Watching the new X-Men and Green Lantern movies recently I couldn’t help pondering, as various costumed superhero characters hurtled and whizzed about the sky, how easy it all looks nowadays. The CGI age has made just about anything imaginable possible and now a man can fly on film as easily as he might once have walked. But it wasn’t always that way; back in 1977 when the first full-length colour Superman feature film was being prepared, heads were being scratched for months by special effects technicians and associated studio backroom boys on the vexed question of how they could make a man fly - and make him fly convincingly. Hard to believe now that something we take for granted in so many films these days was, just over thirty years ago, the one element of this colourful new superhero film which would decide whether the project would stand or fall. Or fly.
Fortunately Superman - The Movie flew - and flew high - and launched a franchise (long before the word became common currency) which would not only influence and inform superhero movies for the next three decades but also carried on for nearly ten years before bursting back into life a few years ago with a much-belated if misguided reboot. All five films, from Superman - the Movie to Superman Returns have been packaged together before, of course, most notably in a big chunky multi-DVD tin set issued a few years ago. But now the age of the Blu-ray is with us so here they come again in a glitzy new 8-disc boxset which ports over the films (looking shinier than ever before in the latest format), the extras from the old tin set plus a smattering of new bits and pieces, especially for Superman Returns.
The Salkinds, original producers of the series, hit paydirt when they discovered and cast the hitherto-unknown Christopher Reeve for their first movie. As Reeve explains in one of the accompanying behind-the-scenes features, he let the costume do the work as Superman while he concentrated on making the bumbling Clark Kent a more credible character. Reeve is the one constant in the first four films and while the movies themselves are of varying quality, he gives Superman a quiet dignity and an utter believability it's impossible to imagine of any other actor of the time.
The series kicks off with Superman - The Movie (Rating: 7) and in many ways it's the superheo origin movie against which all subsequent superhero origin movies are inevitably judged. The opening sequences on the doomed planet Krypton, with little Kal-El's parents (Marlon Brando as Dad Jor-El pocketed the biggest paycheque in cinema history at the time for just a few days work) packing their son off in a rocket as their world blows up, is majestic and just the right side of pompous. The capsule arrives on Earth a couple of years later and the infant within is adopted by Smallville farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent. Their new son, Clark, grows up into a strapping lad who has to hide his burgeoning superpowers from his contemporaries but when Jonathan suffers a fatal heart attack Clark decides it's time to move to nearby Metropolis (quite clearly, oddly, New York, Statue of Liberty and all) to start a new life. Here's where Superman - The Movie begins to wobble. Director Richard Donner explains how, the moment Clark arrives in Metropolis, the film becomes a real comic strip and in truth this sudden, jarring change of tone, is a bit of a disappointment. Clumsy Clark quickly ingratiates himself with the staff of local rag the Daily Planet but when tongue-in-cheek bad guy Lex Luther (Gene Hackman) and his incompetent gang of two turn up - with quirky comedy background music to remind us they're supposed to be funny - the film starts to get a bit tiresome, evoking memories of the 1960s Batman TV series which the film had initially seemed so keen to avoid. But things start to perk up as we see more of Superman in action in flight sequences which now look quaint but at the time were abslolutely revolutionary. However, the scene where Superman takes a dazzled Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) for a test flight around the world - and above - are as enchanting now as they were back in 1978. Ultimately Superman thwarts Luther's dastardly plot to destroy California (for the purposes of obtaining some cheap real estate, it seems) but the alarming coda where Superman turns back time to save Lois Lane who has been killed in an earthquake tends to undermine the whole ethos of the character, suggesting that there's no threat Superman can't defeat just by reversing time.
