Movies reviewCinematically, 2006 belongs to two men. But while Mr. Bond, James Bond, may well be bringing up the rear in his newest incarnation much later on, the Summer will be dominated by Johnny Depp's return as Captain Jack Sparrow and, of course, the triumphant rebirth of the last son of Krypton. Yes, the big boy scout, himself will very shortly be taking to the skies and saving our pesky, problematic planet ... again. So, now could be a good time to give the hype-machine a little nudge and whet our appetites for the colourful spectacle to come by casting our eyes back to Superman's earliest animated adventures, the supremely influential and wholly awesome cartoon classics produced by legendary animation innovators Max and Dave Fleischer. Presented here, in marvellously restored transfers from the original 35 mm negatives, are all seventeen episodes that they created.
“Faster than a speeding bullet!”
Commissioned by Paramount, the Fleischers, who had already been doing animation work for the Studios, were the first to bring Superman out of the comics and into the world of moving pictures, thus giving him life. Their shows were only short - at most lasting only twelve minutes or so - and set to play before the main feature at the picture houses of the day. Reflecting the need for a hero that post-Depression America was experiencing, they tapped into the essence of Superman as life-saver and national icon, constantly placing him as the only obstacle standing in the way of calamity, villainy or world-domination. The immortal phrases of “Is it a bird?”, “Is it a plane?” etc were coined here first, anchoring Superman's golden position as the most immediately recognisable pop culture phenomenon.
“More powerful than a locomotive!”
The concept was staggeringly simple - no pedantics, no time-wasting, no let-up. Thus, the Fleischers delivered dynamic, wildly inventive action scenes that regularly saw Superman bashed, bounced and battled to his knees before finding the strength to fight back with renewed vigour, out-witting, out-speeding and generally out-doing his foes in every way imaginable with blistering, blitzkrieg broadsides of titanic two-fisted trouncing. Phew! But that's exactly how each episode feels, packing in more wonder and spectacle than a dozen Bruckheimers, leaving you breathless and eager for more. It's Super-escapism written large - far larger than any medium other than the comics, themselves, could achieve - and topped off with a huge, gleaming-eyed dollop of steely patriotism. The latter stories especially seem to neatly chronicle America's entrance into the war with gung-ho Jap and Nazi-bashing propaganda. When Supes gets to work you imagine the cheering and the applause that must have echoed all around the theatres as patrons, young and old, rejoiced in ten-minutes (or less as the shows went on) of American justice being meted out to each and every threat. It's also nice to see that, back in those halcyon days of boundless imagination and surprisingly high budgets (for cartoon shows, at any rate), our hero could confront monsters, supernatural or even otherworldly foes (well, comets) as opposed to just the boringly down-to-earth thugs, gangsters and jailhouse creeps that would plague the Man Of Steel's live-action adventures for many years to follow. These shows pay only lip service to story arc continuity, each episode a self-contained adventure that wastes absolutely no time in cutting to the action. The format is simple and fool-proof. The bad guy is set up in the first minute or so, plucky Lois ventures out for the low-down - wrong place, wrong time, doll - and large scale destruction rapidly ensues. And with mild mannered Clark Kent muttering under his breath, “This looks like a job for Superman,” the scene is set for spectacular, mountain-moving mayhem.
“Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!”
Whilst he has the regulation kiss-curl, barn-door width and iron-jaw, Superman sports a big red S against a black diamond on his chest, as opposed to the yellow one that is universally accepted today. But, other than that, the only difference that this nostalgic incarnation has over his time-honoured descendents is that Clark Kent is not a mere bumbling fool. In fact, this investigative reporter is very much a dynamic character in his own right. He and Lois regularly get the top stories - which could be anything from mad scientists and their deranged inventions, rampaging circus animals or prehistoric unearthings gone wild and bullet-car driving thieves, to erupting volcanoes, heinous Japanese plots and Nazi lunatics posing as tribal witch-doctors in deepest Africa. Kent is quite openly heroic at times, too. Witness his cavalier parachute jump into the jungle to do his bit before stripping down to his big blue long-johns. And Lois is positively the most gutsy, in-your-face good-time gal ever to ladder a stocking in the pursuit of headline-grabbing news. In the first episode she climbs into her own bi-plane and rolls across the sky to interview a seriously loopy inventor tucked away in his Frankenstein-esque mountain castle about this death-ray he's been perfecting. But this is just a taster of the madcap predicaments her journalistic nose for a scoop will get her into. Pretty soon she will menaced by robot warriors, a thawed-out dinosaur, rejuvenated mummies, a giant gorilla and bongo-drumming natives intent on cooking her. And when not being chased, tied-up or threatened with torture or a firing squad by sneering, jackbooted psychos, Miss Lane has a penchant for hanging from cable-car wires, being locked in underwater laboratories with ticking time-bombs or getting split-ends from encroaching rivers of lava. It's just as well that her alien-born paramour is only ever a leap away.
“And imbued with superhuman strength!”
Some sequences deserve special mention. Superman battling a horde of mechanical diamond thieves is fast, fun and full and eye-popping choreography. The desperate attempts to thwart a rogue comet speeding towards Earth with the aid of a foolish scientist's giant magnet (yes, really!) sees Superman pounded almost into oblivion, himself. The eruption of a volcano allows for some simply mesmerising visions of a river of molten rock that fills the screen with thick, bubbling oranges and reds. And Superman being strangled by an electrified cable as he fights to get away from an exploding seabed shows a genuinely vulnerable side to the hero, as he gasps for air. But, for sheer class of animation, check out the sequence when Superman has to drag back a runaway train full of gold bullion as it roars downhill. Battered by tear-gas bombs and riddled with machinegun-fire, watch as he staggers, falls and struggles to get back on his feet. There is genius at work here, folks. And then, of course, there's the flying bits. Whoa-boy, you'll have no trouble believing this man can fly, that's for certain. Under the expert eyes of the Fleischers, when Superman goes up, up and away he does so with such finesse, such a flowing, graceful ease that he truly belongs in the sky, cart-wheeling, diving, spinning and blasting through the clouds like it was the most natural thing in the world. Springing from the gorgeous art-deco backgrounds, using rubble, spires, rooftops and flag-poles as launch-pads, he moves with absolute organic precision and a brilliance of motion that no amount of CGI or modern animation can even come close to matching its vivid, spontaneous beauty. We aren't talking Pixar-quality muscle-shifting authenticity, a la The Incredibles, but more of a snapshot view of a world in which cartoon characters truly live and breathe. And how long ago was all this done, eh?
Fantastic stuff, folks.
All seventeen episodes on this Diamond Anniversary Edition are presented as follows -
Superman (the pilot film, released 9/26/41)
The Mechanical Monsters (11/28/41)
Billion Dollar limited (1/9/42)
The Arctic Giant (2/27/42)
The Bulleteers (3/27/42)
The Magnetic Telescope (4/24/42)
Electric Earthquake (5/15/42)
Terror On The Midway (8/28/42)
Eleventh Hour (11/20/42)
Destruction Inc. (12/25/42)
The Mummy Strikes (2/19/43)
Jungle Drums (3/26/43)
The Underground World (6/18/43)
Secret Agent (7/30/43)