Max Fleischer's Superman Takes Flight with New Blu-ray Collection
We review the new Blu-ray and celebrate the ultimate expression of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's creation.
Many modern fans would probably look at the lack of preciousness Dave Fleischer and Max Fleischer had toward Superman with disgust. When they finally agreed to adapt Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's creation into the animated realm just three years after the character premiered in 1938, the brothers looked at the comics, considered the Radio Show, and decided to do their own damn thing. Leaping tall buildings in a single bound was too silly for their tastes, so they gave the Kryptonian his power of flight. Today we can't imagine the superhuman any other way.
The Fleischers didn't even want the job, but when they threw an absurd dollar figure at Paramount Pictures, and the studio said yes, they couldn't afford to turn it down. Their journey toward crafting the quintessential Superman was wild and somewhat carefree, and a few years ago, I detailed it more thoroughly for Film School Rejects.
As revelatory as Max Fleischer's Superman is regarded, it's always been a struggle to put your peepers on it. This week, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment released a new Blu-ray collection. While certain restoration choices have caused frustration and concern from some, there's no denying the joy and beauty contained within the single disc. The set holds the nine Fleischer Studios shorts that changed the game and the eight Famous Studios shorts that immediately followed the revolution.
Also packed inside are three short documentaries (Max Fleischer's Superman: Speeding Toward Tomorrow, First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series, and The Man, The Myth, Superman). One is new, made specifically for this release, while the others were produced in 2009 and 2011 for two previous collections. Your enjoyment of these features will relate to how much you already know about Superman and Fleischer Studios. They're a fun, quick soak in the history behind the shorts, but they leave you wanting.
Originally shot in 35mm film, using the Technicolor exposure process, the Superman shorts required serious restoration attention. Warner Bros. went back to the original negatives, creating a new 4K 16-bit scan, adhering to the 1.37.1 Academy aspect ratio. Unfortunately, their digital DNR scrub removes the classic film grain texture, layering an extremely smooth finish to the frame. Such a decision elicits tremendous ire from cinema purists.
I get it. Do I wish that Warner Bros. spent more energy maintaining the classic look and feel of the Superman short films? Yes, absolutely. Am I enraged at the changes? No. I'm still frickin' excited to have access to these cartoons again. In addition, by simply sharing a few shots on Twitter, I've discovered the glee many new viewers express when they witness Fleischer Studios' work for the first time. Even scrubbed clean, the first nine shorts are a magnificent animation marvel.
Max Fleischer's Superman is a Must
Watching the cartoons eighty-two years after they first graced the silver screen, Max Fleischer's Superman feels like a pure distillation of everything we love about the character. Sure, there's no Ma and Pa Kent, Lex Luthor is nowhere to be found, and Clark does little other than gaslight Lois Lane, but the power with which Superman commands each disastrous situation is immense. Fleischer's Superman enters combat with graceful confidence, and the resulting special effects rival much of what movies are capable of today.
Lois Lane is an absolute badass too. She doesn't fall into danger. She goes looking for it. Sure, Superman eventually puts on the cape and flies into rescue, but you also get the sense that Lois would have figured it all out on her own if he didn't appear. Observe her Tommy Gun skills in "Billion Dollar Limited." Those goons were lucky the Man of Steel materialized because they were mere minutes from Swiss cheese.
The Famous Studios shorts are less successful than their Fleischer siblings. The moment they take over, the Superman serial transforms into World War II propaganda, and with it, a whole heap of racist caricature arrives. Understanding context is one thing, but watching many of these shorts from the Blu-ray's back half caused this viewer to cringe uncomfortably. In addition, the Famous Studios shorts are far from as confident in quality as the Fleischer Studios 'toons. There are a few nifty animation bits here and there, but if you skip them, you won't miss much. Fleischer is the standard for a reason.
Quickie Review: The influence of Max Fleischer's Superman on the title character, other superheroes, and animation, in general, is noticeable. However, watching the short films never feels like homework. They remain vibrant, brilliantly stylized expressions. While rooted in their time, Fleischer Studios accomplished something modern filmmakers have desperately tried to replicate but have consistently failed to achieve. If you love Superman, the new Blu-ray is essential.