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Category:    Home > Reviews > Superhero > Action > Adventure > Science Fiction > Superman Returns (HD-DVD/DVD Combo Format)

Superman Returns (HD-DVD/DVD Combo Format)


Picture: B/C+     Sound: A-*/B     Extras: B-     Feature: B-



No high profile commercial film this year has had more widely differing reactions than Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006) ranging from those who could not believe the original Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve style was back to those who thought it was an absolute disaster.  As a matter of fact the many reasons people did not like the film was so wide ranging, that many of the thoughts varied wildly from each other.  So why the loud, mixed reaction?


There are few icons in pop culture quite like Superman.  Since his first appearance in the late 1930s, he has been the king of what became the Superhero genre, rivaled only by Spider-Man and Batman.  The three essentially takes turns being #1 these days, rarely rivaled by any other.  Though some have written off Superman as older and too antiquated, here is a new feature film that cost (including all the years of pre-production attempts) a quarter-billion dollars and still broke even!  How does that happen?  Because Superman is a reflection of U.S. society in a way no other hero can be.


It is more than just the idea of him being an immigrant who works hard and makes it by making things better, it is more than just his superpowers, but it is a deeper sense of what America became in the 20th Century.  The character arrives just a few years before the U.S. overtakes the U.K. as the free world’s strongest country, even being used as WWII propaganda, the war that made America.  Unlike other great characters of the time (The Shadow, Captain Marvel), he has endured many societal changes and remained popular in one way or another.  This has gone on for so long that any downturns in popularity or odd events surrounding those participating in his filmed adventures have been construed as some wacky curse.  This is truly not the case.


While this film was taking so long to get made, a very successful new animated incarnation of the character took off nicely and younger incarnations of the character (the never-say-Superboy Smallville and nearly Superboy Lois & Clark) were the biggest live action TV hits since the 1950s.  But the adult Superman was another issue.  Many name actors turned down three-picture deals since they expected disaster and were unsure of anything beyond a package deal.  When unknown Brandon Routh was cast, it was a step in a better direction.  This choice was made by fan and X-Men director Bryan Singer, who left that Superhero franchise for this one.


Cast to play Lex Luthor would be tough since Gene Hackman is a hard act to follow, so Singer landed old friend Kevin Spacey and his Under The Sea co-star Kate Bosworth was cast as Lois Lane.  In the long term, that latter choice was the least popular, though was the idea to avoid comparisons to Teri Hatcher or Margot Kidder?  Either way, it did not quite work out, though a subplot involving James Marsden as the son of Daily Planet editor Perry White (Frank Langella nicely cast, if not always well written for; replacing “The American Way” part of “Truth, Justice & The American Way” with “all that stuff” is the film’s biggest verbal miscalculation bound to haunt it later) never adds up.  Sam Huntington is very good as Jimmy Olsen.


The plot involves Luthor’s trip to Superman’s Fortress Of Solitude (not as crystal green or nicely realized as it was in the Donner films, but serviceable at best) to get Kryptonian crystal technology for a murderous-but-profitable plot to make a land grab through destroying much of the world’s land.  If that sounds familiar, that is the same plot of Donner’s 1978 Superman - The Movie, but made politically correct (and post-9/11 safer?) by replacing nuclear bombs with these crystals.  With Parker Posey amusing as Kitty Kowalski, a hybrid of the Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine roles from the first film, the Donner elements are in place.


So we waited a quarter century and all we got was a remake of the 1978 film?  In some ways, that is the case, but it is not that simple.  The original release of the second film was so marred that it ruined the franchise and Warner/DC Comics reconstructed Donner’s version to the best of their abilities.  Instead, it is about Singer’s attempt to get back to when Donner left off, including the use of voiceovers and film footage of Marlon Brando as Superman’s father, notoriously dropped from the original release of Superman II to save money!


To some extent, I give Singer and screenplay writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris (who Singer wrote with) credit for their love of the Donner films, but after the film gets off to a promising start, it gets lost in melodrama, soap opera, too many implausibilities (SPOILER: buildings are safe to go back to work to after a huge earthquake-like ripple?) and oddball things like the flashback where Superman as a young Clark Kent is always wearing glasses, though that was never part of his childhood but a disguise in adulthood.


Instead, as the narrative deteriorates, the film becomes more like some strange dream, one of Singer’s of the world Donner’s films meant to him.  This happens after some funny moments and a few terrific action sequences when Luthor and company go to steal kryptonite, something he oddly never hid anywhere before he was sent to prison.  Then it becomes a story nothing like Donner would have ever done, with several odd story points, including one that was always a joke in the comic books.


Though Spacey’s Luthor seems to be tough and mean, he is not as bad as Hackman’s who was more edgy and dangerous.  For some, the idea that he was the Hackman con artist Luthor and not the dangerous corporate CEO Luthor of Lex Corp. is a plot point hat lost many of the younger fans.  It also dates and hurts the film in odd ways.  Eva Marie Saint is a plus as adoptive mother Martha Kent, but Kal Penn is here in a throwaway role where he looks lost while some veterans of past filmed Supermans make cameos as new characters.


Though there are times the money is definitely on the screen, Singer is not totally able to go back to Donner’s home.  Routh is a good choice, but the camera cuts away any time he gets the chance to show how good he is and/or the character gets to grow and develop.  The new outfit is toughened up to fit the Tim Burton/Batman semi-body armor look, though Superman would be tough naked as the science of the character goes.  Batman co-producer Jon Peters originally wanted a scene where Superman changed into a tougher suit, but by the time Singer was on board, that idea was dropped.  Fans can imagine such a scene in a later when Superman uses a STAR Labs anti-kryptonite suit.


