"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Film, Comic Books
We’ve been looking at several of the old cliffhanger serials over the last couple of weeks. The first installment is here. The second is here. And today we wrap it up with the two I enjoyed the most out of the lot.
You would think Superman would have been a natural for serials in the early 1940s — he had a popular comic book series, a syndicated newspaper strip, and, most importantly, a hugely successful radio drama based on his adventures. But there were several obstacles that kept coming up.
The first, and most troublesome, was getting the rights cleared up. The Fleischer Studios, in making their Superman cartoons, had done so under an ironclad exclusivity contract that tied up the character of Superman for any motion-picture projects, including live-action.
So when Republic found this out, they scrapped their Superman serial plans and retooled the project as The Mysterious Doctor Satan.
By the time they were done with it, there was very little left that showed it had ever been a Superman script at all. Though the hero’s girl friend was still named Lois, the hero himself was now young Bob Wayne, who had revived his outlaw father’s masked identity of the Copperhead, only Bob would use it to fight injustice.
The other element that remained was the killer robot. The original idea was that Superman would be facing an army of them (much like he had in the Fleischer cartoon “The Mechanical Monsters,” probably the genesis of the idea) but they ended up just building one.
Considering that the best they could do was basically a boiler with legs, it’s probably just as well that the original script idea of creating an entire army of them didn’t survive to the final draft. Still, even Doctor Satan has its admirers among serial aficionados.
That was in 1940. In 1941, the idea of a comic-book serial was floated again, but instead Republic chose to go with Captain Marvel. Fawcett was much easier to deal with than DC had been, and Republic’s version of Captain Marvel went on to huge success despite DC’s attempts to get a court order shutting it down. (It wasn’t the last time Cap and Superman would face off in a courtroom, but that’s another story.)
Pause here for a little background.
I’ve always been a Batman guy, personally. But nevertheless we have a lot of Superman DVDs in this house. The Fleischer cartoons, the Filmation cartoons, the WB animated series, Lois & Clark, the Christopher Reeve movies, Superman: Doomsday, Superman Returns… even the first season of the syndicated Superboy. (Though that last one, I got rid of not too long ago. Despite what some people say, I do have standards.)
But I’ve never cared for the George Reeves television series. Just never could get into it.
Actor was wrong, costume was wrong, stories were lame… the affection so many fans of my generation have for that show has always eluded me.
So when I decided we had enough serials on DVD floating around here that I was going to do a couple of columns on them, I thought, well, I better cowboy up and look at the two Superman ones, too, or everyone’s going to be lining up to tell me I left them out. And Amazon had the pair of them on sale for six dollars, it wasn’t like it would be a huge investment. I figured maybe our godson Phenix would enjoy them at least. But I was fully expecting to hate them; my assumption was that they would be even worse than the 1950s television show.
Instead, they ended up being our favorites of the lot.
It was a startling discovery for us, especially considering how much the deck was stacked against any Superman live-action effort being any good at all back then. All the difficulty producer Sam Katzman had in getting the project off the ground, finding a studio to back him, getting DC to sign off on a script, figuring out how to do a Superman story in live action given not only the special effects limitations of the time but the even more severe budgetary limitations of serial production (Katzman was legendary for his cheapskate ways, even among serial producers.)
But nevertheless, despite all those things, we loved them both. There were two, Superman and Atom Man vs. Superman.
Superman, from 1948, tells the origin story we have all come to know. It opens on Krypton with Jor-El getting sneered at by the science council, the baby Kal-El being placed in the rocket, flying to Earth and being found by the Kents… there’s even a couple of scenes with teenage Clark discovering his powers. This is at an accelerated pace, it all takes place in the first chapter, but it’s there.
Once young Clark reaches adulthood and decides to take on the Superman identity, though, the first of the two reasons we fell in love with these movies shows up.
Kirk Alyn is simply terrific as both Superman and Clark Kent. He makes a real effort to differentiate between the two, for one thing (something that has always irritated me about TV’s George Reeves, who never bothered) and he looks like Superman.
The first chapter of Superman is about how Superman came to Earth and decided to be a superhero after the death of his foster parents. The second shows Clark meeting Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and the rest of the gang, and getting a job at the Daily Planet. All the rest of the story, the remaining thirteen chapters, revolve around Superman’s ongoing battles with the villainess known as the Spider Lady (played with sneering relish by Carol Forman.)
What makes all this work — apart from Kirk Alyn’s great portrayal — is that the whole thing feels not so much like a window into the 1940s, but a window into the magical 1940s, the fantasy world of pulps and Golden Age comics. It’s well-written, too. The twists and turns of the plot are actual twists and turns, they’re not just padding. It’s mostly about the Spider Lady’s efforts to steal a new govermenent weapon and Superman’s efforts to stop her — made more difficult by the Spider Lady’s discovery of Kryptonite and her realization that this is a weapon that can actually stop Superman.
