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Superman 1978 – 1987 5-Film Collection 4K UHD Steelbook review

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman on 4K Blu-ray!

As part of Warner Bros’ 100th anniversary celebration, they’ve released all four Superman films starring Christopher Reeve Superman: The Movie, Superman IISuperman IIIand Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, as well as Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. Appropriately enough for the Man of Steel, all five films are available together in a spectacular Steelbook boxset, and I’ve been taking a closer look…

Superman: The Movie (1978)

What else is there to say about Superman: The Movie? The Richard Donner-directed film is iconic, from its dialogue, musical score, lead performances and heroic set-pieces, and arguably the definitive superhero film ever put to the big screen. Its influence can be felt in almost every superhero film made since. Christopher Reeve is perfectly cast as Clark Kent / Superman (the film’s finest special effect is Reeve’s physical transformation between his alter egos), Margot Kidder is brilliant as Lois Lane, Marlon Brando provides gravitas to his supporting role as Jor-El, and Gene Hackman is instantly memorable as main villain Lex Luthor. While some may criticise the visual effects work as being somewhat dated, most of the effects still hold up spectacularly well – look no further than that first moment Reeve’s Superman flies in the Fortress of Solitude – and those that don’t still have a certain charm to them. If there’s a main criticism to be had with the film, it’s with the rather inconsistent pacing throughout.

Geoffrey Unsworth‘s cinematography gives the film a soft glow effect throughout, which is maintained in this 4K remaster. The picture may not be as sharp as some may expect, but it’s nonetheless very detailed and retains a filmic texture. Perhaps the most obvious improvement is the new HDR grade: Superman: The Movie is the only film in the set to be treated to a Dolby Vision presentation, resulting in a more vibrant colour palette. An Atmos soundtrack is also provided, alongside a Theatrical Stereo Mix (which is arguably more faithful to the Academy Award-winning sound mix and music).

Superman: The Movie features the following special features:

  • Commentary by Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spangler (Theatrical Cut, 4K only)
  • Commentary by Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz (Special Edition, Blu-ray only)
  • Taking Flight: The Development of Superman
  • Making Superman: Filming the Legend
  • Superman screen test
  • Music-only track
  • TV Spot 
  • Teaser Trailer 
  • Theatrical Trailer 

Disappointingly, only the Theatrical Cut is available to watch in 4K but the accompanying Blu-ray disc features the Special Edition cut, while the Extended Edition (made for TV broadcast and released on Blu-ray in 2018) is nowhere to be seen on this set.

Superman II (1980)

Originally planned to be filmed back-to-back with Superman: The Movie, only around 70% of Superman II was shot before it was decided to focus entirely on the first film. Superman II re-entered production with new director Richard Lester and cinematographer Robert Paynter, resulting in a somewhat inconsistent theatrical version (perhaps not unlike 2017’s Justice League). The theatrical version veers between Donner’s sincere approach to the characters and world, and Lester’s more comical, almost slapstick approach. The Richard Donner Cut (completed in 2006) is much more consistent, committing to a darker tone which gives the conflict more weight. Zod, Ursa and Non feel more formidable as villains, and Clark’s decision to step away from Superman is not only given an added sense of doubt (Marlon Brando only appears in this version of the film as Jor-El), but also a more satisfying resolution.

It’s clear that almost all of the best elements of Superman II – in both cuts of the film – were under Donner’s direction, making the director switch more baffling. Ultimately, neither cut of the film is perfect. The theatrical version of Superman II is a bit too tonally inconsistent for me, while the Donner cut is noticeably incomplete, utilising screen test, a little of Lester’s footage, some lacklustre CGI work to cover some sequences and re-uses the time-travel solution from the first film (although it was intended for Superman II originally). Both cuts are well worth watching, but both also beg the question of: ‘what if Richard Donner had completed his version of the film?’ My personal preference is for The Richard Donner Cut of Superman II, but it’s hard to call it the ‘definitive’ version.

