Superman Returns is an odd bird. After a colorfully explosive opening, leading into the titles and John Williams' wonderfully rousing theme from Superman: The Movie, things get kind of quiet, dull, and flat for the next 87 minutes. I don't mean the story - I'm fine with lots of Superman myth and catching-up exposition while the Man of Steel reintroduces himself to the citizens of Metropolis and to Lois Lane. But I was bothered by the sound, which retreats back into the front channels, and the visuals, which are dingy, soft, and undetailed. I kept just wanting to ramp up the contrast control. I even switched from HD DVD to Blu-ray Disc to see if that was any better. It wasn't.
I continued on, puzzled that such a high-profile, VC-1 encoded high-def release, which was supposed to be one of the format's flagships, would get such an unspectacular transfer. Once past the halfway mark, though, after Superman visits the Fortress of Solitude, it's as if the lights suddenly come on, the tint filters are removed, and the movie's visual engine revs up into high gear. A new day literally dawns, and in that day vibrant colors can finally be seen and Lois, in a deep black dress, can discover arch criminal Lex Luther on board his yacht in a brilliant white bathrobe. Everything is brighter, sharper, and even more detailed.
As the second half develops into one long action sequence, the surrounds and subwoofer are brought into play, too, with Superman swooping in directionally accurate swooshes. During an induced Metropolis earthquake, you're buried in all the sounds of destruction, and when manhole covers explode alternately left and right of an edifice resembling New York's Flatiron Building, it creates a nice stereo effect in your front speakers while flames roar impressively upwards.