Superman 5-Film Collection 4K UHD Review: Super-Reeve

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… Warner Bros.’s new 4K UHD Superman 5-Film Collection (1978-1987)!

But is it worth the bucks you’d pay for it?

Well. Let’s tackle each movie in order.

The one that started it all is director Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978). You can tell the filmmakers worked hard to make it splash; and the movie meant a lot to me as a kid. But it peaks in the first half—a sincere tracing of Superman’s origins from Planet Krypton to Smallville. Once Christopher Reeve shows up in Metropolis as the adult Clark Kent / Man of Steel, the movie wobbles. Donner sometimes misses the balance of the mythic send-up for which he strives. Reeve makes Superman a warm, kind force of nature we care about, and (aside from Gene Hackman’s memorable turn as Lex Luthor) the chemistry he has with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) is about the only thing that juices the second half. Still, Superman: The Movie set the template for the Reeve spin on the superhero (and for big-budget superhero tent-pole flicks to come). I’ve outgrown it, but nostalgia compels me to focus on its virtues—the sweeping John Williams score high among them. Grade: B+

Then came the last days of Donner, as creative engine and director of the Reeve franchise. After he shot both Superman: The Movie and a large part of Superman II, the producers fired him for creative differences / going over budget. (Or something like that.)

Enter Richard Lester, director of classic Beatles flicks and the superb Three Musketeers films of the ‘70s.

Lester adds a fast, wink-wink spin to Donner’s footage for the sequel. He trades the warm mythic pomp of the Donner touch for something less saccharine. Superman II (1981) is of a piece. And it’s light without devolving into weightless camp. Here, Superman faces off against a trio of crooks from Krypton, General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran). He’s met his match. Certain Donner devotees cried ‘hatchet job’ for so long that Warner Bros. released a Donner-approved cut of the film in 2006. Yet the Lester cut remains definitive for me. It’s got more zip. Awe is trampled, but fun is had. Grade: A-

The new 4K set includes Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut in its own slipcase, and while it’s not bad… Clearly, his cut remains unfinished. I dislike the extended prologue that recaps the events of the first film. I also chide the lazy recycling of the first film’s finale. Donner weaves in more footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El. But overall, his cut stinks of a product patched together. Using screen-test footage for a scene between Clark and Lois, inserting conspicuously new special FX to complete certain shots, the Donner cut jars. For some viewers, it was a long-overdue corrective to an act of cinematic injustice. My verdict? It moves as fast as the Lester version but feels slower. It doesn’t cut the mustard; Donner doesn’t prove that his version would have been a classic—or at least better than the theatrical release. But if you’re a fan of all things Superman II, far worse ways to kill time exist. Grade: B-

Now things start to suck and blow, like a gale-force wind from Superman’s very lips…

Lester returned for Superman III (1983), another movie I obsessed over when I was a kid. I don’t know why, though. Despite the chance Reeve gets (and makes the most of) to portray a grizzled, evil Superman—despite Richard Pryor’s comic relief as a computer programmer—the movie never takes hold. This time, Lester’s stuck working with a lumpen script. The movie is never as funny or exciting as one hopes. Pryor is wasted; we can’t quite connect to his character. And while I’m a huge fan of Robert Vaughn, his role as a rich baddie who wants to use a supercomputer to control satellites… just evaporates. Lois Lane (Kidder) peeps in, but Smallville’s Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole) is the primary love interest. No spark ignites between Reeve and O’Toole. Kidder’s snark is absent—as is the effervescent slapstick Lester pumped into Superman II. If you must, come and stay for the Reeve performance. Grade: C

Last of all is Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1985; dir. Sidney J. Furie). Some things people carp about the Reeve Superman flicks (e.g., the at-times cheap-looking FX, the campiness) reach their nadir here. Blame (as Reeve and screenwriter Mark Rosenthal do) the film’s budget woes all you like. IV is lackluster. Fed up with the world’s arms race, Superman wants to rake up all nuclear missiles and hurl them at the sun. Luthor (Hackman) creates Nuclear Man, whose purpose is to foil Superman’s plan. Eh. The wonder and fun of Superman I and II are gone-daddy-gone. Grade: D+

The new 4K box set offers everything a fan of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies could realistically expect. Each film comes in its own slipcase, with a 4K version and Blu-ray version. (The set also provides digital access to the films.) Superman: The Movie is not new to 4K. The other movies are. All of them pop. I’ve never seen them look better. The bonus features have all accompanied earlier (Blu-ray) releases of the films. There are far too many to detail here… In total, you get making-of featurettes, filmmaker commentaries, deleted scenes, theatrical trailers, TV spots, and so much more.

Now, for that 4K release of Supergirl (1984) I’ve been waiting for… What gives, Warners?  

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Jack Cormack

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