Unlike even the villains in the comics themselves at the time, Superman is having to really work at it to stop her. The Spider Lady even manages to take him down a couple of times before he finally puts her away in Chapter Fifteen.
Sure, there are lots of things that are contrived — it’s a serial, after all — but it all works. There are great little bits where Superman is still trying to figure out how to be Superman and introduce himself to the world.
The energy that Kirk Alyn, in particular, brings to everything is great but really the entire cast is diving into it too. There’s a very palpable feeling that everyone is aware that this isn’t just another hacked-out serial, but the first Superman movie EVER! You really get the sense that seeing this in theaters was the same kind of rush for the kids of 1948 that Superman: The Movie was for kids in the seventies.
The other thing that sold these movies for us, apart from Kirk Alyn and the great Golden Age vibe hanging over the whole thing, was the element that usually comes in for such snarling criticism from serial historians.
Screw them. I don’t care what the scholars say — I gotta tell you, we adored the animated flying sequences.
As I’m sure many of you have, I’d read the various historical accounts of what a cheap-assed, hack special-effects cheat using animation was for showing Superman flying, especially since Captain Marvel’s flying effects shots looked so much better… but you know, we liked this a lot more than Captain Marvel.
Now, I’m sure this was a budget thing. Producer Sam Katzman decided on this because it was cheaper than trying to do it on wires. In fact, they did screen tests with Kirk Alyn in a wire harness, but the footage looked so bad that the idea was scrapped and they went with the animated flying instead.
But that’s all I’d ever heard about it — ‘animated flying sequences.’ No one ever really went into detail as to what that actually meant.
Well, first of all, the sequences aren’t animated. Only the figure of Superman is. Kirk Alyn leaps into the air and then, seamlessly, morphs into an animated flying figure that soars off into the sky. It looks great. Best of all, unlike the dummy they used in Captain Marvel for the flying, this animated Superman figure can move. He can dodge bullets and missiles, catch boulders flung at him, bob and weave between buildings — and it’s all really fast, using a well-modeled and realistically-lit rotoscoped figure on a level with the Fleischer animated stuff. Honestly, it comes off as primitive CGI more than anything. It doesn’t take you out of the story. In fact, it enhances the story, because this technique lets Superman actually do things in mid-air. You aren’t limited by what Kirk Alyn can do dangling on wires in front of a projected cloud scene. There’s none of that lugubrious fake-looking posing. The cartoon figure can actually react to things and change direction.
Of course, we only ever see the perspective of a tiny flying figure darting around against a vast photo landscape, but that works too. It helps that everything else looks equally raw and primitive, and that it’s all in black-and-white. Maybe it was a drag for theatrical audiences of the day (though I doubt it, and the box office would appear to bear me out) but to us it looked great on a living-room TV. We loved it.
Superman, the serial, was in fact a huge success. The sequel, Atom Man Vs. Superman, came out two years later.
We liked this one a lot too, though it’s not as good as the first one. In the same way that Superman captures that forties Golden Age vibe, Atom Man vs. Superman evokes the atmosphere of a 1950s Superman comic all through it. If Wayne Boring’s art came to life, it would look like this movie.
Kirk Alyn is still great and he’s got Noel Neill and everyone else backing him up as earnestly as in the 1948 version, but this time the story takes more from the comics themselves. We have Superman taking on the villainous Atom Man, who has mastered the science of both teleportation and interdimensional travel.
The Atom Man is actually Lex Luthor, who is running the entire criminal enterprise from his jail cell. (Luthor, who is after all a SUPER-GENIUS, knows that being in prison is the perfect alibi.) He fools everyone by teleporting out whenever he needs to and assuming the identity of Atom Man when he wants to do some evil stuff. Only Superman suspects Luthor’s hand in the Atom Man crimes, though even he is stymied when he finds Luthor still safely in jail.
Luthor is played with malevolent menace by Lyle Talbot, who I swear looks just like Luthor used to in the comics of the time: bald, burly, and thuggish.
The only Luthor to equal him for menace is Michael Rosenbaum on Smallville, but Rosenbaum loses points for being a kid. Lyle Talbot’s Luthor looks like he’s stepped right off the page.
Luthor’s Atom Man extortion scheme is really just window dressing; the real plan is to lure Superman into his inter-dimensional gate and exile him into an otherworldly limbo… a kind of… phantom zone, if you will. He actually succeeds in this and for a little while in chapter eight, “Into the Empty Doom!” it looks like Superman is doomed to float around helplessly as a ghost.
