Superman II (4K UHD Review)
Release Date(s)1980 (May 9, 2023)
Studio(s)International Film Productions/Dovemead/Warner Bros. (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: C+
[Editor’s Note: This is a single-film review of Superman II in 4K Ultra HD, as included in Warner’s new Superman: 5-Film Collection UHD box set. Reviews of each film will be posted separately here at The Bits, along with an overall review of the set.]
“You will kneel before Zod!”
Superman II is one of those “if only” projects. If only producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind had allowed original director Richard Donner to finish the film as planned, rather than replacing him with Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night) after the theatrical release of Superman: The Movie. If only Lester had subsequently paid more attention to—or even cared about—the detail and tone of the work Donner had completed before him, which amounted to fully seventy-five percent of the film. If only Lester, in order to get sole directing credit, hadn’t gone back and re-shot about forty percent of Donner’s completed material. If only.
Shot partly at the same time as Superman: The Movie (reviewed in 4K here), this sequel picks up a story thread left hanging (intentionally) at the beginning of the original film. Remember Ursa, Non, and General Zod (Sarah Douglas, Jack O’Halloran, and Terence Stamp), the Kryptonian baddies sentenced to eternity in the Phantom Zone by Jor-El? Well... when a terrorist threat to blow up the Eiffel Tower in Paris with an H-bomb is foiled by Superman (Christopher Reeve), he sends the bomb careening off into deep space just in time. But the blast from the explosion shatters the Phantom Zone, releasing the bad guys and allowing them to engage in a reign of terror back on Earth. Unfortunately, this happens just as Superman decides to give up his powers to live as a mere mortal with his true love, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). Can he somehow regain those powers in time to save the day, or will General Zod bring the people of Earth to their knees? You can probably guess the answer to that question—Truth, Justice, and the American way seldom seem to waver on the big screen. But before we get to see that iconic final shot of Superman smiling at the camera as he flies off into the sunset, he’ll have to face off against said villains in Metropolis in an epic battle of super strength and somewhat dated special effects.
Given the turbulence of its production, the biggest problem with Superman II should be no surprise: The film is terribly uneven. While only about thirty percent of Donner’s footage remains here, it’s critical material—essentially everything with Gene Hackman, the Kryptonian attack on the astronauts on the Moon, their assault on the White House and subsequent attack on the Daily Planet, Clark’s run-in at the diner, and more. Donner also shot extensive material with Marlon Brando for this film, which was set aside and ultimately re-shot with Susannah York, reprising her role as Lara (Superman’s mother) from the original film. All of the Donner material is dramatic and grave in tone—epic, earnest, serious. Lester’s footage, on the other hand, includes the terrorist plot in Paris and Lois’ involvement in it, the Kryptonians’ arrival on Earth and their encounters with various country bumpkins, as well as the ultimate battle in Metropolis. Sadly, the tone of much of that material is corny, campy, and rife with comic pratfalls and sight gags. (Think of the guy who gets blown backwards down the street on his roller skates, or the guy whose toupee flies off, or the Buford T. Justice-style sheriff, or the bumpkin who arm-wrestles Ursa, etc.) And because as much as two years had passed between the filming sessions, continuity errors abound. But in spite of all this, Superman II still manages to entertain, and the credit for that is almost entirely due to the sheer quality of this cast. It’s just a shame when you look back at this film today and realize what might have been.
Superman II was shot on 35 mm photochemical film using Panavision Panaflex and PSR R-200 cameras with Panavision C-Series anamorphic lenses. About thirty percent of its footage was photographed by cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, sometimes using on-set smoke but often with diffusion filters to achieve an intentionally soft and romanticized look. The rest of the film was shot by cinematographer Robert Paynter (An American Werewolf in London) in a more straightforward manner, often using three-camera setups but always with an eye toward emphasizing a vibrant comic book style. It was then finished in a traditional analog process at an aspect ratio of 2.39:1 for theatrical release in 1980. For its debut on Ultra HD, the original camera negative and master internegative elements (featuring optically-printed VFX shots and transitions) for the theatrical version were scanned in native 4K. The image was then graded for high dynamic range to create a new 4K Digital Intermediate from which this Ultra HD was mastered. Unlike Superman: The Movie however, only HDR10 is included this time—Dolby Vision is unavailable. Nevertheless, the resulting image quality is generally excellent, or at least exactly as it should be. Footage shot by Unsworth tends to have a softer look, with moderate grain visible, though it should be noted that a couple of shots in the opening (reused from Superman: The Movie) are even softer looking and have coarser grain than before because they were reframed to crop out actor Marlon Brando. All of the remaining footage shot by Paynter features a more traditional photographic approach, which generally means a crisper look (he still occasionally uses filters, but inconsistently) with more vibrant color and deeper blacks (as little to no on-set smoke was employed). Photochemical grain is lighter in these shots too, while the highlights are pleasingly bold. Detail and texturing are refined and pleasing at nearly all times.
