Superman: The Ultimate Max Fleischer Collection (DVD)

Why did Clark Kent just run into that broom closet?

Fans of animation and comic books often cite the Fleischer brothers’ Superman shorts from 1941-1943 as the gold standard for others to follow, revealing how the 17 cartoons strongly influenced later ones, such as the Batman and Superman animated series of the 1990s. But, despite their historical significance, the shorts are in the public domain, so any chucklehead with enough cash can release them if he or she chooses. Just the other day, I saw some bare bones collections of these at the grocery store for only one dollar. A buck! Going against the cheap-o trend, the movie buffs at VCI Entertainment have presented this disc, dubbed the “ultimate collection.” How do these super-toons hold up today? Where do they fit in amid 2006’s out-of-control Superman hype? Let’s find out.

Meet Lois Lane. She’s a tough lady reporter willing to do whatever it takes to get the scoop, even if that means stowing away on a stolen aircraft or sneaking into a mad scientist’s lair. Sure, most of these situations end up with her being captured or endangered, but that’s when Superman comes to her rescue. He’s a visitor from another world, fighting for justice with his amazing powers. After Superman saves her and catches the villains, she heads back to the office with story, which rival reporter Clark Kent has failed to get. Seems like Clark always misses the excitement, and for some reason he’s never around when Superman is.

Hollywood’s first on-screen adaptation of the iconic DC Comics superhero arrived on big screens with this series of short cartoons, courtesy of animators Max and Dave Fleischer. Believing the big S’s adventures would be too expensive to portray even in animation, the brothers asked for a huge amount of money from the studio, more than was spent on Disney cartoons at the time. The studio agreed, making the Fleischers’ Superman shorts the most expensive animated films of their time. If you do that thing where you adjust for inflation, etc., then they’re most expensive cartoons ever made.

All that cash did indeed make it onto the screen. The animation itself is continually eye-popping. The Fleischers were pioneers in rotoscoping technology, using it here to give all the characters smooth, lifelike movements. During the action, all the mass destruction is similarly detailed and fluid. The backgrounds are also visually rich, with gorgeous art deco architecture around Metropolis and dark angular structures in villain lairs that will remind viewers of stuff like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Amid all this style, we get some sweet superhero action along the way. There are feats of strength, x-ray vision, battles with dinosaurs and robots, and more. What I found particularly interesting was the depiction of Superman in flight. Now, as we all know, when the character was first introduced in the comics, he didn’t actually fly. Instead, he used his super strength to jump great distances (and over tall buildings in a single bound, natch). It wasn’t until years later that it was decided to make him actually defy gravity. This element has since become an integral part of what makes Superman truly “super,” and it adds a sense of wonder to any story about him. These cartoons, it seems, take place right on the verge of that change. In some scenes, it’s clear Superman’s still held down somewhat by gravity, jumping and landing in huge arcs. In others, though, he’s really flying, controlling his speed and direction in mid-air. Some viewers might whine about this being poor continuity, but to me it came across as a character in transition, making the step from a popular comic book hero into a true pop culture legend.

So, it’s exciting and nice to look at it, but I must admit there’s not a lot of story here. Each short follows more or less the same formula: a crisis breaks out, Lois gets in trouble, and Superman saves the day. The main characters aren’t depicted with much depth, and the villains are mostly interchangeable. I know, these were made for a young audience, and no one’s going into this disc expecting Charles Dickens’s Superman, but just a little more thought into plot and character would have gone a long way. Also, one of the shorts, “The Japoteurs,” does not portray Asians in a good light. If you’re buying this disc for your kids, then you might want to have that talk with them about how things were different then, and people weren’t as enlightened as they are now, and so on.

These cartoons look remarkably good for their age. Even though there is a slight haze over the image at times, it has been well-preserved with rich colors and black levels. The 2.0 sound is not as booming as some might have liked, but it doesn’t show any major flaws or distortion.

Unlike those grocery store discs, VCI has included some nice extras on this one. There’s an informative and nostalgic audio-only interview with Joan Alexander, the voice of Lois. Then, there’s “Snafuperman,” a 1944 “Private Snafu” cartoon spoofing Superman. The target audience for this one seems to be military personnel, with jokes about things like field manuals. Still, it’s mostly amusing, even if the picture and audio are hurting. There are some text bios of the voice actors, Max Fleischer, and Superman himself, along with “Behind the Cape,” some text trivia notes for each cartoon. Rounding out the extras is a trailer for one of Kirk Alyn’s Superman serials, trailers for other VCI animation releases, and a promo for the Christopher Reeve Foundation.

This disc was released in the summer of 2006, to benefit from all the excitement over Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. That’s understandable enough, but rumor has it that there might be yet another version on the way. Allegedly, these shorts are undergoing an extensive remastering for a new release to coincide with the eventual Superman Returns DVD. So, then, the question for consumers is whether to go ahead and pick up this release or wait to see if something better comes along. If all you want is some cool cartoons for you or your kid, or if you just want some bite-sized Superman action to get you jazzed for Singer’s film, then this is a great disc. But if you’re a real discerning DVD collector who expects the absolute best, think carefully about waiting to see what’s coming out later, or you might end up having to buy this a second time.

Here’s a Superman cartoon that’s simple and straightforward, but fun and enjoyable nonetheless. Fans of old-fashioned superhero adventure should do themselves a favor and check it out.

The Verdict

He’s Superman. How could we possibly find him guilty?

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