AVAILABLE ON REGION ‘A’ BLU-RAY: NOW
RUNNING TIME: 188 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Just before the planet Krypton is destroyed, Jor-El sends his infant son Kal-El to Earth where Kal-El’s dense molecular structure will give him superhuman powers. He’s raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent who name him Clark, but after Jonathan dies from a heart attack he discovers a glowing crystal in the remains of his spacecraft which compels him to travel to the Arctic, where it builds the Fortress of Solitude. There, a hologram of Jor-El spends twelve years educating him on his powers and responsibilities before he becomes a mild mannered reporter at ‘The Daily Planet’ in Metropolis – albeit one who can turn into Superman when trouble strikes….
My feelings about Superman, the first film I ever saw at the cinema, can be summed up after I’d sat through Man Of Steel at the cinema. I went home thoroughly depressed and even a bit angry about the soulless, ugly thing I’d watched which certainly didn’t feature the Superman [somebody who represents the best in us] I knew, and quickly put on my DVD of Superman so I could be uplifted again – and uplifted I was and therefore able to go to sleep with a smile on my face. That’s all I’ll say about Zach Snyder’s film – I’ve vented my hatred for it elsewhere. Nor is this review going to be a typical Dr Lenera write-up where I detail a film’s production history and then try my best to do some in-depth analysis. I’m sure that I’ll get round to doing one of Superman one day – after all it still remains my favourite superhero movie [though I feel that Superman 2 could have been even better if director Richard Donner had been allowed to film his vision but that’s another story which I’ve written about elsewhere]. For the most part though, this review will restrict itself to being a specific look at a new version of the movie that has just come out on Blu-ray on Region ‘A’, the news of its release actually having caused this critic to almost hit the roof with joy. At last myself and other fans were going to see the legendary 188 minute American TV version that was crammed full of extra footage, but not full-screen and in mediocre [by modern standards] picture quality – no, widescreen and digitally restored!
Now I said that I wasn’t going to go into background stuff but I guess a quick recap of the various versions of Superman is necessary if you’re not an obssessiv and know about all this stuff, especially because something wonderful quickly became apparent as I begun to watch it. This was actually the first cut of the film before Donner and company decided to edit it down to a more manageable length. The reasons I quickly realised this were the quality of the restoration which was obviously based on a very superior source, and the fact that John William’s masterful score [in my view his greatest, and one of the greatest, ever] was exactly as heard on the complete CD edition. The other versions of the film omitted or truncated quite a bit of music. Anyway, the film was cut down from 188 minutes to 143 minutes for theatrical release, and as we know it was a huge hit. However, the 1970’s and even the 1980’s were a time where many films had deleted footage restored for TV airings [though mainly in the USA]. This was partly because: a) TV movie premieres were a big thing back then drawing enormous viewing figures so companies wanted to cram in as many advertisements as possible, and b) the producers of these films recieved money for every minute of them shown. So Alexander and Ily Salkind made sure that the 188 minute version was shown, though this only happened a few times and on a couple of occasions it was, rather ironically, cut by the network.
In 2000 Donner put together a 151 minute Director’s Cut which restored eight minutes of the missing footage. Most home viewing versions are now this version so if you really like Superman than you’ll probably have seen it. He certainly chose some of the best stuff to put back in – the baby Jor-El flying past the three ‘trapped’ supervillains in space [adroitly linking them in readiness for the sequel], the cameos from the 1950’s Superman and Lois Lane Kirk Alynn and Noel Neill as the parents of a young Lois Lane on the train during young Clark’s run, Superman returning to the Fortress of Solitude after his first bout of heroics and being warned about vanity by his father, Superman going through machine guns, flame throwers, and an ice machine with Luthor taunting on loudspeaker. Perhaps the tiny bit of added Kryptonian footage wasn’t really necessary, nor Donner’s cameo, nor the girl scouts fleeing from the falling Hollywood sign. But it was nice to see anyway. And it was also nice to see the two scenes involving Lex Luthor’s pit of unseen animals [lions?] put in as deleted scenes, if not in the actual film. But damn it we wanted to see all the other deleted stuff we’d heard about and seen stills of. I suppose I ought to get it out of the way and admit that – yes – I did then buy a bootleg copy of the TV cut because I thought that it was never going to get officially released, especially since Donner stated that he’d remove his name from the credits if it did. My copy was of such abysmal quality that I struggled to get through it and I only watched it once. I couldn’t I recall much of the extra stuff.
