REVIEW: “Superman: Special Edition” DVD

Superman: Special Edition
The Christopher Reeve Superman Collection, Discs 1-4
Superman: The Ultimate Collector’s Edition, Discs 1-4

Were it not for the DVD premieres of Superman Returns and Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut on the same day, a 4 DVD set for Superman would have been an event of its own.

The 2001 release of 1978’s Superman is one of my favorite DVDs of all time. Is this 2006 edition worth the double-dip?

Disc 1 (replacement version)

On DVD for the first time, this disc presents the original, 1978 theatrical version of Superman. Since this disc was temporarily out of my hands due to Warner’s replacement program, it was actually the last of the four Superman: Special Edition discs that I watched. I must admit, I was surprised.

Since the release of the 2001 DVD, I had thought that I much preferred the “Donner Cut/Expanded Edition” presented on that release over the original. However, I had not actually re-watched the 1978 version since that time to truly compare them.

Now, having watched them within days of each other, I am somewhat surprised to find that I actually prefer the 1978 version of Superman over the 2001 expanded edition. While both versions are long, the theatrical version benefits from better editing choices and being slightly shorter. The film just flows better.

The one scene I do miss from the expanded edition, though, is the complete version of the cameos by Kirk Alyn (Superman/Clark Kent in the 1948 and 1950 serials) and Noel Neill (Lois Lane in the serials and seasons 2-6 of The Adventures of Superman TV series). It features dialogue establishing the little girl on the train that Clark outruns in Smallville as a young Lois Lane and the pair as her parents. Was it absolutely necessary for the theatrical release? Probably not, but it was only a few seconds long and a nice nod to Superman’s Golden Age.

Another surprise for me was the sound. In order to upgrade it to Dolby 5.1, audio for the 2001 DVD was altered. In many cases, brand new sound effects were added and the over all mix was changed. Generally, I’m not picky about this sort of stuff. I remember loving the sound on the 2001 DVD the first time I watched it. Just the opening credits shook the house.

The missing component of the initial version of Disc 1 prior to the replacement was the option to hear the original 1978 sound mix in Dolby 2.0. Honestly, I probably would have never bothered to send in Superman: Special Edition Disc 1 to Warner Brothers were it not for what I considered the more serious issue present on the Ultimate Collector’s Edition version of Superman III: Deluxe Edition (accidental use of the 2001 bare-bones DVD version, without bonus features). I figured, since I was sending that disc in, I might as well send this one in, too.

I’m glad I did. Now, I can finally hear why so many other fans have been complaining about this since the 2001 DVD. The 1978 audio is better than the 2001 mix. I understand why Michael Thau had to overhaul the sound in 2001 to achieve Dolby 5.1, but it is nice to have the true 1978 theatrical experience by hearing the original audio. One of the main differences is that the 1978 version often has the John Williams music much higher in the mix. And I’m always in favor of that.

Note that the disc defaults to the 2001 Dolby 5.1 sound. From the menu, choose Languages and then English (not English 5.1) in order to get the 1978 sound. They don’t exactly make it obvious, but at least it is there now.

Disc 1’s bonus features are the original teaser and theatrical trailers, a 1978 TV spot, and movie commentary by executive producer Ilya Salkind and producer Pierre Spengler.

The trailers are fun, particularly the teaser which was made quite awhile before the movie was complete. It featured credits flying through clouds, set to Jerry Goldsmith music originally recorded for Capricorn One. Audience reaction was so positive to the flying credits of this trailer that a similar style was used for the opening credits of the actual film.

Incidentally, Goldsmith was originally to score Superman, but fate fortunately intervened and Williams ended up with the job instead. I don’t think Williams’ contribution to the success of Superman can be overestimated. Trying to imagine Superman without John Williams is like trying to imagine Star Wars without . . . John Williams.

Director Richard Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz came out swinging against the Salkinds on the 2001 DVD commentary track. Noticeably lacking back then was Salkind’s side, and Ilya Salkind finally delivers that in the commentary.

I think I’ve made it pretty obvious elsewhere on this site that I’m a huge fan of Donner’s films, as well as his story work so far in Action Comics. However, there are multiple angles to every dispute and I’m glad Salkind has the opportunity to tell his version.

