Western Animation: Superman Theatrical Cartoons
This amazing stranger from the planet Krypton!
The man of steel! (gong ring) SUPERMAN!"
— The iconic opening of the shorts.
From the studio that brought you such classics as Betty Boop
and Popeye The Sailor
, Fleischer Studios
played a major role in cementing the Man of Steel
as a pop culture icon by means of these lavishly animated, massive budget short subjects which served to bring Superman to the big screen, from The Golden Age of Animation
. These cartoons were a big deal back in the '40s — the first short, "The Mad Scientist
", nearly won the 1942 Academy Award
(losing to a Disney Pluto short
, "Lend A Paw") and has placed No. 33 on The 50 Greatest Cartoons
list. These cartoons were among the first cartoons that were made for genuine action and drama, rather than crude comedy, which was part of what contributed to their success. Paramount in fact had such confidence in the shorts being a hit, they even had had trailers
made for them — yes, that's right, trailers for short cartoons.
Try to wrap your head around that.
The Fleischer Brothers, Max and Dave, had to make similar mental gymnastics themselves at the beginning when they were approached by Paramount to make this series. Already stretched from their ill-fated feature film projects
and the terrible falling out between them, they were in no mood to take on this project, which presented considerable demands for a more realistic style. So, they tried to scare off the studio execs by saying they would need around $100,000 per short, an astronomical figure considering the typical Walt Disney Pictures
short, the biggest averaged budgeted company in animation was around $25,000. To their shock, Paramount compromised at $50,000 per short and the Fleischers just could not turn down money like that, making the Superman
cartoons the biggest budgeted (adjust for inflation) animation short series in Hollywood history. And boy, does it show in the art
On top of that, this was the series that turned Superman into a Flying Brick
. To elaborate, at the time Superman's aerial abilities were limited to literally "Leaping Tall Buildings In a Single Bound
," and the Fleischers intended to adhere to this, but they couldn't animate it without it looking stupid and awkward note
. They copped out and just gave him flight, and hence an archetype was born.
On a side note, only the first nine shorts were made by Fleischer Studios
, with the other eight being handled by Famous Studios
, their successor. Alas, the basic American economics of the Short Film
format in The Golden Age of Hollywood
, where such films earned a set fee for screenings regardless of audience interest, couldn't sustain the series and it ended as simply too expensive.
On another note, in the late forties, Columbia Pictures made an unrelated live action series of Superman serials, which featured Supes turning into an animated version of himself
whenever he flew, reportedly due to budget constraints.
These cartoons were also a huge influence on the DC Animated Universe
as a whole, as well as filmmakers like Hayao Miyazaki
To date, all 17 of the cartoons have fallen into the Public Domain
and are all free to view on Youtube. For your convenience, links have been provided below in the filmography.
Fleischer/Famous Superman Filmography
- "The Mad Scientist": September 26, 1941
- The Mechanical Monsters: November 28, 1941
- Billion Dollar Limited: January 9, 1942
- The Arctic Giant: Feb 27, 1942
- The Bulleteers: March 27, 1942
- The Magnetic Telescope: April 24, 1942
- Electric Earthquake: May 15, 1942
- Volcano: July 10, 1942
- Terror on the Midway: August 28, 1942
- Japotuers: September 18, 1942
- Showdown: October 16, 1942
- Eleventh Hour: November 20, 1942
- Destruction Inc.: December 25, 1942
- The Mummy Strikes: February 19, 1943
- Jungle Drums: March 26, 1943
- The Underground World: June 18, 1943
- Secret Agent: July 30, 1943
Tropes Employed In This Series Include:
- Affectionate Parody: The Bugs Bunny short "Super-Rabbit" by Chuck Jones, as well as the Private Snafu short "Snafuperman," which even features a brief snippet of the theme song.
- Animation Bump: The whole series held no punches when it came to flaunting its huge budget, and the action scenes really pushed the Fleischer animators to their limits.
- Art Evolution: Compare Lois' design in the first short to her in the second.
- Attack of the 50-Foot Whatever: "The Arctic Giant."
- Beneath the Earth: "The Underground World."
