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June 2001

You'll Still Believe a Man Can Fly...

The Superman Film Collection Lands on DVD At Last

The best superhero movie ever made is not Tim Burton's Batman (1989). It isn't Bryan Singer's X-Men (2000) either. No, it's Richard Donner's extraordinary 1978 motion picture, Superman the Movie starring Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder and Marlon Brando. Although some twenty-three years have passed since the film premiered in American theaters, the film's age seems to make no difference. A production of extraordinary heart and great special effects, this Superman still flies high, and has even become an American classic. Now, thanks to Warner Brothers, all four Christopher Reeve Superman movies have been released on DVD in the reasonably priced The Complete Superman Collection gift set... and it's about time.

This deluxe DVD set packs most of its goodies into the first disc, the original Superman. Here we not only get the extended version of the film (which features deleted scenes on Krypton and in Smallville), but three documentaries about the making of the film, and several screen-test "audition reels" of the actors. Among those whose auditions (for the role of Lois Lane) have been recorded for posterity are Anne Archer, Leslie Anne Warren and Stockard Channing! The documentaries are equally interesting, especially the third one, which reveals how filmmakers - after months of trial and error - learned to make Superman take flight.

However, no amount of behind-the-scenes material would be worthwhile or even interesting, if the film itself were not a stunner. And here, Richard Donner (director of The Omen [1976], Ladyhawke [1984], and Lethal Weapon [1987]) has really triumphed, capturing the superhero mythos with a sincerity and majesty never before accomplished. When the film was in the planning stages during the mid-70s, many comic book fans feared it would follow the campy tradition of TV's Batman (1966-68). Thankfully, Donner had the vision to play the legend straight, and the result is a film that is as enjoyable today as it was in the late 1970s.

Though it is always dangerous to read too deeply into a movie designed primarily as an entertainment, it is not difficult to see how Superman the Movie is the story of a modern messiah. Jor-El (Marlon Brando) a wise, god-like representative of a distant, highly advanced world (Heaven?) sends his only son, Kal-El (Jesus Christ?) to Earth to live among humanity. Immediately before sending away his child, Jor-El and his people (angels?) have fought a war against an insurrectionist named Zod (Lucifer?), who is finally cast into a nether region (not Hell, but the Phantom Zone!). Before being vanquished, this villain threatens to return one day to combat Jor-El and his heirs - an Armageddon that is highlighted in Superman II (1981). Once on Earth, Kal-El is adopted by kindly parents (the Kents), who are at a loss to explain his arrival or birth…not quite an immaculate conception, but close enough for us to get the point. Then, of course, Superman becomes a savior by performing miracles (saving Air Force One, averting an earthquake, et al).

But lest Superman sound like some kind of religious epic, Richard Donner also knows when to have fun and when to reach for the heartstrings. After the majestic, beautifully orchestrated opening on Krypton, which is depicted as an "icy" world of crystals, the film changes tone in Smallville and becomes a lyrical, Norman Rockwell-like glimpse of American small-town life in the 1950s. In this middle sequence of the picture, Donner's camera artfully captures many beautiful vistas, focusing on sprawling wheat fields, traditional farmhouses and wide-open skies. It's about as Americana as you can get without literally waving Old Glory around. From Smallville, Superman launches into the standard superhero stuff people expect: the clash with Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), and Superman performing feats of heroism in Metropolis while keeping his identity secret from plucky reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder).

The final third of the film, the Metropolis section, would have been the least interesting aspect of this movie had the casting not been picture perfect. Christopher Reeve is Superman (just as George Reeves was Superman to the generation before), and he captures the Man of Steel's decency and purity in a way that is never hokey or campy. This is a visitor who reveres mankind, and who can be strong while also being idealistic and sincere. And this fine characterization may just be the ultimate appeal of Superman the Movie. Unlike Tim Burton's Batman - a very good adaptation of the Dark Knight's story, by the way - there is little "darkness," "schizophrenia" or "angst" involved in this superhero film. The crises in this film are more genuinely human, and less melodramatic. In the course of Superman, Clark/Kal-El loses two fathers, searches for the purpose of his life (in the Fortress of Solitude) and falls in love with a human being. He isn't "darkly" obsessed with the murder of his parents or motivated by an ugly emotion like "revenge." He isn't a kinky, rubber-suited vigilante who depends on gadgets such as souped up-cars and utility belts. He's an outsider of great strength and great powers who sees humanity for what it is and judges our species valuable, good even, despite our frailties. That description may sound corny to a generation weaned on the darker superheroes like X-Men and Batman, but Superman has a raw power and honest emotionality that most superhero films never attain. It isn't afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve, and there isn't an ounce of cynicism in the mix.

