Max Fleischer’s Superman Blu-Ray Review
My History With These Shorts
Back in the late 80s and early 90s I remember visting discount stores with my parents and seeing bins of VHS tapes with Superman on them. Back then I didn’t know if they were old or new, but I always wanted them. I never knew if I already had cartoons on them or what was available, or even how many existed. There was no internet for me to consult. I had no concept of public domain releases. These various VHS releases and the Super Powers VHS the Filmation cartoons; along with my HBO taped copies of Superman the Movie and Superman IV were all the Superman media I had access to. At 8 or 9 years old I remember loving these. I watched them all the time with no idea they were already 50 years old at that point.
Fast forward to the DVD era in the very early 2000s. At this point I knew what was up. I understood that these were theatrical shorts created by Fleischer and later Famous Studios in the early 1940s. I knew that the shorts were in the public domain which explained the multitude of VHS collections I saw as a kid. I knew I wanted these on DVD so I found two DVDs collecting them all. They were titled Superman vs The Monsters & Villains and Superman vs Nature & War. The DVD package described them as the “digitally restored classic collection”. Later I discovered the Bosko release. The Complete Superman Collection Diamond Anniversary Edition claims they were restored to their best possible quality. “The images are superbly clear and the original mono soundtrack is nearly flawless” states the back cover. I remember it being touted at the time as the best version of these shorts available. Soon after though came some official releases that got my attention.
2006 was a banner year for fans of Superman media. The release of Superman Returns started a big archival DVD release project that eventually got us everything from the theatrical serials to Superboy to Lois and Clark. When Superman and Superman II were released on DVD separately and in the Ultimate Collector’s Edition tin we were treated to the first official DVD version. The DVDs claimed the shorts were “remastered from superior original vault elements.” It’s not exactly clear what vault elements these are, but I assume from watching them that they are 35mm theatrical prints. You can see the cue to end the reel at the end of The Mechanical Monsters, which I assume wouldn’t be on the negatives just the prints. We also get the first featurette “First Flight”. These versions were eventually released on a standalone DVD in April 2009. At this point we got the additional featurette “The Man, The Myth, Superman”. These official releases were definitely better than the Bosko disc specifically in brightness and color. I assumed this was the best we were going to get. The shorts were old and not well preserved. Since they are public domain it didn’t seem like something Warners was going to put money or more time into.
With the release of the Superman Motion Picture Anthology blu-ray set we got the same standard definition versions as extras along with the First Flight featurette. Again putting SD versions on here dashed my hopes we’d ever get HD versions. The new 4K box comes with the same blu-ray discs from this set, so the same SD versions released again.
A glimmer of hope came when the DCU streaming service briefly offered these up in HD. Frankly this came and went so fast I didn’t get a chance to watch them all and I don’t remember the quality.
Now, 2023, the blu-ray. This exciting news.
Warner Bros. Discovery’s advanced remastering process began with a 4K, 16-bit scan of Fleischer’s original 35mm successive exposure negative. Staying true to the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37-to-1, the highest quality raw image was then scanned and then entered into the recombine process — utilizing special proprietary software to merge the successive exposure Technicolor negatives into a single RGB color image. The end result are pristine animated shorts that have been restored to the animators’ originally intended production quality.
This is real detail. Much better than “remastered from superior original vault elements.” Then came the first review. Uh-oh. Too much DNR? Compression artifacts? Other reviews had conflicting stories. Was this going to be a smoothed out mess or was it the way these shorts should be? Dear reader I had to find out myself.
The Actual Release
First, the presentation. This new Blu-Ray edition is in a standard plastic blu-ray case. The plastic is flimsy, but this is because a portion of it is cut out to use less materials. I’m all for that even if it does make the collection feel cheap. All 17 theatrical shorts are collected on one BD-50 disc. I should mention that the DVD release came with a premium slipcover that makes it feel like a much nicer set.
The cover uses the same Superman carrying Lois art as the DVD edition, but a new World War 2 background is added. Soldiers, planes, guns, spotlights, the works. Strange decision considering the most skippable shorts are the ones relating to the war. They fix the biggest mistake with the DVD packaging here though: 1941-1943 not 1942 as the DVD states. The cover introduces a new problem though. The wrong Superman wordmark logo was chosen for this. The DVD edition used the wordmark from the shorts which I think was the right choice. It might not be the most instantly recognizable version, but being a wordmark it’s not like there would be consumer confusion on what they were buying. All the movie boxsets use a generic font so it isn’t like home releases are required to have the wordmark. The one they’ve chosen for this release is the version used in comics and merchandising from 1983 until this year when the comic wordmark was updated for the new #1 issue (more on that at a later date). In Superman #6 from the fall of 1940 the Superman wordmark had been standardized and used until 1983. If they wanted to use a traditional wordmark instead of the version from the shorts they should have used this pre-83 version. But they could have at least used the 2023 version. Weird that this 2023 release uses a wordmark that ended use in 2022. Smacks as lazy to me.
The back is very standard. We get a short description, a list of the special features. The image here is pretty ugly, they definitely made a bad choice of frames here. It’s presented out of context like the cover as well; bursting through a wall. In the short Clark had just changed into Superman and looks to his right before taking off to the left.
Some strange decisions were made on the inside. Since blu-ray cases are transparent they decided to print on both sides of the cover. But because chunks of the plastic case are cut out the presentation gets jumbled. A final Superman image taken out of context is presented here and like the back cover was also not a great choice. He looks more like the imposter Superman from Showdown; which coincidentally is where this image was taken from.
