This week, the first live-action Superman movie in seven years, Man of Steel, comes out on DVD and Blu-ray after initially garnering some polarizing reception from fans and critics alike. Now I absolutely love the movie, but that’s neither here nor there as I wanted to focus on something else: Superman in animation. Ever since Man of Steel director Zack Snyder and animation god Bruce Timm released their amazing animated tribute to Superman’s 75th anniversary, I’ve wanted to do a little retrospective of my own about the Blue Boy Scout’s best and most necessary romps into animation. And with it indeed being 75 years ago since he first leaped a tall a building in a single bound, I figured that now was as good a time as any to throw in my two cents.
FLEISCHER SUPERMAN SHORTS (1941-1943)
Three years after the character’s inception in 1938, the Last Son of Krypton’s first leap onto the screen was an Academy Award-nominated animated short film simply titled Superman. Created by brothers Max and Dave Fleischer (world-famous for bringing Betty Boop and Popeye to animation), the short provided a bold introduction of the character to the American public, coupling highly stylized character designs with breathtakingly detailed animation. Utilizing its ten minute running time to the fullest, the short presented Superman as the heroic icon from an almost purely visual standpoint, as it relied very little on dialogue outside of the opening narration to promote this character.
This “show not tell” approach to the visual medium proved so influential that it ultimately spawned sixteen other sequel shorts and was one of the major influences behind Bruce Timm’s cartoon masterpiece Batman: The Animated Series. You can find most of these on Netflix Instant, so I suggest that if you’re a Superman fan, add it on there IMMEDIATELY and watch them. You owe it to yourself as a supporter of the Boy in Blue.
SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES (1996-2000)
Following up from the conclusion of Batman: The Animated Series in 1995, Bruce Timm and crew decided to tackle the Man of Steel next in 1996 with Superman: The Animated Series. Sporting bright backgrounds and more streamlined character design models, the show instantly set itself apart from its predecessor and focused instead on forging its own unique place in the Superman mythos. As such, the series made Superman more relatable than he’d ever been previously, coupling the excellent casting of Tim Daly (The Sopranos and Wings) with the more layered and complex explorations of his villains (particularly arch-nemesis Lex Luthor as voiced by Highlander‘s Clancy Brown).
Further bolstered by some great animation, a kick@$$ theme song, and some truly great writing, the Emmy-nominated Superman: The Animated Series defined the character for a whole new generation of superhero fans (myself included) and shaped the character’s growth through almost a decade of animated spin-offs within Bruce Timm’s DC Animated Universe. If you’re a Superman fan or just a child of the 90s, you owe it to yourself to pick up the DVDs and give this a looksie.
SUPERMAN VS. THE ELITE (2012)
Starting with 2007’s Superman: Doomsday, DC began releasing a run of direct-to-video animated features that were relatively unrestrained from the limits of television censorship, allowing the studio to adapt specific comic book stories to their fullest while retaining the visually-imaginative medium of animation. While there are many of these films that feature Superman, the absolute best is Superman Vs. The Elite, which ponders the question of an old-fashioned superhero like Superman remaining relevant in a modern, more liberal world.
I’ll admit that the character designs are a bit goofy and could be a turn-off for some, but the fluid movement of the animation lends itself to some stellar action sequences and an awesome climax. Besides George Newbern himself (reprising the role of Superman he once held in Justice League), the true star of the film is the story, which is very well-crafted and provides a satisfying and compelling argument for the enduring importance of Superman as a hero, inspiration, and icon. This one, along with the 40’s cartoons, are on Netflix, so make sure to add that thing to your queue this second.
Also, check out Man of Steel if you get the chance. The debates and criticisms about the plot put aside for the moment, it’s great just to see Supes in action again on the live action screen.