Max Fleischer's Superman shorts restored
Max Fleischer's Superman shorts restored

Last week I noticed a friend of mine logging a handful of Max Flesicher's Superman shorts from the 1940s. These are currently streaming on Plex and so I thought I'd revisit them as well. The problem was that neither the sound nor the picture quality there was any good. And so I Googled...

Results returned a handful of news articles announcing the May 16th release of a 4K remastered collection of all 17 shorts—which were originally released between September 1941 and July 1943. Curious, I questioned the masses on Mastodon. "Has anyone done a side-by-side comparison of Max Fleischer's remastered 1940s Superman shorts?"

And while I did not find any direct comparisons between previously digitized versions of the animations and the new Blu-ray release (see below for just that), I did stumble upon a restoration project by David Ely called Mild-Mannered Superman.

From the project page:

“Mild-Mannered Superman” was a project to fix a number of errors in the extant DVD copies of the 1941-1943 Fleischer Studios Superman short films. The series entered the public domain years ago which left it with no single copyright-holding custodian charged with overseeing the quality and completeness of the films. My intent with this project was to go through each DVD, try to spot discrepancies in each film, and patch together the most complete copy of each of the 17 shorts possible.

Through this project, I learned that Fleischer's massively influential Superman shorts entered the public domain. Because of this, there are countless versions of them in varying quality littered around the net.

I reached out to David and he very kindly sent me his collection for comparison's sake. I picked one of the most highly-rated episodes to sample. The following images are captured from the Mild-Mannered and Plex copies of "The Mechanical Monsters."

Here you can see the issues right away. I don't know where Plex's copies are sourced from, but they are pretty terrible. Looking at the title card alone shows one of the major problems: color. Where the Mild-Mannered edition boasts vibrate colors, Plex's are horribly washed out.

The Mild-Mannered files cap out at 480p, which is standard definition. These copies, although mixed in their sourcing, feature the imperfections from the reels they were captured from. The loss of detail and blurred lines in Plex's "HD" copy tell me that the footage was upscaled. And a very badly at that.

Also worth nothing: In this very shot, the audio on Plex is completely out of sync. While Lois' mouth is moving, it's Clark's line from moments before that I hear.

In the action shots you can see again how degraded the animation has become. The line work is all but gone. In this shot you can see the blurred watermark that's visible throughout the entire animation.

I know Plex didn't produce these copies themselves. They're licensing them from some external library likely shared by other ad-supported services like Crackle and Tubi. Still, this level of quality is unforgivable and shouldn't be streamed. David Ely's restoration cuts, however, are perfectly watchable.

A full playlist of the Fleischer Studios Superman Mild-Mannered Edition is available to watch on YouTube. If you appreciate the effort that went into assembling this like I do, give David a follow on Mastodon.

Onward to the Blu-ray release!

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.

Having obtained a copy of the 2023 WB Restoration, I compiled some side-by-side comparisons of this release and the Mild-Mannered cuts. While the scans were performed at 4k, the Blu-ray release is downscaled to 1080p and pillarboxed to retain its original aspect ratio. This alone is a marked improvement on what was previously available.

Continuing to compare "The Mechanical Monsters," we can see just how great these new scans are. The color reproduction is much more accurate. The image is less saturated and close inspection on the lettering will reveal the shadow details of each letter.

The detail between these editions isn't nearly as drastic as that in the previous comparison. The higher resolution helps, of course, but the real advantage with the professional restoration is how clean the scans are. No spots or scratches to be seen. The contrast is much more vivid.

There are certain scenes that have drastically different color. At first, I thought I might prefer the more vivid color of the MM scene to the Blu-ray. These screenshots might make you feel the same. But within the context of the scene, as the room fills with fire and smoke, I think the hazy tones are much more in keeping with the action on screen. It wouldn't surprise me if this is genuinely the more accurate coloration with earlier digitizations "correcting" them to be more vibrant for modern audiences.

All-in-all, I'm very impressed with the new Warner Bros. restoration. Fan-made restorations like Ely's or Harmy's Despecialized Editions of Star Wars make for great watching experiences in the absence of proper restorations. But while the patchwork assembly of Mild-Mannered Edition out-performs its standard definition competition online, it's the Blu-ray I'll revisit going forward.

I, however, am not a Superman superfan. David's notes on individual episodes track the various changes they've gone through. From my brief comparison to his log of changes, the edits on the Blu-ray appear to resemble that of earlier Warner Home DVD releases. Using "Jungle Drums" as an example, the origin story prologue on the Blu-ray uses the "faster than a speeding bullet" intro, rather than the "faster than a streak of lightning" variation. If you're interested in those changes, see his post.

Max Fleischer's Superman (1941-1943)

Warner Bros. Discovery has meticulously remastered Max Fleischer’s treasured set of 17 animated Superman shorts from the original 35mm source elements.

Buy the Blu-ray on Amazon

Below are some supplementary comparisons between the Mild-Mannered Edition and 4k Restoration, taken from a couple of other episodes.

Finally, here is a complete collection of high definition title cards for each of the 17 episodes.