Animation jumps lightyears ahead.
With the Superman cartoons of the early 1940s, Max and Dave Fleischer took animation to a whole new level. The movements of people and things were so smooth and fluid much better than the herky-jerky cartoons to date. On top of that the details were incredible, things like shadows and special effects like fire and explosions - and best of all these cartoons were in color!
Many of the founding Japanese anime creators took direct inspiration from these cartoons (while American animation was mostly guided by Disney).
In the first episode, 'Mad Scientist', Superman fights - a mad scientist, of course, who has created a ray of incredible destructive power. While there are some odd things here (did you know Lois Lane was a pilot? or the odd situation of Superman punching at a ray beam) but mostly it's really good. Same goes for the second episode The Mechanical Monsters wherein Superman must defeat an army of robots.
The third in the series, 'Billion Dollar Limited', is often overlooked. But it is actually one of the best in the series, because it really showcases what Superman and Lois Lane were like in the early days. Superman is still super strong, but he struggles to pull a freight train up a hill. He is still impervious to bullets, but we do see that tear gas grenades do have at least some effect on him. Lois for her part isn't the wallflower she would be portrayed as in some of the 'middle' decades. When the gangsters start shooting at her, she picks up a Tommy gun and shoots back!
The fourth installment in the series, 'The Arctic Giant' sounds like Superman should be fighting some Norse frost titan. Actually, the title refers to a Tyrannosaurus that is brought to Metropolis in a block of ice. Predictably, the ice melts and the creature runs amok. The creature depicted here is a Tyrannosaurus in name only - it has four fangs, big fin like scales on it's back, and is huge - way bigger than the dinosaur it's named after - towering amidst skyscrapers. Oh, and the monster appears to be bulletproof. All of which begs the question (especially given the popularity of these cartoons in Japan), was this short one of the inspirations for Gojira (AKA Godzilla)?
The fifth film in the series is The Bulleteers. In this episode, a flying Bullet Car destroys the Metropolis Police Headquarters. The next day the men behind it demand the Mayor hand over the Metropolis Treasury to them. It sounds like a gimmick episode, and it is. While thousands of cartoons since have featured similar one episode gimmicks since, this probably felt gimmick-y even at the time. Unlike 'Billion Dollar Limited' where the gangsters were constantly throwing problems at Superman - from dynamiting bridges to lobbing tear gas at him, The Bulleteers themselves are a one-trick pony. (yeah, the next line is a spoiler, but not one you aren't expecting already)
While the science may be a little iffy, it never goes completely beyond the ability to suspend disbelief during this early run. Take episodes 6 and 7. In 6, our mad scientist du jour is a Professor of Astronomy, who brings a comet to earth with a giant magnet - at first glance, ludicrous, right down to the giant horseshoe magnet atop the observatory. But, if we accept the idea of these heavenly bodies having electromagnetic fields, it's not so totally ludicrous. In episode 7 we have a Native American who vows to use 'modern science' to right the wrong of Manhattan being stolen from his people. He does this by sending massive electric charges into the ground under Manhattan. Again, at first blanch pretty silly. But again if we are willing to believe that he can cause disruptions to the metals on and below the island, and perhaps the Earth's magnetic field itself, well with a little imagination, it works at least as well as some of the pseudoscience being thrown around in much of comics today.
Volcano (episode 8) is one of the gems of the series. For the first time, Superman isn't taking on any man made (or man initiated) problem. He has to save a city from an erupting volcano. This episode features one of the most proactive roles for Lois; in the beginning, she steals Clark's press pass to hog the story for herself, and later, after the volcano has erupted, she attempts a daring escape to save herself. The episode is also notable for a totally plausible, real world problem (and solution), and some spectacular special effects animation once the volcano erupts.
Terror on the Midway (episode 9) is in the poorest state of preservation of all the Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons. Both the sound and picture quality are lacking - which is a shame because it's circus setting would be perfect to showcase its Technicolor color palette, and because this episode features one of the fullest, and most unrelenting musical scores of the series. Hopefully a better print of this short will be discovered in the future.
Japoteurs (episode 10) is the first episode where Famous Studios takes over, and honestly there isn't the tremendous drop in quality I was expecting. While Japoteurs is far from the best of the series, it does have some great cinematic moments - a scene wipe involving a burning newspaper, the Japanese spies sneaking around in shadow, and Kent changing to Superman behind Art Deco windows are all great visuals. If there is one area this episode is weak in (besides the obvious racial stereotyping which must be overlooked) it's that the events move too quickly. Other than that, it's a solid enough entry.
Showdown (episode 11) has Superman taking on a couple of thieves who use a Superman costume to trick people into thinking Superman is actually committing their crimes. This gets some points for originality - it's an idea that would be recycled over and over again in the comics. That said, it is also one of the weakest entries in the series. For one, the two normal human robbers present the least challenging adversaries to Superman in the series so far. Second, the trademark 'Faster than a Speeding Bullet' intro has changed to 'Faster than a Stroke of Lighting, More Powerful than the Mighty Surf... etc. Third, and most troubling - Superman's powers here are very inconsistent - possibly the new intro confused the creators about just how powerful Superman is supposed to be? For example,
Eleventh Hour (episode 12) is the most blatantly propagandist episode so far - exceeding even Japoteurs; so, perhaps unsurprisingly it also has the simplest plot. Clark and Lois are in Yokohama (the reason is never given). By night Clark sneaks out and destroys Japanese warships as Superman.
Destruction Inc. (episode 13) is one of the weakest episodes in the series. It involves Clark and Lois going undercover in a munitions plant to foil some thugs who plan to destroy the plant. Who they are and why they are doing it is never shown. There is some really dumb comic relief gags in this one too. Still has moments of really cool animation though.
The Mummy Strikes (episode 14) doesn't really make a lot of sense. The backstory, pseudoscience, magic and historical mumbo-jumbo make the first half of the story a mess. The important bit is that Dr. Hogan's assistant is on trial for murder and Clark has to clear her name. Then the good part is the second half where we are treated to a bunch of giant undead Egyptian guards who Superman must take out.
Jungle Drums (episode 15) has a Nazi agent leading a group of native savages in some jungle which must be on an important flight path or something since he's using a jungle base to shoot down allied aircraft. He shoots down one plane which evidently he knows contains some kind of important documents - along with Lois Lane. The episode is pretty much an excuse to have Lois get tied to a stake in a jungle ritual, and nearly burned alive before Superman saves the day. While not as good as the Fleischer Studios episodes, this was probably one of the better Famous Studios entries. Sadly, the enormous bonfire and psychedelic images during the ritual scene look muddy and indistinct in the aged print I saw. This might look amazing in a restored version.
Despite having some of the best artwork and animation of the Famous Studios series, The Underground World is fraught with problems. It deals with an explorer whose father has disappeared while exploring a cave, and who convinces the Daily Planet to fund another expedition with Clark and Lois in tow. The problems
Secret Agent ends the series on a high note. It's pretty much a straightforward espionage story with Superman flying in to save the day, but unlike The Underground World, there is nothing that seems ridiculous or silly. Superman is never really challenged here (except perhaps in the can-he-make-it-in-time sort of way), but there's a certain real-world believability about this one.
Not all of the episodes are fantastic, but each one has at least something that is worth seeing, and at 10 minutes apiece, you really aren't wasting a lot of time even in the less good ones. Frankly, these cartoons are better than most of what was being done with Superman at the time, both in Action Comics & Superman comics as well as the radio broadcasts.
Highly recommended for young and old alike!