Over the course of 75 years, the creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two young men from Ohio, has not only withstood the test of time, but has grown because of time. Yes, Superman has not always been successfully translated to the screen, big or small, just as he hasn’t always been successful in his own comic books, but he has somehow managed to survive the Senate Committee Hearings of 1954, the stark realism that grew out of the 1960s and into the 1970s due to the Vietnam War and the cynicism of modern America. His origin story is retold over and over again. I’ve read two very different retellings in just the last three years–Superman: Secret Origin by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, and Superman: Earth One by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis, both of which are superb–and have at least three that I can think of downloaded from Comixology (Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu, Superman for All Seasons by Jeff Loeb and Tim Sales, and Superman: Secret Identity by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen). His personality has changed though the core of this modern American myth remains the same.
In watching and rewatching Superman’s exploits on the Silver Screen, it becomes apparent just how much his story is our story. The baby from another place comes to the United States, learns the principle values on which this country was founded, and grows up to do his best to maintain those values both to keep what is essential about himself as well as to be a role model to the humans he could so easily annihilate. His values aren’t just American, in the end, but human.
Each version of Superman that made it to the Silver Screen was able to capture where this character was at any given time. The early Fleischer and Famous cartoons gave us a Superman who was quick to leap into battle and protect Metropolis, the United States, and the world from danger. The 1948 and 1950 serials gave us a Superman who was ready to get the bad guys with gusto and verve. Superman and the Mole Men (1951) gave us a Superman who would use his might when needed to but would appeal to our goodness and be a role model when possible. The Superman portrayed by Christopher Reeve was a straight-forward, earnest man who spoke plainly but also was all-too-human. He made mistakes but, more importantly, he rose above those mistakes. Brandon Routh’s Superman was a throw-back to Reeve’s but in the modern world. Does the earnest, caring young man with the strong principles have a place in a world as complicated as this one? What happens when the human emotions become so strong in the man who can never be physically hurt? And Henry Cavill’s Superman brings us to the modern era in which you and I live, with a young man torn between doing what’s right and doing what’s safe. How does the world react to a super man in Post-9/11 America when there’s serious talk about building walls across borders and when no one is trusted?
Superman is not on the top of very many people’s Favorite Superheroes list. For a long time, he wasn’t on mine at all. But now, I have to ask myself: does Batman still get the top spot? The big argument against Superman (and for Batman) is that one simply cannot become Superman, but anyone, with the right amount of training and education, can become Batman. And now, after watching these movies, and writing these essays, I can firmly say: You’re wrong. Superman isn’t about whether or not a boy or girl can someday become him, Superman is about living with the set of principles that includes tolerance, empathy, ethics, and love. Superman is about the goal of not being super-powered, but the goal of being human.
The two young men in Ohio, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, sons of Jewish immigrants, understood what it was like not to fit in. They understood what it was like to be different. And what was their payback to the people who surely bullied them as they were growing up in the 1920s and 1930s? They gave the world Superman. Superman isn’t supposed to save us, he is supposed to show us how to save ourselves.
Based on the overwhelming success of 1948’s serial Superman, Columbia Pictures and producer Sam Katzman decided to get the gang together for a sequel. So in 1950, children found that the Man of Steel had returned to their local movie houses in Atom Man vs. Superman. With a screenplay by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, and David Matthews, and directed by Spencer Bennett, the original cast joins with Lyle Talbot as Luthor to tell a sprawling new story.
Like its predecessor, this is an interesting look back at a time when entertainment was more innocent and more naïve. This is a serial that is unabashedly for children and says “To hell with the adults!” It makes me wish I’d been a child back then to see it and other serials of its ilk.
Once again, the cast is really good. This shouldn’t come as a shock since Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Tommy Bond, and Pierre Watkin return as Clark Kent/Superman, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White. With the exception of Ms. Neill’s hair and hat (her hair is shorter and black this time, more like her comic book persona) nothing about the actors has changed in two years. Most of their performances are as good, if not better, than they were in the previous serial. Alyn once again dons the cape with gusto and enthusiasm. This is a Superman who revels in being Superman. Clark Kent is just as lazy and cowardly as before, with that twinkle in the eye that lets the kids in the audience know that Superman is just around the corner.
