Max Fleischer’s Superman (Blu-ray Review)
DirectorDave Fleischer, Seymour Kneitel, Isadore Sparber, and Dan Gordon
Release Date(s)1941-1943 (May 16, 2023)
Studio(s)Fleischer Studios/Famous Studios/Paramount Pictures (DC/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: C+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B
Few pieces of animation have been as ground-breaking and influential as the seminal Superman shorts of the 1940s. Based on the popular comic book character, which—it must be noted—was essentially brand new at the time, the films were originally produced by Fleischer Studios. Founded in 1929 by brothers Dave and Max Fleischer (a third brother, Lou, led its music department), the studio quickly became the chief rival to Disney in the animation sphere, with the introduction of such characters as Koko the Clown, Betty Boop, Bimbo the Dog, and Popeye the Sailor.
The Fleischer operation relocated from New York to Miami in 1938 for tax purposes and to escape the hostility resulting from a 1937 labor strike at the studio, and in so doing borrowed money from their Hollywood studio distributor, Paramount Pictures, which thus became a minority owner. The first animated project under this new arrangement was the feature-length Gulliver’s Travels. But in early 1941, Paramount acquired the film rights to Superman from National Comics and commissioned the Fleischers to produce a series of animated shorts featuring the character. Production on the first series of nine shorts began in May of that year, at a then-extraordinary budget of $50,000 per film. The debut installment, entitled simply Superman, arrived in theaters that September and proved highly successful, leading to a 1942 Academy Award nomination.
The title character was voiced by popular radio announcer and game show host Bud Collyer, reprising a role he’d first taken up on the radio the year before on The Adventures of Superman serial for the Mutual Broadcasting System. His co-star, Joan Alexander, had similarly voiced the character of Lois Lane for the serial, so was the obvious choice for the Fleischer’s film version. And the debut installment’s “mad scientist” villain was played by none other than Jack Mercer, better remembered today as the voice of Popeye and Felix the Cat.
The first series of Superman animated shorts ran from 1941 to mid-1942. But by that point, the relationship between brothers Dave and Max had deteriorated to the point that they were fired by Paramount, which reorganized their animation company as Famous Studios in July of ’42. The remaining eight Superman shorts were thus produced under the Famous label and were released theatrically from September 1942 through July of 1943. It should be noted that many of these later shorts were produced as overt pieces of propaganda for the war effort, leading to installments in which Superman commits acts of sabotage against the Japanese and even foils a Nazis plot (Hitler actually appears in a cameo role).
But these controversial elements aside, there can be little doubt of the tremendous influence that the shorts had on generations of young artists, writers, and filmmakers. Their timeless and innovative look resulted partly from the fact that the Fleischers had pioneered the technique of rotoscoping, or tracing their animation over live-action footage. But many of the character’s actions couldn’t be produced in this way, so the artists poured much of their own creativity and inventiveness into the work. Each of these films is a mini-masterpiece of design. The series’ lush and vibrantly-textured animation, Art Deco styling, and colorfully-themed title cards were a direct inspiration for Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski’s beloved Batman: The Animated Series in the 1990s, which is now widely regarded as one of the finest animated series ever created. Fans may also be surprised to learn that it was in these Fleischer shorts that Superman first gained the power of flight. The iconic opening line, “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!” also first appeared in these films.
The Fleischer Superman shorts have appeared on home video in many formats over the years, most recently on DVD and Blu-ray, and from a wide variety of distributors (including VCI and Image) given that they’ve long since fallen into the public domain. Their most “official” release on disc however came in 2006, when Warner Bros. included the shorts in their Superman: Ultimate Collector’s Edition DVD box set (the studio also released them separately on DVD in 2009). Warner Bros., of course, now owns the original film elements via DC Comics (formerly National Comics, which first launched the character in print in 1938 on the pages of Action Comics #1). But for years, fans have hoped to see these shorts get a proper restoration in high definition for Blu-ray. I’ve personally lobbied for this to happen for years here at The Digital Bits. So it’s with overwhelming joy that I now hold in my hands Warner’s long-awaited Max Fleischer’s Superman Blu-ray release.
But sadly, it’s with equally overwhelming disappointment that I have to report that Warner Bros. has really dropped the ball on this release.
The Fleischer Superman shorts were originally shot on 35 mm photochemical film, using the Technicolor successive exposure process, and they were finished for theaters at the 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratio common at the time. For this new Blu-ray release, Warner has finally going back to those original negatives (per their own press release announcing the title):
“Warner Bros. Discovery’s advanced remastering process began with a 4K, 16-bit scan of Fleischer’s original 35 mm successive exposure negative. Staying true to the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37-to-1, the highest quality raw image was then scanned and then entered into the recombine process—utilizing special proprietary software to merge the successive exposure Technicolor negatives into a single RGB color image. The end result are pristine animated shorts that have been restored to the animators’ originally intended production quality.”
