The Complete Superman Collection: The Paramount Cartoon Classics Of Max & Dave Fleischer (DVD)
The so-called Superman Curse, based on the misfortunes of actors who have played the character, was spawned by unfortunate coincidence, but there does seem to be an unusual amount of bad luck surrounding the Superman franchise. Most recently, a proposed Nicolas Cage/Tim Burton version of the Man Of Steel sputtered on the launch pad, but the trend dates back even further. After achieving success with their Betty Boop and Popeye shorts, Max and Dave Fleischer found failure attempting to produce feature films to compete with Walt Disney's, a struggle that won them no favor with their bosses at Paramount, particularly after the financially disastrous Mr. Bug Goes To Town. A series of early-'40s shorts based on the then-new character of Superman should have solved the problem, but had the opposite effect. Proving popular but too expensive to be profitable, the 17-episode series was taken out of their hands nine installments into its run, splitting up the inventive Fleischers for good and assuring the almost unchallenged domination of Disney for the remainder of the century. Its sad origins don't make the Fleischers' Superman any less of a knockout, however. Simplistic as storieseach episode follows a strict formula to the letterthe series is a triumph of animation and design, a mixture of smooth curves, beautifully stylized backdrops, and boundless imagination. Its influence remains strong today, particularly in the current Warner Bros.-produced Batman and Superman cartoons, but also in material from anime to The Iron Giant. A new DVD collects the series' entire run and features the out-of-copyright material's cleanest transfers to date. Of course, collecting the entire series also means it features the eight post-Fleischer episodes in which the animation remains impressive but other elements seem off. Axis villains take the place of mad scientists and prehistoric monsters: One episode, "Eleventh Hour," finds Superman wreaking indiscriminate havoc in Yokohama, and the less said about an entry titled "Japoteurs," the better. (Incidentally, Bud Collyer, who provides Superman's laconic voice, would go on to host numerous game shows and voice Superman in every subsequent animated incarnation until his slightly but not remarkably premature death at 61.) If, curse aside, the Fleischers' Superman suffered from being too far ahead of its time, another branch of the Superman tree, 1984's Supergirl, struggled for other reasons. A spin-off of the Alexander and Ilya Salkind-produced Superman series, Supergirl was to have kick-started a new franchise starring Helen Slater as Superman's cousin. That didn't happen, of course, but that hasn't prevented Supergirl's rebirth as a deluxe, special-edition DVD that presents an extended "international" cut alongside commentary from director Jeannot Szwarc (Jaws 2, Somewhere In Time) and the usual extras. The disc looks and sounds great, but it does little to hide why the film failed to catch on. Slater not only makes for a dull Supergirl, but she's stuck in a clumsy, silly film that tries for the light touch of Richard Lester's Superman II and fails decisively. Sent to Earth by a space-sweater-clad Peter O'Toole to rescue a glowing, magical ball, Slater arrives in full costume, spending a few minutes contemplating the beauty of nature before being forced to fend off the advances of two lecherous truckers, one clad in an A&W T-shirt. After successfully repelling them, Slater quickly swaps one piece of fetish gear for another, assuming the identity of a uniformed student at an all-girl school in small-town Midvale, Illinois, and facing witch Faye Dunaway. A juvenile script anchored to questionable special effects, Supergirl now looks like blockbuster-striving '80s film excess at its tackiest, although it works as Superkitsch. A limited edition of the DVD also includes a 138-minute director's cut, but it neither benefits from the expansion nor lays curse rumors to rest.