty-plus years on I find that I am still able to suspend disbelief long enough ‘to believe a man can fly’. This boxed set includes not only the previously released expanded edition of the movie, but also the original theatrical cut, available for the first time on Blu-ray. While there are some brilliant additions to the expanded version of the film, not least more John Williams music, many people prefer the tighter pacing of the theatrical cut so it’s great to see it included in this set. Sure it’s a little campy in places, but Christopher Reeve delivers a terribly underrated performance in the dual role of Kent and Superman, and Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane serves as a wonderful leading lady. Sure it’s obvious that the flying is achieved by means of wires and rear projection, but the story is solid enough to overcome the technological limitations of the time, something that can’t be said for a lot of today’s superhero films.

The problematic history of the immediate follow-up, Superman II, is well known to many, but for the uninitiated here’s a brief explanation. The original film and its sequel were shot simultaneously and envisioned as one long story divided into two chapters, but at some point after the release of Superman: The Movie director Richard Donner was ‘relieved’ of his duties and replaced by Richard Lester, who reshot a lot of footage and added lighter, more comedic moments. Of course this is the version that we all grew up watching and loving, but the Internet being what it is a campaign arose to champion the return of Richard Donner to the director’s chair to deliver his vision of Superman II. This is included in the set as Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. For me it serves as an interesting experiment in filmmaking after the fact, but in spite of some wonderful footage (Marlon Brando’s return as Jor-El being the main attraction) I found it a strangely disjointed affair. This is due in some part to the reliance on rehearsal footage for scenes that were not completed and the omission of virtually all of Richard Lester’s footage, even when it was actually better or more logical than the stuff that replaced it. It seems that Donner was unable to let go of the bitter experience he had while making the film (possibly quite rightly) long enough to realise that the best film probably lies somewhere between Lester’s version and his own. Still, whichever version you view there can be no denying that it’s a great superhero movie, with the age-old conflict between love and duty affording Reeve and Kidder the opportunity to spread their dramatic wings. Of course the villainous Phantom Zone escapees are also a major draw, thanks largely to a wonderful performance from Terrance Stamp as General Zod.

The third film, imaginatively title Superman III, moves even further into the comedy territory briefly explored in part two. At the time of the film’s production Richard Pryor was one of the biggest stars in the world and his inclusion proves to be both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because Pryor is an incredibly likeable screen actor and a curse because the exploits of his character, Gus Gorman, side-line Superman for too much of the film. Behind the scenes squabbling meant almost zero screen time for Lois Lane and no appearance from Lex Luthor, so the film also has a weak villain in the form of corrupt businessman Ross Webster, who’s basically Luthor-lite. However, there are some genuinely great moments, including a fantastic showdown between the physical manifestations of Superman’s splintered psyche after a run-in with some bad Kryptonite. There’s also a new love interest for Clark Kent in the shape of childhood sweetheart Lana Lang, which could have made for an interesting love triangle (or should that be quartet?) in the fourth instalment had Cannon films not been scratching around in the dirt for a budget. (Reeve and Annette O’Toole certain had bags of chemistry). Sure the computer stuff dates the film terribly, but it’s all good campy fun, even if it’s not up to the quality of the first two. That robot lady scared the hell out of me as a kid as well!

If Superman II was a troubled production Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was a disaster. After purchasing the rights to the character from the Salkinds, Golan and Globus of Cannon Films—who were not known for their quality output—asked Christopher Reeve to reprise his role without having a finished script. Reeve agreed, apparently against his better judgement, in exchange for story input and a promise from Cannon to finance his next movie. The production was a catastrophe, with Cannon’s lack of money forcing director Sidney J. Furie to cut corners at virtually every turn. Scenes that were written to occur at the United Nations in New York were in fact filmed at a municipal centre in Milton Keynes and an entire subplot involving a ‘mark one’ Nuclear Man was filmed and later removed. These are just two or many incidents relayed by writer Mark Rosenthal in the film’s commentary track. Superman ridding the world of nuclear weapons and fighting another being even more powerful than him should have made for a fantastic spectacle, but instead it’s just ninety minutes of an embarrassed Reeve walking around threadbare sets and duking it out with a muscle-bound bloke with a mullet. Lois Lane is once again marginalised in favour of a new love interest, this time in the form of Mariel Hemingway’s Lacy Warfield who, like Lana Lang before her, also has a thing for Clark Kent rather than the Man of Steel. When you look at all of this together it’s not hard to see how Superman IV: The Quest for Peace almost put the final nail in Superman’s big-screen coffin. However, the saddest thing is that it was Christopher Reeve’s swansong as the iconic character.

