Plot: What’s it about?
Those who know me at all know how much Superman: The Movie means to me. Christopher Reeve’s mutually sensitive and strong portrayal of the world’s greatest superhero is as engrained a part of my childhood as any real-world memory, and its influence on me can’t be overstated, from my love of film in general to my admiration and appreciation of movie scores. I’ve given my thoughts on the film itself on this very site before (link below), so this review will be a bit different. I’d like to talk instead about the near-miraculous release I currently hold in my hands from Warner Archive. It’s something I never thought would see the light of day in any official capacity (and in fact, director Richard Donner has famously said that he would have his name removed from the film if it was ever released in this form). This is the mythical 188-minute version of Superman. It’s often called the ABC Cut (first aired in 1982, that version actually clocked in at a slightly shorter 182 minutes and was a re-edit of this material) or the KCOP Cut (shown at full-length for overseas markets, and last aired in 1994). Just like many other Superman fans, I’ve seen this long version of the film over the years in the only way that’s been possible: on extremely low-quality television broadcast recordings, cropped to 4:3, with terrible colors and resolution. And while viewing so much additional material in such a decidedly lo-fi way holds a certain charm for collectors like myself, as of today, I’ll never have to do it again.
Warner Archive Collection recently located an undisturbed original interpositive source for the 188-minute cut of Superman in its vaults – preserved in its original scope aspect ratio, something never-before-seen by anyone – and saw fit to do a fresh, 2K scan for this release. I can’t stress enough what an unexpected gem of a release this is for the Superman aficionados of the world. It’s a unique and rarely-seen version of a cherished classic that actually has the ability to make a totally familiar film feel brand new again. Most of the extra material, as die-hard fans will already know, isn’t particularly consequential. It’s essentially a “kitchen sink” version of Superman, with the film’s now-notorious producers, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, adding back in every scrap of usable footage for a network that was paying them by the minute. Watching this material on its own and out of context with the rest of the film, it’s easy to see why much of it was left on the cutting room floor by Richard Donner. In truth, the original 1978 Theatrical Cut of the film is still the “best” version out there in terms of pacing and consistency of tone and storytelling (it’s a shame that version wasn’t included in this package to sweeten the pot for those who don’t want to shell out for the entire boxed set). On the other hand, my feelings toward this much longer version of the film have drastically changed now that I’ve seen it as a complete, high-quality work. While it doesn’t rise to the heights of the Theatrical Cut, I unequivocally put it head and shoulders above the 151-minute Special Edition in order of personal preference.
The Special Edition adds back some of the Extended Cut’s extra scenes, but that’s also the biggest problem with it. There’s just enough there in the 2000 version to whet the appetite of those of us who know how much more there is to see. But for my money, if you’re going to watch a long version of Superman: The Movie, you may as well watch the long version. There are so many moments, mundane to monumental, in the Extended Cut that I have ached to see in 2.40:1 and in high-definition for, quite literally, decades. Seeing them all as they’re presented here is an absolutely mind-blowing experience if you love this movie even half as much as I do. Again, this isn’t the “best” version of Superman, but it’s undoubtedly the most fun I’ve had watching the film in many, many years. For over three hours, I felt mesmerized and charmed by the picture in ways that I’d forgotten about for far too long. And while the extensions aren’t exactly necessary on their own, their cumulative effect is to make Superman feel like an epic motion picture again. It’s a version of the film utterly unconcerned with how quickly it unfolds or the necessity of this moment or that – things which (full disclosure) just do not trouble me with this particular film. With Superman, more is more in my world. As a result, this version almost feels more real to me; a more lived-in universe as opposed to a well-oiled piece of entertainment. And while that may sound like a criticism, it isn’t. A Blu-ray like this reminds me in all the best ways that, while I may have grown to be a film critic, I’ll always be a movie fan first.
Video: How’s it look?