Lyle Talbot as Luthor is possibly the closest Lex Luthor has been to the comic book version on the silver screen. He’s intelligent, mean, and more than willing to do what it takes to become powerful and destroy Superman. While everyone gets hung up on Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Lex Luthor, Talbot’s is certainly not going to surround himself with the likes of Miss Teschmacher and Otis.
The story is once again quite epic. I guess it’s difficult not to make an epic story at 15 chapters of 15-to-20 minutes in length (nearly four-and-a-quarter hours). With the mysterious Atom Man to contend with, and the newly “reformed” Luthor suspected to behind him, Superman is kept busy. The story is grander, including a place called The Empty Doom (which is a lot like The Phantom Zone) that we actually go to, a spaceship for Luthor’s escape from Earth, a flying saucer that shoots Clark and Lois down (cliffhanger!), ray guns, synthetic Kryptonite (that’s missing one element to truly work–sound familiar?), and– Well, you should just trust me on this. It’s massive.
All right, in the last essay, I pretty much bashed the writing and direction of Superman (1948). In many ways, the same problems persist. While there are very entertaining parts of Atom Man vs. Superman, there are some show-stoppingly bad parts. The serial is off to a pretty fast start, since Superman’s origins were told in the last movie (chapter 1), so we get to see our Metropolitan friends going about life and our Kryptonian hero do heroic things. Somewhere around the halfway part of the series, though, things begin to go wrong. Chapter 7, “At the Mercy of Atom Man”, the story stops dead as Luthor tells his aide the story of Krypton and Superman’s origins. Now this came as a shock because the way the story was told in the first serial, even Superman was unaware of where he came from. He suspected it was the planet Krypton because Kryptonite had an ill effect on him. Not only does Luthor retell the origin, but the audience is given much of the Krypton scenes from the first serial’s first chapter all over again. If you didn’t see it the first time back in 1950, this was probably great–especially if you were a kid–but even back then, an adult would’ve rolled their eyes at the strange nature of the backstory. And how does Luthor know? He was the only person on Earth who was able to decode a message from Jor El, sent out across the universe to get help for his doomed planet. From this point, the story gets weird. Lois Lane quits the Daily Planet after one insult too many from Perry White and she goes to work for Luthor, who now runs the local TV station. He says he’s reformed but Lois and Clark and Jimmy and Superman have spent the first half of the serial not believing him. But now she believes him. To make matters worse, her journalistic integrity is thrown to the curb because she’s a girl-on-the-street stopping pedestrians to ask them about the weather or if they prefer country life or city life. The one news story she’s sent on as a TV reporter–a major flood in the upstate town of Lawnville–she messes up because she refuses to take heed when the police tells her to move, the flood was on its way. There are other strange things, too, and stupidity on the part of the characters so the story will keep going.
Lois Lane isn’t herself in this serial. Look, Noel Neill is Lois Lane. She played the reporter through these two serials and all but the first season of the 1950s TV show The Adventures of Superman. And she was spunky and dead-on in the first serial, but in this serial I think she could have been better. Not only is the part written pretty poorly, but she sometimes goes through scenes as though she’s sleepwalking. Now, I don’t think it’s her. I think she was directed poorly. Maybe it was the huge amount of work filming a serial for a low budget took. I don’t know, but this Lois Lane is good sometimes, and other times she’s just blah. I wanted to like her but just didn’t care. Again, I think it was the way she was directed. I hope it was.
Atom Man was lame. His costume was horrible and he was confusingly lame. The big reveal on his secret identity was silly, too (thought surprising).