Superman 2 (presented here in its theatrical cut and in the extended cut assembled by fired director Richard Donner - long story) is probably the most satisfying film of the series (Rating: 8). Superman reveals his true identity to Lois Lane and surrenders his alter ego and superpowers so he can spend a normal life with the woman he loves. Awww. Unfortunately, three Kryptonian bad guys, imprisoned in the notorious 'Phantom Zone' at the beginning of the first film, escape their entombment and make their way to Earth where, also imbued with superhuman powers, they start to kick some puny mortal ass. Unfortunately Lex Luther's out of prison and ruining the atmos but eventually Clark regains his powers and, in the Donner cut, turns back time again so the Zoners never arrive on Earth and Lois never found out about his secret identity. Superman 2 is a bigger, bolder movie; it still has some of the languid pacing issues of the first film but the action's better and more spectacular and, despite the reappearance of Lex Luther, some of the comedy is toned down.
Superman 3 (Rating: 5) is very much the runt of the litter. After an ingenious and witty extended opening sequence, the film descends into farce with the introduction of the irritating Richard Pryor as computer nerd Gus Gorman. There's some good stuff here as Clark Kent is reunited with childhood flame Lana Lang (in the absence of Lois Lane) and the battles between good Superman/evil Superman are powerfully done but there's a nagging feeling that the well is starting to run dry a bit.
Superman 4: The Quest For Peace (Rating:6) is usually derided as the absolute nadir of the series and it's true that there's a lot wrong here. The film, produced now by the notorously tight-fisted Canon Group, looks much cheaper (many of the flying sequences are ghastly) and much of the live action is obviously filmed in the UK (famously in Milton Keynes). But this remains probably the least-seen of the Superman movies and it's actually really not as bad as memory and popular opinion might have it. The tighter running time (it clocks in at barely 90 minutes courtesy of wedges of deleted material, some of which is included here) means it's a nippier story, with the Daily Planet taken over by a vulgar media mogul (Sam Wanamaker) and Lex Luther (yes, again!) creating a new enemy for Superman in the shape of the snarling Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow). It's a troubled film but it's not without its moments, especially in Clark Kent's fumbling relationship with the newspaper tycoon's daughter and an attempt to recreate the magic of the Lois/Superman flying sequence of the first film which is scuppered by lousy visual effects. The film was a real labour of love for Reeve and whilst its underlying theme - Superman ridding the world of nuclear weapons - is hopelessly naive, Superman 4 is probably worthy of a bit of a re-evaluation.
Audiences had to wait a long time to see the Man of Steel back on the big screen and when he arrived it was with a new star - unknown Brandon Routh - and long-time fan Bryan Singer, hot off the back of two well-received X Men movies, in the director's chair. But this was 2006 and the world had changed since Superman last flew in 1987. Not only was Singer far too reverential to the old movies - Superman Returns (Rating: 6) was sold as a sequel to Superman 2 - by it seems that an edgy American public, still shaken by the events of 9/11, weren't in the mood for a flippant film about an all-powerful extra-terrestrial superhero who can sort out all the world's problems. Despite a spirited performance by Routh as Superman, the film was hampered by stodgy pacing, a lack of much in the way of real visual spectacle, another comedic turn from Luther (this time played by Kevin Stacey), a dreary subplot about Lois Lane's son (is he? isn't he?? Who cares?) and the by-now seriously hoary old standby of Superman being robbed of his powers by green kryptonite. Been there, done that. Superman Returns isn't a bad movie but it's really the wrong one at the wrong time.
All eyes turn now to Zack Snyder and his new Superman in the form of Henry Cavill in the next instalment of the saga, due in a couple of years. Until then this lavish little Blu-ray set will more than pass the time, serving as a testament to the true legend of the Man of Steel and especially to the huge legacy of the late Christopher Reeve; he really did make you believe a man could fly.
The contemporary 'making of' stuff has dated badly but the set brings over the two-part restrospective hosted by Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen) which itself hails from 2002. Disc eight houses the fascinating full-length Look, Up In The Sky documentary which charts the character's long history as well as a more movie-specific documentary, a special tribute to Reeve and a 1958 TV pilot entitled The Adventures of Superpup. Honestly. Superman Returns gets some new deleted scenes, a new opening sequence and production diaries and the whole package is bulked up with the classic Flesicher and Famous' Studios cartoons (but still no sign of the classic 1960s Filmation cartoons!) and the George Reeve Superman feature Superman and the Mole Men.