Reviewer’s Note: This is not a review of Richard Donner’s film, Superman. Its focus is the 2006 Blu-ray, which was the first release of the 1978 classic on the then-new high definition home media format.
On November 28, 2006, Warner Home Video released Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman, the spectacular live-action adaptation of DC Comics’ most popular character, Kal-El, who is best known to his fellow citizens of Metropolis by his nom de voyage, Superman.
A box-office and Academy Award-winning triumph, this awesome adventure assembles a cast and creative contingent as only a big movie can. Its legacy soared higher when director Richard Donner revisited the film in 2000 and integrated eight minutes of footage. Experience more of the Krypton Council, a glimpse of stars of previous Superman incarnations, more of Jor-El underscoring his son’s purpose on Earth, and an extended sequence in Lex Luthor’s hideout. Christopher Reeve (Superman/Clark Kent), Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Gene Hackman (Luthor), and Margot Kidder (Lois Lane) give indelible performances. Looks like a swell night for flying. – Promotional blurb on Superman: The Movie Blu-ray back cover.
Like Warner Home Video’s 2000 DVD, Superman presents the slightly extended cut of the 1978 blockbuster which added eight minutes of footage to Donner’s theatrically-released version. Most of the “new” material included a more complete version of Jor-El’s confrontation with the Krypton Council (a scene that always seemed choppy to me, even when I saw it in 1978 at a Miami-area movie theater) and another scene – which I find rather touching – that features a conversation between Jor-El and Superman after his first adventures as the Man of Steel in and around Metropolis.
Jor-El: [in the Fortress of Solitude] You… enjoyed it.
Superman: I don’t know what to say, Father. I’m afraid I just got carried away.
Jor-El: I anticipated this, my son. I…
Superman: [surprised] You couldn’t have! You couldn’t have imagined…
Jor-El: …How good it felt.
Jor-El: You are revealed to the world. Very well, so be it. But you must still keep your secret identity.
Superman: But why?
Jor-El: The reasons are two. First, you cannot serve humanity twenty-eight hours a day.
Jor-El: Or twenty-four, as it is in Earth time. Your help would be called for endlessly, even for those problems which human beings could solve themselves. It is their habit to abuse their resources in such a way.
Superman: And secondly?
Jor-El: Secondly, your enemies will discover their only way to hurt you: by hurting the people you care for.
Superman: Thank you, Father.
Jor-El: Lastly… Do not punish yourself for your feelings of vanity. Simply learn to control them. It is an affliction common to all, even on Krypton. Our destruction could have been avoided had it not been for the vanity of some who considered us indestructible. Were it not for vanity, why… at this very moment…
Jor-El: I could embrace you in my arms. My son.
[Kal-El reaches yearningly toward his father’s image; Jor-El fades, leaving Kal-El alone]
Other additions, such as the extended confrontation in Lex Luthor’s underground lair, were present in the Extended Edition that aired on TV several years before Superman was released on DVD and show how formidable Supes is – unless, of course, he’s exposed to kryptonite.
Overall, this version of Superman – which is eight minutes longer than the 143-minutes-long 1978 version seen in theaters – is the one that is prevalent in optical disc-based home media, and Warner has reissued it a few times since 2006, including the Triple Feature 3-disc set that includes Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut and Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns.
Technical Specifications for Superman (2006 Blu-ray)
The Blu-ray from 2006 has the following specifications:
- Codec: VC-1
- Resolution: 1080p
- Aspect ratio: 2.42:1
- Original aspect ratio: 2.39:1
- English: Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 kbps)
- French: Dolby Digital 5.1
- Music: Dolby Digital 5.0
- English, English SDH, French, Spanish
- Blu-ray Disc
- Single disc (1 BD-50)
- 2K Blu-ray: Region free
Warner Bros. was one of the many studios that became embroiled in the infamous 2006-2008 “high definition optical disc format war” between the Sony-led Blu-ray Association and the Toshiba-led HD-DVD Promotion Group to determine which format would supersede the highly successful DVD optical disc. From what I’ve read about the Superman Blu-ray’s development on Blu-ray.com, it seems that the studio tried to hedge its bets and released films from its catalogue in both formats.
This might explain, for instance, why Warner Home Video went for a Dolby Digital sound mix rather than a lossless PCM audio track in those early (2006-2008) Blu-rays, which sadly included Superman.
Warner Home Video also didn’t go out of its way to create new 1080p content for the Superman Blu-ray. Instead, it ported over most of the behind-the-scenes stuff from the 2000 DVD in its original analog TV NTSC form. As a result, the viewer will see the various documentaries and featurettes as if they were using an old-school cathode ray tube (CRT) TV set from the 1980s rather than a 21st Century high definition set.
Still, the extras included in the 2006 Blu-ray of Superman are not bad, provided that you don’t mind the run-of-the mill Dolby Digital 5.1 mix.
The Extra Features in this presentation are:
- Audio commentary track by director Richard Donner and the late Tom Mankiewicz, billed as “Creative Consultant “ and unofficial co-writer of the Superman screenplay
- Taking Flight: The Development of Superman, which covers the long journey of Superman from 1975 – when Alexander and Ilya Salkind came up with the idea to make a feature film based on the DC Comics character – to the hiring of Richard Donner and the casting of Superman: The Movie
- Making Superman: The Filming of a Legend, which picks up the story with the long and surprisingly contentious process of filming not one but two films simultaneously. Here, director Michael Thau (who also supervised the editing of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut) not only delves into the cast and crew’s experiences while filming Superman, but also reveals the rift between Donner and the Salkinds over the complexities of filming Superman and Superman II at the same time and the pressure everyone felt to get the first film ready for a Christmas 1978 release. If you’ve ever wondered why there are two versions of Superman II in existence, you’ll get part of the tale here.
- Superman Screen Test
- Music-Only audio track, featuring John Williams’ Oscar-nominated score
- Theatrical trailers and TV spots
Superman: Easy, miss. I’ve got you.
Lois Lane: You – you’ve got me? Who’s got you?
Superman – or as it was billed in posters, the soundtrack album cover, and the theatrical trailer, Superman: The Movie – is one of those “big event films” that kids growing up in the 1970s hold dear in their hearts. Yes, yes, I know. The costumes, the set designs, the special effects, and the hair styles scream “this film is stuck in the 1970s!” And yet, when you compare it to the modern DC Comics adaptations – especially Zach Snyder’s visually stunning but somewhat unengaging Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman films of more recent vintage – Richard Donner’s 43-year-old saga of Superman’s origins and first adventures on Earth stands out as the best superhero film ever made.
In some ways, this slightly expanded version is better than the 1978 theatrical release as noted above. My only quibble with the extended version of the confrontation between Lex Luthor (with Gene Hackman at his scene-stealing best) and Superman is that the clip of Supes getting shot with a machine gun, scorched with a flamethrower, and flash-frozen by a spray of freezing water vapor looks cheesier than the already dated effects seen in the theatrical release version. And, of course, that additional material looks added-on rather than being organic to the film’s narrative. This was true when I bought the DVD back in 2001; it’s truer now when you watch it on Blu-ray.
Those are small, even petty concerns, though. Overall, the new material adds depth to some of the scenes that were already in the original film, especially those bits between Christopher Reeve and Marlon Brando. I enjoyed seeing that exchange in the Fortress of Solitude between Jor-El and Kal-El after his “revelation to humanity” in the “Superfeats” and “Super Rescues” sequences set in Metropolis (a not-too disguised New York City).
And if you know me – either from my online scribblings or in real life – you know that I’m a huge John Williams fan, so I not only enjoy the musical score – performed by the magnificent London Symphony Orchestra – either as part of the overall soundtrack but also in an isolated Music Only audio track. I’ve done the latter once, and it’s amazing. It’s like watching a 143-minutes-long silent masterpiece. (Just turn on the subtitles and you’ll see what I mean.)
One thing I don’t like about early Warner Bros. BDs is that they don’t start with a Top Menu screen when you start playback. If you want to select a different language track, set up subtitles, or just watch some of the extra features, you have to hit the Disc Menu or Pop Up Menu buttons to access the various options. Most of Warner’s competitors didn’t do this, even in the early days of the format, so for me, this is an annoying trait. Thankfully, Warner’s later releases don’t do this…but most of their early catalogue releases most surely do.
Of course, there are some small things that went by the wayside when Warner Bros. first released Superman: The Movie on DVD, and they’re still absent in the first Blu-ray. One of those tiny – perhaps even obscure – details was the omission of the original 1978 film’s final credit, which read “Next Year: Superman II.”
I know. I know. Warner Bros. removed it in the 2000 DVD because, due to the problems Donner had with the shooting of Superman and the delay in the film’s release from Summer of 1978 to Christmas of that year, there wasn’t a Superman II in 1979. Donner was famously – or infamously – fired from Superman II, and the Salkinds replaced him with American ex-pat Richard Lester. This led to a schism within the cast and crew, and Lester – who wanted sole credit for directing the second film – ended up reshooting over 75% of the movie, changing Superman II’s tone from Donner’s “true-to-life” vibe to a more tongue-in-cheek, campier, more exaggerated comic book one per Lester’s tastes and style.
On the whole, the 2006 Blu-ray of Superman isn’t super, man, but it’s probably the best that Warner Bros. and Warner Home Video could produce in those early days of the Blu-ray format. It has, of course, been re-issued a few times, and the 1978 original film is now available on 4K UHD and 2K BD as well. But if you get this version, you’re still getting a decent version of what I think is the best superhero film ever made.
 Marketed as Superman: The Movie.