Kirk Alyn (When Worlds Collide)
Noel Neill (Music Man)
Tommy Bond (Five Little Peppers at Home)
Pierre Watkin (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)
Lyle Talbot (Batman & Robin 1948)
Jack Ingram (Man Without a Star)
Don C. Harvey (The Scarlet Coat)
Atom Man vs. Superman was a Columbia serial of 15 installments. It’s notable as the second live action version of Superman to hit the big screen. It’s penchant for campy sci-fi gadgetry was a precursor to the Silver Age. As with the 1948 Superman serial, the budget is quite low and the special effects have been added in as animation, though some improvements have been made – notably closeups of Superman with his hair and cape blowing while in flight. I like that the first episode, ‘Superman Flies Again’, wastes no time on Superman’s origin. It doesn’t even waste time introducing Luthor, even though he wasn’t in the first serial. It is mentioned that Luthor is Superman’s arch-enemy, but other than that it presumes you know who Superman and Luthor is before it begins – something the modern Superman film franchise could take note of. With the second episode, the series slips quite a bit. There are a number of plot holes (mostly concerning who has a special coin and who knows they have it), and there are several moments of bad acting. There’s a lot of use of gimmicky gadgets, and Atom Man himself looks kind of funny with a giant sparkly head mask. On the plus side, the effects are a bit better than in the last serial, with the film sped up in parts to make it look like Superman is moving at super speed. The ship rescue was a nice touch, showing that Superman still has other work to do besides fighting Atom Man.
The third episode keeps things moving, with Superman rescuing Lois from a fall from a skyscraper, putting out a blazing oil fire, rescuing Luthor from an assassination attempt, and saving Jimmy and Lois when their airplane becomes disabled. Though his part is small, the highlight of the episode is Lyle Talbot as Luthor, who is clearly the best actor in the series. And, even though he has a somewhat silly script to deal with, his portrayal of Luthor as a no-nonsense businessman may be the best ever, possibly even superior to Gene Hackman’s version in the 1978 film Superman.
The fourth episode is both good and bad – Superman rescues Lois and Jimmy in a perfunctory sequence, then they go back to the Daily Planet where they celebrate Lois’ birthday – only to have a fake gift transport her into the clutches of Atom Man. The episode has some great ideas – particularly Superman’s plan to get himself ‘captured’ to save Lois, but it seems to move from idea to idea too fast to capitalize on them.
The fifth episode is one of the best written episodes of the series. Superman enlists the help of the Daily Planet to post a fake news story about a shipment of plutonium – a material Atom Man needs for his plans – as a trap. But Luthor is too smart for this and turns the tables, sending a henchman into the trap to be captured and interrogated – thus revealing information about a secret package at the check room at Central Station, knowing that Superman would go there and investigate, inspecting all the packages with X-Ray vision. And leaving an inert material that converts to plutonium when subjected to X-Rays, allowing Luthor to get his hands on actual plutonium!
The sixth episode has a lot of things that really annoy me. There is an appalling lack of understanding of science – in addition to the X-ray vision turning the alloy nails into plutonium – and they just open up the box and look at them with no protection, there is the part where Luthor teleports a henchman wearing just a business suit into outer space, then brings him back a couple minutes later just fine. Later Luthor decides he now needs radium, and so he plans to steel it from a reduction plant. A little of this could be excused by the era, maybe it wasn’t yet common knowledge that space is a vacuum, but it really seems they didn’t even try to be respectful of science.
There’s also a lot of ridiculous plot and action points, for example, Lois escaping some thugs by throwing powder in their faces, the bad guys getting radium from a hospital safe by just asking for it and showing no credentials, the reduction plant having a vault that has a lethal gas booby trap, and Jimmy driving right onto a bombing range (no fence, gate, guard or anything) and there happening to be a bomber on a test run to drop a bomb right on him. There are a few good points in this one too, though. Lyle Talbot’s Luthor is particularly devious – when his henchmen fail him he threatens to sentence one to the vast doom of space and asks them who it will be, then when one of the men volunteers, he says that he’s brave – and then he chooses to sentence the other one instead. Also, unlike most of the chapters where all the Superman special effects are animated, this one actually has a pretty realistic looking scene of Kirk Allen overturning a villain’s car and then ripping out the engine and using it to bar the upright door from opening.