- BFG: The superlaser cannon used in "The Mad Scientist".
- Big Applesauce: At least one of the shorts, "The Electric Earthquake," takes place in New York instead of Metropolis.
- Big Electric Switch: "The Arctic Giant". After the generator malfunctions, two knife switches are pulled out to turn it off.
- Bound and Gagged: Lois, several times.
- Bowdlerise: Several home video copies of the first short (even Warner's "Authorized Edition" and Superman Ultimate Collector's Edition DVDs) cut short the scene where Clark asks Perry White, "Don't you think that's a dangerous mission for a woman?"
- Braids, Beads and Buckskins: Averted with the villain of "The Electric Earthquake," who dresses in a suit and tie and later a mad scientist's lab coat. His Native American ancestry is only used as an explanation of why he's blowing up the city.
- The Cameo: Hitler himself makes a brief one at the end of "Jungle Drums," angrily switching his radio away from the newsflash of the destruction of his U-boats to a song ("Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" (!)) as he hangs his head in frustration.
- Catch Phrase: "This is a job for Superman!" and other variations of it.
- Clark Kenting: This version seemed to favor the idea that Clark was the "real" personality and Superman was a "mask" over forty years before The Man of Steel reboot nailed it in place. One way of maintaining this "mask" involved Clark Kent speaking in a higher-pitched voice than Superman. (The voice actor, Bud Collyer, also starred in The Adventures of Superman, where this voice change became the only way for listeners to tell Clark and Supes apart.)
- In "The Magnetic Telescope", he even used Lois' confusion to steal a kiss as Clark.
- Clumsy Copyright Censorship: Apparently, Warner could only secure one clip featuring the Paramount logo. They ended up tacking this one clip onto the end of nearly every short on their DVD, creating an abrupt change in music.
- Collapsing Lair: The Mad Scientist's lair, after Superman overloads the cannon.
- Cool Car: The Flying car from "The Bulleteers."
- Cut Lex Luthor a Check: Most of the villains have non-monetary goals, or doesn't use all that impressive technology, but the inventor villain in The Mechanical Monsters invented and built remote-controlled giant mechanical machines... and used them to rob banks, jewelery stores, etc.
- Damsel in Distress: If Lois isn't being Bound and Gagged at the hands of the villians, she's being put in a Death Trap, menaced by a rampaging monster, or at the mercy of some natural disaster, all so Supes can swoop in and save her.
- Damsel out of Distress: In Billion Dollar Limited, at the first sight of robbery, she unhesitatingly picks up one of the fallen guards' tommy-guns and fires back. She then makes her way to the engine and repeatedly sounds the whistle, which quickly alerts everyone (Including Supes) that the train is in trouble. She only has to be bailed out when the robbers lob a bomb at her.
- Darkest Africa: The setting of Jungle Drums.
- Defiant Captive: Despite her frequent distress, she always manages to seem self-possessed and/or defiant until the last moment, when it really looks (to her) like this time she's not going to make it. (Superman has a tendency to arrive Just in Time.)
- Deadpan Snarker: Maybe the earliest instance of Clark usually having a smart answer for each of Lois' jabs.
- Dead Unicorn Trope: The "cliche" of Clark turning into Superman in a phone booth is based primarily on TWO of these cartoons: "The Mechanical Monsters" and "Bulleteers". In the first cartoon, Clark is with Lois when he ducks into a phone booth to...call in the story to the Daily Planet. While he's on the phone, Lois sneaks away to investigate the story further. Clark finishes the call, steps out, sees Lois is missing, and only then goes back in the booth to change into Superman. In "Bulleteers", Clark changes in the phone booth for no apparent reason, helping to solidify in the public's mind that this is how he "always" changes into Supes. The earliest known comic where he does this was in a newspaper strip that came out later the same year as "Bulleteers". In that strip, Clark even thinks to himself that this is a fairly uncomfortable place to change clothes in and that he's doing it here only because he's in a hurry.
- Deus ex Machina: Superman himself. In nearly all of the shorts save "Eleventh Hour", he doesn't pop up until more than halfway through the cartoons, acting on the established threats.
