Superman appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.40:1 on this 4K UHD Disc. Given the limitations of the source, this became a pleasing presentation.
By “limitations”, I mean the nature of cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth’s original photography. He went with an intentionally soft, diffuse look much of the time, and that meant the image came with restrictions in terms of sharpness.
As such, one should expect a lot of Superman to look semi-soft – as it should. This was never intended to provide a razor-sharp image.
With that understood, the movie looked very good. The film’s softest moments tended to pop up before Superman made his formal debut, and even those didn’t cause distractions. The softness suited the material and felt natural.
After Clark/Supes got to Metropolis, the clarity of the image improved. It still came with some soft elements – again, by design – but the sharpness became tighter. While I couldn’t claim that the movie delivered the tightness one would anticipate from 4K, it looked the way it was supposed to look.
I noticed no jaggies or shimmering, and edge haloes remained absent. Source flaws also weren’t an issue. Grain could be heavy – mainly in those softer early shots or during effects elements – but I thought this didn’t turn into a problem, as the grain suited the film.
Colors were often full and accurate. The lighting used rendered the hues a little on the subdued side throughout many portions of the movie, but this seemed to be a stylistic choice and wasn’t a flaw of the image.
When appropriate, the colors came across as nicely bold and vibrant. They showed no signs of bleeding or noise and they presented appropriately clear and vivid tones. The 4K’s HDR capabilities gave the hues a bit of a boost but they avoided an unnatural feel and seemed to suit the original photography.
Black levels seemed to be deep and dark, and shadow detail seemed strong, without any problems connected to excessive opacity. HDR also added a nice sense to the movie’s whites, as they offered fine brightness but didn’t overwhelm. I felt pretty happy with this solid depiction of the source.
Downconverted to Dolby TrueHD 7.1, the film’s Dolby Atmos soundtrack worked well, as the soundfield itself seemed very active. The mix utilized the various channels on an almost constant basis. The movie featured a fine variety of discrete audio that appeared in the different speakers, and the mix created a convincing and compelling atmosphere at all times.
Whether the cacophony of the destruction of Krypton or the activities of Superman’s first big night or… well, you name it - any action scene in the movie displayed active audio, and even the quieter sequences presented absorbing and effective ambiance. I’d love to pick out a favorite, but there are too many from which to choose.
Happily, Superman didn’t disappoint in regard to its audio quality either. Dialogue was easily the weakest link, as the mildly thin and reedy tone of the speech betrayed the movie’s late Seventies origins.
However, most of the lines sounded acceptably natural for the era, and I never detected any signs of edginess. Even when we got shouted material, the dialogue still came across as clean and easily intelligible.
John Williams’ score came across with life and verve. The high end appeared clean and clear, with ringing horns and fluid strings, while the bass response replicated low notes with fine depth and accuracy.
Due to that active soundfield, Superman brought an effects bonanza, and the track replicated them with excellent clarity and dynamics. Never did I hear a hint of distortion, even during gunfire or explosions, and the realism of the elements seemed terrific.
Bass was tight and deep and added to the presentation without overwhelming it. I thought that the mix matched the film nicely and it really brought the experience to life. Superman provided a simply amazing auditory experience.
Some controversy has surrounded this soundtrack, however. Many of the effects were redone for this mix, so it did not totally represent the original track. For better or for worse, all I can say is that I really liked the modern mix.
The 4K UHD also included the movie’s 1978 audio, presented here as Dolby 5.1. I sampled it at times and thought it offered an appealing take on the material, though it could come across as much less “in your face” than its Atmos counterpart.
I don’t regard that as a criticism, and given the fact most 1978 movies remained monaural, the 5.1 mix offered a strong soundscape. It used the various channels in a broad, engaging way.
Only one drawback accompanied the 5.1 mix: the lack of a lossless option. Why did Warner opt for lossy Dolby 5.1 and not go with Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD MA?
I don’t know, but that factor limited the usefulness of the 1978 mix. I’m glad the 4K included the track but I’d be happier if it got lossless treatment.
How did the 4K UHD compare to the Blu-ray from 2011? Audio showed more range and impact, while visuals displayed superior colors, accuracy, blacks and whites. The 4K became an obvious visual upgrade over the erratic Blu-ray.
Only one extra appears on the 4K disc itself: an audio commentary with executive producer Ilya Salkind and producer Pierre Spengler. Both sit separately for this edited track.
Salkind dominates this chatty and informative piece. The commentary looks at the creation of the opening credits and many issues related to how the filmmakers got the film off the ground.
We find quite a few good notes about that side of things and also learn about the project’s scope, casting and performances, various effects and technical subjects, the score and working with John Williams, finding a director, promotion and release, and many other elements of the production.
The only moderate negative that emerges here comes from the way Salkind rambles much of the time. He heads off onto all sorts of tangents along the way; occasionally my mind boggled as I tried to figure out how he ended up where he was.
Nonetheless, both he and Spengler cover the details well. The commentary consistently informs and entertains as it offers a nice primer on the production.
Next we go with a “vintage TV special” simply titled The Making of Superman: The Movie. Introduced by Christopher Reeve, this 51-minute, 50 -second show presents remarks from the actor along with Salkind, production designer John Barry, director Richard Donner, co-producer Alexander Salkind, DC Comics president Saul Harrison, and actors Susannah York, Marlon Brando, Marc McClure, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Glenn Ford, Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Valerie Perrine, Ned Beatty, and Jackie Cooper.
We learn about Reeve’s physical training and his approach to the dual roles, sets, models, and locations, Brando’s work and other performance topics, the comic books, and a few additional production topics.
The package’s other documentaries and commentaries cover so much information that there’s only so much left to hear here. Happily, it manages to produce some useful new nuggets.
The program’s strongest aspects come from its behind the scenes footage. We get many nice shots from the various sets, and these offer a strong glimpse of the production.
Not just a promotional piece, this one gives us a lot of fine elements despite a number of factual mistakes. (According to this show, Superman appeared on the big screen in 1937 – even though Supes didn’t debut in the comics until 1938!)
For a look at pre-1978 attempt to bring the character to the big screen, we find 1951’s Superman and the Mole-Men. Starring George Reeves as Supes, the 58-minute, five-second flick shows a race of radioactive earth-dwellers who spook a little California town. Superman comes onto the scene to fix problems.
I’ll say this: despite tremendously bad makeup, the mole-men themselves are darned creepy-looking. They’re the only effective element of this otherwise inane and tepid adventure.
The mole-men never seem like they merit the attention of someone as powerful as Supes, and the fact he doesn’t appear until the story’s almost halfway done doesn’t help. Indeed, our hero really doesn’t have much to do in this tedious tale.
It’s fun to see the movie due to its historical value, but it displays precious little entertainment value. It hasn’t held up well at all and I doubt I’ll ever choose to watch it again.
In addition to two trailers and one TV spot, the disc finishes with three vintage cartoons. I thought this area would include the nine Fleischer cartoons from the 1940s, but those appear on the Blu-ray for Superman II.
Instead, “Cartoons” provides three Looney Tunes efforts: 1943’s Super-Rabbit (8:12), 1944’s Snafuperman (4:34) and 1956’s Stupor Duck (6:40). As one might guess, Bugs Bunny stars in the first, and Daffy Duck plays the lead in the final one.
A World War II-based effort, Snafuperman acts as an educational short of sorts; it stars dopey GI Private Snafu and uses his idiocy to convince soldiers to read their training manuals. It’s mildly entertaining but more interesting as a wartime curiosity.
As for the others, they’re fairly similar; in fact, both use a nearly identical gag related to costume changes. Super-Rabbit acts as the funnier of the pair, perhaps partially because it seems fresher. Duck is okay but not quite as amusing and distinctive.
Note that the 2011 Blu-ray set included a second disc that doesn’t reappear here. It provided a slightly longer version of Superman along with another commentary and a bunch of other components.
I don’t miss the 151-minute Superman, but I think the loss of the commentary hurts, and the other supplements added value as well. It’s too bad Warner didn’t throw in the second disc from 2011 to make this a superior package.
Superman doesn’t qualify among my favorite comic book adaptations, as I prefer the Batman and Spider-Man movies. Nonetheless, it holds up well after 40 years and remains a class act. The 4K UHD boasts impressive picture and audio along with some useful supplements. Serious Superman fans will need to hold onto their old Blu-rays for the bonus materials that fail to reappear here, but in terms of the film’s presentation, the 4K UHD stands on the top of the hill.
To rate this film, visit the prior review of SUPERMAN