The reusage of footage got to be annoying. In the last few chapters of the first Superman serial, I noticed that when Clark changed in the Daily Planet closet, it was the same shots used. The same can be said for Superman’s take-offs out the Daily Planet’s window. This serial uses it, too. Over and over and over. They reuse a lot of footage from that first serial, actually. I guess over two years and 15 weeks, a child wouldn’t notice it. Still, I think it’s lazy.¹
The budget seems better on this one than on the prior one, though not much. It could just be a trick, though. Either way, lack of a budget means silly-looking stuff. The animation is even greater this time around. Though I give kudos to them showing us Superman flying up-close, so Kirk Alyn could be seen “flying.” The animation doesn’t only go to Superman flying, but also the flying saucer and spaceship I mentioned.
After the Battle
My feelings of Atom Man vs. Superman are pretty similar to my feelings on 1948’s Superman. They’re both great fun if you go into it with the sense that you’re time-travelling. If you’re looking for a deep, modern Superman adventure, you’ll hate these. If you want to see adults essentially do with Superman what you would’ve done with your action figures at six or seven years old, then you’ll enjoy them.
I’m really glad I watched these serials. They were only the third and fourth serials I’ve seen and they made me want to see more. They’re also fun to see from a historical perspective, like when Lois Lanes is annoyed with her “newfangled typewriter,” which looks like a manual office model except is electric. Also, seeing an early TV is pretty cool, too.
Overall, I recommend the serials, but only if you’re willing to play along. Take them for what they are: stories meant for young fans in a different world, a world before John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam, Nixon, Reaganomics, terrorist attacks, and overt cynicism.
¹ In rewatching The Incredible Hulk TV series for the past year (I’m almost done!), I noticed footage reused over and over again, sometimes completely out of context.
Ten years after Superman made his historic debut in Action Comics, and five years after his final Famous Studios adventure “Secret Agent,” Superman returned to the big screen in his first live-action adventure. Simply titled Superman, Columbia Pictures released fifteen chapters of Superman’s struggles with criminal mastermind the Spider Lady. Unlike the animated adventures before it, which were not just meant for the kiddies who went to the Saturday matinees but also for the boys World War II, Superman was meant to appeal to the kiddies in the movie theaters waiting for whatever adventure they’d paid their 40¢ to go see.
I don’t know when I’d become aware of the Superman movie serials, maybe my teen years, but I’d never seen them before I’d decided to write these essays (and as of this initial writing, I’m only four chapters into the subject of next week’s essay, the second Superman serial Atom Man vs. Superman). I wish I’d seen these as a kid, a young kid, before Star Wars ruined simple special effects for me, before seeing Christopher Reeve in the suit. Still, it was interesting to see this, only my third go at watching a 1940s movie serial (the other two will be subjects in a future essay series and involves a different DC Comic hero) and it was interesting. So, here we go….
The main cast is pretty good for serial actors. Now, not to put the form down, but movie serials are not known for their acting but rather for their adventures and cliffhangers. Still, Superman‘s cast isn’t too bad. Noelle Neill as Lois Lane is spunky and fun to watch. Tommy Bond as Jimmy Olsen is appropriately a pain in the ass. Even Pierre Watkin as Perry White, who mostly sits behind a desk and snarls at Clark, Lois, and Jimmy is good (though Perry White does get to see a piece of the action. He even gets his own cliffhanger!). Still, without the right person in the lead, this whole dog-n-pony show would fall apart, so enter Kirk Alyn as Superman.
Alyn played both Superman and Clark Kent differently and did a pretty good job with each. He will never go down in history as the Best Superman (or Clark Kent), but I daresay he’s better than Dean Cain. Alyn is tall with dark hair and has a heroic air about him. He even does “This is a job for Superman” (or they may have just used Bud Collyer’s voice, because it’s always in voiceover). As Clark Kent, he enjoys playing ‘fraidy cat and pulling off the secret over his friends. Almost too much (but I’ll get to that later). As Superman, Alyn gets an enthusiastic look in his eye, as though he’s having a good time playing the role. In this day and age of morose superheroes, it’s refreshing. While he is padded under the suit, he won’t be the last to be so. And if there are any criticisms I have, I don’t think they originate in his performance.
