Release Date(s)1978 (November 6, 2018)
Studio(s)International Film Productions/Dovemead/Warner Bros. (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: C+
“They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son.”
When Superman: The Movie was released on Christmas, 1978, I was your average 12-year-old boy... meaning that I still hadn’t recovered from the thrill of seeing Star Wars little more than a year before. Every trip into a theater was taken with the hope of recapturing that same kind of rollercoaster fun. So it goes without saying that I remember Superman as one of the great movie experiences of my youth. I went with a whole group of my pals... and every last one of us burst out into cheers when we saw that iconic shot of Clark Kent tearing opening his shirt to reveal the classic Superman “S” logo. I still get chills when I see it to this day.
Every good American should know the mythology of Superman by now—he’s been a cultural icon in this country since his debut in Action Comics #1 in June of 1938. Superman: The Movie takes great care in telling his story right from the very start. As the film opens, all is not well on the planet Krypton. It seems the planet’s orbit is shifting, and only one man knows that this spells disaster—the great scientist Jor-El (played here by Marlon Brando). He alone knows Krypton is doomed, but none of his fellow council members agree. They make Jor-El swear that he won’t leave the planet himself, thus starting a panic. But he’s decided to send his only son, Kal-El, away to the planet Earth to spare him. Sure enough, Krypton is destroyed. And after traveling through space for many years, little Kal-El crashes to Earth in Kansas and is found by a farm couple. Jonathan Kent (Glenn Ford) and his wife adopt the little boy, name him Clark and raise him up right, with good old fashioned Midwestern values, in tiny Smallville. But it’s not easy—Clark’s got abilities far beyond the average human. He’s faster than a speeding bullet and can leap tall buildings in a single... well, I’m sure you know the story. As Clark gets older, he feels the inexorable pull to learn his true heritage and purpose for being on Earth. And when he finally discovers his destiny, and heads off for sprawling Metropolis, the human race gets its very own superhero... Superman (played by Christopher Reeve), who fights for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. In the big city, Superman will find both love (in the form of Lois Lane, played by Margot Kidder) and a villain to match wits with (the infamous Lex Luthor, played by Gene Hackman). And the world will never be the same.
Superman: The Movie is a delight, with a grand story, wonderful production design, and an amazing ensemble cast. In addition to Brando, Hackman, Ford, Reeve, and Kidder, you’ve got Jackie Cooper, Ned Beatty (who’s never been funnier than he is here), Terence Stamp, Valerie Perrine... the list goes on. The film never takes itself too seriously, managing plenty of laughs, but still treats its fantastic subject matter with great respect. The special effects in this film were ground-breaking in their day—no one had any idea how to make a man fly in a convincing way back in 1978 (there was no such thing as a CGI effect). And then newcomer Christopher Reeve played the title character with so much strait-laced humanity and innocence (not to mention his funny Cary Grant-riffs as the bumbling Clark Kent) that he simply became Superman for an entire generation of moviegoers. Warner Bros. and DC seem to have unending plans for new Superman reboots, but I will always picture Reeve when I think of the Man of Steel.
Superman is one of those films you just can’t help but remember fondly. Sure, the special effects are dated and the script is a little campy. Two of its three sequels are just plain awful (the only good one, Superman II, was written and filmed mostly at the same time as the original, with the same cast & crew). And for a while there, the film itself was deteriorating so much that it was in danger of being lost forever to the ravages of time. But against all odds, Superman: The Movie endures. And the film has just gotten a major boost, in the form of Warner’s new 4K Ultra HD Release.
Superman was shot on 35 mm photochemical film, using Panavision Panaflex and PSR R-200 cameras with Panavision C-Series anamorphic lenses. It’s important to note that the great cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth shot this film with the extensive use of diffusion filters to achieve an intentionally soft and romanticized look. It was then finished in a traditional analog process at an aspect ratio of 2.39:1 for its theatrical release in 1978. For its release on Ultra HD, the original camera negative and master internegative elements (for optically-printed VFX shots) for the theatrical version were scanned in native 4K. The image was then digitally remastered and graded for high dynamic range grade (both HDR10 and Dolby Vision options are available) to create a new 4K Digital Intermediate, from which this Ultra HD was mastered. The result is absolutely sublime, but it’s also a 4K presentation that is sure to separate the true cinephiles—especially those who first experienced this film in its original theatrical release—from more recent pixel chasers and those who decry “fake 4K!” in their Ultra HD releases.
