4 stars out of 4. Immortal film.
“Look up in the sky—it’s a bird—it’s a plane—it’s Superman!”
It is not often that a definitive adaptation of a character or work comes around. Almost always it is left up to each individual’s preference, but in the case of Superman there is a clear beacon that so hugely affected the character that he was never the same again.
The Fleischer theatrical serials were and are unlike anything to come out of Hollywood animation before or since. They are completely self-contained miniature movies that perfectly encapsulate the appeal of superheroes while absolutely enthralling the mind due to their sheer imagination, breathless excitement, stunning visuals and absolutely brilliant staging. Fast, bold, vibrant, unbound by story convention and so wonderfully executed and constructed that one quickly forgets they are mere 10 minute or less theatrical serial cartoons.
This was Superman before Kryptonite, before all the woes about the character’s inherent clichés and not fitting in a modern world, before he was invincible. And it is all filled with that wonderful 30’s-40’s rhythmic snap even down to the dialogue where Lois Lane more closely resembles Torchy Blane than a damsel in distress. This has all of the excitement and adventure that has been so lacking in many modern adaptations. These cartoon shorts truly bring the character to life and brought about many of the touchstones that we now take as common parts of the Superman character.
With the Flesicher shorts, we were given so many elements that weren’t present in the comics of the time that are now trademarks of Superman: the power of flight, x-ray vision and the famed opening that still sends shivers of excitement down my spine:
“Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! The infant of Krypton is now the Man of Steel—Superman! To best be in a position to use his amazing powers in a never-ending battle for truth and justice, Superman has assumed the disguise of Clark Kent mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper.”
The famed usage of the phone booth for quick changes and the usage of “This looks like a job for..Superman” (the line originating in Clark Kent’s voice and shifting to Superman’s more authoritative tone) make their appearances to create what is essentially is true classic version of the character onscreen that does not try to make amends for being a pulp adventure hero. Also beneficial is the production taking place in the early 1940’s so that the elements of the snappy 1930’s world in which Superman was created is maintained. The characters thus speak and act like real people, more as if they are in a Pre-Code film than a later Hollywood film, doubled by the fact that most cartons of the era still played to their audiences despite this new form of censorship.
The usage of rotoscoping further sets these cartoons apart in that not only do the stories resemble the comics and engage our fantasies, but that it also looks realistic to the point of actual believability. Combined with an intense usage of light and shadow, the world of Superman leaps off of the pages of Action Comics and onto the screen with all the direct power of a radio show.
For decades these shorts have proven immensely influential to other animators, filmmakers and storytellers. They were the primary inspiration for the legendary Batman: The Animated Series, not to mention the wonderful Superman: The Animated Series, and serve as the template for which every superhero story should be trying to achieve.
But halfway through the run of shorts, the Fleischer studio was taken over by Paramount and the series was carried over to Famous Studios. These cartoons are typically regarded as being inferior to the Fleischer studio episodes and are typically written off because of the inherent and obvious racist overtones that feature prominently in several episodes. This is an extreme disservice to cartons that are no more offensive than other propaganda at the time due to our entry into WWII and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It is regrettable that so many things were produced with this inherent but it should not be used as an excuse to simply write off more of these wonderful cartoons.
Admittedly, the stories began a general shift from the science-fiction elements of the Fleischer produced shorts to a more wartime espionage and general fantasy theme, much as the comics themselves shifted to tones like these throughout the 1940’s. But hey, sometimes Superman just needs to fight off some reanimated giant mummies or a underground colony of mutant birdmen.
But what is most striking, most important and the chief reason to why the cartoons still work after all this time is that they absolutely nail the character and his mission. They are absolutely passionate and human whilst retaining that defining element that inspired superheroes in the first place, the desire for betterment and to escape the daily horrors of an unjust life where striving for good did not always mean good would be returned. Superman at his core symbolizes this ideal, just as he was written originally in Action Comics no. 1 in June 1938.
And by god, you really do believe a man can fly.
EDITIONS: Falling into the public domain decades ago, the Fleischer/Famous Superman has long been seen in terrible condition with most tape and disc copies being sourced from dupes of dupes of dupes of faded 16mm reduction prints. There are only two official releases worth owning, as other slap on new sound effects and lack any restoration whatsoever. The first is the recent Warner Bros. Max Fleischer’s Superman which uses brand new restored versions from the 35mm elements in the WB vault. The image is stunning full of the robust color unseen since their 1940’s debut, but the set is plagued with audio errors that come from using the wrong score and cue elements. (All the errors on the Warner release are quite jarring. “Never ending battle for truth and justice” is now presented as “for truth-justice”.)
For the best presentation of the shorts, one must turn to the DVD from Bosko Video, The Complete Superman Collection Diamond Anniversary Edition. This uses the old Bosko-Image Laserdisc source, re-transferred for DVD and accurately carries over the look and feel of the 35mm prints. There are some inherent defects in the audio but these are minor. Sadly this does not have the color of the Warner transfer but was done long before digital tools were available. The only downside is that Terror on the Midway is heavily damaged and that at the beginning of each short, the initial release date is superimposed for a few frames.
Consider only these two releases. (Or the bosko/image Laser.) All others are to be avoided at all costs. The shorts are also available on YouTube and the Internet Archive in varying quality.
Best version on YouTube, from the Warner transfer of the first installment: