MAX FLEISCHER’S SUPERMAN 1941-1943
Studio: Warner Bros. Discovery Home Entertainment
Release Date: Blu-ray – May 16, 2023; also available on DVD, Digital
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Description: Superman made his comic book debut in 1938, appearing in Action Comics #1 (dated June 1938, but officially published on April 18, 1938), and the Man of Steel’s popularity grew with his subsequent radio program. Max Fleischer gave the world’s first Super Hero his initial animated spotlight, producing 17 theatrical animated shorts from September 1941 to July 1943 that further elevated the character’s profile, and added many significant aspects to his canon – including coining many of Superman’s patented catchphrases and attributes.
Now, Warner Bros. Discovery has meticulously remastered Max Fleischer’s treasured set of 17 animated Superman shorts from the original 35mm source elements.
Warner Bros. Discovery’s advanced remastering process began with a 4K, 16-bit scan of Fleischer’s original 35mm 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.
Well known radio actors Clayton “Bud” Collyer and Joan Alexander reprised their famed The Adventures of Superman radio show roles for the Fleischer/Famous Studios animated shorts as Superman/ Clark Kent and Lois Lane, respectively. Jackson Beck provided the voice of Perry White and the show’s primary narrator. Additional voices, many of whom had participated in the Superman radio program, were provided by Jack Mercer, Grant Richards, Julian Noa, Lee Royce, Max Smith, Sam Parker and Carl Meyer.
By James Harvey
Groundbreaking in every sense of the word, Max Fleischer’s Superman has earned its place in history time and time again, with both fans and industry professionals often citing the Fleischer brothers’ Superman animated shorts as the gold standard that other takes on the Man of Steel can only follow. These beautifully-produced cartoons have influenced countless creators throughout the decades, and have an impact that’s still felt on most DC Comics-themed live-action and animated projects to this day. And now, these beloved classics have finally hit the high-definition format, something long-overdue, though the end result might not be as satisfying as some would hope.
Max Fleischer’s Superman 1941-1943 finally brings the original 1941-1943 Superman cartoons to high definition! These 17 animated theatrical shorts were the first to launch Superman from comic books to the screen. These pioneering adventures feature the Man of Steel battling mad scientists and giant robots, thwarting Nazis, and saving tenacious reporter Lois Lane. Newly mastered in high definition, these icons of animation look and sound better than ever.
Since this review is focused on the actual Blu-ray release for Max Fleischer’s Superman, thoughts on the shorts themselves will be brief. However, more thoughts and comments on the shorts can be found here.
To briefly sum things up, the Max Fleischer’s Superman shorts were fast-paced, heavy on the action, and absolutely gorgeous-looking. Visually stunning, these shorts remain just as impressive today as they were when they originally debuted in the 1940s. The use of shadows, the staging, the great design work and art deco design, the inspired set pieces, the impact these shorts have had both then and even in present day can’t be overstated. It directly influenced acclaimed DC Comics-based animated efforts, including Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series. It also sets the stage for so much of what we consider standard today about Superman and his mythos, including his ability to fly, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
That said, it’s worth quickly noting there is a lot of content here not suitable for children, despite their original intent. These shorts are definitely a product of its time, both for good and for ill, and feature a lot of material (especially when it comes to the portrayal of minorities and foreigners) that is legitimately shocking and appalling by today’s standards. New viewers will likely be unsettled by some of what they see here, and rightfully so. Still, these cartoons remain a crucial part of Superman’s history and – whether you’re a Superman fan, a fan of animation, a historian, a casual viewer, whatever – have earned their historical significance.
Few pieces of animation have been as seminal as Max Fleischer’s Superman, and Warner Bros. Discovery has generally done a fine if imperfect job on bringing them to home video. The studio’s previous Max Fleischer’s Superman DVD release featured some audio issues and video errors, but nothing particularly deal-breaking. And, with the Blu-ray release, it’s the same basic sentiment. There are some issues but, for the most part, they likely won’t dissuade most from picking it up.
Looking first at the visual presentation of Warner Bros. Discovery Home Entertainment’s Max Fleischer’s Superman 1941-1943 Blu-ray release, it’s immediately clear these theatrical shorts have been given a fresh coat of paint. Using hi-res scans of the shorts’ original Technicolor negatives, which were then cleaned up to remove debris and damage, Warner Bros. Discovery’s efforts here actually look fairly impressive. Blacks and color levels look really great, and the shorts honestly pop off the screen as they never have before. Unfortunately, there’s a cost to this.
When taking a closer look at Max Fleischer’s Superman 1941-1943, it’s clear to see that a noticeable amount of detail was lost during the restoration efforts. On top of the damage and debris, it appears that film grain, textures and even some linework was also scrubbed away during the cleaning process. In fact, there’s the odd moment here and there when the video looks too clean, too perfect, to the point where it’s obvious the image has been negatively altered in some way, like a “blur” filter being added one too many times to a photo. While it looks softer than it should, it’s still watchable, but ultimately disappointing. New viewers likely won’t see any of these issues, but long-time fans will find it impossible to miss.
