REVIEW: SUPERMAN RETURNS

CAST

Brandon Routh (Legends of Tomorrow)
Kate Bosworth (Wonderland)
Kevin Spacey (House of Cards)
James Marsden(X-Men)
Parker Posey (Blade: Trinity)
Frank Langella (All Good Things)
Sam Huntington (Fanboys)
Eve Marie Saint (On The Waterfront)
Marlon Brando (The Godfather)
Kal Penn (Van Wilder)
Tristan Lake Leabu (While The Children Sleep)
Jack Larson (Adventures of Superman)
Noel Neill (Superman 1948)
Peta Wilson (La Femme Nikita)

Superman Returns opens in a world without a Superman. The Man of Steel (Brandon Routh) left Earth without a word of warning, spending the past five years investigating the ruins of his home planet of Krypton. The world he left behind has suffered in his absence, prompting an embittered Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) to pen a Pulitzer Prize winning article titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman”. He’s able to return to his life in Metropolis as Clark Kent with ease, but the world he knew has changed. Lois now has a fiancé (James Marsden), the nephew of Daily Planet publisher Perry White (Frank Langella), and she’s also mother to a young, asthmatic son. Most of the world at large is thrilled to have Superman return as its savior with the exception, of course, of Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey). Fresh out of prison and flush with cash, Luthor has discovered Superman’s Fortress of Solitude and schemes to use its advanced alien technology to wipe out most of North America and create his own continent.

Bryan Singer isn’t a director shamelessly trying to cash in on a high profile franchise. This is clearly a movie by someone with boundless passion for the material, and Superman Returns is a worthy follow-up to Richard Donner’s films. Singer has done a remarkable job staying true to Donner’s vision from a quarter-century earlier while still feeling rooted in the here and now. Most of the campier elements from the earlier movies have been gutted. Ned Beatty’s Otis has been discarded, and Superman Returns’s equivalent of Miss Teschmacher has been dialed down a few notches, even if the character is still ultimately useless. Kevin Spacey’s spin on Lex Luthor is faithful to Gene Hackman’s performance while having more of a menacing edge. Spacey’s Luthor seems like a genuine threat in Superman Returns, not just a wealthy, eccentric goof, and his eventual confrontation with the Man of Steel in the finale is wincingly brutal. I’m not entirely sure why he’s convinced a barren, uninhabitable rock of an island would have any resale value, but that’s beside the point.

Taking the reins from the late Christopher Reeve after his near-legendary turn as such an iconic character must have been indescribably daunting, but Brandon Routh does a tremendous job as both Clark Kent and Superman. His Kent in particular is a seamless transition from where Reeve left off and is a pitch-perfect recreation of the nervous energy and awkwardness he brought to the character. Routh does play a very different Superman, however. Superman may be a strange being from another world, but Reeve exuded the kind of warmth you’d expect from someone embodying truth, justice, and the American way. Routh’s colder, more alien Superman is in keeping with the tone of the story, where he’s been removed from humanity for five years and feels detached from the world at large, but I didn’t feel nearly as strong an attachment to him.

Routh is about the same age that Reeve was when cameras started rolling on the original Superman film, but he looks so much younger that it’s easy to forget occasionally that this is supposed to be Superman Returns, not Superman Begins. I have some slight misgivings about the way Superman was handled in this film, but if the rumors of an impending sequel are true, I’m looking forward to seeing what Routh brings to the character the second time.