The disc itself is plain brown with the title and all the requisite logos. A step down from the DVD release that had nice images of Superman on each disc.
When you insert the disc you are presented with a widescreen image of the cover with the menu on the bottom. Bottom menus work well on blu-ray because of the pop-up menu feature this format has. With DVDs you are always jumping back to the main menu to see the chapters, options, or special features. It does mean the DVD release has a leg up on it with a few different images chosen for the menus. Although flipside the blu-ray doesn’t have annoying ads shoved in your face once you start the disc. I noticed a couple issues with the menu though. The first is pixelation which can be clearly seen on the S:
The other is there is an Audio menu item, but in it there is only one choice: English. Really strange to have this menu but no actual options in it. Maybe it’s there for international releases?
Let me briefly mention the new featurette Max Fleischer’s Superman: Speeding Toward Tomorrow before getting to the good stuff. This featurette was completely uninteresting to me. Talking heads saying how great these cartoons are. Yes of course we already know that. We bought the disc already! The only interesting thing about this is the unrestored shots it includes.
Now the video quality. The thing everyone is talking about. As mentioned above some folks on the internet have cried foul at this release because it looks too clean. Saying that in WBD’s effort to clean the picture they removed too much film grain and fine detail. The main evidence for this is shots from the new featurette. They show new HD clips from these shorts, but with no clean up. They are full of film grain, but also lots of other artifacts from being so old. Now there is no indication that these clips are from the new 4K 16-bit scan of the negatives. I actually think these are scans from a release print. The dirt and scratches on them look more like issues from a release print than from a negative. It’s possible that the version WDB used for the final product was much cleaner than the version used for these clips. I don’t work in the film industry, I have no insider knowledge of this so I could be really wrong.
I recently watched the MVD blu-ray release of The Point, an animated film from the 70s. The blu-ray notes that it was scanned in 2K from a 16mm release print because the whereabouts of some of the negative elements is unknown. It also notes that the condition of the elements made a complete restoration unfeasible. While thousands of individual pieces of image damage were removed entirely, some slight imperfections appear intermittently in the film. Watching the blu-ray looks like you are watching a 50 year old 16mm print for better or for worse. There are scenes with a vertical line through them. But when watching one of the standard definition documentaries there are clips of the film without any noise whatsoever. Just super clean images, but sadly in standard definition. This leads me to believe those old standard def scenes were struck from the negative or a much newer print that is no longer available. In comparison the featurette HD clips we see of these Superman shorts look like the HD version of The Point. Full of grain, but also scratches, dirt, and other assorted problems. The full presentation of these shorts looks like the SD clips of The Point except in HD. Super clean, with no noise and very little grain.
I personally, did not find the lack of grain to be a dealbreaker. There are some textures that are softened, but it’s not clear if this is against the original creative intent. Grain is a part of movies shot on film, there is no denying it. If this were a live action movie shot on film with no grain I’d be unhappy. But this is animation. These shorts only have grain because of the limitations of the technology they were working with at the time. If they could have taken the original background paintings and cells and projected them onto a screen I think it would have looked close to this blu-ray release. There are of course problems with this restoration method. Namely you lose fine detail and can introduce edge enhancement artifacts. For me detail was clear throughout, but I did see the occasional artifact. Here is a close up of an example: If you look closely at the left side of the building you can see a sort of halo around it. Not great, maybe not a deal breaker, but not great.
As this is a bonafide classic it would have been nice to get an archival quality release befitting it’s status. But WBD decided instead to release a version that a wider audience would get enjoyment from. And frankly if I ignore that snob part of my brain these look awesome. I love the colors, I love the clarity. These fans are calling for Warner Archive to handle the release because they have different priorities. I’m not sure that would give fans the results they expect. After watching these I watched the Warner Archives restoration of the 1944 Popeye short “She Sick Sailor”. It had more grain than this release, but was also very clean. No other artifacts or noise unlike the clips we get in the featurette.
As far as compression artifacts due to low bit rate, I didn’t see any. It’s possible they were there and I was so engaged with shorts that I just didn’t notice them. I’m watching on a 77” 4K screen so if there were issues like that I think I would have seen them.
I did notice an error though. At the beginning of Volcano we get a different intro. “Able to soar higher than any plane”. It’s right on the original DVD, but in this blu-ray we get the image of the plane but the audio still says leap tall buildings in a single bound. With the amount of time and effort put into this I’m bothered by these kinds of problems. I did read that some of the ending music was wrong, but I didn’t do a back to back comparison of every episode to confirm. Shame on you Warners.
I took some photos of my television to highlight some differences here. I don’t have a way to get screenshots off a blu-ray or DVD currently, but I thought this would be illustrative of the differences.
This is from the Bosko release: The SD version from iTunes (which is no longer available): The original official DVD: This new blu-ray: The unrestored version from the featurette:
Digital Version Notes
iTunes has removed the standard definition versions from sale. Rather than upgrade what people already have from SD to HD they have made the “episode” numbers start with 101 instead of 1. A bit of a bummer for folks who bought these in iTunes already and want the HD versions. They’ve always been good about free upgrades from HD to 4K movies. At least it’s only $9.99 right now for the whole set. Cheaper than the blu-ray, but missing the featurettes.
iTunes also chose the ugly back of the box art for the purchase screen. Bizarre choice. Quick comparison to the awesome image they chose for the Filmation cartoon purchase screen.
Should You Buy This?
Do you love these shorts (except for the racist ones)? Then yeah you should get these. At least in iTunes. These shorts have probably never looked better and definitely haven’t looked this good in my life time.