This film image has always exhibited moderate to strong photochemical grain by design, and those who understand the importance of it will be pleased to know that this grain structure is fully intact. This isn’t a glossy, shot-on-digital, laser-sharp presentation of the type common today, so you shouldn’t expect one. The intention here is to capture the essence and beauty of this film as purely and as fully as possible, and give it its best possible expression in 4K UHD. That is exactly what you get. Colors are more accurate, richly saturated, and nuanced than ever before. This is apparent in such things as the sheen of baby Kal-El’s blue and red wrap on Krypton. Whites are pure and blacks are deep, but don’t expect a truly high contrast image, even with HDR. The HDR never renders truly bold contrasts, but shadows are deepened a bit and the brightest areas of the frame are nicely eye-reactive. In addition to the aforementioned use of filters, this film employed significant on-set smoke to create density and atmosphere, particularly in the Kryptonian sequences. It also features extensive in-camera effects with practical elements (including actors) shot in front of projection screens. So you’re not going to get the blackest blacks—but you’re not meant to. Even so, by going back to the original negative and scanning in native 4K has revealed subtle texturing and layers of fine detail never seen before. There is one small technical issue that must be noted—a subtle encoding error in the opening credits (as Christopher Reeve’s name fades away). But all things considered, Superman is luminous on 4K Ultra HD. It’s never looked better… and it’s hard to imagine that it could look better.
The 4K disc includes two English language audio options, both of which are greatly appreciated. First, there’s a new lossless Dolby Atmos mix (7.1 TrueHD compatible) that is aggressive, highly active, and immersive, with enhanced dynamic range, deeper bass, and pleasing clarity. The entire soundfield seems fuller and more expansive, and the overhead channels give the soundstage a nice sense of lift for both effects cues and overall atmospherics. What I mean by aggressive is exemplified by the opening credits sequence, which delivers muscular swooshes as the credits onto the screen. (Some fans have commented on the weird little shift in pitch in the fanfare between the “S” and “Superman” in the opening titles, but that’s always been present in the film. While composer John Williams recorded a piece of music specifically for the opening, in post-production the film’s mixers actually used a similar piece of music he recorded for the closing credits and then pitched it up slightly.) Unfortunately, the Atmos mix includes many of the abhorrent sound effects tweaks and changes that were included on the 2000 Extended Edition’s 5.1 mix on DVD and Blu-ray. So if you’re not a fan of the Atmos mix—and many aren’t—don’t despair; Warner Bros. has an option for you as well. The studio has also included a new 5.1 Dolby Digital mix that replicates the film’s original 6-track 70 mm theatrical audio experience, complete with split surrounds. This too offers lovely clarity, but it’s less aggressive and more subtle. The opening credits have the original whispering swoosh sound, that seems to slide in from overhead and from the sides rather than from behind. This is the default audio option when you play the disc. In both cases, Williams’ iconic score is presented with pleasing fidelity. Additional audio options are available in French, German, Italian, Castilian Spanish, Latin Spanish, and Portuguese 2.0 Dolby Digital, with optional subtitles available in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, German for the Hearing Impaired, Italian for the Deaf, Castilian Spanish, Dutch, Chinese, Korean, Latin Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Czech, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Thai.
The actual 4K Ultra HD release includes one extra, carried over from the previous Blu-ray release:
- Audio Commentary by Pierre Spengler and Ilya Salkind
The package is a 2-disc that also includes the theatrical cut in 1080p HD on Blu-ray. Note that this is the same Blu-ray that was released previously and it does show its age a little bit. In any case, the disc includes the audio commentary above and adds the following special features:
- The Making of Superman: The Movie (SD – 51:50)
- Superman and the Mole Men (SD – 58:05)
- Super-Rabbit (Looney Tunes animated short – SD – 8:12)
- Snafuperman (animated short – SD – 4:34)
- Stupor Duck (Looney Tunes animated short – SD – 6:40)
- Teaser Trailer (SD – 1:14)
- Theatrical Trailer (SD – 2:40)
- TV Spot (SD – :31)
That represents everything that was included on the previous Theatrical Cut Blu-ray. It’s worth noting that this release does not contain the 3-hour long TV Extended Cut or the Special Edition, but those are available on Blu-ray here (for just $17 for both films). You also get a Movies Anywhere Digital Copy on a paper insert in the packaging.
[Editor’s Note: It appears that UK versions of this 4K release include the Special Edition version of the film on Blu-ray, whereas the US 4K release includes the Theatrical Cut Blu-ray. Just FYI.]
There are certainly nits that one could pick with this 4K release, including the lack of a newly-remastered Blu-ray, not to mention the other cuts of the film (even in 1080p, much less 4K). And I have no doubt that some 4K fans (and A/V wow factor addicts) will look at this presentation and be put off by it. But that would be a shame, because longtime fans of this film and truly knowledgable cinephiles will immediately recognize this disc for what it is—the single best and most nuanced presentation of this film that’s ever been released, particularly for home viewing. Warner’s new Superman: The Movie 4K UHD is gorgeous and entirely faithful to Richard Donner’s beloved original film experience. If that’s what you’re hoping for with this Ultra HD release, you will not be disappointed. Highly recommended.
- Bill Hunt