Superman The Complete Anthology
It’s interesting to watch how time and again, writers, artists, moviemakers, and studio executives struggle to find ways to adapt the very first comic book super-hero. Superman was something readers (and rival publishers) had never seen before, and he served as the template for the heroic fantasy that followed these last seven decades. When you have powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, you need visionaries to bring the character from the printed page to other media. Robert Maxwell figured out how to do that with the popular radio serial. In fact, Maxwell came up with various characters and concepts that seeped into the comics, a symbiosis that made both stronger.
I was given to considering Superman in his many forms when the eight-disc Superman The Complete Anthology Blu-ray set arrived for review. Warner Home Video has taken all the previous versions and spruced them up a bit, added some new features, and placed them in a handsome box. Despite the uneven content, this is a must-have for fans.
When the Fleischer brothers got a chance to animate the Man of Steel, they set the standard that all other animators have emulated or strived to match. It certainly raised the bar when Superman came to the movie serials, with Kirk Allyn looking the part but the low budget and low-tech kept his feats to the above-average, not super-human. Things got somewhat better with the George Reeve television series of the 1950s, imprinting the archetype on two generations of television watchers and comics readers. Again, Maxwell receives credit for his serious translation to the half hour demands of syndicated television before he left and it got dumbed down in subsequent seasons.
That may be why it took until 1978 before Superman made the leap to the Silver Screen in a big budget film. Much as the Fleischers set the standard in the 1940s, the Richard Donner-directed Superman the Movie became the benchmark in translating myth into mythos. Ilya and Alexander Salkind bought the rights and knew it had to be a huge, sprawling production with state-of-the-art special effects. They wisely hired Donner, Mario Puzo, and most especially the newcomer Christopher Reeve. Not only did he look like the Curt Swan Superman people had spent the last 20 years recognizing, but he brought a charisma and humbleness to the part that made you believe every word he uttered, regardless of how hokey it might appear in print. Coupled with John Williams’ soaring score, the movie was terrific.
It wasn’t perfect, though, as Donner was forced out and Richard Lester replaced him and with it, a change in tone. The first half of the first film is as perfect as you can imagine but the minute you meet Otis, the film takes a 90-degree turn into seriocomic nonsense with little in the way of story logic. The second film advances all the character arcs even if Lois Lane learning Superman’s identity feels a little early, the consequences play out nicely. You also finally get some heavy-duty threats in the Phantom Zone trio, led by the menacing General Zod (wonderfully played by Terence Stamp). Superman II is not perfect but is entertaining and largely satisfying..
One wonders, though, why the producers changed tone and direction with the third offering, coming up with original opponents as opposed to mining the rich rogues’ gallery. Robert Vaughn and Richard Pryor as horribly miscast here and there’s no real threat for Superman to use his powers against. Instead, we get a love story with Clark and his childhood sweetheart Lana Lang (well-played by Annette O’Toole). It’s uneven and frustrating and didn’t bode well for the franchise’s future.
It took promising Christopher Reeve input in the story to coax him back into the cape for a fourth installment. The 1980s was a decade of misfires, such as letting William Shatner direct Star Trek V from his own story, and here, someone paired Reeve with Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, who I still don’t think have written a good script (the remakes of Mighty Joe Young and King Kong, for example). Luthor is back, less menacing than ever, and the nuclear man, played by the unknown Mark Pillow, was a powerful if unworthy opponent. The theme was noble, the execution execrable and with a whimper the film series faded away.
Through the years, there were other attempts to relaunch the film franchise but it took Bryan Singer’s success with Marvel’s X-Men to finally get a project off the ground. He was deeply moved and inspired by the Donner look and feel of the first film and wanted to build off that so his movie, Superman Returns, feels like Superman III rather than something fresh. The story was riddled with logic flaws beginning with him being gone from Earth for five years, virtually abandoning Lois, who wound up giving birth to his bastard son. Luthor is back and the story mounts threat after threat without any real purpose. Brandon Routh was an able fill-in for Reeve and has since grown as a performer but Kate Bosworth was a horrible choice for Lois and although Kevin Spacey channeled Gene Hackman, he never made Luthor his own. The movie failed on so many levels it is only now that a true reboot is occurring, under the directorship of Zack Snyder who has proven he can adapt comics to film.
Rewatching bits and pieces of these five movies on Blu-ray is like a trip down memory lane, remember all that could have been and never was. The Salkinds pushed for top-notch effects for the first film, but as computer-generated special effects advanced, they got cheaper with each subsequent films, eschewing both state of and art. The high definition imagery is pretty so it’s nice to have these films once more, but none as much as the first, which still stirs the soul when he first see Krypton or watch Superman fly to recuse Lois for the very first time. So much of that film has made its way into the lexicon and the comics that it rivals Star Wars for largest 1970s influence.
Each disc comes with extras culled from earlier editions but we get for the first time on BD, the theatrical version of Superman II in addition to the third and fourth offerings. The special features are a treasure trove for Superman fans since you get not only the documentaries but all 17 Fleischer cartoons, Superman and the Mole-Men and the 1958 pilot The Adventures of Superpup (which has to be seen to be believed). The 50th anniversary prime time special gets added to the mix of archival films.
From the Warner vault, you also get the cartoon shorts “Super-Rabbit” (1943), “Snafuperman” (1944), and “Stupor Duck” (1956).
The eighth disc offers up additional features including the brand new “Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman”. Kevin Spacey narrates the look at Superman’s growth from headliner in Action Comics to worldwide cultural icon. There are a few new nuggets in here but it also nicely encapsulates the myth in just under two hours. Making return appearances are “You Will Believe: The Cinematic Saga of Superman”, “The Science of Superman”, “The Mythology of Superman”, and “The Heart of a Hero: A Tribute to Christopher Reeve”. By the time you complete watching the movies and sitting through all the extras, you’re reminded once more how exciting it is to hear the cry, “Look! Up in the sky!” With luck, we’ll all feel that once more when the next feature arrives in 2012.
Yes, three of the five feature films aren’t really very good or necessarily worth your time. But seeing the original film in high-def, along with the theatrical sequel and the Donner cut plus all the extras makes this box set a necessary addition to your library and a terrific gift for the super-hero in your life.