Dr. Toon: Steal and Steel – Phineas, Ferb and Marvel Unite
Meanwhile, in the interests of equal time for other comic book brands and animation studios, this summer saw the latest Superman reboot, Warner Bros much-hyped Man of Steel. I profess a deep disappointment with this film, which is so reverent to its source material that any trace of lightness is excluded. Serious, dour, and overloaded with pointlessly destructive battles, Man of Steel is a cinematic chunk of Kryptonite to the franchise. But then, this lamentable film resides with good company. George Reeves? Campy and cheesy. Christopher Reeve’s Superman? OK, the best of the bunch, but only the first movie truly worked. Lois and Clark (a.k.a “Superman in Love”) featuring Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher? Pfaw. Smallville (a.k.a “Super Teen Angst”)? Fair psychodrama, but not too many thrills. The Brandon Routh fiasco? Please.
Is it possible to bring a decent Superman to the screen? Sure. After reviewing the televised and movie adaptations of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s mythic hero, it seems to me that only one attempt truly hit the mark. Let’s face it; the first and only time anyone really did right by Superman, he was animated.
The year was 1941; Paramount Pictures approached Dave and Max Fleischer about adapting the immensely popular comic book hero to the screen. Most of you know the story behind these seventeen amazing shorts produced between 1941 and 1944. At the time, they cost between $90,000 and $100,000 per reel (the average Fleischer cartoon short cost about half of that). The animation was more realistic than anything the studio had previously attempted. The debut cartoon, Superman, earned an Academy Award nomination.
The Fleischers added the immortal lines “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…Superman!” They also came up with the phrase “Faster than a speeding bullet!” It was Max and Dave, not the Schuster-Siegel team, who gave Superman the power of flight; before then, the Kryptonian could only simulate flight by leaping, much like the later-day Hulk.
Not only did these fantastic cartoons add to the Superman mythos, they were unbelievably rich to look at, and even during the running time of a short, Superman and Lois had glimmers of personality. The animation team made a wise move in designing separate model sheets for Clark Kent and his alter ego, as well as a change in voice acting from soprano (Kent) to baritone (Superman). Lois Lane was fearless and spunky, disregarding any danger in search of a headline. The legendary Fleischer predilection for technology and machinery gave the cartoons ambience that was ahead of their time.
Is the animation perfect? No. Are some of the cartoons ethnocentric and racist? Sure, but it was, after all, 1941. There is little doubt that the Superman cartoon shorts were the most stylish, action-packed, rousing cartoons produced during the war years; even the theme music (composed by Sammy Timberg) resounded with the airs of a classic fight song. It’s fair to say that any two cartoons from this series more succinctly captured the essence and esprit of Superman than the last two live-action efforts managed to do.
So, to sum up: First, Thor, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man and Nick Fury are in no danger of degradation at Disney’s hands. It could have been worse. In fact, Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow was a far worse idea, and Disney had nothing to do with it. Second: Don’t pay those exorbitant ticket fees to see Man of Steel. You can buy “The Complete Superman Cartoons – Diamond Anniversary Edition” on Amazon.com for seven bucks (last I looked) and see for yourselves, who Superman was truly meant to be.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.