Monday, September 12, 2016

On Fleischer's Superman

"They don't make them like they used to." That may be the most dangerous line in film criticism, and maybe all arts criticism. We are always nostalgic for a lost past, when filmmakers played more interesting games with their technology because the technology was new, when filmmakers better understood the art of storytelling. Still, it's hard for me to watch any of the Fleischer Superman films (1941-1943) and not think, "My god, why even bother with the DC animated movies, the Batman animated series, or Christopher Reeve, or Bryan Singer, or Sam Raimi, or Andrew Garfield, when something this beautiful exists!" My critical faculties fail me. Fleischer's Superman is my bliss.

The superhero needs to be something of us but also above us. Bryan Singer's first two X-Men movies lovingly studied the metamorphoses of the heroes' bodies as they became brilliant instruments. The fight scene between Wolverine and Deathstrike at the end of X-Men 2 is a dance between two bodies with skeletal and muscular structures we know about but can't see. We do sense hints of what lies beneath thanks to the fine choreography and the slight tremors in their skins. Andrew Garfield sold Spider-Man by creating a walk for Peter Parker that combined a teenager's mopey shuffle with a spider's creep. The rotoscoped Karol Krausler, the wrestler who served as the model for Superman, is weighty, but the line-drawing makes him effervescent. Fleischer's Superman can't exist in the live-action world. Garfield's Spider-Man and Reeve's Superman can't match our imagination of how Spider-Man and Superman move within the gutters of the comic-book page.

It's also the Art Deco mise-en-scène, which, in full color, turns the modern city into a collection of temples and towers, a joyous vision of the city that we can trace back to Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler's Manhatta. Superman's body is its own temple, its own piece of architecture. He may be an alien in this world, but he couldn't live anywhere but this world.

The Fleischer Superman shorts are available on YouTube. You should watch them all.

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