Given that information, I naturally expected to be appropriately wowed by the resulting image quality on Blu-ray. But that was not to be. The problem here is two-fold. First, the remastering has removed too far much grain and fine image detail. And you can tell, because the new Speeding Toward Tomorrow featurette (that’s also included on the disc) reveals the raw scanned footage prior to remastering—and there’s plenty of fine detail, organic grain, cel dust, and crisp line work visible there! But most of it has sadly been cleaned away in the actual shorts, which look far softer than they should given the 4K source, exhibiting only light and smeary grain remaining. And while that’s bad enough, it’s not the only problem here. These shorts have also been overcompressed. This disc is a BD-50, so there should be plenty of room to include the shorts at a proper data rate of 25-30 mbps to ensure the highest image quality. (Episodes of Batman: The Animated Series on Blu-ray, for example, average 25+ mbps.) Instead they’ve been compressed down to a paltry 15-16 mbps! So artifacting abounds in the image, and the larger your display the more obvious it is. Now, things are not all terrible. The color at least has never appeared more vibrant and accurate, and the blacks are pleasingly deep. But with a 16-bit 4K scan of the original camera negative, this image should be sublime looking. As it stands on this disc, it looks only marginally better than the some of the better fan “bootleg” restorations on YouTube (this one for example).
The Blu-ray’s audio at least is fine, included in the original English mono in lossless 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio format. There’s little in the way of analog hiss or other defects. Dialogue is clean and the musical scores by Sammy Timberg, Winston Sharples, and Lou Fleischer are well represented given their age. Optional subtitles are included in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, and Spanish.
Warner’s new Blu-ray release features all 17 classic shorts on a single dual-layered Blu-ray Disc. They include:
- Superman (aka The Mad Scientist) (HD – 10:28)
- The Mechanical Monsters (HD – 10:15)
- Billion Dollar Limited (HD – 8:36)
- The Arctic Giant (HD – 8:36)
- The Bulleteers (HD – 8:04)
- The Magnetic Telescope (HD – 7:47)
- Electric Earthquake (HD – 8:44)
- Volcano (HD – 7:57)
- Terror on the Midway (HD – 8:29)
- The Japoteurs (HD – 9:14)
- Showdown (HD – 8:21)
- Eleventh Hour (HD – 9:06)
- Destruction, Inc. (HD – 8:34)
- The Mummy Strikes (HD – 7:48)
- Jungle Drums (HD – 9:07)
- The Underground World (HD – 8:13)
- Secret Agent (HD – 7:40)
It should be noted that the more controversial shorts have a disclaimer added at the start to remind viewers of their historical context. Even so, some of the weird “political correctness” tweaks from the broadcast and DVD versions remain. In the first installment for example, Clark’s line, “Chief, don’t you think that’s a dangerous mission for a girl?” has been changed to, “Chief, don’t you think that’s a dangerous mission?” On the one hand, it’s not a big deal. But on the other, there’s no good reason whatsoever that these shorts should be altered in any way from the original versions.
The disc also includes three special features:
- Max Fleischer’s Superman: Speeding Toward Tomorrow (HD – 13:20)
- First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series (SD – 12:55)
- The Man, the Myth, Superman (SD – 13:37)
First Flight was originally produced by Constantine Nasr for the 2011 Superman Motion Picture Anthology Blu-ray, while The Man, the Myth, Superman debuted Warner’s 2009 Max Fleischer’s Superman DVD release. The former examines the origins, history, and influence of the Fleischer shorts, while the latter focuses on the Superman character’s development on the page and screen. New for this Blu-ray edition is Speeding Toward Tomorrow, which features director Matt Peters (Justice League Dark: Apokolips War), producer Jim Krieg (Batman: The Doom That Came to Gotham), and supervising producer Rick Morales (Injustice) commenting on the pioneering quality and beauty of these shorts, as well as analyzing the Fleischers’ technique in detail.
Max Fleischer’s Superman should be one of the Blu-ray releases of the year, but instead it might be 2023’s greatest disappointment. My sad recommendation is to cancel your pre-orders and politely demand that Warner Bros. do this right. Honestly, they should release this title in 4K Ultra HD as well, but definitely not until they’ve gone back to the raw scans and properly redone the mastering. I mean, how the hell does this happen?! WB spent the money here—they went back to original neg with a 4K scan! This should have been a layup for the studio, an underhand softball pitch home run. Instead, it’s like they slipped on a banana peel. The sad thing is, some casual fans will probably look at this release and think it’s just fine. But anyone familiar with animation done right on Blu-ray—particularly the quality of the Warner Archive Collection’s animated titles on this format—will know immediately that something is wrong here. And goddamn it’s disappointing. Unless and until WBHE corrects this release, all it delivers is heartbreak.
- Bill Hunt
(You can follow Bill on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)