We have to fast-forward almost twenty years until we come to the Man of Tomorrow’s next feature outing. The story of Superman’s years in development limbo is a fascinating insight into just how screwed up the Hollywood movie system is. Honestly, if you’re not familiar with the story I urge you to read up on it and watch this hilarious clip of Kevin Smith talking about his involvement with the franchise. Hopefully you’ve absorbed that little lot and can now understand how Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman Returns was on a hiding to nothing from the very beginning. The film needed to take a massive amount of money at the box office if it ever stood a chance of recouping not only its budget, but all of the money spent on the previous failed ventures. As it happens it took a pretty respectable $391 million worldwide, but it was still considered a failure by many. As it happens I quite liked it, but I acknowledge that it’s a flawed piece of work. The tone is a little too sombre and Superman spends too much of the film moping about after Lois Lane, but there are a couple of wonderful action set-pieces (the airliner sequence is exhilarating) and Brandon Routh was a fantastic replacement for Christopher Reeve. Still, it really could have done with a few more ‘action beats’.

Video


Warner has included both theatrical and alternate versions of Superman: The Movie and Superman II in this set. The theatrical cuts are making their high-definition debuts and as such have been transferred from newly-created HD masters, as have the third and fourth films. All films share a common 2.40:1 aspect ratio and utilise 1080/24p AVC encoding, with the exception of the Richard Donner cut of Superman II and Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, which use the same VC-1 transfers as the previous single disc releases. Let’s examine each in a little more detail.

This viewing marked the first time I’d viewed the theatrical version of Superman: The Movie for quite some time, as the previous single disc DVD and Blu-ray releases have only included the expanded edition (I never got around to watching the theatrical disc from the DVD boxed set). To be honest the transfer looks pretty much as expected, which is to say quite good for a film of its age. The image doesn’t offer razor-sharp clarity—and let’s face it, neither did the original photography—but it is reasonably detailed, with a reassuring layer of film grain throughout. Colours are nicely saturated and quite natural, although there is a reddish tint to skin tones during some scenes, while black levels are satisfyingly inky and preserve good detail in the shadows. On the whole the image is very clean and filmic, but there are some minor concerns with blocking and posterisation. However, I only really noticed these when taking screen caps and I doubt all but those with the largest screens will be unduly troubled by either issue. The expanded version is more of the same for the most part, although it is a hair sharper and the colour palette is slightly different. As an example, in the expanded version the reds and yellows of Superman’s outfit are sometimes more vibrant than the theatrical edition, but the opposite is true of the primary blue. The image is also a lot cleaner than the previously released Blu-ray thanks to the slightly newer master and dirt and scratch removal.

For its inaugural Blu-ray outing the theatrical version of Superman II was granted a brand new HD master and very nice it looks. It’s very similar to the look of the original film, with acceptable detail levels given the very soft photography. Grain is somewhat heavier in the sequel, especially during the opening scenes in Paris, but it never reaches distracting proportions. The palette is also fairly natural, if not perfect, while contrast also appears to run a little hot in places. Admittedly this last issue could be down to the original cinematographic process rather than any deficiencies with the image. Again it’s another relatively clean transfer with no particularly egregious film or digital artefacts. The Donner Cut hasn’t been remastered and is quite a bit different from the theatrical cut. The colour timing and contrast aren’t as natural for a start and there are also some sequences where the quality dips quite noticeably, although these are few and far between and can be attributed to the ‘patchwork’ nature of the cut. However, even with these minor niggles it’s still a pretty respectable effort that should please fans of Donner’s version of the film.