I don’t know if this has any connection to the Phantom Zone as depicted in the comics — that didn’t show up until 1961, eleven years later, though it’s not unreasonable to speculate that perhaps Robert Bernstein was thinking of the “Empty Doom” sequence when he wrote the first Phantom Zone story.
Anyway, it all sounds great if you like Silver Age Superman. So why didn’t we enjoy this one as much?
Mostly because of the cheapskate effects and costume cheating. The seams show a lot more this time out. There’s a recap of Superman’s origin with a lot of recycled clips from the 1948 serial, as well as liberal amounts of stock earthquake newsreel footage thrown in to depict the natural disasters Luthor is allegedly causing with his atomic ray. As for Atom Man, I really think that a SUPER GENIUS like Lex Luthor could manage something a little cooler-looking for a disguise than a bucket with a nose glued to the front and sprinkled with glitter.
Also, the animated flying doesn’t work quite as well with closeups of Kirk Alyn in front of a fan intercut between them.
Nevertheless, Atom Man vs. Superman is still worth your time if you like old-school Superman. And I’d rank it way above the George Reeves television series.
These are available as a nice DVD set now, as part of the wave of Superman merchandising that accompanied Superman Returns.
In addition to these being the serials we enjoyed the most, this was also the classiest DVD packaging. There’s a nice little featurette with Noel Neill and a couple of serial historians, and excerpts from the documentary Look! Up In The Sky!
Because serials are largely a historical curiosity for most people, you can generally find them at huge discounts. This was the most expensive of the ones I’ve talked about here the last few weeks and we still got it for under ten dollars. Well worth it.
Kirk Alyn, incidentally, turned down the Superman television series that ended up casting George Reeves. He was trying to avoid typecasting. Sadly, he never really broke out of the serial, B-picture ghetto. His last big hurrah was another DC property.
Blackhawk was also produced by Sam Katzman and again pitted Kirk Alyn against that wonderfully sneering bitch Carol Forman, who played the Communist spy, Laska.
Reviews are mixed but tend toward the lukewarm. “Pretty good” seems to be the overriding theme, though I think a lot of those reviews were done without any awareness that Blackhawk was ever in comics. Most critics tend to dismiss this serial as a generic aviation adventure.
Me personally? I haven’t seen this one, but the stills I’ve found make it look awesome.
As far as I can tell all the Blackhawks are represented, and the story sounds like a Cold War good time to me.
However, this came out in 1952. The serial era was petering out, supplanted by television, and budgets were being cut right and left. Knowing the legendary tight-fistedness of Sam Katzman, I have a hunch this was shot even more on the cheap than Atom Man.
Still, Kirk Alyn sure looks like he made a hell of a good Blackhawk.
It just came out on DVD this year, and eventually we may have to look into it.
If we do, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, here’s the trailer on YouTube. You can make up your own mind… though I have to say, I love how they gave Reed Crandall a credit.
I hope you all have enjoyed these little excursions into the odd backwater of American movie history that was the weekly serial, over the last few installments here. (I never can tell if people enjoy the more historical columns I write, they’re not the sort of thing that provokes a lot of controversy or comment here; but they tend to be my personal favorites to work on. Thanks for indulging me.)
Certainly, it takes a particular mindset to sit down and watch an old-time movie serial, but I have to say, I enjoyed watching all of these more than I expected to– and enjoyed them largely on their own terms, not in some postmodern ironic Mystery Science Theater way. The Superman serials, in particular, evoked the comics they were based on — more than many of the other Superman films I’ve seen did for their respective eras.
All that being said… are these films worth your time?
I don’t know.
For me, certainly. I love this sort of thing and always have. So as far as I’m concerned, finding all these old films suddenly out on DVD for pennies on the dollar was like a prospector stumbling onto a rich new vein of the good stuff. If you have that same sort of taste for good junk, I think you’d enjoy these. If not — if you’re the kind of comics reader that, for example, has no idea how or why anyone would enjoy the writing of Bob Haney — then you’d be better off to avoid them.
As I said above, it largely depends on the mindset you bring to it. For me there’s something lovable about serials. As crappy as the special effects looked, as contrived and silly as the stories got, as hammy and inept as the actors often were… even with all that there was a real joy, an exhilaration, about what they were doing. I think it’s that same screw logic, floor it! vibe that other fans find in grindhouse films or pulp magazines or… Golden and Silver Age superhero comics.
Hopefully, that answers the question. If not, well, you’ll just have to check a couple out and make up your own mind. The good news is, the investment’s cheap.
See you next week.
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