Release Date(s)1978 (May 9, 2023)
Studio(s)International Film Productions/Dovemead/Warner Bros. (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C+
[Editor’s Note: This is a single-film review of Superman: The Movie 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.]
“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.”
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. The film was originally released in 4K Ultra HD back in 2018. But now it’s been re-issued as a part of Warner’s new Superman: 5-Film Collection 4K UHD box set.
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 (2001: A Space Odyssey) 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 theaters in 1978. For its release on Ultra HD, the original camera negative and master internegative elements (featuring optically-printed VFX shots and transitions) for the 143-minute Theatrical Cut were scanned in native 4K. The image was then 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 first thing to know is that this is the exact same 4K remaster and encoding of the film that appeared on Ultra HD back in 2018 (reviewed here)—no new work has been done on the image here, despite rumors to the contrary. And that’s fine, because the 4K image looked lovely in 2018 and it continues to now. But this isn’t a glossy, shot-on-digital, laser-sharp presentation of the type common today, so you shouldn’t expect one. Film grain is moderate and organic, and it remains intact. Detail is crisp and clean, with lovely texturing. Colors are more accurate, richly saturated, and nuanced than ever before—apparent in such things as baby Kal-El’s blue and red wrap on Krypton. The HDR never renders truly bold contrasts, but shadows are deeper and the brightest areas of the frame are nicely eye-reactive. In addition to the aforementioned use of filters, this film also employed 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 (and you’re not meant to). Even so, 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 in 4K Ultra HD. It’s never looked better… and it’s hard to imagine that it could look better.
Like the 2018 disc, the new 4K SKU includes two English language audio options. The first is the same 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. This is exemplified by the opening credits sequence, which delivers muscular swooshes as the credits zoom 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—Warner Bros. has included a second option. But this is where things get frustrating, however, because instead of including the same lossy 5.1 Dolby Digital mix as the 2018 4K (reproducing the 6-track 70 mm theatrical audio, complete with split surrounds), someone at the studio decided to replace it with a 2.0 stereo original theatrical audio mix instead. This, at least, is encoded in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio format. But whoever made this decision was apparently unaware that that the 6-track 70 mm 5.1 mix is the overwhelming fan favorite of these audio options—not the Atmos mix. What should have happened here, is that lossy 5.1 mix should have been upgraded to lossless DTS-HD MA. As it stands, this change alone may be a deal-breaker for fans. In both cases at least, 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 included in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, German for the Hearing Impaired, Italian for the Deaf, Castilian Spanish, Dutch, Simplified Chinese, Korean, Latin Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Czech, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Thai.
Like the 2018 release, this new 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 and later included with the 2018 4K release. (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: 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)
These extras were first featured on the 2006 DVD box, including The Making of Superman: The Movie 1980 TV special, the 1951 film Superman and the Mole Men (starring George Reeves), the three animated shorts, and the trailers and TV spots as well. Missing here is the 188-minute Extended Cut that appeared on ABC TV, as well as the 151-minute Special Edition (which includes audio commentary with Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz, plus additional features), but those are available on Blu-ray separately here (for just $17 for both films). You also get a Digital Copy code on a paper insert in the packaging.
Unfortunately, the omission of the 5.1 Dolby Digital 6-track 70 mm audio mix on this new 4K edition is a big deal. Whether you purchase Warner’s new Superman: 5-Film Collection UHD box set or import the all-region 4K SKUs of the sequel films from the UK (or simply wait for the single-film SKUs to be released in the States eventually), my personal recommendation is that you stick with the 2018 4K release of Superman: The Movie. If you already own that disc, be sure to hang on to it. If you don’t, do your best to get your hands on it soon—I’m hearing from Digital Bits readers that when you order the single-film SKU on Amazon now, the stock that’s available is this new disc and not the 2018 edition.
Note that you should be able to tell the difference by looking at the audio specs on the back of the packaging (see image above)—my copy of the new one from the box set accurately lists DTS-HD MA: English 2.0 instead of Dolby Digital 5.1. However be aware that there are reports that some Amazon stock is actually the new disc, but the packaging insert still shows 5.1. Make sure you check the actual disc to be sure you have the version you want.
Of course, some of you may prefer the Atmos mix or you might like having the 2.0 theatrical audio paired with the 4K image, so the loss of the 5.1 mix may not be an issue. Either way, Superman: The Movie is gorgeous in 4K and entirely faithful to Richard Donner’s beloved original film. Whichever audio version you choose, this Ultra HD experience is highly recommended.
- Bill Hunt