Superman III’s introductory HD outing is very pleasing, although it exhibits some softness that seems to be inherent to the original photography. Even so, textures are effectively resolved to ensure that there’s plenty of detail and the palette is absolutely spot-on, offering exceptionally natural colours for what is actually a pretty garish comic book movie. Black levels and contrast are also impressive and shadow delineation only really falters during a few scenes. There are very few film artefacts to speak of and I didn’t spot any particularly obvious digital artefacting either. For my money this is easily on a par with the first two films in the video stakes.

Superman IV is another surprisingly good effort given its troubled history. Although the cheapest looking film of the bunch by quite some margin Quest’s first HD outing presents a cinematic image that belies its humble origins. It actually has much in common with Superman III, in so much as it’s a detailed, natural image with a relatively clean print and very little in the way of digital artefacting. It’s fair to say that of all of the films in the collection I was expecting the least from this one, so it came as a pleasant surprise to find that it actually looks pretty good for a catalogue title; much better than I had dared hope in fact. I guess it is possible to polish a turd.

Finally we come to Superman Returns. As previously mentioned Warner chose to forgo the creation of a new HD master for this film and has instead reused the same transfer as the original Blu-ray release. This is a real missed opportunity in my book, because if there was one Superman  film that was crying out for a new master it was this one. As it is the image still exhibits all of the same problems, which have been exacerbated by the passage of time and higher expectations. Superman Returns is an extremely inconsistent affair, at times wonderfully detailed and at others a mushy mess. Nowhere is this more obvious than in facial close-ups, some of which resolve enough detail to show individual pores while others look like the actors have been swapped out with mannequins. Colours are surprisingly muted, with Superman’s trademark blue and red suit looking quite muddy, but this is largely due to the intentional amber tone that dominates the film’s palette. Contrast is also highly variable and a lot of detail is sacrificed to the shadows. Of greater concern are the frequent instances of posterisation—or ‘banding’—that crop up throughout. It’s paradoxical that the newest film in the series, which was shot using (then) state-of-the-art digital cameras looks worse than some of the older films, but sadly it does. That’s not to say it looks terrible, just that more could have been done to improve things.

Audio


Prior to the release of this collection the only Superman film to feature a high-definition soundtrack was Superman Returns. The HD DVD release included a Dolby TrueHD track and the film’s Blu-ray re-release included both TrueHD and LPCM. However, that particular BD was never available in the UK and was prohibitively expensive to import, even if you could find somewhere willing to guarantee that you’d receive the new version and not the original one with lossy Dolby Digital. Thankfully all but one film is now accompanied by a lossless audio in the form of DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks. The black sheep is Superman IV, which ‘only’ has a 2.0 Master Audio track. Here’s a brief rundown of each track’s strengths and weaknesses.

As nice as Superman: The Movie looks it sounds a whole lot better. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track totally immerses the viewer in the film right from the opening credits, which zoom past the listening position with a satisfying whoosh. The descent to the planet Krypton and its subsequent destruction offer plenty of discrete effects, from the imprisonment of Zod and his cohorts in the Phantom Zone to the launching of baby Kal-el’s ship and the explosion of the red star. Dialogue is nicely placed in the mix, never becoming lost amongst the other elements and occasionally finding its way into the surrounds. All of this is ably supported by some pretty beefy LFE and a wonderful score from John Williams, which gets my nomination for the ‘best superhero film score’ of all time.  Purists will also be delighted by the inclusion of the film’s original soundtrack in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Obviously it’s lacking the immersion of the 5.1 track, but it’s great to see it included. The expanded edition of the film achieves parity with the theatrical’s 5.1 effort, but as with the DVD releases some of the original effects have been replaced with newer ones.