Also present on the commentary track is producer Pierre Spengler. A member of the Salkind camp, his areas of responsibility included management, scheduling, and budgeting.

Though edited together, the Spengler and Salkind audio tracks were recorded separately. I generally find it more interesting when multiple commentaries are recorded at the same time, since it obviously allows for more interaction between the speakers. Spengler has little to say, though (unless it is simply edited out), for Salkind rarely stops talking throughout the film.

Salkind spends almost the entire length of the movie talking about all of the events leading up to the filming (securing financing, writers, Brando, Hackman, etc.). He spends little time on the filming itself, and the rest of the time on post-production and the actual release. This is balanced out by the Donner/Mankiewicz commentary on Disc 2, though, which understandably spends more time on the filming.

Salkind’s comments are sometimes defensive. This is only natural given many of the comments, rightly or wrongly, made about him over the years. His running story doesn’t often relate to what is happening on screen–which hits another of my commentary pet peeves. I like to feel as if I’m watching the movie with the person, not just hearing a long, rambling interview played in place of the film’s normal audio.

He does occasionally reference the on-screen action, though. When Superman tells Lois, “I never lie,” Salkind laughs and points out something that I’ve never really thought about when it comes to Superman. Despite standing for Truth, Superman lies all the time. The whole Clark Kent in Metropolis disguise is one big lie.

Though I wasn’t sure what to expect, the Salkind commentary is usually entertaining. He comically seems to mark his life based upon which “ex-wife” he was with at the time. It was one of Salkind’s ex-wives who recommended Donner to him, when Guy Hamilton, originally hired as director, left the picture. (Don’t expect a Superman: The Guy Hamilton Cut at any point in the future, though, since he left prior to filming and before Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder were even cast.)

Salkind notes that Donner had an “incredible passion” for the film and that the two were “close and in symbiosis” on the epic approach to the movie.

Salkind wanting the movie to be epic rather than campy, before Donner was even brought aboard, seems to be one of the points he most wants to drive home. Donner often points to some of the campier aspects of the Puzo and Newman scripts, prior to the Mankiewicz rewrite that he mandated.

Though I suspect he’ll address this more on his Superman II: Special Edition commentary, Salkind actually doesn’t get into his disputes with Donner very much. He notes that, by the end of the filming, he and Donner were no longer speaking. Instead, Salkind hired Richard Lester to act as a sort of go-between. What’s missing is how they went from being in symbiosis to not speaking.

Donner continues to sound rather bitter towards Salkind, as evidenced more recently in his 2006 commentary track for Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. Salkind, however, does not sound as if he harbors such ill-will towards Donner. For the most part, he talks respectfully of him.

I don’t think ultimate “blame” or “fault” can really be assigned to one side or the other in the whole Donner vs. the Salkinds debate. The reality is that there’s probably plenty of blame to go around.

For whatever reasons, their working relationship disintegrated. Their fallout and inability to work out their differences robbed Superman fans of a high-quality Superman III and who knows how many other Superman movies.

To anyone who thinks the Superman movies were destined to degrade over time simply because they were sequels, I point you to the Lethal Weapon series. All four entries are top-notch, quality movies. The third and fourth are as good as the first and second. And all four are made by Richard Donner.

As the film draws to a close, Salkind gets very emotional talking about the deaths of Christopher Reeve and Alexander Salkind, Ilya’s father who produced and secured financing for Superman and passed away in 1997.

If nothing else, I believe the commentary helps to humanize Ilya Salkind and move him away from the demonized image some may have.

Discs 2 & 3

Discs 2 and 3 provide essentially the same content as the 2001 DVD release of Superman. The 2001 version was a double-sided DVD, while this content is better presented as two separate discs.

Disc 2 contains the 2001 “Donner Cut/Expanded Edition” of the movie. Though only eight minutes or so longer than the 1978 version, it feels so much longer. While I love having the option of watching this extended version, it is also a great example of what an important role editing plays. The 1978 version will now be my “go-to” version of this movie, rather than the 2001 cut.

Surprisingly, the transfer of the expanded edition presented on the 2006 DVD is not the same as presented on the 2001 DVD. Though I thought the 2001 edition looked great, the 2006 edition looks even better. At first, I thought my eyes were deceiving me, so I pulled out the 2001 DVD and verified by comparing the two. Nice extra effort on the part of Warner Home Video.