To quickly note, the “Max Fleischer’s Superman: Speeding Towards Tomorrow” featurette included in this set actually offers a few brief looks at the raw scanned HD footage prior to remastering. Comparing the shorts here to the quick glimpses from the special feature and it’s painfully apparent that considerable detail was lost as a result of the remaster.
Still, even with its issues, Max Fleischer’s Superman looks pretty good. Its visual aesthetic remains mostly intact and any compression or transfer quality issues are minimal. There’s definitely some visible compression and blocking on occasion, but it’s infrequent enough that it’s not too distracting. It is noticeable, though, especially when watching these shorts back-to-back-to-back, but it doesn’t really impact the overall quality that much. These shorts have never looked better, even with the studio’s apparent imperfect remastering efforts.
When it comes to the audio, the overall quality is roughly the same as the video. The DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track sounds great, and is a sizable improvement over Warner’s previous DVD release and its Dolby Digital track. There’s minimal hiss and noise, along with the occasional pop, but nothing unexpected. That said, the incorrect intro sequences and a few instances of poor audio syncing prevalent in the DVD edition appear here too. It’s clear that Warner didn’t do any additional correcting when it came to creating the track for this Blu-ray, just instead used the same source as the DVD and gave it an HD boost and not much else.
Even so, Max Fleischer’s Superman sounds great, crisp and surprisingly loud at times. Given the source material and its age, nearly 80 years, these shorts sound surprisingly hefty at times. While it’s disappointing the existing audio flubs weren’t corrected, the overall transfer is still pretty solid.
Moving on to the Blu-ray special features, Warner has put together a nice little bundle of bonus content, which consists of a new featurette plus the two featurettes from the studio’s previous Max Fleischer’s Superman DVD release. “Max Fleischer’s Superman: Speeding Towards Tomorrow,” the new (and aforementioned) featurette, runs just a bit over 13 minutes and offers a nifty little look back at the beloved theatrical shorts.
Regular DC animation creators Jeremy Adams, Matt Peters, Rick Morales and Jim Krieg each share their thoughts on the shorts and their overall significance to the Superman mythos and its influence – both creatively and visually – on later comics and cartoons (such as Batman: The Animated Series). While not a deep dive, it’s still a nice, warm reminder of the shorts’ overall significance. This featurette also provides a few nice HD glimpses at the shorts pre-clean-up, with plenty of grain, dirt and, yes, even some fine detail, it seems.
The two ported-over featurettes, “First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series” and “The Man, The Myth, Superman,” provide about another 25 minutes of further content between the two. “First Flight…” takes a bit of a closer peak at the shorts’ visual design and animation quality, while “The Man…” looks at Superman’s endurance and how he fits in with other mythological characters from throughout history. Both extras, especially “First Flight…,” are worth giving a watch.
Also to note, all 17 shorts are packed onto a single disc, and run nearly 150 minutes total. The shorts are “Superman (aka Mad Scientist),” “The Mechanical Monsters,” “Billion Dollar Limited,” “Arctic Giant,” “The Bulleteers,” “The Magnetic Telescope,” “Electric Earthquake,” “Volcano,” “Terror on the Midway,” “The Japoteurs,” “Showdown,” “The Eleventh Hour,” “Destruction, Inc.,” “The Mummy Strikes,” “Jungle Drums,” “Underground World,” and “Secret Agent.”
Warner Bros. Discovery Home Entertainment has put together a fine Blu-ray for Max Fleischer’s Superman, but it’s far from the polished release it should be, and this seems to be a bit of a pattern at the studio when it comes to Superman-themed releases. 2021’s Superman: The Complete Animated Series Blu-ray collection had issues with its audio/video transfers and left out a sizable amount of extras when porting over DVD features. Even the new Superman 5-Film Collection: 1978 – 1987 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray collection too has frustrating audio/video quality issues and incomplete special features. Similar issues stretch back even to some of Warner’s oldest DVD releases featuring the Man of Steel.
Despite its problems, Warner’s Max Fleischer’s Superman 1941-1943 is a good release overall, and easily the best edition of the shorts on the market, but that doesn’t excuse its faults. While it surpasses any public domain edition out there, the set will likely underwhelm long-time fans, though those coming in fresh to these shorts likely won’t be bothered with (or notice) the video and audio shortcomings. Still, these 17 beautiful theatrical shorts are an essential addition to any fan’s home video collection and should be scooped up, but it’s understandable if some opt to skip this iteration. Recommended, but with heavy reservations.
Max Fleischer’s Superman 1941-1943 is available to own on physical and digital media. Please note Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided The World’s Finest with a copy of this title to review.
Superman 5-Film Collection: 1978 – 1987 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Collection
Available now from Warner Bros. Discovery Home Entertainment
Superman: The Complete Animated Series (Blu-ray) – Superman: The Motion Picture Anthology 1978-2006 (Blu-ray) – Ruby-Spears Superman (DVD) – Superman ’78 (DC Comics series)
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