Superman II also benefits from a new lossless soundtrack, although for my money it’s not quite as good as the original’s remixed effort. The soundstage is more limited for a start, with less use of the discrete channels and fewer instances of thunderous bass during the action sequences. To be honest it all sounds a bit ‘canned’ in that immediately identifiable eighties way, and although dialogue is generally clear throughout the quality is quite variable (possibly due to the reshoots and Zod’s vocal fluctuations are the most noticeable). To be fair it’s not a bad track, it’s just not as dynamic as I was expecting given the pretty wondrous effort made for the original film. Strangely the Donner Cut actually sounds a little bit better, with more aggressive use of all five channels, more bass and superior fidelity for much of the runtime. It still suffers from inconsistent dialogue and effects, but it’s a hare better overall.

Superman III’s soundtrack was a big surprise. Although it definitely still sounds like an eighties movie, the 5.1 remix breathes new life into the picture. While the action is usually focussed at the front of the soundstage it features great stereo separation, with plenty of neat panning effects. Surrounds are mainly used for atmospheric effects like rain and thunder, although the discrete channels are utilised in some scenes. Bass was perhaps the biggest revelation, offering solid reinforcement to numerous effects, not least the major action sequences. It’s not a revelation by any means, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much better it sounded than my old DVD copy.

As mentioned above The Quest for Peace is the only film not to feature a 5.1 track. Even so, the 2.0 track does a reasonable job and it is at least lossless. Dialogue is always intelligible, while effects and music come across clearly, but bass is severely lacking and there’s not a whole lot of stereo panning going on which further limits the soundstage. A more expansive track would have been nice, especially since the equivalent DVD in ‘Ultimate Collection’ featured a 2.0 Surround track, but it is at least faithful to the original theatrical mix so I can’t complain too much.

I’m glad I never spent serious money on the reissued Superman Returns Blu-ray because I’d have ended up with yet another redundant disc thanks to this anthology. The track here is probably the best of the bunch, but that’s hardly surprising given that it’s a relatively modern feature with engaging sound design. There are plenty of moments that cry out for multi-channel and discrete action and the track doesn’t disappoint. Witness Superman’s ‘super-save’ of the jet airliner, or the foiling of the robbery for some great examples. That’s not to say the subtleties have been ignored, as even something as simple as a serene flight over Metropolis sounds wonderful here, with Superman’s cape flapping in the wind and the sounds of the city all around. There’s a ton of bass to reinforce all of the major action sequences and dialogue is also well-rendered, never becoming lost amidst the other elements. Personally I always thought the lossy Dolby Digital track found on the old BD sounded pretty good in spite of the audiophiles’ moaning, but now that we have it readily available in lossless it’s even better.

Extras


If you own the previous Superman collection on DVD (the one that came in the lovely tin) you will have seen almost everything that’s included in this set in some form or another. In light of this I’m going to summarise each disc’s content for the most part, although I will comment on the new additions.

Disc one includes the theatrical cut of Superman: The Movie with accompanying commentary by Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler, a 1978 TV special entitled ‘The Making of Superman: The Movie’, a 1951 feature entitled ‘Superman and the Mole-Men’, several Warner Brothers cartoons (‘Super-Rabbit’ (1943), ‘Snafuperman’ (1944) and ‘Stupor Duck’ (1956) and a selection of trailers.

Disc two houses the expanded edition of Superman: The Movie with commentary by Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewic, a number of featurettes including ‘Taking Flight: The Development of Superman’, ‘Making Superman: Filming the Legend’ and ‘The Magic Behind the Cape’, three screen tests (Superman, Lois Lane (with optional commentary) and Ursa), a selection of restored scenes, additional music cues (Main Titles, Alternate Main Titles, The Council’s Decision, The Krypton Quake, More Mugger/Introducing Otis, Air Force One, Can You Read My Mind (Pop Version)) and a music only track.