- Digital Destruction: Warner's DVD compilation has superb restorations of the cartoons, with no DVNR damage or digital interlacing; however, it does include some jarring auditory changes, such as missing sound effects from the opening credits of "Electric Earthquake" and "The Magnetic Telescope", and a jump in the prologue of the first short.
- Dressing as the Enemy: Done by Lois in "Jungle Drums" where she steals the robe of a dead Nazi Agent in order to use the Nazi-bases radio to warn the Allies of a planned submarine attack. This fails when the Nazi commander spots Lois's high heels under the hem of her robe.
- Earthquakes Cause Fissures: From the short "Electric Earthquake."
- Earth-Shattering Kaboom: The way Krypton gets destroyed in this series.
- Escaped Animal Rampage: The cartoon "Terror On The Midway" features Superman attempting to stop the chaos created when several circus animals escape their cages and restraints, including a giant ape.
- Everything's Better with Dinosaurs: "The Arctic Giant."
- Everything's Better with Monkeys: The giant ape from "Terror on the Midway."
- Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: The mad scientist from the first short is known by everyone in Metropolis as... the mad scientist. He doesn't seem to have a name.
- Evolving Credits: The opening speech quoted above underwent a revision after Superman developed flying powers.
Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to soar higher than any plane! This amazing stranger from the planet Krypton...
- Exactly What It Says on the Tin: Pretty much all of the names of each short.
- Eyes Always Shut: Clark seems to have his eyes closed much of the time.
- Five Rounds Rapid: The cops in "The Mechanical Monsters."
- For Science!: The motivation behind the scientist from "The Magnetic Telescope," who was willing to risk human lives for his experiments.
- Friendly Rival: Lois and Clark. Lois always tries to get a story before Clark gets it, or without him.
- Going for the Big Scoop: Lois, always.
- The Greatest Story Never Told: After Lois submits her article about the events of "The Underground World", Perry White tells her and Clark that their readers would find it too unbelievable, and burns it.
- Harmless Freezing: In "The Arctic Giant" a Tyrannosaurus Rex frozen for millions of years is accidentally thawed out and goes on a rampage.
- Heroic Mime: Not as Clark Kent, but Superman doesn't seem to talk when he's on the job.
- Until "The Arctic Giant", that is.
- Hot Scoop: Lois.
- Immune to Bullets: Aside from Superman, The Mechanical Monsters has the introduction newspaper imply that significant measures to stop the mechanical monsters, but it only amounts to a large number of guards using a automatic rifles. The bullets simply bounce off the armor, and the robot simply walks into the building as if there's no opposition. These robots are still destructible (as demonstrated by Superman fighting them).
- Invincible Hero: Admittedly, the characterization is pretty shallow and the conflicts are very one-sided. Still, the villains are shown to be ruthless and unstoppable before Superman jumps in, and there is a real sense of wonder about his fantastic abilities. So, the final analysis? Heroic, yes. Invincible, yes. Boring, hell, no.
- Jungle Drums: Right there in the title of "Jungle Drums".
- Kaiju: What the "dinosaur" from The Arctic Giant would actually be today. It even looks a lot like Godzilla, making this Older Than They Think.
- Killer Gorilla: The plot of "Terror on the Midway" is kicked off by one accidentally getting released in the circus. Its tamer was nowhere to be found.
- Killer Robot: The eponymous machines from "The Mechanical Monsters."
- Lava Pit: Or rather, molten lead pit.
- Mickey Mousing: A Fleischer staple of course. For example, a laser shoots Supes along to the background music in one of the shorts.
- My Suit Is Also Super: Superman's cape can redirect the flow of molten lead without even getting singed. Justified in that it actually DID have this ability in the Golden Age of Comics, an early comic shows that the fabric in Supermans spaceship was used to make his costume, and was almost as indestructible as him.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: In "The Magnetic Telescope," the police destroy the generator powering the eponymous telescope, just as it's pulling in a massive comet through the atmosphere.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Lois bears more than a passing resemblance to Rosalind Russell's "Hildy Johnson" in His Girl Friday (1940).