Going through the film and detailing every extra bit would take me ages and would probably also be a boring read, so this will be more of an overview. The first thing I should say is that most of the new stuff is just slight extensions of scenes that you may not even notice. Over half of the scenes in the film have an extra line or two, a few more shots and usually at the beginning or at the end. This doesn’t really affect the scenes they’re in very much, but it does give the whole film a slightly slower pace and of course bulks up the running time. As a lover of the film I was more than happy to spend longer with it, but it’s easy to see why it was cut down and watching this version is an interesting exercise in how a film can be successfully tightened without losing any of its essence. In terms of more substantial stuff, there’s Clark’s trek to the North Pole which now takes much longer. One can certainly see why it was shortened, but it does give an epic feel to the journey. This is the problem with me being such a fan of this film I suppose – I probably see the added stuff is being better than more casual fans would do. Also quite lengthy now is the introduction to the bumbling Otis. Yes, the police pursuit of him now does drag, but the sequence now flows much more smoothly from the previous one. Here, after Lois and Clark leave the alley where they were mugged, there’s an added shot of the pair getting into a taxi. As the taxi pulls away, the camera pans out and we see Otis for the first time as he bumps into a meter.
Disappointingly the extra Superman footage is very minimal – the only really noticeable bit being when he initially loses one of the missiles – though any unreleased shot of Christopher Reeve as Superman is gold dust in my opinion. On the other hand there’s much more stuff involving Luthor, Otis and Miss Tessmacher, most of it of a humorous nature. Some of it is tiny additions, some of it more substantial including an even longer missile hijack sequence which really is a bit too long. Of course the den scenes are back in. I enjoyed seeing all this and it showcases the great chemistry between Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine even more, but it possibly unbalance things a little bit. On the other hand the Krypton section is all the better for the extra bits and pieces. Donner may have restored a few seconds of a security guard character for his Director’s Cut, but here he’s then seen traveling to Jor-El’s quarters with the camera focused on the security guard’s helmet. As the planet begins to tear itself apart, the security guard’s eyes can be seen inside the helmet bulging out with fear! The destruction of Krypton is much more extensive and more intense [I found this bit terrifying as a kid] despite a few ropey effects shots – though they’re not too bad if you take into account when the film was made. And much later on you also get to see San Francisco row-houses shaking falling apart during the quake with frightened people jumping out of windows and running away from the buildings.
There are two major flaws in this cut though. One is the opening title track where that tremendous theme has some jarring edits. It seems that they wanted to have the beginning and end credit music in stereo [even though the rest of the film is in mono] but supposedly had trouble finding a stereo version that would synch up. It’s a bizarre cock-up that could have been easily been rectified. And then there’s an added subplot of a Native American reservation that is being starved of water. When Superman is performing his superfeats near the end of the film, he diverts some water to the reservation. All well and good, but this now means that when Superman turns back time [I’ve never had a problem with this by the way, Superman knows he’s doing wrong but he’s also in love], the reservation would be all dry again! Superman wasn’t originally going to turn back time at all, that was going to happen in Superman 2 and Superman was going to finish with a cliffhanger. Obviously the reservation subplot would have made more sense then.
So is Superman made better or worse by all this extra footage? It’s hard to say. It’s a bit slower, and not everything makes sense. There’s nothing here that should definitely have been left in the theatrical cut. If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing this classic or not yet shown it to your kids, then either the theatrical version or the Director’s Cut is definitely the way to go. On the other hand, I don’t think that the film is harmed by being longer and more leisurely. A great deal of the extra footage is barely noticeable unless you really know the film, and what is noticeable is certainly nice to have. For me, Superman is a richer, more epic experience in this cut, and it’s the version I’ll probably be returning to most often in the future. And it’s certainly just as entertaining, funny, beautiful, enchanting, romantic, sexy [that’s one thing that really becomes apparent about this movie once you become an adult, just how damn sexy some of it is, today’s superhero flicks don’t even attempt anything like this], thrilling, joyous, moving, you name it. It’s odd that Warner Bros. shunted this release, which comes packaged with the Director’s Cut, to Warner Archive. However, it’s already become Warner Archive’s biggest seller by far [and seems to be region free too as I didn’t need to switch my multi-region Blu-ray player over to Region ‘B’ to play it] and this bodes well for any future releases of a similar nature. There’s already talk of the possibility of the TV cut of Superman 2, which is easily the best version of that much troubled but still terrific movie, coming out. Bring it on!