The 4K disc offers two English language audio options. The first is a new lossless and object-based Dolby Atmos mix (7.1 TrueHD compatible) that’s roughly on par with the Atmos mix for the first film in terms of sonic character (and there do not appear to be any sound effects changes here). The soundstage offers enhanced dynamic range, deeper bass, and good clarity. The entire soundfield is more expansive, while the overhead channels give the mix a nice sense of lift for both effects cues and atmospherics. Unfortunately, the Atmos mix also exhibits a number of “wow” issues with regard Ken Thorne’s score. On several occasions during the film, you can hear weird little pitch shifts that the mixers either didn’t catch or were unable to correct. These start right at the beginning of the film regrettably, with the opening trumpet notes. It happens again just as John Williams’ iconic theme crashes over the film’s title—which, of course, is the worst possible time—and the problem continues throughout the opening credits. (Ugh.) Meanwhile, the second audio option is an English 2.0 stereo track in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio format that preserves the original theatrical audio mix. Thankfully, there are far fewer pitch issues here, which means this track is almost certainly going to be the preferred listening method for most fans. Additional audio options are available in French, German, Italian, Castilian Spanish, and Latin Spanish in 1.0 mono Dolby Digital, while subtitles are available in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, German for the Hearing Impaired, Italian for the Deaf, Castilian Spanish, Dutch, Korean, and Latin Spanish.
Warner’s 4K disc includes only one extra, carried over from the previous Blu-ray:
- Audio Commentary by Pierre Spengler and Ilya Salkind
This commentary was originally recorded for the Superman: Ultimate Collector’s Edition DVD box set back in 2006.
The package also includes the Theatrical Cut of the film in 1080p HD on Blu-ray, and you should know that it’s the exact same disc first released on the format in 2011 as part of the The Superman Motion Picture Anthology box set. (To be completely clear, this Blu-ray is not mastered from the new 4K scan.) It offers the following special features:
- Audio Commentary by Pierre Spengler and Ilya Salkind
- The Making of Superman II (SD – 52:15)
- Superman’s Soufflé Deleted Scene (SD – :40)
- First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series (SD – 12:55)
- The Fleischer Studios Superman
- Superman (aka The Mad Scientist) (SD – 10:28)
- The Mechanical Monsters (SD – 11:03)
- Billion Dollar Limited (SD – 8:36)
- The Arctic Giant (SD – 8:35)
- The Bulleteers (SD – 8:02)
- The Magnetic Telescope (SD – 7:38)
- Electric Earthquake (SD – 8:43)
- Volcano (SD – 7:58)
- Terror on the Midway (SD – 8:21)
- Theatrical Trailer (SD – 2:22)
All of these extras were first featured on the 2006 DVD box. The Fleischer Superman animated shorts here are completely unremastered in SD—essentially DVD on Blu-ray quality. (So don’t expect them to dazzle.) Missing here is the 146-minute Extended Cut of the film, a slightly shortened version of which aired on ABC TV in 1984. But unlike the TV Extended Cut of Superman: The Movie, this version of Superman II has never been officially released on disc.
Note that in the US, Superman II is only available on 4K UHD in Warner’s new Superman: 5-Film Collection box set, but you can import it from the UK now as all-region 4K double feature paired with The Richard Donner Cut. For those who’d rather wait, it seems likely that Warner will release the film separately on this side of the Atlantic as well at some point in the not-too-distant future.
Ultimately, Superman II is a decent sequel, with a number of good moments and strong performances, that simply doesn’t gel as a whole. But it’s certainly better than the two films that followed. While it’s not quite the continuation the original Superman: The Movie deserved, and Warner’s new Ultra HD release has a few unfortunate sonic issues, fans may still find it worth owning on 4K disc. It certainly makes for fascinating viewing alongside Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut in 4K, which does at least give fans a peek at what might have been.
- Bill Hunt
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