Both cuts of Superman II are presented in 4K and in HDR10 (alas, with no Dolby Vision presentation). The Theatrical Version is, as to be expected, fairly inconsistent in its picture as it cuts between Geoffrey Unsworth‘s and Robert Paynter‘s cinematography, while The Richard Donner Cut is understandably more consistent in its presentation. The new HDR grade is more vibrant than previous releases, but every so often looks slightly too saturated in its skin tones. It’s a minor nit-pick, but one I noticed nonetheless. New Dolby Atmos sound mixes are included on both edits.

Superman II (Theatrical Version) also features the following special features: 

  • Commentary by Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler 
  • The Making of Superman II – 1980 TV Special 
  • Superman’s Soufflé – Deleted scene 
  • Featurette – First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series
  • Fleischer Studios’ Superman vintage cartoons: Superman / The Mechanical Monster / Billion Dollar Limited / The Arctic Giant / The Bulleteers / The Magnetic Telescope / Electric Earthquake / Volcano / Terror on the Midway 
  • Theatrical trailer 

Superman II (The Richard Donner Cut) also features the following special features: 

  • Commentary by Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz 
  • Introduction by Richard Donner – featurette 
  • Superman II: Restoring the Vision – featurette 
  • Deleted scenes: Lex and Ms. Teschmacher head north / Lex and Ms. Teschmacher head south / The villains enter the fortress / He’s all yours, boys / Clark and Jimmy / Lex’s gateway 
  • Famous Studios vintage cartoons: Japoteurs / Showdown / Eleventh Hour / Destruction, Inc. / The Mummy Strikes / Jungle Drums / The Underground World / Secret Agent 

Superman III (1983)

While the first two Superman films took themselves somewhat seriously, Superman III opts for a more comical approach under the direction of Richard Lester, opening with an unfunny slapstick title sequence which sets the tone from thereon out. Richard Pyror’s takes up most of the screen-time with his awkwardly unfunny Gus Gorman, who seems to be in a farcical comedy about computers (which has aged about as abysmally as one might expect 40 years later). Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane is written out almost immediately (apparently off to Bermuda), and instead the film offers Annette O’Toole’s Lana Lang as a substitute love interest for Clark – who, despite O’Toole’s best efforts, just isn’t nearly as charismatic or likable as Kidder’s Lois.

Robert Vaughan’s Ross Webster is essentially a lacklustre Lex Luthor, and while the third act introduces an all-powerful supercomputer for the Man of Steel to battle, one can’t help but feel it’s too little too late. Even the evil Superman storyline ultimately amounts to the character straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa, blowing out the Olympic torch and drinking whiskey in a desaturated costume in a sequence which hindsight isn’t too dissimilar to evil Peter Parker in Spider-Man 3 (2007). On the plus side, there is a certain camp appeal to the film, and Christopher Reeve delivers arguably his finest performance in the entire series – especially in the confrontation between Clark and evil Superman (which is as goofy as it sounds).

This new 4K remaster of Superman III is the best-looking of the set, with a brighter, bolder new HDR colour grade and an updated Dolby Atmos sound mix.

Superman III includes the following special features: 

  • Commentary by Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler 
  • The Making of Superman III – 1983 TV special 
  • Deleted scenes: Save my baby / To the rescue / Making up / Going to see the boss / Hatching the plan / The con / Rooftop ski / Boss wants this to go / Superman honoured / Gus’ speech / Hanging up on Brad 
  • Theatrical trailer 

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

Infamous as the film that killed the Superman franchise for nearly 20 years, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is due something over a reappraisal. Unfortunately, thanks to a poor script, some terrible editing decisions and a massively reduced budget, The Quest for Peace comes across more as a Superman spoof than anything else. It’s nice to see Margot Kidder‘s Lois return to a more prominent role (even if she doesn’t have anything to do), and Gene Hackman‘s Lex Luthor is as watchable as ever, but there’s no escaping the sense that the creative team were running out of story ideas (despite years of Superman comics to use for inspiration). Mark Pillow‘s Nuclear Man is a ridiculous adversary for Superman, and their fight sequences are poor in almost every aspect, from shoddy blue-screen to awkward slow-motion fight choreography. The Quest for Peace clearly has positive intentions – this is a film about Superman trying to rid the world of nuclear weapons – but falters in almost every regard. I’m sure some will enjoy it as a ‘so-bad-its-good’ film, and there are laughs to be had along the way, but it’s no surprise that this proved to be Superman’s big screen kryptonite.