The nostalgia. Now, I’m hesitant to use this term because having come out in 1948, Superman is 29 years older than me. Still, watching the serial brings one back to a different time period that I’d be interested in visiting. Not living, no way, but visiting. I asked my father, who would’ve been seven when these came out, if he’d seen them and he said he didn’t think so. What a shame. Imagine being seven in 1948, before TV was mainstream, never mind cable, and seeing Superman in live action for the first time! Damn! Here’s a guy you read about in the flesh, being super. This is a Superman for a simpler time, a time when comics were kids’ stuff, a time when all it seemed to take was a man in a cape to solve things. The simplicity in this serial attests to that.
The scope. I’ll hand it to the filmmakers, they didn’t let a small budget stop them from trying to deliver an epic. With a story by George H. Plympton and Joeseph F. Poland, and a screenplay by Arthur Hoerl, Lewis Clay, and Royal Cole (according to the credits, adapted not just from Action Comics and Superman comic books, but also from the radio show), producer Sam Katzman and directors Spencer Benett and Thomas Carr really try to give the fans a sense of who Superman is, much more than the filmmakers responsible for the Batman serials of 1943 and 1949 (okay, I gave it away). The serial begins on Krypton and follows Kal El to Earth, where the Kents find him and raise his as their own until Clark, as an adult, heads off to Metropolis to try to be a reporter as he also saves the world as Superman. With the Spider Lady trying to take over the world (or something), the scope of this tale is pretty big.
The direction. Or the screenplay. Or maybe it’s the budget. Or maybe it’s that it’s 1948 and a serial made for kids about a guy with a cape and so isn’t taken seriously, but I felt like there were a lot of missteps in Superman. Kirk Alyn played Superman rather well, but I had a few small problems with him that I think stem from story and/or direction. Superman can be kind of a jerk sometimes. In hiding as Clark Kent, he occasionally likes to make Lois Lane seem like a lunatic. Considering she’s a star reporter in a major metropolitan newspaper in 1948, she shouldn’t be as dumb as she sometimes is, and Clark Kent/Superman really seems to enjoy fucking with her. He also beats up the bad guys. I mean, here’s a guy who can stop bullets, but he punches bad guys out on several occasions. The kicker is, the punches only hurt the bad guys as much as a normal punch would. So that’s just silly. Superman’s favorite move, though, is picking two villains up by the back of their jackets and smacking their heads together. Another issue I had with Alyn’s performance was that sometimes, he wasn’t very super. He had a tendency to run or walk with his arms out, as though on a highwire. I’m sure this had more to do with direction than interpretation. Either way, the direction and screenplay are sometimes lousy. No nice way to put it.
It’s too simple, too. I know the serial was made for kids, but come on. The simplicity of the story defies logic. A precocious child would surely see problems in logic, even in the “innocent” days of 1948. There is a ray (there’s always a ray) that does something that the Spider Lady wants. And then there’s…there’s… All right, I don’t remember much about the plot, mainly because it’s pretty bad. The intention of the serial, I think, wasn’t to tell a long story so much as to get Superman in live action onscreen. Since 15 chapters were what these serials were about, the story–pretty flimsy to begin with– is stretched to near breaking. Take into account the limits to the serial by budget and quality of special effects, and you have a story that is sometimes too naïve and takes great leaps in logic.
The budget is a problem. I don’t know what the budget for this serial was (I will revise this later should I find out) but I assume that it wasn’t a lot. First off, most serials didn’t have great budgets. Second, this doesn’t look as good or as polished as movies made earlier, like James Whale’s Frankenstein, which was released in 1931. Third, the actors are all B-actors or character actors. They all do well enough but are obviously not going to win any awards any time soon. More than all that the budget hurts because Superman really isn’t a character who is cheap to do. Because of his super powers, he should be larger than life, yet he never really gets there. Yes, Kirk Alyn helps in this department with his enthusiastic portrayal, but everything around him hurts, including–
The special effects. Superman’s powers are abysmally lame in this serial. The first time Superman arrives, he saves a train with Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen on it by fixing the track–off screen. There are jail bars he bends at one point that are laughable easy (they continue to rotate even after he is through the window). And then there’s the animation. We have grown used to seeing animated special effects. The main difference between 2013’s animated special effects and 1948’s is that we have CGI realistic looking effects while they used hand-animated effects. So when a thug shoots at Superman, the cartoon bullets that bounce off his chest are laughable. And when Superman flies away, the cartoon Superman that takes Alyn’s place takes you right out of the story. Even the sets leave room for improvement. The Spider Lady’s electrified web looks like something out of a suburban Halloween party, all glitter and cheap.