Disc three houses the theatrical cut of Superman II and includes commentary by Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler, a 1980 TV special entitled ‘ The Making of Superman II’, a deleted scene, a ‘First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series’ featurette, Fleischer Studios’ Superman episodes (Superman, The Mechanical Monsters, Billion Dollar Limited, The Arctic Giant, The Bulleteers, The Magnetic Telescope, Electric Earthquake, Volcano and Terror on the Midway) and the theatrical trailer.

Disc four is the Richard Donner cut of Superman II and includes commentary by Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz, an introduction by Richard Donner, a ‘Superman II: Restoring the Vision’ featurette, deleted scenes, Famous Studios’ Superman cartoons (Japoteurs, Showdown, Eleventh Hour, Destruction, Inc., The Mummy Strikes, Jungle Drums, The Underground World and Secret Agent).

Disc five includes Superman III along with commentary by Iilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler, a 1983 TV special entitled ‘The Making of Superman III’, deleted scenes and the theatrical trailer.

Disc six has, you guessed it, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace along with commentary by Mark Rosenthal, a 1988 TV special entitled ‘Superman 50th Anniversary Special’, deleted scenes and the theatrical trailer.

Disc seven features Superman Returns along with the seven part ‘Requiem for Krypton: Making Superman Returns’, a ‘Resurrecting Jor-El’ featurette, deleted scenes (including the never-before-seen original opening), Bryan Singer’s Journals and trailers. Let’s back up a bit to the original opening, which is in fact the much talked about ‘Return to Krypton’ scene. In it, Kal-el awakes aboard his crystalline spaceship in orbit of his home world to find that it lies in ruin. He explores for a while before the intense kryptonite radiation forces him to leave in dramatic fashion. It’s a great little scene that would have really set the tone for Superman Returns and as far as I’m concerned deleting it was sheer lunacy. Still, I’m glad we finally get to see it in its entirety.

Disc eight includes the rest of the bonus content from the DVD set, such as ‘Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman’ (HD), the three-part ‘You Will Believe: The Cinematic Saga of Superman’, ‘ The Science of Superman’ (HD), ‘The Mythology of Superman’, ‘The Heart of a Hero: A Tribute to Christopher Reeve’ and a 1958 TV pilot entitled ‘The Adventures of Superpup’. The first two features have a combined runtime of over three hours, while the third is an entirely new documentary that runs for almost an hour and examines the science-fact behind Superman’s amazing powers. It’s a great addition to an already fantastic selection of extras.

I don’t care if you’re an Earthling or Kryptonian, this is a colossal set of extras whatever planet you’re from. The old DVD content was always fantastic but having it on fewer discs is a major bonus. The addition of the deleted opening to Superman Returns and the ‘Science of Superman’ documentary only help to strengthen the release, while UK consumers also get their hands on Bryan Singer’s video journals for the first time (they were exclusive to the US version of the DVD collection).

Overall


The DVD release of the ‘Ultimate Collection’ was everything a Superman fan could ask for in standard-definition and this HD ‘Anthology’ release betters it in every conceivable way. Superior video, audio and extras combine to create a package that is exceptionally good value for money given the price that most retailers are currently charging. Okay, so some might argue that you get two, arguably three good films and a couple of coasters, but I’ve always had a soft spot for parts three and four and I was one of the few who seemed to enjoy Returns. For me this is a fantastic release and one that shall sit proudly on my shelves next to collections like the ‘Alien Anthology’ and the ‘Godfather Trilogy’. It comes highly recommended.

* Note: The images below are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.

 Say Jim, that's a bad outfit! (Theatrical)
 Superman: Motion Picture Anthology, The
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 Say Jim, that's a bad outfit! (Expanded)
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 Superman: Motion Picture Anthology, The
 Superman: Motion Picture Anthology, The
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 Superman: Motion Picture Anthology, The
 Superman: Motion Picture Anthology, The
 Superman: Motion Picture Anthology, The


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