Episode 7 is a great episode – as the rough halfway point, it acts as a summary on Superman. Lex Luthor reveals that he acquired the records of Jor-El’s final pleas. In something that has been copied and re-used in many times in Superman stories since, we find out that Lex Luthor knows more about Superman’s origins than Superman himself. It also has the added twist on the end of Krypton that the planet-wide upheaval was caused by a decaying orbit – a pretty good science based explanation for the time. This is accomplished quite deftly in this episode by using a lot of found footage including natural disaster footage, and clips from the original Superman Serial.
The eighth episode provides something of a twist: we finally learn what exactly the ’empty doom’ is – it’s not so much a place (though it could involve displacement in space as well), so much as it’s a form of incorporealness. Superman is unable to affect the physical world. Though he does somehow manage to find a way to send Lois and Jimmy a message via her typewriter (possibly because it’s electric). There’s a lot of unexplained stuff, from how he types, to what is the empty doom, to more mundane things like why does everyone willingly stand under Luthor’s main arc without restraints, and what exactly does Lois keep in her purse that enables her to club thugs unconscious with it… but overall, the fantasy elements of this episode are a nice change of pace, even as poorly explained as they are.
Episode 9, ‘Superman Crashes Through’ takes things too far. In addition to the profound misunderstanding of outer space which I’ve been able to excuse up to this point, we also discover that Luthor’s synthetic kryptonite doesn’t work when exposed to air, and when Superman finally manages to get the drop on Atom Man, it turns out to be just an Atom Man robot. Things get better in the second half, but not enough to save this installment. Episode 10: ‘Atom Man’s Heat Ray’, despite its title, isn’t as grandiose as you might suspect. The heat ray itself is a small device Luthor’s men use to make the doorknob to a payroll truck too hot to touch after they’ve trapped some patsies in it. Storywise, this is a pretty good episode, but there are a few really dumb bits in it. At the start of the episode, Jimmy gets his foot stuck in a railroad tie, just as a train happens to be coming, necessitating rescue by Superman. In another part of the episode, Lois catches Clark coming in through a window (after having made an appearance as Superman), and the best thing he can think to cover his tracks is that he “just woke up” on the window ledge. But on the whole it’s a better than average episode, and even Jimmy gets to punch out a bad guy.
I liked episode 11 for a lot of the subtle attention to details. Luthor holds a press conference, and from the way his office is decorated, one can see that he is a man that likes/admires horses. Later when Lois is reporting with her TV crew on a flood, the camera they are using is not a mere prop – she asks for a closer view and the camera man rotates lenses. It’s subtle touches like these that make some episodes, such as this one, just a little better than average. The flood itself is a mixture of stock footage and models that cuts together better in some places than others, but once again it’s good to see Superman in action saving lives rather than just fighting bad guys.
Episode 12 is a fairly good episode, most of the characters behave in intelligent ways (except perhaps Lois in covering the flood – but risk-taking is normal for reporters and it’s not out of character), and the acting is actually pretty good. Lyle Talbot’s reaction as Luthor to a pad being stolen from his office, for example, is very well played. This episode also features one of the smoothest transitions between Kirk Allyn in costume, and the animated Superman, right on screen (rather than the usual Clark ducking behind a rock and emerging as Superman type thing). There is a sense that the series is finally starting to come to a climax.
Luthor’s pseudoscience gimmicks come fast and furious in Episode 13. Heat rays, death rays, camera devices that see everywhere, flying saucers that for all their sophistication are just used as ramming devices. Pretty much all science and logic goes out the window this episode, but at least it’s counterbalanced by the feeling that things are moving toward a climax.
Luthor pulls out all the stops in Episode 14, ‘Rocket of Vengeance’. He attacks Clark and Lois’ plane with a Flying Saucer, attacks Metropolis by means of his perennial favorite tool: an earthquake, orders Superman shot with an Atomic Projector, and finally launches a missile strike on Metropolis. As you can see, at this point the series has been reduced to gimmick-after-gimmick, thankfully everything will resolve in the fifteenth episode.
Like most serials, the final installment is a bit more exciting than the others, but overall the series maintains a pretty even level, unlike a feature film which steadily builds to a climax. The title of Episode 15, ‘Superman Saves the Universe’ may be a bit of hyperbole; by this time Luthor is on the run, and the biggest threat he makes is against one city (Metropolis) on Earth, never mind anyplace else in the universe. It’s overall pretty good though, a full plate of action that makes the episode seem to fly by faster than the previous ones. It should be noted that Kirk Allyn, though his performance throughout is he generally does a pretty good job as Superman, but the real standout in the cast is Lyle Talbot as Luthor, who does an excellent job of providing a down-to-earth performance, even amid a plot that is rife with over-the-top gadgets and gimmicks.