Every Comic Book Movie (Ever) is an ongoing series which examines the long-standing relationship between comic books and film through individual works as well as groups of works. While it is likely impossible that a single person could write about every single comic book film ever made, the series hopes to provide insight that ranges widely across eras and styles of filmmaking – covering acknowledged classics, hidden gems, huge disasters, and relatively unknown works with an empathetic and critical eye.
This being the first installment of the series, I thought I would write about a film (well, a group of short films) that is both a personal favorite, and something of an unimpeachable classic. Hence, the Fleischer Bros. Superman Shorts.
Fleischer Studios Logo
Max and Dave Fleischer began making shorts in the late nineteen-teens after Max Fleischer invented, patented, and sold the rotoscope. Starting work at Bray Studios, they eventually created their own studio (Fleischer Bros., Inc.) where they would go on to create original characters like Betty Boop and define pre-existing comic book characters like Popeye and, you guessed it, Superman. Without going too deep into the history, the Fleischers were, for a time, considered
the only real rival to Walt Disney’s animation dominance. In fact, the rotoscoping technique created by Max was used by Disney to make Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Unfortunately, the studio was plagued by financial troubles and, by the time Superman was being produced, was mostly owned and run by Paramount.
Despite this, Max and Dave were still heavily involved with Superman. They had just come off their first feature, Gulliver’s Travels, and were working on their second when Paramount, hoping to adapt the extremely popular at the time Superman, approached the Fleischers about bringing the character to life. They weren’t interested. But instead of saying no, the brothers told Paramount they could only make Superman for roughly ten times the amount of their previous shorts, expecting Paramount to balk and leave them in peace. Instead, Paramount negotiated an agreement for roughly half that much and Superman went into production as one of the most expensive animated shorts of that time.
The Fleischer’s Man of Steel
The expense shows. Few animated films, from that time or any other, look as dynamic and lavish as the shorts the Fleischers produced. The first (titled “Superman,” but usually referred to as “The Mad Scientist”) pits Superman against what would become a common enemy in these shorts: a rogue scientist using advanced technology for nefarious means. The short introduces a number of iconic elements, beginning with a brief prologue explaining Superman’s origins and the classic invocation: “Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” The story begins when Lois Lane sets out to track down a man who has been sending mysterious threats to Metropolis. She takes a plane to a towering, gothic mountain atop which sits the scientist’s laboratory. He promptly captures Lois (with the help of his henchman, a ruffled vulture/raven hybrid) and begins attacking the city with a massive death ray. As the destruction of the city begins, Clark Kent slips into a supply closet and, as the iconic score plays, rips of his tie and hat to reveal his identity as Superman. He begins his battle with the death ray, swooping (not quite flying) through the city, saving citizens and preserving the Daily Planet building as it arcs elegantly and destructively toward the ground.
In the end, he rescues Lois (and, importantly, the evil scientist) from the destruction of the death ray and the laboratory. Lois writes a front page column and Superman disappears into the ether until the next crisis. Meanwhile, Lois asks Clark where he was the whole time.
Lois and Clark, after the crisis
The shorts all follow this same basic formula, the first four especially. Lois jumps right into the thick of it, Superman is nearly defeated, but overcomes the villain, rescuing everyone in the end. It establishes a template familiar from the comics while adding a few of its own signature elements. One of those is the reliance on music to tell the story. There is little spoken dialogue in the Fleischer shorts, so the music does a lot of the heavy lifting. It helps to tell the story, creating drama and tension, while also serving as an all-purpose source for sound effects. When Superman punches the bullets from the death ray, the music turns to sharp stabs in unison with Superman’s powerful fists. The shorts alternate between heavy sci-fi plots where mad scientists or monsters are unleashed on the city and lighter sci-fi fair, where criminals use slick, new technology to rob trains and vaults.
What is most striking about these shorts, to me, is their audacity of design. They dwell in a kind of retro-futurism where contemporary architecture and automobiles exists alongside impossibly tall buildings, high mountain labs, and enclosed crosswalks which stretch from building to building somewhere around the 95th floor. The lines recall both art deco and early Soviet propaganda, while the lighting draws from noir; everything is rendered in gothic proportions. The Fleischer’s Metropolis and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis do not dwell far apart from each other. This is perhaps the most enduring influence of these shorts. Bruce Timm consulted them in designing the Gotham of Batman: The Animated Series; Brad Bird looked to them when building The Iron Giant; Hayao Miyazaki stole more than a few tricks from the Fleischers for Castle in the Sky and other films.
The Fleischer’s Metropolis Bruce Timm’s Gotham
In later Fleischer shorts (like The Bulleteers), the formula modulates slightly, moving into to a light serialization. Lois and Clarks relationship noticeably progresses at the end of each short, but the action is still the meat of these. Clark and Lois travel to a volcano where Superman saves everyone from an eruption. They travel to a carnival where he saves them from a giant gorilla. But by this point, a year into the Superman shorts, Max and Dave were no longer on speaking terms and Paramount was worried.
Dola Gang from Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky Bulleteers from Superman
After Terror on the Midway, Paramount dissolved Fleischer Studios and reorganized its few remaining elements as Famous Studios. They continued to make Superman shorts, but these were markedly different than what came before. It was the end of 1942 and the U.S. was on the war path. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor almost a year earlier and every movie studio in the country was playing their part in the escalating war effort. Paramount and Famous Studios were no exception. The rest of the Superman shorts serve as pretty standard fair propaganda. The animation quality drops noticeably with the absence of the Fleischers and the plots are clunky, often involving saboteurs and peddling nasty racial stereotypes of the Japanese. The Superman of Famous Studios is the ultimate warrior of U.S. interests abroad. Trapped in Japan with Lois, Clark sneaks out at night to wreak havoc on the Japanese war effort. He destroys bridges and air bases and battleships. Where Superman used to rescue his adversaries, here he destroys them when they aren’t looking. A night watchmen on a ship undoubtedly dies when Superman pulls the vessel underwater until it explodes. The same fate is met by countless soldiers crossing a bridge at night when Superman annihilates it.
Still, these do not impinge on the revolutionary, earlier shorts of the Fleischers, which still stand today as one of the great achievements of not only animation, but filmmaking itself. With their dynamic and singular animation style, the Fleischer Bros. Superman shorts remain one of, if not the definitive comic-book adaptation.