Superman II is nearly as good as the original film. General Zod (Terence Stamp) and two compatriots (a vampy Sarah Douglas and the burly Jack O'Halloran) escape the Phantom Zone and wreak havoc on Earth. This entry might have been called The Last Temptation of Superman, because the Man of Steel is forced to choose between a life of mortality and love (with Lois) or one of duty in which he perpetually "saves" humanity. Richard Lester directed this entry (with some scenes lensed by outgoing director Donner), and if his sequel lacks the outright majesty of the first Superman, it features all the spectacular action one has come to expect in superhero films. A mid-air confrontation between Superman and the Phantom Zone villains is a special effects show-stopper.

Alas, all good things come to an end, and the other two films in the Superman Collection fail to live up to the high-quality standards set by the initial entries. Superman III (1983) is scuttled by a weak script and an overexposed Richard Pryor (as Gus Gorman). Pryor gives a comedic performance that seems out of place in Christopher Reeves' Metropolis, and is given almost no support by Robert Vaughn as Ross Webster, a Lex Luthor imitation and weak villain. Unlike the first two Superman movies, this third feature in the series is fairly cynical and campy and resorts to slapstick humor at times (not unlike 1997's Batman and Robin). The best scenes in the film involve Superman physically "splitting" off from Clark Kent, and becoming a whoring, drinking menace to society.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), the last Supe film to date, features a story co-written by Christopher Reeve, and today it looks like a relic of the Cold War. Worried about escalating tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Superman resolves to rid the world of all nuclear weapons. His plan backfires, however, when Lex Luthor creates a "radioactive" super villain called Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow). This entry, directed by Sidney Furie, had some 45 minutes deleted from its running time for theatrical release, leaving the film feeling sparse and poorly thought-out. It would have been nice if the DVD edition restored those missing sequences, but alas, this is the cliff-notes, theatrical version. What really undermines Superman IV is not the pedestrian direction or nonsensical plot, however, but the lousy special effects. In some sequences, the wires suspending Christopher Reeve are clearly in evidence, and that fact destroys the illusion that a "man can fly."

Even if the final two entries in the film series are less than stellar, all four Superman films are bolstered by Reeves' understanding of the central character. He also provides some much-needed and very welcome consistency between franchise entries. I often feel sorry for the generation that grew up with the Batman film series (1989-1997). Michael Keaton left the role after two films, followed by Val Kilmer, and then George Clooney. If there is another Batman feature produced, it will no doubt feature yet another performer in the central role. It's hard to identify with Batman, or any hero, when the actor who plays him constantly changes, film-to-film. There's no opportunity to get to know the man's personality, and the Dark Knight can apparently be represented by anyone who fits in the musclebound costume.

Perhaps more importantly, the Batman films - some of which are quite good - don't seem to be very happy movies. Batman is always brooding about something terrible from his past, and facing sick (and sickening) criminals that society has either abandoned (like Danny DeVito's Penguin) or perverted (like Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman). There is little joy in these films. The Superman series is different, and gloriously so. Like the Star Wars films, the Superman movies of the 1970s and 1980s feel pure and innocent. There isn't a shred of dysfunction in them, and in today's world of angst-riddled, gloom-n-doom super heroes that's a relief.

Fighting for "truth, justice and the American way" is a cliché in post-modern, post-millennial, morally-relativistic America, but the Superman movies sell the idea with so much glee, delight and good humor, it is possible to forget that for a few hours. This Complete Superman Collection DVD set is a breath of fresh air, leaping over other cinematic superhero franchises in a single bound.


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