By Matt Brunson
Along with Fox's release last year of its Alien Anthology, The Superman Motion Picture Anthology (1978-2006) is perhaps the best Blu-ray box set I've yet encountered. Similar (though not identical) to the DVD set released in 2006, this Warner Bros. effort (in stores this Tuesday) includes all seven versions of the five films that were produced over the course of a quarter-century.
For my money, Superman (1978) still remains the best superhero movie ever made, full of humor, heart, and an iconic performance by Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. An Oscar winner for its visual effects, this exciting adventure also contains one of John Williams' best scores, a rich screenplay by the heavyweight team of Mario Puzo (The Godfather), Robert Benton (Bonnie and Clyde), David Newman (ditto) and Leslie Newman, and terrific performances down the line, including Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and Valerie Perrine as Eve Teschmacher (the last-named making my teen heart race during the picture's original run). This set includes the 1978 theatrical release and the 2000 touch up Superman: The Expanded Edition (with eight additional minutes); both are superb.
Superman II (1981), in which our hero squares off against three super-foes (Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas and Jack O'Halloran), is slam-bang entertainment, capturing the style of an actual comic book better than just about any other adaptation that comes to mind. The first movie's director, Richard Donner, was famously replaced on this sequel (by Richard Lester) after ample filming, an occurrence which finally gave way in 2006 to Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. This edit primarily contains restored footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El, but given its erratic pacing and occasional lulls, I still prefer the version shown in theaters back in '81.
Superman III (1983) exhibited the falloff experienced by too many grasping second sequels. While hardly a disaster, it still qualifies as a massive disappointment, even with Richard Pryor in a featured role as a computer whiz duped by a criminal mastermind (Robert Vaughn) into tangling with the Man of Steel.
The studio largely gave up on the franchise and handed it over to notorious 1980s schlockmeisters Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, whose Cannon Group was largely responsible for the fall of Charles Bronson's career and the rise of Chuck Norris' and Jean-Claude Van Damme's (all unpardonable crimes). The resultant Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), which appears to have been filmed for a buck fifty, is an absolute embarrassment, with Superman squaring off against Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow), Hackman and Kidder returning for no discernible reason, and Jon Cryer and Mariel Hemingway looking extremely out of place.
After successfully kicking off the X-Men franchise with X-Men and X2, director Bryan Singer attempted to resurrect Superman's screen career with Superman Returns (2006), a fine update with Brandon Routh as the new Man of Steel and Kevin Spacey as a jovial Lex Luthor. Still, the film didn't wow audiences and critics as anticipated, meaning that another reboot is on the horizon: 2012's Man of Steel, with Henry Cavill as Superman and Amy Adams as Lois Lane.
Among the countless extras in this eight-disc Blu-ray set are (take a deep breath) audio commentaries; deleted scenes; making-of featurettes; the 1951 theatrical release Superman and the Mole Men (starring George Reeves); 17 Superman cartoons from the 1940s; screen tests for the 1978 Superman; the 110-minute documentary Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman; the 90-minute documentary You Will Believe: The Cinematic Saga of Superman; and the 1958 TV pilot for The Adventures of Superpup, so cheesy that it almost makes the 60s Batman TV show look as sober-minded as Hill Street Blues by comparison.
Superman: The Expanded Edition: ****
Superman II: ***1/2
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut: ***
Superman III: **1/2
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace: *1/2
Superman Returns: ***
(For reviews of other new movies on DVD and Blu-ray, check out this week's View from the Couch column elsewhere on this site.)