As for bonus features, Disc 2 includes an isolated music score and the 2001 commentary track by Donner and Mankiewicz.

Every single movie with a John Williams soundtrack should feature an isolated music score on the DVD, which is where only the music plays while you watch the movie–no dialogue, sound effects, or anything else.

Trust me, this is a beautiful way to watch Superman. His music is so perfect that it tells the story without needing the other sounds. Reminiscent of watching silent films from so long ago, the isolated score presents Superman as a series of musical emotions and is a testament to the true genius of Williams. What I wouldn’t do this for option on Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back DVDs.

The Donner/Mankiewicz commentary track is probably my favorite on any DVD I own (astronaut Jim Lovell’s commentary on Apollo 13 would probably be the only other leading contender). Like Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, the pair are obviously sitting in a room together watching the movie. Though I’m sure parts of it are, it sounds unscripted and as if you are just listening to two old friends remember how they made one of your favorite movies.

Disc 3 is bonus features, all of which are from the 2001 edition.

Taking Flight: The Development of “Superman”: An excellent documentary, directed by Michael Thau. For whatever reason, this 2001 look at the pre-production aspects of Superman is far superior to the more recent documentary, You Will Believe.

Perhaps it’s the presence of Christopher Reeve in the 2001 documentary that makes it feel more complete. At one point, the wheelchair-bound Reeve reflected on the role:

“I felt a torch had been passed from previous generations of actors and readers, who had loved Superman. So, I felt that during the 70’s and 80’s, I was the temporary custodian of a part that is an essential piece of American mythology.”

Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen) hosts and narrates. Taking Flight examines finding a director, casting, and production design.

Making “Superman”: Filming The Legend: This documentary, also hosted by McClure and directed by Thau, concentrates on the actual filming and is also stronger than You Will Believe. The documentary notes that at one time, 11 units were filming simultaneously over three continents with over one thousand crew members.

Regarding the Superman costume design, it is noted that the goal was to “stay as closely as possible to how he was drawn in the comic book.” Note that there are no cutesy little S’s on the soles of Superman’s boots for instance.

The documentary also includes a nice piece on cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who passed away prior to the release of Superman–which is dedicated to him. If you ever wondered who he was when watching the opening of the movie, this is the documentary to watch.

The Magic Behind The Cape: Directed by Thau, narrated by McClure, and hosted by Roy Field (Superman‘s “Creative supervisor of optical visual effects”), this documentary unfortunately is not quite as well assembled as the first two. It has a disjointed feel, but is interesting. It took a lot of work to make a man fly. Given how great the first two are, my guess is that there was a rush to complete this one in time.

“Superman” screen tests: Hosted by casting director Lynn Stalmaster, a couple of Christopher Reeve’s screen tests are presented here. Some of this footage would later be used in Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.

Lois Lane screen tests: Snippets of screen tests from various actresses trying out for Lois Lane are presented: Anne Archer, Lesley Ann Warren, Debra Raffin, Margot Kidder, Stockard Channing, and Susan Blakely. There is optional commentary by Stalmaster. I’ll save you the trouble, though, and let you know that he pretty much felt every actress except Kidder was “too glamorous” for the role. Looking at these screen tests, I think they made the right choice in Kidder.

Ursa screen tests: A quick but entertaining series of screen tests, featuring Rohan McCullough, Carinthia West, Dana Gillespie, and Marilù Tolo trying out for the villainess Ursa. (Based on one of the audition scenes, I think they should have named this segment “Kneel Before Ursa.”) No mention is made of Sarah Douglas’ screen test, which, if it exists, is not shown. Douglas won the role.

But wait, there’s more…

Deleted scenes: Collects the ten scenes restored back into the 2001 expanded cut, as well as two other deleted scenes (feeding time in Lex’s Lair, shown in the ABC television version in the early 80’s). I suppose it’s nice to have the ten restored scenes separated out now that the set includes the theatrical cut. I thought this was kind of a dumb space-filler back in 2001, though, since the scenes are actually in the expanded cut.

