‘The Superman Motion Picture Anthology, 1978-2006’: My Supermania, Reawakened

Superman is not my thing. Like every comic book fan, I had my Superman phase. Like many fans, that phase was brief, intense, and passed like puppy love. Marvel was more my deal with its street level crime fighters like Spider-man and Daredevil. They didn’t wear capes and they struggled with moral ambiguity. The limits of their powers and their personal problems signaled that they were far from being men of steel.

When it came to the DC Universe, Batman was my guy. When I finally read Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, I recognized the rather contemptuous view of Superman on display there. Yeah, he fought for the American Way all right, using his cosmic powers to further American interests in Central America at the behest of an American president that looked and sounded suspiciously like our very own Ronald Reagan. When Bruce Wayne puts on his super-powered armor and beats the ever-living shit out of Superman, I loved it. I almost cheered when he finally told that neo-fascist Kent he couldn’t take any more of his tendency to “say yes… to anyone with a badge or a flag.”

So, maybe I’m not the target audience for the The Super-Man Motion Picture Anthology on Blu-Ray. And yet, revisiting the first two films (along with their much improved expanded editions) reawakened that brief glimmer of supermania of my pre-teen hero-worshipping. The anthology packs in special features galore, a whopping digital stack of material that delves into the deep history of the character. Superman completists have fantasized about a set like this and plenty of people who are interested in the history of the American comic book will find it worthwhile as well.

The original 1978 Superman film is a pleasant surprise. The anthology includes both the theatrical release and an extended version that gives us a bit more Brando and time of Krypton. It also includes a brief prologue that connects the story of the Daily Planet to the 1930s and the Depression, consciously evoking the origins of the Man of Steeel mythos. It’s clear why it was cut (it really doesn’t connect well with the rest of the film), but I loved it anyway. It’s a valentine to the comic books and to that weird and frightening American moment when comic super-heroes were born.

This anthology is probably the best place to go to make sense of the controversy surrounding Superman II. The theatrical release, though probably the best entry in the series most people have seen, cut Brando, veered toward the campy and had a deeply unsatisfying ending. Director Richard Donner was kicked off the project and advisor/now director Richard Lester added a number of elements that have subsequently driven fans crazy. Silly powers are added, like the ability of Superman to rip the S-crest off his chest and throw it like a boomerang. Superman causes Lois Lane to forget he has learned his secret identity with a magic kiss.

The commentary track for the Superman II theatrical release includes producers Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler. Spengler says of the controversy that Donner refused to work with him. Salkind talks in zen koans about how “blissful” it was to meet the Queen of England after the success of the first film and never really gets around to explaining the Donner controversy other than talking about the “tone” and that “this just didn’t work” and “Pierre Spengler is my friend and a surrogate son to my father” and then rambles about how, without the movies, he could have ended up driving a taxi in Brazil or “maybe even ended up in a tribe”. In other words, he and Spengler come off as complete jackasses who really had little idea where to take the franchise.

Luckily for the fans, they get Donner’s cut and it appears in this anthology. Brando is back, the fight scenes are much more exciting (Superman gets slammed into the Statue of Liberty’s torch) and the original ending is much tighter. An excellent special feature on the Donner cut disc shows the laborious process of reconstructing this original vision. Restoring the film involved literally baking the film to pull passable analog sound out of moisture soaked reels.

The disaster that was Superman III is also on full display. Both a critical and box office failure, it is embarrassingly unwatchable. We learn from Spengler’s audio commentary that Richard Pryor had voiced the desire to be in a Superman movie on The Johnny Carson Show. Spengler comes across here and elsewhere as the archetype of the pompous producer who wants to throw enormous amounts of money at a project that he thinks will work, fans be damned. He makes it clear that the film was written around the idea of having Richard Pryor star in the film.

What makes me especially sad about this movie is the role played by Pryor. This once incredibly subversive comedian was increasingly doing little beyond slapstick in the late ’70s; this was after the odious racial comedy of his film The Toy, a heartwarming bullshit fest that feel like white suburbia’s answer to Mandingo. In Superman III Pryor seems to get more screen time than Superman himself. The film thus managed to abuse the series and Richard Pryor’s talents all at the same time.

