Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

Mimsy Review: Superman: The Movie

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, December 30, 2009

“There’s only one ‘p’ in rapist.”

Special features

Cast Information3
Commentary Track6
Deleted Scenes4
History Lesson4
Isolated Score7
Making Of9
Trailers6

One of the most incredible movies of my youth, I watched it on VHS for a decade—it was one of the handful of movies I was willing to buy on VHS—and when my VHS copy died, I got the DVD version. The DVD version unfortunately adds some extraneous scenes that hurt Stuart Baird’s editing of the movie, but it’s still great.

If you can justify it, I recommend spending a little extra to get one of the collections that contain the theatrical version; but one way or another, get this movie.

RecommendationPurchase
DirectorRichard Donner
WritersJerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton
Movie Rating7
Transfer Quality7
Overall Rating5
Formats
  • Enhanced Widescreen
Rough landing

The stork had a rough landing for Mrs. Kent.

Superman is different from most superheroes. He really is Superman; Clark Kent is his assumed identity. And he wears no mask. When he switches from Clark Kent to Superman, he takes off his glasses, he stands straight, and a curl drops over his forehead. Over the years, writers have gone to amazing lengths to explain why no one recognizes the obvious, that Clark and Superman are the same person. Everything from Superman using continual super-hypnosis to convince people they’re not the same, to using super-speed to blur photographs whenever they’re taken.

The usual explanation, which made so little sense that writers kept trying to come up with more convoluted ones, was that Superman acted different as Clark Kent. Because they acted different, no one guessed they were the same. In Superman: The Last Son of Krypton, Elliot S! Maggin wrote about Clark Kent doing a news broadcast1 about Lex Luthor fooling Superman.

Somewhere out in space, Clark often thought, there was someone who would receive these television broadcasts that flew off the Earth at the speed of light. Somewhere somebody would figure out that Clark and Superman were the same person. Somebody whose mind was not clouded by human perceptions and prejudices would notice without a touch of effort that two men were one. If that someone was also capable of grasping the idea that no one on Earth knew it, that this was a disguise and a very effective one, that someone would probably catch the irony in Clark’s first words today.

But it seemed silly that acting could fool people into not realizing the two were the same. Christopher Reeve changed that. If there was any one thing that made us believe that Superman was real for the duration of the movie, it wasn’t the flying or the crystal Krypton, it was the simple act of Christopher Reeve standing straight, smiling, and taking off Clark Kent.

Father and son chat

Reeve understood the smile that Maggin described as glowing with life and power. Clark Kent didn’t have the glow; Superman did. And Christopher Reeve knew how to get it. It was pure confidence.

The actors made this an amazing superhero movie. Besides Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman was great as quirky genius Lex Luthor and Margot Kidder was perfect as ambitious reporter Lois Lane. But the script, direction, and editing also contributed heavily, by focussing on the character’s growth as a hero and not on flashy villains. That becomes obvious watching this extended cut, which added some of the flash back.

This is an expanded version; I think I only really liked one of the added scenes, the one with the fifties Lois Lane on the train, but even that went on too long. The rest did nothing but reduce Superman’s, and the movie’s, greatness. The scenes with Superman entering Lex’s underground lair were especially cheesy. The fire, and the ice, were wrong; they were about the powers and not about the characters. They didn’t fit with the movie.

The rescues are all well-timed, from baby Superman lifting the truck, to the helicopter, great last-minute rescues on their own, but all setting us up for the final scene where Superman can’t possibly rescue everyone, even at the last minute.

The extras on the DVD are very nice. The commentary track is interesting most of the way through, with both director Richard Donner and script consultant Tom Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz took a long, campy script and, on Donner’s direction, changed the tone to the more serious version we ended up with. The commentary also answers the question of what the director thought was going on at the end. And if you want to focus on the new scenes, you can view them separately. (But you can’t view the movie without them.)

Lois and Jimmy

“How do you spell ‘massacre’?”

