Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Superman: following the peacekeeping exploits of super-powered alien Kal-El, who was sent to Earth moments before his home-planet exploded, and was then subsequently raised by middle-American farmers under the name of Clark Kent. Created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster as a comic book character, the franchise has expanded into pretty much every single conceivable medium, spanning from 1938 to the present. For our purposes here, we’ll only be examining the theatrically released live-action films.
The Installment: Atom Man vs Superman (1950)
Luthor (Lyle Talbot) is totally being a super villain. So Superman busts his ass. Problem solved in the first chapter! But wait! A new super villain named Atom Man pops up to terrorize Metropolis while Luthor is in jail! Superman thinks Luthor might be behind Atom Man too, but how is that possible?! Oh snap! Luthor invented a teleporter so he can sneak out of jail, put on a dorky Atom Man helmet, commit super villainy, then sneak back into jail before anyone notices! Then he gets released and pretends to go legit! But he totally isn’t legit! And no one seems to want to believe Clark Kent’s theory that Luthor hasn’t gone legit! Even when Superman keeps saying stuff like, “I think Clark Kent might be right about Luthor.”
This second Kirk Alyn serial is both a step forward and a step backward from the first serial. The step forward (from the franchise we’ve seen so far) is Superman’s transition from a pulp hero to a full-on superhero. Objectively speaking, Superman (1948)‘s villain, Spider Lady, qualifies as “super villain,” since she had a silly nickname and committed crimes involving a crazy ray gun. But she felt like the same kind of foe that The Shadow or any other pulp hero would fight. Superman re-invented the whole hero game and he needs a fitting adversary. Atom Man marks the first live-action appearance of Lex Luthor (here called just Luthor), and Luthor is a major improvement as a villain. This has a lot to do with Lyle Talbot’s performance, but Luthor is also just a better adversary all around. Spider Lady was stealing crazy technology. Luthor is inventing crazy technology himself. He feels more like a match for our hero. Luthor makes synthetic kryptonite! I’d like to see Spider Lady do that. Point being, the atmosphere of Atom Man feels more inline with what we now associate with the character of Superman. For one thing, Luthor’s endgame is to trap Superman a crazy machine (seen above) and send him to “The Empty Doom,” a mysterious (and never explained) sort of outer space limbo that feels very much like an early version of the Phantom Zone. And Luthor employs several absurd schemes, such as tricking Superman into making plutonium — by making the Caped Crusader suspicious of a package in a warehouse, which inspires Superman to examine the package with x-ray vision, which somehow turns the material inside into radioactive plutonium. Hell, during the climax Luthor kidnaps Lois and flies into space in a rocket! Now that’s what I call villainy.
The filmmakers seem to be having even more fun with Superman’s powers this time around. Diving into burning oil wells and faking meteor crashes (see final section). When a goon refuses to spill the beans to Superman, Superman holds the goon outside a window in the Daily Planet offices and starts tossing him up in the air and catching him, saying with a dickish smile, “If you won’t play ball, I’ll play ball with you.” When everyone witnesses Clark Kent get shot in the chest, he is forced to think fast to explain why he isn’t dead. His cover? That the bullet bounced off a special coin in his breast pocket (these coins are the key component to Luthor’s teleportation device). Then, as he is pulling the coin from his pocket, he covertly uses his super-strength to put a bullet-sized dent in it with his finger. Or even small bits like Clark surreptitiously helping Lois blow out her birthday cake candles when she is struggling to find the wind power. This is the kind of crazy shit we want from Superman. Or at least that I want from Superman. Seeing him stop moving cars and break through walls gets old fast. Superman is a simple character so it is all about how he uses his powers. Simply watching him do super things isn’t enough. Especially when it is the same super thing we already saw him do once, twice, thrice before. And budget constraints aren’t a good excuse. Clark blowing out birthday candles doesn’t cost shit.
This installment also addresses what is always the elephant in the room with Superman — how on Earth no one deduces that Clark Kent and Superman are the same fucking person. Lois starts to suspect, establishing that she is the least stupid person at the Daily Planet. The Clark/Superman thing is a key component of Superman. You can’t lose it, nor should you try. But I do like when it is addressed, and better yet, when writers have a good time with it. I like seeing Lois draw a pair of glasses on a picture of Superman. I like her trying to convince Jimmy, and Jimmy not believing her. Even though it makes everyone seem like idiots, I don’t have a problem with letting Lois be the sharpest cookie — especially in something as old-fashioned and gender-role-y as this. (Not only do we get a really egregious “women drivers” joke, the serial also gets unintentionally meta when Luthor refers to a scheme as pulling a “damsel in distress,” and his goon replies, “Just like in the movies!” Yes, just like in these movies. Over and over and over and over again.) Once more, Lois is far more interesting than Clark or Superman. It isn’t a coincidence that the best chapter of this serial is when Luthor has successfully banished Superman to the Empty Doom, and Lois becomes our hero. The exact nature of the Empty Doom is kind of fuzzy, since we’re shown that it traps Superman in a dream-like outer space. Yet, moments later Superman begins appearing as a ghost in Metropolis, able to see/hear Lois, but unable to be seen or heard himself. That is until he gets all Ghost, and figures out how to communicate with Lois using a typewriter. It is all fairly fun.