The new 4K remaster of Superman IV: The Quest of Peace is something of a mixed bag: on the one hand, it looks very good, but on the other, it highlights the lacklustre visual effects work, appearing worse than ever before. An updated Dolby Atmos sound mix is included, and while I didn’t notice anything major personally, some have already noted some issues with the mix of Alexander Courage‘s score (although an alternative stereo sound mix is included).

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace contains the following special features: 

  • Commentary by Mark Rosenthal 
  • Superman 50th anniversary special – 1988 TV special 
  • Deleted scenes: Clark’s morning / Jeremy’s letter / Superman’s visit / Nuclear Man’s prototype / Metropolis after hours / Lex ponders / Flying sequence (extended scene) / Battle in Smallville / Battle in the U.S.S.R. / Nuclear arms race / Superman’s sickness / Red alert / By my side / Lark and Lacy say goodbye / No borders 
  • Theatrical trailer 

What’s immediately obvious opening up this Steelbook collection is how lovingly presented it all is. Each of the four (technically five) films are presented in individual Steelbooks with the original theatrical posters – including the poster art for Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut – with interior artwork showcasing key characters from each film. A fifth Steelbook for the Collectables is included, with the original cover to Action Comics #1 (Superman’s first comic book appearance), featuring a booklet showcasing imagery from the films, a lenticular art card of Zod, Ursa and Non in the Phantom Zone, the first issue of the Superman ’78 comic book series (continuing the story of the films) and a certificate of authenticity (the edition sent to us is No. 11697 / 13525).

These are all nice to have, although disappointingly there’s no definitive list of contents anywhere. All five Steelbooks are comfortably housed in a steel case designed after the Fortress of Solitude, with a foam interior to protect the each one.

As exquisite as the box is to look at, the set as a whole is slightly disappointing from a contents perspective. The Special/Expanded Edition of Superman: The Movie isn’t included in 4K (curious, given the Richard Donner Cut of Superman II is), the Extended Edition of Superman: The Movie isn’t featured at all, despite being released on Blu-ray in 2018. Supergirl (1984), intended as a direct spin-off to these Superman films, isn’t featured on the set, and neither is Superman Returns (2006) – although this may be due to the involvement of certain people. The following special features from the previous Blu-ray collection also aren’t included (at least, that I could find):

  • The Magic Behind the Cape
  • The Making of Superman – vintage featurette 
  • Superman and the Mole-Men (1951)
  • The Adventures of Superpup (1958 TV Pilot)
  • Super-Rabbit – 1943 WB cartoon 
  • Snafuperman – 1944 WB cartoon 
  • Stupor Duck – 1956 WB cartoon 
  • Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman
  • You Will Believe: The Cinematic Saga of Superman (5-part documentary)
  • TV Special: The Science of Superman
  • The Mythology of Superman
  • The Heart of a Hero: A Tribute to Christopher Reeve

Overall, the Superman 1978-87 5-Film Collection is a little bit of a mixed bag. The packaging alone makes this set feel well worth the money, but it’s missing so many extras from the previous Blu-ray release, not to mention alternate cuts and even entire films, that it doesn’t feel like a definitive collection. It’s great to see all four Superman films remastered in 4K though, and for many fans, that will be worth the price alone. I’d just recommend hanging onto your previous Blu-ray set for completion.

The Superman 1978 – 1987 5-Film Collection  is available to order now: https://amzn.to/3KcCBbW


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