- Oh, Crap: When the boss from "Showdown" discovers that the Superman he's talking to isn't his mook in disguise, but the real one.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: The Nazi commander in "Jungle Drums" makes it clear that he despises the natives who are his allies. Truth in Television of course, because, well, Nazi.
- Public Domain Animation: All 17 of the cartoons.
- Removing the Rival: In "Volcano" Lois steals Clark's pass to go investigating the eponymous volcano alone and get sole credit for the story.
- Ret Canon: Superman's ability to fly came from these cartoons.
- Rotoscoping: Used to make the bulk of the animation. Interestingly, according to the book "Hollywood Cartoons", some of the animation wasn't rotoscoped and was drawn freehand by the animators themselves!
- Rule of Cool: Superman easily repels a deadly laser beam in the first short, then proceeds to punch said laser beam. Repeatedly.
- Runaway Train: "Billion Dollar Limited"
- Scenery Porn: A lot of the art deco backgrounds.
- Shooting Superman: In "Billion Dollar Limited."
- Shout-Out: The Batman: The Animated Series episode "Christmas with the Joker" makes a subtle one to the first short of this series by recreating the superlaser bombardment of Metropolis, right down to a bridge being blown apart, except in that case it's the Joker using a giant cannon on Gotham.
- Superman: Doomsday makes two — in The Fortress of Solitude, the flying car from "The Bulleteers" and one of the robots from "The Mechanical Monsters" make "blink and you'll miss 'em" cameos (although one must beg the question where he got them, since the bullet car was completely incinerated in its short, and Superman destroyed all of the robots from Mechanical Monsters-or better yet, why he even has them laying around out in the open in his fortress in the first place).
- The Popeye cartoons which Famous was making at the time made some shout outs to this series, with one of them, "She-Sick Sailors", having Bluto dress up as Superman to try and woo Olive. Incidentally, the theme when Clark changes to Superman is suspiciously similar to the "Spinach power up" jingle in the Popeye cartoons.
- There's another shout-out to the Fleischer Superman cartoons in Batman: The Animated Series: The robots in the episode "Deep Freeze" are basically a cross between the robots from The Mechanical Monsters and the robots from Hayao Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky.
- Whether or not its intentional, the scientist in "The Magnetic Telescope" resembles Captain Marvel's nemesis Dr. Sivana.
- Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow producers openly admit the giant robots were based on the Mechanical Monsters.
- Superman: The Animated Series has a few situations where Supes punches an energy beam to reach the emitter. Like when he first met Brainiac.
- Silence Is Golden: These shorts used dialogue very sparingly. Superman's stunts in particular often have no accompaniment other than music.
- Title Sequence Replacement: Sometimes, shorts come to home video with their openings replaced with the prologue from the first. Also, sometimes "The Mechanical Monsters" lacks the part of the opening where Superman shows off his X-Ray Vision (later used to find out which robot contained Lois).
- Too Dumb to Live: Lois, most of the time. In the first short, Lois insist that she'd cover the story on the mad scientist alone without Clark and despite Perry's saying "no".
Lois: Thanks, Chief. (walks off)
Clark: But, Lois... Chief, don't you think this is a dangerous mission?
- Trainstopping: As Superman usually does.
- Transforming Mecha: The mechanical monsters from the eponymous cartoon.
- Hayao Miyazaki would use a robot very similar to the robots from "The Mechanical Monsters" in the second Lupin the Third TV series, as well as in Castle in the Sky.
- Wartime Cartoon: The later Famous Studios shorts went in this direction, resulting in some very unpleasant Values Dissonance.
- Wave Motion Gun: The huge laser in the first short.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: The villain in "The Electric Earthquake" is a Native American with obviously legitimate land claim grievances given his people's terrible history interacting with Europeans, but the fact that he stoops to making terrorist threats and has the destructive means and will to carry them out is obviously beyond the pale.
- The villain's first public appearance is in the Daily Planet, where he tries the legal and moral route of getting his story published in the paper. It is only after it is rejected that he decides to use his deadly machine. Heck, Clark clearly thinks he has a good point.
- On the other hand, the piece of land he wants people to vacate is the island of Manhattan, one of the most densely populated places on Earth
- Winged Humanoid: The bird-men in "The Underground World."