Oh serials! I don’t know why I like bits like Jimmy Olsen getting blown up in a car at the end of a chapter, only to learn in the next chapter that despite what we just saw Superman in fact pulled him out of the car before it exploded. But boy I sure do love such nonsense.
What Doesn’t Work:
I said Atom Man is a step forward and back. Despite the more wacko story and stunts (a lot of disaster stock footage is used to boost the action scenes; at times it is successful; at times it isn’t), Atom Man just isn’t as solid a narrative as origin story-heavy Superman (1948) — even though we get an awkward and lengthy recap of Superman’s origin in Chapter 7 for some reason, re-using old footage. Luthor is a great villain, but he can’t carry the whole 252 minutes serial himself. It is a continuing problem that Clark/Superman just aren’t that fun to watch. Maybe I’m just imagining things, but Kirk Alyn seems even more wooden in his acting and even hammier in his physicality. He looks like an oaf when he’s Clark, possibly trying to give himself worse posture on purpose. But it just make him seem like a clod. In any case, this might come across as a brilliant acting choice if he didn’t herk and jerk around like a clown when he’s Superman. Watching Alyn “float” through the Empty Doom, I’m not sure how I was supposed to suppress laughter. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to suppress it. I don’t know. And even though Lois is again the best character in the serial, she isn’t used as well as she was in Superman. She also doesn’t get as much duo time with Jimmy, which leaves her poor chemistry with Alyn at the forefront. Even Noel Neill’s performance feels compromised this time around.
To be fair to Atom Man, there is a chance that I just got burned out on the serial format, having watched two in a row like this, but for all the novelty Luthor provides, Atom Man feels repetitive and wonky even for a film serial. Why does the Mayor stage meetings in Perry White’s office at the Daily Planet? Why does Superman feel the need to give White constant progress updates on his crime solving? Why does Superman bring one of Luthor’s goons to White’s office for questioning instead, oh I don’t know, the police station? I know the answer — because it is cheaper than building more sets. But the constant presence of Perry White also turns the character into a complete buffoon, as he is forced to play the role of the disbeliever over and over again in each chapter. Worse yet, on several occasions White’s disbelief is only a stall to fill time, with scenes playing out basically exactly like this:
White: Sorry, Lois, I don’t believe you.
Lois, frustrated, shows White a document.
White: Okay, I believe you now. Let’s get on this at once!
That is seriously only a slight exaggeration on what the dialogue is like. And the increased usage of the Daily Planet as our central location also means that Clark is constantly running into the exact same supply closest in every chapter to change into his Superman costume. Even accounting for the fact that these weren’t intended to be watched back-to-back, it still gets stupid after a while. They might as well just re-used the same footage. (Possibly they did at some point.) They don’t even bother thinking up clever ways for Clark to slip away to become Superman anymore. In the most egregious moment in the whole serial, when Clark and Lois are on a train, Clark distracts Lois by throwing a glass of water in her face! Seriously? And Lois doesn’t think that is the fucking weirdest thing in the world for her coworker to do? And all this combined with the fact that every chapter also puts Lois in danger and in need of rescue – not to mention having Jimmy get his ass kicked and also in need of rescue – it is hard for Atom Man to feel very inspired. This lack of inspiration also negatively impacts Superman himself. Due to the casual simplicity of the storytelling, Superman’s inability to bust Luthor eventually makes Superman look stupid far more than it makes Luthor look clever.
This isn’t a big deal, but Luthor has some really shitty goons. In one scene two goons get beat up not by Superman, not by the cops, but by two power company employees that we never seen again. Huh? Kind of hard to find those guys threatening after they were defeated by a pair of extras.
Body Count: 4 (Superman only allows two goons to die in this serial! Good for you, Supes!)
Number of Times Superman Smugly Lets a Villain Shoot Him in the Chest: 5 (though one of those is recycled footage from the first serial that Luthor sees on TV)
Best Villain Dispatching: Superman decides to take an elaborate approach to knocking out one gunmen. He puts his hand up, causing the bullet to ricochet and break a ceiling light, which then falls on the gunman’s head, knocking him out.
Superman’s Superest Feat: Faking a meteor crash by tossing a bolder into the stratosphere and letting it crash back to Earth, as part of an elaborate plan to trick Luthor into thinking he has acquired kryptonite.
Best Use of His Brains: Ditto on faking that meteor crash.
Should There Be a Sequel: Yes/no. Definitely let’s get some more of Superman, but maybe not anymore film serials. This got old fast.
Up Next: Superman and the Mole Men
previous franchises battled
Back to the Future
Planet of the Apes