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‘Max Fleischer’s Superman’ (Blu-ray review)

Warner Bros.

Let’s talk philosophy for a moment, you and I.

About 300 B.C. there was a Greek fella named Plato, who was trying to resolve a dispute between philosophers’ schools.

One fella named Parmenides argued that the universe was a single, unchanging, entity and that motion and multiplicity were illusions.

Another philosopher named Heraclitus argued that the world was constantly changing, and that truth and identity were illusions.

You and I, dear reader, might put this down to too much time on one’s hands but for the Greeks it was a bit of a pickle.

Plato’s solution was to argue that every single thing we encounter in everyday life partook of a superstructure that was eternal and unchanging.

The Mississippi River might change every time we step in it, but it was always a river because it partook in the structure of, or as Plato called it, the form of the river, which was eternal. This theory continues to our own language where a relationship that exists beyond the physical instance is said to be platonic.

Why begin this Blu-ray review with a lesson on Greek Philosophy? (Besides trying to impress fellow FOG! contributor Howard Chaykin with a nice literary reference.)

Because Max Fleischer’s Superman and the 17 cartoon shorts it contains represent the perfect Platonic form of the American superhero story– contained within is everything eternal, essential, and characteristic to the genre. It is to the comic book movie you’re watching on Disney+ what Greek thought is to ours: the wellspring from which it flows.

Produced at the height of the Superman mass media craze in 1940, the Fleischer Brothers were approached by Paramount to produce animated vignettes to appear before their films starring the comic book sensation. Max Fleischer was skeptical that Superman could be turned into a cartoon at all, and so quoted Paramount and National Publications (the pre-DC company publishing Superman) an outrageous sum of money in the hopes they’d turn it down. Instead flush with cash from Superman merchandise, they gleefully accepted.

When you watch these cartoons you’ll see where the money went.

Each cartoon follows a structure that makes kabuki look like free jazz: threat appears un opposed, Lois Lane and Clark Kent are tasked with investigating threat, Lois throws herself into danger with both worrying regularity and an endearing early-American “can do” charm, and just when it looks like there’s no hope Clark decides this looks like a job for Superman, and just whoops ass. Then every tale ends with Lois gushing about Superman and Clark winking at us, because we know but she doesn’t.

Sidebar: Superman remains outrageously popular but there has always been an internal debate at DC regarding how to return the character to the level of industry dominating popularity he enjoyed until the Bronze Age. This author believes the key in getting people to see Superman as vital and visceral again might be less in conceptual takes and more in just a willingness to return him to a man of action in this style again. This is not a Superman one rolls their eyes at as corn-ball– this is a Superman like Sinatra, Elvis, or John Wayne who exudes cool and swings for the fences.

Seventeen menaces make their way on screen from a generic mad scientist with a pet vulture Disney would love to a vengeful Native American genius, to the perfect art deco robots, to Japanese saboteurs, and Superman never tries to reason with them, never doubts his right to help, never changes his haircut, or bemoans the state of the comic industry in allegorical form. He doesn’t go down any narrative sideroads, or tackle any hot button issues.

He just whoops that ass. Everytime.

If I posit these as the perfect form of the superhero story, it falls upon me to then try and elucidate what the superhero story is trying to say in the whole. Here goes:

Superman never goes looking for the fight, but he’s never unsure of whether he should step in when people are hurt. Superman can do what no one else can, but it never occurs to him to rub it in, or seek remuneration for that. Superman struggles, but he always comes out on top.

Maybe the whole point of this spandex monstrosity is: that if we live in a mindset where we’re willing to help one another to the best of our abilities, and we stay focused on how we can contribute to a common good that we all can enjoy, we’ll always come out on top not because we get the results we looked for every time (We are, after all, not Superman.), but because we’ve got some internal assurance that we’re living to the best of our excellence, what Plato would have called arete? Maybe just maybe the whole point of this thing called life is that if we’re someone who can be counted on to help and to do the right thing, we can sleep soundly knowing that there was nothing more that we could have done?

Maybe that’s the thing that makes the silly primary colors and merchandise worthwhile in the first place?

On a technical note, there has been a fair amount of controversy surrounding the quality of the restoration of this set. As depicted among the special features, the new transfer removed much of the grain leaving the picture a little soft. It’s still likely the best presentation of these shorts to date, but it’s hard not to think of how great it could have been. Extras include three featurettes.

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