Look, Up in the Sky: Revisiting Superman (1941)

With Superman set to return our screens next month, we take a look at the Man of Steel’s first cinematic exploits in these legendary Fleischer shorts. 

Superman is a character that divides people. For every soul that appreciates the Big Boy Scout’s tireless optimism, there’s another party-pooper who proclaims him to be a relic of a bygone era. Well, that, or they get into the tired old Batman vs. Superman argument. I love me some Dark Knight comics like everyone else, but to paraphrase Kal-El’s biological father, there has to be a light to show the way. There’s also the fact that his history is almost more compelling than the character himself.

Before Fleischer Studios redefined action cartoons with their 1941 shorts, the character had been a smash on radio in The Adventures of Superman. This series is monumentally important because it introduced a few key tropes into DC’s canon; the Daily Star became the Daily Planet, the editor became Perry White, the staff got a new recruit in Jimmy Olsen, and the Man of Steel received his primary ability to fly. If that wasn’t enough to usurp the actual comic book creators, this humble sound production even brought in the dreaded Kryptonite. The radio serial also shares a voice cast with the Max Fleischer animations, spearheaded by Bud Collyer in the dual role of Superman/Clark Kent. His oft-repeated call-to-arms, “This looks like a job FOR SUPERMAN!” is still well-known today. It sums up the tone of his first foray onto the silver screen. Against all odds, these astonishingly old cartoons represent one of the character’s best filmic adaptations.

Superman‘s first entry, “The Mad Scientist,” doesn’t bother telling the origin story in great detail. The episodes are ten-minute instalments made to precede a motion picture, and they waste no time in getting to the action. The particulars of Kal-El’s shuttle craft to Earth and his subsequent powers are quickly recounted at the start of each story, concluding with a shot of Kent fading into his super PJ’s with a beautifully-tinny fanfare (did Williams take some inspiration from this for his score?). It’s pure, unadulterated cheese, but shot-through with a reverence for the character that wouldn’t be seen again till 1978. Never mind that these seventeen epics basically boil down to Superman saving the forever-in-peril Lois Lane (Joan Alexander) from a variety of stock villains. His arch-nemesis Lex Luthor never gets a look-in. Instead, we get anything from common hoods to a King Kong rip-off to a mechanically-engineered earthquake.

Although the day is usually saved with relative ease, the writers seemed to acknowledge a common pet-peeve adults have with Superman: his powers. Except for that radioactive green rock and dark magic, nothing can really harm the Kryptonian, but he wasn’t always so unerringly godlike. People think this makes him boring, even though the likes of Thor and The Incredible Hulk have the same level of omnipotence (you just can’t get past the costume, can you?). Here, we see Supes straining during his heroics and adding to Metropolis’ sky-high insurance policies. In “Billion Dollar Limited,” we even see him struggling to stop an out-of-control train.

While the stories are utterly simplistic, the animation was a sight to behold then and remains that way in 2016. The Fleischer team used the rare process of “Rotoscoping,” which is basically tracing animation from live-action footage. (Richard Linklater used the technique more recently in A Scanner Darkly.) This lends an unexpected edge of realism to the Man of Steel’s exploits, and the distinctly 1940s aesthetic even influenced the critically-acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. Put simply, it looks marvellous and has weathered the advancing years remarkably well. I would not only recommend these shorts to fans of the character, but to fans of animation in general. They’re that impressive.

Ultimately, these cartoons fully represent the character envisioned by Siegel and Shuster. Only a few years divorced from the start of the books, the Fleischer run is early Action Comics on the screen; whimsical, steeped in science fiction, and filled with joy at the character’s fantastical feats. They turned a superhero that is often a figure of fun into something magical. Few filmmakers have been able to match their work. In short, if you don’t “get” his enduring appeal after sitting through these quintessential cartoons, then you’re probably dead inside. Who knows if this year’s blockbuster will make Superman more universally adored, but on the basis of adaptations like this, it’s reasonable to assume that he will carry on long after many of us have gone the way of Krypton…

Oh, and here’s the full short “The Mechanical Monsters,” which is a work of artistic genius. Note the quality and attention to detail in each shot, the fact that so many films have ripped it off (most notably Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), and that this is the first time Clark makes a swift change in a phone booth. This is simply timeless.

Useless Trivia

(Via Wikipedia and IMDb)
  • Max Fleischer and Dave Fleischer were reluctant to take this assignment because it would require much more realistic designs and animation than they usually used. They tried to discourage the studio by stating they would need a budget of around $100,000 per short, four times the budget of an average Walt Disney cartoon, which then had the highest budgets in animation. To their shock, Paramount executives agreed to at least half the amount, which made the Superman series – in adjusted dollars – the biggest-budgeted animation series in film history.
  • Marks the first appearance on film of the famous introduction, “Faster than a speeding bullet, etc…”, and of the “Look, up in the sky, etc…” line.
  • The sound of the planet Krypton exploding in the introduction was achieved by amplifying the sound of an apple being ripped apart by hand.
  • The first nine cartoons were produced by Fleischer Studios (the name by which the cartoons are commonly known). In 1942, Fleischer Studios was dissolved and reorganized as Famous Studios, which produced the final eight shorts. These cartoons are seen as some of the finest, and certainly the most lavishly budgeted, animated cartoons produced during The Golden Age of American animation. In 1994, the first entry in the series was voted #33 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time by members of the animation field.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at SquabbleBox.co.uk. Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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  1. Frankie Addiego says:

    I’ll tell you where the alleged “decline” in his popularity came from, it’s from people getting a friggin’ boner every time they dis the character for “oh, he’s too powerful so you can’t challenge him,” or “he’s too good a person to relate to,” and they think it makes them sound like Oxford English professors.

    • Dave James says:

      No arguments from me, I appreciate the character on historical merits alone. Thank you for reading, anyway!

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