Category Archives: Superman

The Fleischer Studios/Famous Studios Superman theatrical cartoons (1941-1943)

Fleischer-superman

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:

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Review, Immortal Films, Superman

Man of Steel (2013)

With a poster this cold and distant, it doesn't bode well for the planet's adopted son.

With a poster this cold and distant, it doesn’t bode well for the planet’s adopted son.

1.5 stars out of 4.

Are truth, justice and the American way still relevant in 2013? This is the central question behind Man of Steel that of the singular most iconic superhero’s worth in this post-modern world. Can the inherent Kryptonian Boy Scout make a difference anymore? In this Christopher Nolan produced vision it comes at the cost of the character.

The film is an exasperatingly frustrating thing to sit through. Sure the story elements are upfront, but in fact they may be too upfront at the cost of seeming redundant. Superman (Henry Cavill) comes across as more of a reactionary figure being prodded along by the plot than Earth’s lone protector. Inherent are many problems which recall those of Watchmen, a film dedicated entirely to replicating a graphic novel to the point of inducing sleep in its audiences because the presentation was so completely overdone and lacked the story’s impact.

Whoever decided Zack Snyder was the appropriate choice to direct a Superman film should have their head examined. Watchmen was a film so far away from Superman in energy, tone, characterization, plotting, length and presentation that you couldn’t have done worse if you tried. The relative backlash against the ill-fated Superman Returns (Though it made nearly $400 million for the studio, it was deemed a failure) as a quasi-sequel to Superman I and II has led to an extremely dull and relatively witless sci-fi post-modern actioner.

And this is truly a dull picture. The film opens with Kal-el’s birth, supposedly the first live Kryptonian birth in centuries because Krypton is now suddenly a dystopic sci-fi nightmare. The opening shots of this new Superman film are extremely lingering close-ups of Lara in childbirth. Yes, because this is how we need to open a Superman film after seven years. To make a longer story short (and this runs somewhere around twenty minutes or so, presumably to cram in a few more action set pieces and give Russell Crowe time in action.) Krypton is about to implode due to over harvesting of resources, nobody ever believes Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and General Zod (Michael Shannon, in a low-key role is a poor substitute for Terrence Stamp) comes on his bid for conquest, now under the guise of attempting to save the planet (which gets very tired very quickly) whilst in actuality placing himself as sole ruler. Jor-el manages to escape and places the infant Kal in a space pod, but only after spending time in another action sequence to steal a codex containing Kryptonian genetics to send with Kal in order to preserve Krypton or somehow or perhaps to serve the plot later….

In short, Kal is finally sent off into space, Zod and his insurrection are sent to the Phantom Zone  but not before Zod declaring his vengeance against Kal-el (Does this really make any sense?) and finally if not mercifully Krypton explodes.

The pod lands on Earth, and instead of receiving any sort of conventional origin story either detailed or abbreviated, we are told in brief flashbacks whilst the young Clark Kent is drifting around the world in search of himself. (In one of many obvious and unnecessary elements stolen directly from Batman Begins, which in turn lifted from Batman: Year One.) For some reason the current trend of revealing a character’s childhood backstory in multiple short flashbacks throughout the course of the main narrative is continually re-used despite being absolutely disjointing and extremely ineffective.  (Think of the abomination that was Speed Racer.) This sets up Clark’s childhood in Smallville, living as the child of Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, both horribly underused) and struggling to come to terms with his strange differences from everyone else.

After several sequences of his trying and dull nomadic episodes and their eventual payoff by revealing his superhuman abilities, Clark infiltrates a government expedition where we first meet Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and finds an abandoned Kryptonian scout ship. After rescuing Lois form the ship’s defenses, we are greeted by the obligatory scene in these films of the dead-father-hologram-explaining-who-Clark-Kent-really-is-and-what-he-is-supposed-to-do.

Lois recovers and sets out to track down this mystery man who she firmly believes is an alien. After a few days research, she actually manages to do this and arrives at the Kent farm, where Clark recounts his adoptive father’s death. Jonathan Kent’s death is another moment in Man of Steel that throws a monkey wrench into the proceedings in that it sets up a situation that is extremely contrived and also very easy for Clark to overcome while not revealing himself. Originally Kent dies of a heart attack and it is Clark’s inability to prevent his death that torments him with a sense of guilt and greater responsibility that forms a central touchstone of the character’s identity.

After more unnecessary exposition Zod announces his bid for world destruction unless Kal hands himself over. After some debate, Clark hands himself over to the military in the Superman guise, and we are finally told the plot that we already knew was coming thirty minutes in. It is now a Mano- e-Mano battle between Superman and Zod’s army, bent on the destruction of Earth in order to create a new Kryptonian world to rule.

Things blow up. Buildings crumble, a city becomes a veritable wasteland of debris, all while the human race watches dumbfounded. After a few minutes you cease to care as the images are so disjointed and monotonous that the audience is immediately distanced from the story once more. This is a film where the actors are clearly giving it their all, but are continually dragged down by the unyielding mass of junk around them. It is virtually impossible to tread water in this for longer than an hour. The film lasts nearly two and a half hours.

The most problematic element besides the cliff notes script is the camerawork that should have never been deemed releasable. There are incessant artificial snap zooms in and out of the frame that are so completely disorienting that you simply want to leave the auditorium. The action is so constant and dull that I found myself disconnected from the movie frequently, and struck more by things like the film grain visible. (The film was mercifully shot on 35mm, and the grain visible in the DI is very pleasant.) In contrast, the camerawork in the dialogue scenes is marred often by some truly horrid shakycam that absolutely wrecks the scenes in question.

The bland visuals do not help either. This film, like its modern brethren are shot in a very cold harsh light, and timed in the edit suite to be extremely harsh, devoid of any real color. It is an unpleasant film to look at. As for the sound mix, it was rather dull and all over the place. The Dolby 7.1 surround is too loud in the action at the expense of detail and too soft in the quiet moments, as was Dark Knight Rises.

Man of Steel is a picture that is no fun. I was interested in the characters, in what was going on with them and how they reacted to one another. The actors are really trying with what material they have, but are continually dragged down by the surrounding movie.

We all get it. The studio wanted a Dark Knight Superman. Supposedly, Superman is so out of place in 2013 that he isn’t allowed to exist anymore as he has since 1938, and must be heavily modified to suit modern tastes. Man of Steel is a film that stars Superman, but at the cost of mild-mannered Clark Kent. There is none of the Superman we have come to know and respect after 75 years. And yes, I know that this is supposedly an origin story. It is as lacking of the titular hero’s character as the Nolan Bat-films which feature so little of Batman’s identity that they can hardly be considered Batman films any longer.

And top all of this off by simply reusing the already tread plot elements of Superman I and II but dumbed down for a “best-of” condensation. Man of Steel had multitudes of paths to travel down, and yet for some reason it was decided to return to the same ground already tread by Richard Donner in the 1978 and 1980 films. It isn’t as if there aren’t decades of Superman stories to pull from.

What I missed most from Man of Steel was the humanity. There’s no life in the picture. There’s no spark, no vitality, no energy to really pull us into the story. Comics are all about imagination. Superman was the product of the Depression, a dream figure to inspire minds to escape their daily horrors. Despite having their flaws the reason why the the Donner films, in particular the first film, are still genuinely moving is because they have both spirit and properly motivated drama. Along with Batman (1989), Superman: The Movie began and created the pathway that all superhero films must tread. Man of Steel goes in the opposite direction. Ultimately the film is a frustrating experience along the lines of Superman Returns. It just happens to be for many of the opposite reasons.

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Filed under 1.5 stars, Film Review, Superman