But then there is the number one issue the film never addresses.  Though stupid rumors abounded that this might be a “gay Superman” coming more out of homophobia than fact (though that helped make some developments more of a surprise), there is the issue of 9/11 and how those events affect this icon.  At first, it looks like the film has the heart and soul to take up the subject, particularly with an early sequence involving the U.S. Space Shuttle and an airplane in jeopardy.  It hits home and certainly did for the audiences I viewed it with.  It subtly speaks of the U.S. getting back on track and not allowing nightmares to happen or continue, something this character in particular (versus other Superheroes with all their neurosis) can best address.  Unfortunately and sadly, the film drops the ball here too and that is when it ultimately gets lost.  What is the film ultimately about and reflecting that has anything to do with the world wee live in today?  Batman Begins did not have this problem.


Superman Returns is a good film that is also often an interesting failure, though not all the time.  The best way to describe it is a James Bond film with a new actor who has not totally grown into the role and a film that will date more quickly than even the creators may expect, which is why you should catch it ASAP if you missed it.  This is still not bad and it was ambitious enough.  Fortunately for the producers, this broke even financially (still disappointing those who hoped for a huge hit) and the next feature has been greenlighted.  Singer wanted Jude Law for General Zod but Law turned the role down and Singer refuses any other actor in the role.


It would be a mistake for the next sequel to feature The Phantom Zone criminals because singer and company need to break from repeating Donner’s work, something they do too much of here.  Unless the next villain is Brainiac or The Toyman, they should think twice, because the next screenplay needs to get back to the character’s roots in a way the TV shows and even animated series cannot.  We’ll see what happens then.


As an HD-DVD, Superman Returns is one of the best technical performers on the market as Warner and DC Comics once again go all out for a top rate performer.  That includes pricey sets, visual effects and breakthrough sound design.



The 1080p digital High Definition 2.35 X 1 image looks better than some aspects of the 35mm film prints I saw of the film.  The two prints I saw were different and the credits list Kodak and Fuji as film stock participants, so one wonders if that made any difference and if so, how.  This film was shot totally in digital High Definition and it shows and that is not a complement.  Not looking quite as good as the original two Richard Donner Superman films, even here daylight never totally looks like daylight.  Since this is being shown in its native shooting format, this is going to look clearer on some level than film-originated shoots, but at a high cost of depth, detail and vividness HD just cannot pull off.  Newton Thomas Siegel, A.S.C., knows how to shoot a film, but this work with digital has its awkward tendencies.  Even as digital improves by the follow-up, they have a tough decision to make as whether to try new digital or go back to film.  Maybe a feeling of competing against Geoffrey Unsworth (who shot the original Donner films) is an issue?  Well, it does look better than the HD-shot Adam Sandler “comedy” Click (reviewed elsewhere on this site) issued only in Blu-ray, a format this film came out in at the same time as this HD-DVD.


I also noticed more than before that the editing approach by Jon Ottman and Elliot Graham that was already too choppy seems almost to be trying to apply a George Lucas Star Wars approach that just does not work here.  In the Lucas saga, the idea is that you are going swiftly from location to location.  This film does not have that many, so things always end too soon before they have a chance to get developed or established.


Though we have not see the stand-alone DVD, the anamorphically enhanced 2.35 X 1 image on the DVD side of this disc is problematic with a flatness that the 35mm film prints and the HD side here do not display.  Depth is flat, Video Black is weak and Red is thinner than it should be.  Red is the toughest color in HD to do and is one of the reasons why the red in Superman’s outfit is more like maroon.  We have encountered this problem on the DVD flipsides of the Combo format before, but this is no way to be introduced to this feature.  Maybe the regular DVD is better, but we are likely not covering that one.


*The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix is incredibly good and dynamic, though not as layered as that of Batman Begins, which is still my favorite of such mixes in this highest Dolby to date.  The sound mix here was not only in the usual three theatrical systems (Dolby, Sony Dynamic Digital Sound, DTS) but also in the Sonics-DDP system for IMAX presentation.  With that kind of superior, state of the art fidelity, Warner has wisely issued the HD-DVD in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and this film is among the first Warner films to use Sonics-DDP this year along with Ant Bully, the Poseidon remake and V For Vendetta.  They are all also featuring Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mixes on HD-DVD.  Ottman’s score is not bad, but honestly is composed half the time of the original John Williams theme and love theme (in instrumental only) Can You Read My Mind?  Still, the mix is of demo quality and even the standard Dolby Digital 5.1 on the DVD side is stronger than your usual Dolby Digital mix, showing the limits of that quickly obsolescent codec.  The early airplane/shuttle sequence is a sonic highlight and demo everyone needs to hear.  We can’t wait to test the HD side of this disc again when state-of-the-art Dolby TrueHD equipment really hits the market.


Extras are many, on the HD side and include "Requiem for Krypton: Making Superman Returns" running 3-hours with the following subsections: Secret Origins and First Issues: Crystallizing Superman, The Crystal Method: Designing Superman, An Affinity for Beachfront Property: Shooting Superman (Superman on the Farm, Superman in the City, Superman in Peril), The Joy of Lex: Menacing Superman, He's Always Around: Wrapping Superman & Resurrecting Jor-El.  You also get 10 deleted scenes presented in 1080i HD, the original theatrical trailer and video game trailers.


Even if you had problems with the film, the extras are worth seeing because it shows the effort that was put into this huge production.  Also be sure to check out more reviews and related Superman links as follows:


















-   Nicholas Sheffo


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