If the release of Superman‘s Extended Cut was a minor miracle already, it being released with a transfer this terrific is truly the icing on the cake. I’m going to part ways with many of my fellow online critics here and say that I not only prefer this new video presentation of the Extended Cut to the previous Blu-ray releases, but I actually vastly prefer it. Now, eagle-eyed viewers might notice that this release is a hair (and I do mean a hair) more tightly framed in some shots than in earlier HD incarnations, but as someone who is normally highly sensitive to framing issues, I can tell you that it’s a detail that hardly anyone will notice. Thankfully, that’s also where my criticism of the video quality ends. A few A/B comparisons between this new encode and the prior Anthology release shows a sizable uptick in grain structure, and a greatly superior (and arguably less revisionist) color palette. Superman’s uniform is now, finally, shown in just the proper primary shades of red, yellow and blue that I so vividly remember loving as a kid. Hues that, in retrospect, have always pushed too far into the bluish end of the spectrum on Blu-ray come back to glorious life on this release. Contrast is a bit punchier this time out as well, and it makes all the difference in the world toward fully appreciating Geoffrey Unsworth’s breathtaking cinematography. While lighting is still decidedly (and often intentionally) diffused, the striking new colors and slightly deeper black point give the images a totally filmic high-definition pop they’ve never before enjoyed. Time after time, I felt myself grinning while watching this disc, thinking “now this is how Superman is supposed to look…this is what I have always remembered”. I wasn’t even aware how dearly I had missed the original look of the film until I saw it so perfectly realized once again. I can think of no greater compliment to give any video presentation than that, and it makes this version of the film a Superman fan’s dream come true.
Audio: How’s it sound?
Warner Archive has done a commendable job with the Extended Cut’s DTS-HD Master Audio track, but it does come with a few minor caveats. The only available audio source for this version of the film was the mono track that was provided to ABC for network broadcast. Warner made a valiant effort to revitalize the mono track by sweetening it into something more closely resembling true stereo through a series of auditory tricks. The decision was also made to present the opening and closing credit sequences in true stereo (borrowing the Rhino CD presentation of those sequences to open and close the film). While I won’t knock off points for the audio based on limitations it inherently carried with it, the implementation of the stereo track during the opening credits does introduce a few editing artifacts that are hard to miss once you’ve heard them. It appears that this was hastily done, which is a shame, because the audio quality itself is actually quite good, all things considered. In fact, having viewed the Extended Cut on various bootlegs over the years, I can vouch for the fantastic job that’s been done throughout the rest of the film to smooth transitions that were terribly jarring on original airings between the TV and theatrical footage. It’s obvious that a lot of care and love was put into this project, but one last go-round through quality control likely would have made it perfect. With four stars reflecting the best score I can see my way toward giving a mono soundtrack (and the majority of the film reflecting that score), the hodgepodge of footage and audio sources that comprise this version of the film unavoidably taking things down a notch, and the few glaring editorial errors during the credits taken into account, I have to settle on three stars.
Supplements: What are the extras?
There are no exclusive extras on the Extended Cut. All extras are contained on the Special Edition disc and are identical to those released on both the standalone release and the Special Edition disc included in the Superman Anthology boxed set. A full review of the video, audio and extras contained on that disc appear here, as previously published:
The Bottom Line
Let me cut right to the chase: if you’re a fan of Christopher Reeve’s version of the man of steel, you need to have this release in your collection yesterday. What Warner Archive has given the fans with this Blu-ray is nothing short of a Superman nerd’s pipe dream come to life. I’ve held on to a small handful of VHS tapes in my movie collection to this day, because they contain things that I simply can’t find on any other format. This Blu-ray release sees me finally throwing two of those old videocassettes away. I truly hope this title has sales that far exceed Warner’s expectations. The Superman Extended Cut is a true gift for film fans, and it should be rewarded by all of us who still believe that physical media deserves a place of honor in our homes. A release like this doing exceptionally well could go a long way toward helping boutique labels like Warner Archive bring other releases like this to our home screens in the future. It might even signal to other studios that rare, vintage versions of classic films can be a lucrative investment. I can’t recommend this disc, or its presentation, any more highly. Up, up and away!