As with our last installment, the "origin" bit of Fleischer Studios' first animated Superman film is pretty brief. In future installments, this is going to become a bit of an issue, since some versions (like "Smallville" and "Lois & Clark") spread the facts and details of Superman's origin across many different episodes. I'll take those as they come, but the "review of the whole episode, including the non-origin bits" is probably going to be a rarity after this post. This episode of "Superman" contains one of my very favorite Superman images of all time, so I'm going to go through the whole thing, because it gives me an excuse to post that image.
We might as well start with the opening sequence, not technically part of the origin story, but interesting in how it changes over time. Superman is drawn as a blur of colorful lines streaking across the screen, as the familiar onlooker introduction occurs:
Up in the sky, look! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!
My research has suggested that the Fleischer intro recording eventually becomes the one used in the radio program, combined with the later description of powers. Ultimately, the intro used will be the one from later Fleischer cartoons, as here it's quite out of order.
An upbeat theme song follows, originating the basic rule that all good Superman theme songs since have followed: you should be able to sing the word "Superman" to it. You'll hear it as we go through the decades, but I know I've heard people (Bruce Timm, maybe?) talking about it before. All the great Superman theme songs, from Sammy Timberg's here to John Williams to Andrea Romano, have had some three-"syllable" bit where the word "Superman" would fit, if there were lyrics.
A bit of omniscient narration fills us in on the basics of the backstory:
In the endless reaches of the universe, there once existed a planet known as Krypton, a planet that burned like a green star in the distant heavens."
"Endless reaches of the universe" is the kind of poetic language you might expect to hear from Carl Sagan1, a little purple science fiction prose. The "burned like a green star" bit is lifted directly from the radio program, but our glimpse of Krypton here is the first time that it's actually been colored green. The globe's only appearance in the comic books thus far has rendered it kind of pinkish.
There, civilization was far advanced, and it brought forth a race of supermen, whose mental and physical powers were developed to the absolute peak of human perfection.
So the origin story has changed little at this point. Krypton remains a world where everyone is super-powered, at least compared to Earth-humans. It also suggests that Kryptonians are, in fact, human (something which has been pretty consistent throughout the origins so far), which may be biologically unlikely but endured as a trope for quite some time. While modern science fiction trends tend toward developing increasingly inhumanoid alien races, there's a streak of early sci-fi which just kind of assumes that there are humans on other worlds as well. The most prominent such universe (now) is in Star Wars, where just-plain-humans populate a variety of worlds, like Corellia and Coruscant. I'm sure there have been justifications for that in expanded universe stuff, just as Star Trek has (at least once) suggested that the humanoid body plan is so common in the cosmos due to seeding by older races. I haven't read enough of the rocket-and-raygun era of sci-fi to know why (or really, if) the "humans are everywhere" trope at least seemed so common, but it does provide some easy answers to later questions about Superman, like why he looks so much like a human and whether or not he and Lois would be able to procreate.
There's another first here, which has carried on to several comic book portrayals of Krypton, and that's drawing the world with a number of geometric lines criscrossing its surface. I've never been entirely clear what these lines are supposed to represent, but I suspect they may be based on the mistaken observation of similar-looking canals on Mars. The idea had begun to be discredited as early as 1909, but persisted in science fiction until long after these Superman cartoons.
But there came a day when giant quakes threatened to destroy Krypton forever. One of the planet's leading scientists, sensing the approach of doom, placed his infant son in a small rocketship and sent it hurtling in the direction of the Earth, just as Krypton exploded! The rocketship sped through star-studded space, landing safely on Earth with its precious burden, Krypton's sole survivor.
Pretty conventional at this point. The destruction of Krypton isn't particularly spectacular.
A passing motorist found the uninjured child and took it to an orphanage.
But man, that is one well-drawn orphanage. There are two things to note, here: first, despite using the radio program's language and lead voice actor, this animated serial completely discards the radio version of Superman's origin, which seems a wise move. Knowing how comic books tend to adopt details from multimedia versions of the characters, if this had stuck with the radio origin, the Superman mythos might be wildly different.
Also, it's worth noting that the passing motorist has made a surprising return to the mythos! I suspect that the only reason the "passing motorist" hasn't achieved a position in the Superman mythos similar to the burglar's in Spider-Man or the gunman's in Batman is that he's been entirely supplanted by the Kents. Otherwise, he might have gotten a name like Joe Chill or a similarly-dressed nephew like Spidey's burglar.
As the years went by and the child grew to maturity, he found himself possessed of amazing physical powers.
I'm glad the modern versions of the origin keep coming back to this idea that Clark developed his powers as he grew, rather than sticking with the insane Silver Age notion that two elderly people could successfully raise a nigh-omnipotent child without anyone noticing. The age at which these powers started developing has been creeping steadily backward since 1986, but so far it's still within some degree of reason.
And so we come to the familiar display of said powers:
Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!
