Judge Erich Asperschlager is mild mannered. That's about it.
"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!"
With the Superman comics barely three years old, filmmaker brothers Max and Dave Fleischer were asked by Paramount to turn the hot property into a series of animated theatrical shorts. The Fleischers—who had made a name for themselves by creating Betty Boop and adapting Popeye for the big screen—first balked at the suggestion. Worried that the project would be too difficult for their animators, they asked for more money than they thought the studio would be willing to pay. Paramount called their bluff, paid them what they asked, and the Fleischers went on to create one of the best and most influential comic book adaptations of all time. Utilizing "rotoscoping"—the Fleischer's technique of tracing over live action—the cartoons had a distinctive, natural look unlike anything being done by Disney.
Because the shorts eventually fell into the public domain, unofficial DVD releases have been available for some time, with varying levels of quality. In 2006, Warner Home Video released "official" versions of the cartoons, restored from vault elements, as special features split between the four-disc Superman: The Movie and two-disc Superman II special editions. Finally, those restored versions of the cartoons are available to those of us who don't want to shell out for super-duper ultimate movie box sets, in the two-disc release Max Fleischer's Superman: 1941-1942.
Facts of the Case
The 17 shorts produced between 1941 and 1943 are split between two discs, with the original nine Fleischer Studio cartoons on disc one and the eight Famous Studios shorts on disc two:
When I was 12 or so, I decided to start collecting comic books for no real reason other than I wanted to collect something and comic books seemed cool (to me, anyway). I went to the comic shop with no plan in mind, and spent a while looking through boxes of books, trying to decide what title to buy. On a whim, I picked up a Superman comic book (probably because I'd seen all the movies), and went on to read all the main Superman books for the next three years. In the pantheon of comic book hipness, the Man of Steel tends to fall near the bottom, either because he's not gritty enough, or moody enough for modern audiences, or just because he's too powerful. I really dug him, though, and I can see why early comic book fans did, too. He was created for people who wished they were stronger, or tougher, or faster. Truth and justice might be cornball concepts these days, but they weren't when the Fleischers made their Superman shorts.
The Superman of those shorts wasn't the all-powerful demigod we know him as today. Perhaps the most striking thing about this set is how limited his powers once were. At the time these were made, Superman couldn't fly. All he could do was jump really high (hence the "leap tall buildings" mantra). In fact, the addition of unassisted flight to his arsenal of powers happened in response to the Fleischer shorts. It turns out that jumping everywhere looks kind of dumb. Even in the later shorts, though, most of Superman's aerial maneuvering consists of leaping to meet a foe, then falling back down to earth to get the leverage to jump again. Not being able to fly isn't the only change from his modern incarnation. He's also not nearly as strong, struggling to throw off piles of debris, and occasionally breaking a sweat during a fist-fight. Though he uses his x-ray vision in one short, his heat vision, super hearing, and cold breath are nowhere to be found. It's weird. Like it or not, the appeal of Superman is that he can take anything that gets thrown at him. These early cartoons show just how far he's come.
Besides starring an underpowered Superman, these shorts are also notable for their lack of any compelling super villains. For the most part, Superman is pitted against technologically advanced gangsters and mad scientists. He fights robots and death rays. He also fights a thawed out Tyrannosaurus, a mummy come to life, and underground bird people, but most of his enemies are generic. The Superman of 1941 is a different superhero than he is today. Modern viewers should adjust their expectations accordingly.
With their widespread availability, chances are most comic book and animation fans have already seen these shorts. You can find them online, and in $1 DVD bins in megamarts across the country. Why bother spending the extra money to get this so-called "authorized edition?" Because they look better than any of those releases, and because you probably don't want to spend upwards of $100 to get them as part of the Superman Ultimate Collector's Edition. Before you get too excited about pristine image quality and crystal-clear sound, know that while these restored cartoons look better than the public domain material, they're still pretty rough. There are persistent scratches and debris. One episode even has a black spot at the bottom of the frame for a good portion of the opening sequence. Sammy Timberg's thrilling score is still muffled in places, with plenty of audible pops and hissing. The unfortunate truth is that these cartoons were made 65 years ago, and they look it.
On the plus side, the details are sharp, the colors are vibrant, and the pre-noir style of the series is stunning. Living with a few minor film defects is a small price to pay for being able to revisit these classic shorts.
The two main featurettes on the disc are "First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series," which was previously available on the Superman II: Two-Disc Special Edition, and "The Man, The Myth, Superman," new for this set. "First Flight" is an interesting 13-minute history of the series. "The Man, The Myth, Superman" has little do with the series, or the character. It's more of a look at the psychology and history of our fascination with heroes of super strength. The final extra is a 10 minute look at the upcoming Green Lantern animated movie. As a Green Lantern fan, I really enjoyed the mini-history of the character; I was less impressed with what they showed of the actual movie.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
To call this set Max Fleischer's Superman is a little misleading. The Fleischer brothers developed the series and created the first nine shorts, but were taken off the project in 1942. The last eight shorts were made by Famous Studios, what Paramount renamed the studio after taking it over and getting rid of the brothers. The final batch of episodes look nearly identical to the early ones, but the stories are more fantastic and war-centric, with moments of comic relief that conflict with the gritty style the Fleischers created.
I have two complaints about these early cartoons. First, most of these shorts follow the same plot: Lois Lane, looking for a big story, gets in over her head and Superman has to save her. It's a reminder of how far women have come, but it's nowhere near as uncomfortable as the depictions of Japanese soldiers and Africans in several of the Famous Studios shorts. Disc two begins with the unfortunately named "Japoteurs," in which Japanese saboteurs—who have buck teeth and mustaches, and wear thick round glasses—steal an experimental American bomber and Superman has to stop them. "The Eleventh Hour" finds Superman on a sabotage mission on Japanese soil, fighting against soldiers of the same gross stereotype. In "Jungle Drums," the Germans have set up a secret base in the middle of Africa. They capture Lois and hand her over to a native tribe, who tie her to a stake in the middle of a bonfire. The tribesmen are shown in silhouette, with glowing eyes and simian features. It's offensive and racist, and completely undermines the realism of the early Fleischer shorts.
There are plenty of ways to see these 1940s Superman shorts, but this set is the best. You won't find a better-looking collection of these cartoons outside of the 2006 Warner movie mega-sets, meaning you won't find them cheaper either. The violence and casual racism won't be for everyone, but older fans who want a taste of Superman as he once was will enjoy the history lesson—flaws and all.
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