Most of the extras are on the reverse side of this two-sided DVD. There are three documentaries, “Taking Flight: The Development of Superman” (30 minutes), “Making Superman: Filming the Legend” (30 minutes), and “The Magic Behind the Cape” (23 minutes).

The first two documentaries bring back Mark McClure as host (he narrated the third but doesn’t show up on screen). “Taking Flight” guides us through the making from start (the Salkinds getting the license from DC) to the end of pre-production. Donner, Hackman, Mankiewicz, Reeve, Kidder, Williams, and even, through the magic of video, Marlon Brando assist. “It was Americana. It was our little moment in history,” said Donner. Tom Mankiewicz and casting director Lynn Stalmaster probably talk the most, and remember a lot from pre-production as well as production. The other two making-ofs continue through the production and the special effects.

These are really good, tight making-ofs; they’re short enough to watch, they cut from speaker to speaker quickly, but they still let the interviewees talk. They are well-worth watching, with some great stories. Many parts talk about Superman II as well as Superman: The Movie, because much of the movies were filmed at the same time; the original plan was to build the second movie from the first.

Screen tests are provided for Christopher Reeve; and several for actresses trying for Ursa (but not Sarah Douglas, who actually got the part). The Lois Lane tests are the most extensive; they cover several actresses, and come with a commentary by Lynn Stalmaster. The Lois Lane screen tests for Anne Archer, Lesley Ann Warren, Debra Raffin, Stockard Channing, and Susan Blakely are spliced together sequentially. Seeing them all together, it’s obvious how much Margot Kidder owned that role. She had the hard edge that Lois needs to contrast Superman and Clark’s earnestness (other than Kidder, only Stockard Channing came close). The Lois screen tests were all with Christopher Reeve, who had already been selected when they started looking for Lois. He clearly already had a handle on the role from the start.

Superman Smile

The trailers are hilarious in their seventies retro stuffiness. Also interesting are the “additional music cues”2; most are just extra music, but one is the “pop version” of Can You Read My Mind3. It’s funny in the same way the trailers are funny. The deleted scenes are interesting, but all strung together; and it’s obvious why they were cut. They set up nothing except an unnecessary joke at the end.

The movie is alternately available as part of Superman Ultimate Collector’s Edition. That version also contains III and IV, which I can’t recommend. I can recommend either that version or Superman: The Movie Special Edition though, for another reason: they both contain the theatrical version. The standalone version that I have does not. This extended cut seems to be the Blues Brothers style of special edition—find everything we have left and splice it in, a sort of anti-director’s cut (as with the Blues Brothers, the director prefers the original theatrical version). But it’s a great movie, regardless.

  1. While Maggin’s book came out as the book version of the movie, it had nothing to do with the movie story-wise; this is probably part of why it’s so great. He followed the comic-book continuity, which was that Clark Kent had been promoted from the newspaper to television news.

  2. The box mentions someting called “audio outtakes”. I can’t find anything like that on either side; it may be a reference to the additional music cues.

  3. Watching the movie again thirty years later, I’m struck by how much better that scene would have been without any voiceover; with nothing but Superman and Lois flying, and John Williams’s magnificent score.

Recommendation: Purchase

DirectorRichard Donner
WritersJerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton
Length2 hours, 34 minutes
Spoken languageEnglish
SubtitlesEnglish, French, Portuguese, Spanish
Special FeaturesCast Information, Commentary Track, Deleted Scenes, History Lesson, Isolated Score, Making Of, Trailers
More links

If you enjoyed Superman: The Movie…

If you enjoy David Newman, you might also be interested in Superman II.

If you enjoy Leslie Newman, you might also be interested in Superman II.

If you enjoy Mario Puzo, you might also be interested in Superman II.

If you enjoy Richard Donner, you might also be interested in Ladyhawke and Superman II.

If you enjoy superhero, you might also be interested in Superman II and The Complete Superman Collection.

If you enjoy Superman, you might also be interested in Superman II, The Complete Superman Collection, Superman vs. the X-Men, Superman Returns is a great movie, and Superman: Last Son of Krypton.