The appropriate sound effects are inserted here for the first time, along with the appropriate footage. I've always been a little perplexed by that image of Superman jumping over the building. Why is this huge skyscraper out in the middle of nowhere? There's clearly a city in the background, but those buildings are nowhere near this lone skyscraper. Does it have the world's largest parking lot? Is it an example of 1930s urban sprawl? Is Superman demonstrating his powers in Central City? Inquiring minds want to know!
The infant of Krypton is now the Man of Steel: Superman!
"The infant of Krypton" is, fortunately, not a moniker that stuck with the character.
To best be in a position to use his amazing powers in a never-ending battle for true justice, Superman has assumed disguise of Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper.
I'm not sure about the "true justice" part, it could be "truth justice," given the ungrammatical nature of some of the rest of the sentence. Either way, it doesn't sound quite right without "and the American Way" after it.
Mr. White, Managing Editor for...well, some great metropolitan newspaper, anyway, calls Clark and Lois in about a note from a mad scientist. As is often the case with letters to the editor, the author threatenes to attack his detractors at midnight with an "Electrothanasia-Ray." Electrothanasia-Ray, of course, literally means "electric death ray," but sounds so much retro-cooler that I'm quite shocked never to have seen it in a Grant Morrison comic.
Mr. White utters the most commonly-heard phrase when dealing with newspaper letter writers, "This nut may prove dangerous," then sends Clark and Lois to follow up on a lead. Lois, because Lois Lane hasn't changed in seventy years, goes off on her own instead. She does her best Carol Ferris impression flying an airplane (!) off into the distance. We fade to the mad scientist, waiting impatiently for midnight in his obviously evil mountaintop laboratory with a purple vulture and the most uncomfortable chair ever devised.
He activates his Electrothanasia-Ray (which looks suspiciously like Spongebob Squarepants's house) but shuts it down when an airplane approaches.
Now, I don't know much about pre-WWII-era aircraft, but there doesn't appear to be a whole lot of landing space there next to the laboratory. Lois must be a pretty fantastic pilot. What a polymath, that woman. Of course, the scientist instantly kidnaps her and ties her to a chair, then fires his death ray at a suspension bridge.
All this time, Clark Kent has apparently just been sitting at his desk, waiting. when the radio report of the mad scientist's midnight threat came across the speakers. Hearing about the destruction secondhand, Clark decides that it might be a job for Superman. Gee, Clark, maybe the threatening note that said when the mad scientist would strike should have tipped you off to that idea. And didn't you become a newspaper reporter so you could stay on top of the news as it happened? Why are you letting radio reporters scoop you? Ah, Golden Age Superdickery.
Clark leisurely changes in the stock room, then flies out a nearby window. The animation, I have to say, is very nice and fluid, even if the style is a little inconsistent (shifting between more realistic and more Looney Tunes-ish character designs).
While Superman flies off, the mad scientist dials his device in on the skyscraper home of that great metropolitan newspaper, which starts it falling. Superman speeds back to stop it, though I have to imagine that if a building is bending like this one, it's suffered a lot more structural damage than could be saved by pushing and pulling it back to an upright position.
Having righted the building, Superman heads down to its foundation and interrupts the beam. The lurid colors and the style of the beam in this scene are just fantastic. Superman pushes against the ray, flying up along its length. At some point, though, just pressing forward isn't enough, so Superman starts punching the Electrothanasia-Ray.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one of my favorite Superman scenes ever.
The mad scientist ramps up the power, which sends Superman tumbling, but if there's one thing Superman is good at, it's punching things. Eventually he reaches the barrel, ties it in a knot, and sets the whole lab exploding. Again, I have to comment on the colors here, because they're fantastic. All the light effects and bright flashes really add vibrance and movement to the scenes, and make even simple frames, like this one of Superman just standing, look impressive and iconic.
Superman grabs both Lois and the scientist and flies them to safety. He unceremoniously tosses the mad scientist into a prison cell, and Lois gets to file her front-page story...thanks to Superman. Clark looks to the camera and gives a knowing wink, setting the stage for roughly 83,000 years of the same.
It's a short little film to be sure, with an even shorter time spent on Superman's origin, but between the smoothly rotoscoped Fleischer animation, that Morrisonian Super-wink, and Superman punching a death ray, I'd say that this gives you just about everything you need to know. It may be awhile before this little blog series sees anything as fun as the Electrothanasia-Ray, and Superman comics could benefit quite a bit from more of the titular character punching death rays, but that doesn't mean there isn't a lot of entertainment in the near future. For instance, next week we'll see Superman enter the world of prose fiction for the first time2.
1. In The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan said that he read the adventures of Zatara as a child. Since Zatara's stories tended to appear in Action Comics (debuting alongside Superman's in the first issue) it's certainly likely that he read Superman as well. Given the character's popularity and the Fleischer films' longevity, it's certainly possible that this kind of flowery language influenced Sagan. Or not.
2. Assuming we ignore the prose short stories that have appeared occasionally in the Superman comic.
Superman Sunday: Origins Master List