Additional Music Cues: An audio-only feature, the following songs appear, 1) Main Titles, 2) Alternate Main Titles, 3) The Council’s Decision, 4) The Krypton Quake, 5) More Mugger/Introducing Otis, 6) Air Force One, 7) Chasing Rockets, and 8) Can You Read My Mind (Pop Version). A nice feature, mostly for the alternate main titles. Not a different theme, really, but kind of an expanded version.

Present on the 2001 edition, but missing on this 2006 set, are enhanced features for PCs. Most of this stuff was fluff (access to “Web Events” and chat rooms), but one notable exception was Storyboard to Screen. It features about a half dozen scenes, including a “Lost Scene” — Lois jumping out a window to prove that Clark was Superman (recently restored for Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut). If you want to have this feature you’ll need to hang onto the 2001 edition.

Disc 4

If the first three discs haven’t sold you on this release yet, there’s another full disc of bonus features. Though not all relate directly to the 1978 Superman movie, all of them are part of Superman’s cinematic legacy, which dates back to 1941.

The Making of Superman: The Movie (TV Special): This vintage 1978 special is a fun, if superficial, look at the making of the film. It’s always nice to see things like this in their original context. Plus, I can remember watching this special as a child. Reeve’s enthusiasm for the role here is not to be missed. There’s also an interview with Neill and Alyn about the train scene.

Superman and the Mole Men: This 1951 movie, which played in theaters, later acted as a pilot of sorts for The Adventures of Superman TV series.

The first full-length, non-serialized Superman movie is also George Reeves’ first outing as the Man of Steel. Here, he is made up to look a lot more like Kirk Alyn, the first man to play the role, than he would later on. For instance, his hair appears to be dyed black. The effect is that he actually looks more like Superman than he would on the TV series.

Though not the first man to portray Superman, Reeves is the first one to be shown actually flying. In the low-budget Alyn serials, Superman would abruptly change into a cartoon in order to fly.

Clark and Lois are sent to a mining town to cover the deepest hole ever dug into the Earth. When furry “mole men” emerge from that hole, Superman must defend them from the hysterical townspeople who want to kill them. The fact that the “alien invaders” here are not the enemy is interesting, considering the timeframe of this movie. Superman defending the Mole Men against the townspeople is certainly well within the character I know and love.

Unfortunately, I just didn’t find the movie that engaging though. I would chalk it up to a generational thing, but there are plenty of movies from the 1940’s and 1950’s that I enjoy watching. It just kind of plods along to an abrupt ending.

Phyllis Coates makes her first appearance as Lois Lane. Her Lois is rather cold, lacking the appeal of Neill, Kidder, Hatcher, or Bosworth.

It makes for an interesting piece of Superman history and fans of the TV series will undoubtedly enjoy it more than I did. The film was later adapted into the two-parter, “The Unknown People.” As a bonus feature, it’s nice to have. I’ll give it another try some day.

Fleischer Studios “Superman” Cartoons: The first nine Superman cartoons round out the set. These cartoons appeared in theaters, beginning in 1941 – only three years after the debut of Superman in Action Comics.

I first became interested in watching these after seeing clips on the Look Up In The Sky documentary on television last year. Once I found out that fully restored versions would be included on this set (and Superman II: Special Edition), I held off on buying any of the many DVD editions already available.

The animation is breathtaking. And most of the stories are actually pretty good, too, considering the time period. This is early Superman, back when he really was just leaping tall buildings rather than truly flying.

Surprising for 1941, Lois is revealed to be quite headstrong. And, as always, she’s trouble-prone. Either incredibly brave or galactically stupid, she must be saved by Superman in every single episode. Still, she is shown wielding a machine gun at one point, as well as piloting an aircraft.

After the letdown of Superman and the Mole Men, the Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons turn out to be the real treat of Disc 4.

Verdict

Superman: Special Edition is a great set, chock full of bonus features. The “new” material on Discs 1 and 4, particularly the theatrical version of Superman, complete with original sound, and the Fleischer cartoons, makes it well worth the double dip. This is an essential DVD for all Superman fans.

Movie: 10 (out of 10)
Video Quality: 10
Audio Quality: 9
Bonus Features: 10
Overall Experience: 10
Recommended: To all Superman fans, regardless of whether or not you already own the 2001 edition