The locations. These serials were obviously shot in and around Hollywood. The same Columbia backlots are used and re-used, and a lot of the action leaves Metropolis for the desert around L.A. These serials aren’t about getting the feel of Metropolis right, they’re about telling a Superman adventure. But the day-for-night that changes between poorly filtered daylight to straight-out daylight is silly.
After the Battle
It’s not difficult to make a Superman story for the big screen, but it’s damn difficult to do well. Superman succeeds in some areas and fails miserably in others. Still, I look back on the experience of watching this 15-part serial with a smile on my face. I’m looking forward to watching its follow-up, Atom Man vs. Superman for discussion next week (or when I can finish it and write an essay about it). I recommend this serial in the way I’d recommend looking into any historical piece, and that’s what this is: history. It is the first time Superman appeared in live action on the big screen. And even though it’s pretty bad, it’s not bad, either.
Growing up, there were only a few superheroes I really knew: Spider-Man, Batman, the Incredible Hulk, and Superman. I knew there were more, one of my favorite cartoons was Super Friends, which was a very kids-friendly version of the Justice League, and there were the other comic book heroes in the ads that ran in the comic books my father brought home with the milk and bread, but for me, those four superheroes (and I include Robin in with Batman) were the ones I really knew. And the head of them all, the most important, was Superman.
At least until I was about 10 or 11. Which makes sense, in a way. It’s around 9 through 11 that childlike wonder begins to dull as The System has its way with children and with that wonder, the idea of a man flying around saving the world from aliens and robots and mad scientists while all the time hiding behind a pair of glasses is preposterous and obviously something only a baby would believe. It didn’t help that 1989 was Batman’s year, with him popping up everywhere you looked. And so Batman moved in as my favorite superhero.
Batman kept that title until about three, four years ago. I bought the 700th issues of both Superman and Batman and found myself walking away with a renewed interest in the Man of Steel. And so it went. If you were to ask me who my favorite superhero is now, it’d be a toss up between Supes and Bats.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Action Comics #1, the comic book in which Superman debuted. There have been many incarnations of the character over the last three quarters of a century. Just in the pages of the DC Comics comic books the modern Superman is very different from the original that was created by two very young Jewish men. What Joe Shuster and Jerry Seigel created was a god for the 20th (and now 21st) century. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan or not, without Superman, there’d be no…well…any of them.
Superman became so popular upon his debut in 1938, that by 1940 he had his own comic book and his own radio show. It wasn’t long before Hollywood came knocking. In 1941, the first of Superman’s silver screen adventures played out in theaters around the world.
This year marks not only the 75th anniversary of this literary and film icon, but it also marks the release of the much-anticipated new adaptation of Superman on the movie screen: Man of Steel, written by David S. Goyer, directed by Zack Snyder, and starring Henry Cavill as Superman.
For the next 11 or so weeks, I’ll be posting essays about Superman in the movies. I will be mostly skipping over his television years because I only have so much time to devote to this, though I will touch on George Reeves as the Man of Steel, I promise. I’m afraid that the 1990s Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Smallville, and the 1980s-1990s syndicated Superboy shows, not to mention the plethora of animated shows and direct-to-home-video movies will also be skipped (though the animated movies produced by Warner Animation will be looked at some time in the future, though not in as much detail). In other words, this is hardly a complete series of Superman on film, but it will do the job for a free enterprise on a website that’s not, technically, about superheroes or movies.
So let’s get this show started, shall we? Up, up, and awaaayyy!