Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird...it's a plane...it's a superhero struggling for his cinematic identity. Indeed, while Marvel has made mincemeat out of its action man competition, more or less owning the comic book genre for the last decade or more, DC and its resident alien superstar have been revamped, reinvented, and rejected over and over again. Richard Donner and his interpretation of Kal-El/Clark Kent may have heralded the dawn of the four panel film, but the original caped crusader has seen his stock plummet, destroyed by bad conceptualizing, weak interpretation, and Bryan Singer (just joking). The truth is, Superman has no real post-modern meaning. He's not a tortured soul ala Batman, a preyed upon minority like the X-Men, or a kid going through some highly unusual growing pains ala Peter Parker. No, he's an extraterrestrial noble who brings nothing really new to the ideal except truth, justice, and his adopted planet's worrisome ways. Maybe that's why fans were so flummoxed by Zack Snyder's recent vision. For him, the son of El was a stranger in a strange land, not necessarily the most original or fan-friendly perspective one could take.
So it makes sense that purist go back, time and time again, to the animated serial created by the famous Fleischer Cartoon studios from 1941 through 1943. Seventeen Technicolor installments were made, each one a self-contained 10 minutes adventure utilizing various aspects of the Superman mythos. Most were overseen by Dave Fleischer, and all contain the kind of imagery that would make them the Star Wars of their day. Indeed, much of what we now know of the Man of Steel came from these visionary works, especially the popularizing of the familiar catchphrases that would come to be associated with the character over the next 50 years. Granted, the comics started it all, but these animated adventures provided the kind of creative spark which took Superman from cult to commercial God. It's the reason why we keep coming back to the material again and again. It's like folklore, or tradition. Superman is the source of what many of our older generation believe in - good overcoming evil, might making right, and above all, selflessness in the face of adversity (of course, it helps when you are more or less unstoppable.
The 17 episode here offer up a wide array of villains, from mad scientists to killer robots, typical crimes and atypical conspiracies. There are monsters, murderers, rocket cars and manmade "natural" disasters. Through it all, Superman works at making things right, all while Lois Lane follows her editor's mandates to get the story at any cost (the name 'Perry White' is not mentioned). There's also a bit of racism (one of the shorts is entitled "The Japoteurs") and some goofy backdrops and settings. Overall, the themes remains the same, as does the set-up and payoff. These aren't complicated moral dilemmas (i.e. Kal-El debating whether or not to kill General Zod). Instead, the stories are succinct and to the point. A race of hawkmen are discovered living in an underground city. Superman must save Lois who has become trapped there. A mummy's curse fails and the Man of Steel must battle the dead pharaoh's reanimated guards. You won't find an existential predicament or crisis of conscious here. You also won't find a Kent (Krypton's own is raised in an orphanage here).
The Fleischer Supermans are considered a benchmark for a very good reason indeed. They withstand the test of time while treating the character with the kind of respect our present day attempts fail to grasp. On the other hand, they are good old fashioned mid-century hokum, wholesome outlook measured in Superman's unending desire to save mankind from self-created fates. Using animation, however, allows for more spectacle and splash, something that the radio series (or the early live action films) could never compete with. There is a realistic quality to much of the work, almost as if rotoscoping was used to create Clark, Lois, Superman, and the various villains. It's elegant and old school and argues against the constant desire for modern day studios to gussy things up with unnecessary CG. Of course, a cartoon superhero would never work in 2014, right The Incredibles??? Anyway, whenever you hear the fanbase complain about the current depiction of the character, it's the Fleischer films they are using as a reference point. Do yourself a favor and see what all the fuss is about.