Before Henry Cavill, Christopher Reeve, or even Kirk Alyn, Superman came to the big screen by way of animated shorts produced by Max Fleischer. Many fans are aware of these even if they’ve never seen them in their entirety. The Paul Dini and Bruce Timm animated Batman shows cite them as a primary inspiration, for example.
Technically, Max Fleischer’s Superman shorts are in the public domain. But Warner Bros., via DC Comics, owns the merchandising rights and has access to the originals. As such, their new Blu-ray – sourced from a new 4K scan of the original negatives – are worth a look. It’s just a shame the output disc isn’t also 4K.
Anyone expecting a style akin to Bruce Timm’s angular character designs may be surprised by these serials. While Timm and Fleischer share an affinity for retro pin-up girls, most of the men — save one Disney-esque goofball sidekick — feature accurate proportions and movements. This is thanks in large part to the rotoscoping device that Max and brother Dave invented for the process. The pair never wanted to do Superman in the first place, so they quoted Paramount an exorbitant fee they never thought they’d get. When they did, they put all that money to use on the technology.
Much of Superman was accomplished by rotoscoping over live-action footage. For certain super-deeds where no comparable footage exists, imagination had to take over. In these moments, characters adopt the rubbery movement of classic Fleischer characters such as Popeye. Other techniques to save money, like frequently using silhouettes or having as much of the minimal dialogue off-camera as possible, give the shorts a distinct minimalist style.
This info, by the way, comes from included bonus featurettes. These focus both on the Fleischers specifically and the tradition of superheroes in literature at large. Both are actually sourced from previous releases, however, with no changes or additions to them. A newer short is also included, which focuses on the legacy of the cartoons and their lasting impact on the Superman IP. For instance: these shorts introduced the power of flight, as the Fleischers decided that taking giant leaps everywhere looked ridiculous.
Enemies, Real and Imagined
These extras, however, don’t really address the shift halfway through the shorts. The first nine are the true Fleischer Studios cartoons, produced by Max and directed by Dave. The remaining eight come form the successor, Famous Studios, mostly directed by Max’s son-in-law Seymour Kneitel. By this time, the U.S. had entered World War II, and Superman often wound up fighting Japanese spies and Nazis. The Nazis speak surprisingly accurate German; the cartoons featuring the Japanese, on the other hand, come with requisite warnings about outdated racial stereotypes.
What’s more fascinating than the war propaganda is the pre-Pearl Harbor stuff. Before the atomic bomb made ’50s sci-fi obsess over nuclear power, weaponized electrical shocks and fires were the big scare. Perhaps influenced by Frankenstein, Superman frequently faced nameless mad scientists who shoot him full of sparks. The notion of the super-villain had not yet taken hold, though one particular Native American mad scientist who wants to take Manhattan back is a character probably due for reinvention.
The actual depiction of science can get hilariously shaky. A “magnetic telescope” is simply depicted as a giant horseshoe magnet pointing at the sky, while a “tyrannosaurus rex” is the size and shape of Godzilla years before the actual Godzilla. A traveling circus makes for one of Superman’s more unusual challenges, and features a gorilla the size of Kong.
Plots in these serials tend to follow a standard formula. Either a bad guy makes a threat, or a transparently dangerous situation becomes evident. Lois Lane races toward it to get the story, then inevitably she winds up in some sort of jam. Superman then must show up to save her and thwart the danger entirely. Many episodes end with him holding Lois in one arm, and a handful of baddies in the other. The stories are not cumulative; if they were, this Clark Kent ought to be fired, since he never, ever actually writes any of the stories in the end.
Multiple levels of cels create illusions of depth and layers. In the new scans, Warners have tried to do a full clean-up, which has proven controversial. Some collectors want to see these shorts as originally projected, with the grain and darker exposure seen in the bonus featurettes. WB’s approach, however, makes the shorts appear as the purest representations of the original artwork possible. It’s as if the original storyboards had been captured in clean hi-def, with no dust on the film.
That level of clean-up won’t sit well with everyone, but the disc is presumably being made with Superman fans of all ages in mind, and the clearest (rather than the purest) cartoons. To that end, though, a 4K would have been nice — there’s some noticeable ghosting in scenes where newspaper headlines scroll through the field of vision.
A Simpler Ideal
A noticeable undertone of all the cartoons is wish fulfillment, something modern superhero films have lost a bit of. People were scared of crime, science gone wrong, wild animals, and the Axis powers. Cartoons showed Superman taking care of those things. It’s no Quest for Peace, where Christopher Reeve’s Superman ultimately decides humans must choose to disarm by themselves. This guy does solve everything himself, like the action heroes of Cold War movies punching Soviets. Today’s world is too complex for that course of action, as we know enough now to separate a populace from their government.
Impeccable and ground-breaking, these cartoons are well worth the purchase for any fan of Superman. Provided they aren’t purists about grain and projection exposure. One or two minor glitches mar the technical presentation, and more historical context might be nice. On the whole, though, it should please even those who care naught for the history, and just love Kal-El.
Max Fleischer’s Superman 1941-1943 debuts on Blu-ray May 16th.