Part of the first wave of high-concept, big-budget, special-effects-heavy films that emerged in the wake of Star Wars, 1978's Superman: The Movie, like a handful of its contemporaries, threatened to give blockbuster event movies a good name. Fresh off the success of The Omen, director Richard Donner took on the story of the Man Of Steel with the seriousness due an American myth, using newfangled effects to make the fantastic seem plausible. The film's "You'll believe a man can fly" tagline might have provided a brilliant marketing hook, but it also served as something of a mission statement, particularly in Superman's early segments. From Superman's Kryptonian origins to his coming of age in Smallville, Donner lends his story a sense of awe usually reserved for those filming westerns, baseball movies, or The Bible. The film becomes comic-booky only when its hero, having disappeared into his Fortress Of Solitude for much of Vietnam and Watergate, hits jaded Metropolis. By his own admission on this new DVD version's commentary track, Donner saw Superman as three films in one, with the gag-and-fight-heavy Metropolis segment evincing a different tone than what came before. Even if it feels removed from, and in some respects not on par with, the rest of the film, it succeeds on its own terms (one horrifying bit of spoken verse by Margot Kidder's Lois Lane aside). Effective both as Superman and as the bumbling Clark Kent, Christopher Reeve still seems ideal for the part, if for no other reason than his ability to summon up a convincing sense of intensity when charged with saving the world. He would need to rely on this skill more and more as the Superman sequels—now released on no-frills DVDs alongside the features-packed original—piled up. With one exception, they illustrate the diminishing returns that plagued most blockbuster franchises in the sequel-mad '80s. Originally entering production at the same time as the first Superman, 1981's Superman II was also to have been directed by Donner. When the budget mounted, temperamental producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind first ditched the two-at-once plan, then ditched Donner, bringing in their Three Musketeers director Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night, Petulia) to finish the project after the original Superman turned a substantial profit. The seams show, but Lester's visual wit and trademark energy steer Reeve's struggle with Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, returning from the original), Kryptonian outlaw General Zod (Terence Stamp), and his cohorts in all the right directions. One Metropolis fight scene alone would make it a worthy successor, but the film also allows Reeve and Kidder ample time to develop the humanity (or Kryptonity) of their characters. Not so 1983's Lester-directed Superman III, which displayed the series' first struggle with what could be called the Planet Of The Apes Paradox: How do you keep topping previous entries with conspicuously smaller budgets? Superman III's answer is to play for laughs, but outside of an opening-credits slapstick ballet that could have come from one of Lester's '60s comedies, they come few and far between. The ideas might sound good, particularly the synthetic Kryptonite that turns Superman into a boozing jerk, but they never get developed, while high-profile guest star Richard Pryor appears somewhat puzzled at his own presence in the film. But the bottom of the barrel remained unscraped. Appearing in 1987, when most assumed that the series had been put to rest, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, with a story dreamed up in part by Reeve, plays like the unholy union of a PSA and the WWF. Stirred by a schoolboy's letter, Reeve decides to rid the world of nuclear weapons by tossing them in a giant net and throwing them at the sun. Meanwhile, Hackman's Luthor, aided by slang-talking surfer nephew Jon Cryer, creates a new super-rival: Nuclear Man, who locks horns with Reeve against a variety of rear-projection backdrops. By this point, the production values had dipped so low that director Sidney J. Furie might as well have imported footage from the old George Reeves series. Unsurprisingly, the series ended there, its first two entries illustrating what grand-scale entertainment could do, the remainder illustrating the perils of doing it to death.
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