The audio commentary for Superman III features more confusing commentary from Salkind. He tells an incredibly convoluted story about the origin of the film that has to be heard to believed. For almost ten minutes he talks without taking a breathe about everything from the nature of fantasy films to when fan movies started including “The Movie” or “The Motion Picture” in its title. It’s hilariously confusing and seems like a bad case of logorrhea meant to hide the fact that a good story got buried by the studio’s failure to understand what its audience wanted to see. Salkind describes how what could have been a good script ended up being trashed in favor of the physical humor gag reel that this film became. The script that never became a movie might have been atrocious as well, but at least would have included the villain Brainiac and SuperGirl, a bit of time travel, and other elements you might expect from a Superman yarn.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is slightly superior to its repulsive predecessor. It features the return of Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. While Hackman always brings something special to almost everything he does, his Luthor is written badly. Why is he wearing a wig? Why are his schemes so small fry? In the comics he’s a scientific and criminal mastermind whose intellect, cruelty and ruthless pursuit of power make him an interesting balance to Supes’ idealism. In the movies he’s a pretty smart hood who engages in high-concept real estate scams. The fourth entry in the series revealed mostly how the saga had gone off the rails and looked like the death of the franchise. It more or less was for two decades.

Or at least it should have been. In Bryan Singer’s 2006 reimagination Superman Returns, Kevin Spacey turns in a fine performance as Luthor and Brandon Routh is a passable, if wooden, costume-wearer. Otherwise, it’s way too long, reeking of silly and overwrought religious symbolism and paced like a tone poem. The CGI is subpar, especially on Blu-Ray. Its efforts to do high mythology fall flat and it’s hard to think of another superhero film that manages to incorporate such great draughts of cheesiness and pomposity, the twin temptations of the genre.

This anthology offers a treasure chest of special features. In some respects, this is the saving grace of a set that has to carry the dead weight of Superman III and IV and the 2006 snoozefest. Luckily the anthology makes up for this with outstanding extras for fans of the character and of comic book history.

One of the real treats is a complete run of the rare Fleischer and Famous studio cartoons from the 1940s. The Fleisher series introduced the now famous “faster than a speeding bullet… more powerful than a locomotive” and eventually included the line “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound”. Seeing these is a history lesson in the character, showing us a Clark Kent who at the time was a kind of tough, city guy adventure hero who parachuted out of airplanes. Superman had been raised in an orphanage. And it was these cartoons not the comics, that gave him the power of flight.

Of special interest is the horrifically racist Jungle Drums. Not only does it represent African people in about the way you would expect from white-dominated American mass culture, it also featured Adolf Hitler having a temper tantrum when he hears that Superman has foiled a Nazi plot. Along with their bizarre cultural baggage, these cartoons represent some of the best animation of the golden age of animation, unfailingly exciting and shot (and even lit) like a major studio film. Moreover, they were highly determinative in shaping the Superman of the next 50 years.

A bonus disc further unpacks the mythology behind the Man of Steel. It contains the outstanding documentary The Amazing Story of Superman narrated by Kevin Spacey. A wealth of images from early comics and radio clips from the 1930s wrap us up in the era. This documentary is at its best in showing the massive pop culture phenomenon Superman became beyond the comic’s page.

Re-watching the series, and renewing my affection for the first two films, still left me convinced that this is a character best suited to the comic writers that have used the character to satire and explore revisionist histories of the golden age of comics. The character’s inherent superficiality, combined with his long history, has made for some of the best comic reimaginings in recent years. Grant Morrison’s All-State Superman is the best example. Mark Millar’s Red Son has little baby Kal-el landing in the Soviet Union instead of the American Midwest and rethinks the whole mythology in a reinvented Cold War. Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? managed to capture both the silliness of some of the mythology and some of its inherent pathos. Indeed, Moore’s Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen thinks through all the implications of a god-like super-hero and the result is tragic.

The comics work because they respond to fans that understand the character and can explore a history that has become as intricate, and sometimes as absurd, as a theological system. In major Hollywood films, the character is weighted down with too much history, symbolism and entrepreneurial merchandizing to ever fly.

Its hard to highly recommend this series given what duds at least three of the films are. And yet, the extras offer a really complete commemoration of one of the most important figures in American popular culture. If you are looking for good film, most of the series will be kryptonite to you. But if you want to explore how the 20th century became a forge of pop culture gods and heroes, this is the Blu-ray set for you.

RATING 5 / 10