With most action movies, it seems as if a small army of writers scattered themselves across a conference table, brainstormed the most elaborate, over the top, effects-driven sequences they could imagine, and then haphazardly tossed together a story to string ’em all together. I was left with the opposite reaction to Superman Returns. Singer paints Superman as some sort of messianic figure who’s a savior, not a fighter, and he literally doesn’t throw a punch in the entire movie. There are several phenomenal effects sequences that are certain to get pulses racing — the world’s re-introduction to Superman as he rescues a plane that’s careening into the stratosphere, steadying a crumbling Metropolis as Luthor sets his megalomaniacal scheme into motion, and sparing hundreds of millions from certain death in the film’s closing moments — but those really just see Superman intervening as disaster looms. Only a bank robbery has Superman struggling against an actual opponent, although even much of what happens there is passive; Superman just stands there and lets ricocheting bullets do the work for him. I’m not trying to downplay what an adrenaline rush these sequences are, but one of the most frequent criticisms of Superman Returns has been its lack of action. I admittedly did not find the movie at all dull despite the lack of Kryptonian soldiers or twenty story robots.


Lois is in love with Superman but never felt it thanks to the utter lack of chemistry between Bosworth and Routh. At least Margot Kidder managed to sell Lois as a spunky reporter, but Bosworth doesn’t even attempt to capture that sort of tenacity. Bosworth also seems much too young for the role; she looks like she may have just gotten her undergraduate degree in Journalism, but a seasoned, Pulitzer Prize winning writer? Not so much. Bosworth is passable but instantly forgettable.

Giving Lois a son also strikes me as a misfire. Hollywood has been churning out action sequels for decades now, and in the history of cinema, there have been two…maybe three…cases where adding a kid into the sequel wasn’t an unmitigated disaster. For some inexplicable reason, directors are determined to keep trying, and Lois’ wheezing tyke is as ill-conceived an idea as ever. Give the audience a little credit for being able to suss out the kid’s parentage from word one too.


Bryan Singer’s sequel inhabits the same world as Richard Donner’s films, but the core of the story is almost excessively faithful to the original. A spaceship crashes to Earth from the long-dead planet of Krypton. Superman makes his presence known to the world by rescuing intrepid reporter Lois Lane from a mishap involving an aircraft. He later has a rooftop interview with Lois and whisks her across the night sky. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor schemes to cash in on the creation of new beachfront real estate at the cost of untold millions of lives, and he has his ditzy but good-hearted moll feign danger as a distraction for a theft. Luthor gets his hands on some Kryptonite to bring Superman to his knees near the climax, and it all ends with the Man of Steel soaring heroically into space. Roll credits.

I didn’t have a problem watching Superman Returns a few months after Donner’s Superman, but sitting through the two back-to-back would undoubtedly inspire a nasty case of déjà vu. Sometimes its adoration of Donner’s original works incredibly well, though. It’s a thrill to hear John Williams’ instantly recognizable orchestral score again, and reincorporating some digitally manipulated archival footage of Marlon Brando is a clever and effective touchstone.

The movie is littered with subtle nods to various incarnations of Superman, from the casting of Noel Neill and Jack Larson to an homage to the cover of Action Comics #1 . For months, I’d heard Superman Returns praised, assaulted, analyzed, and dissected from every conceivable angle. It’s such a polarizing movie that I wasn’t sure what my reaction would be when I got around to seeing it, but I never expected to feel so completely indifferent. Superman Returns is a movie I appreciate on a great many levels, but for something so enormously anticipated, just being okay doesn’t seem like enough.

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REVIEW: SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE

 

CAST

Christopher Reeve (Rear Window)
Marlon Brando (The Godfather)
Margot Kidder (The Amityville Horror)
Gene Hackman (Heartbreakers)
Ned Beatty (Rango)
Jackie Cooper (The Champ)
Glenn Ford (The Long Ride Home)
Terence Stamp (Yes Man)
Trevor Howard (Gandhi)
Marc McClure (Back To The Future)
Sarah Douglas (Puppet Master III)
Jack O’Halloran (King Kong 1976)
Valerie Perrine (What Women Want)
Maria Schell (Inside The Third Reich)
Phyllis Thaxter (The Longest Night)
Susannah York (Visitors)
Jeff East (Pumpkinhead)
Kirk Alyn (Superman 1948)
Noel Neill (Adventures of Superman)
Larry Hagman (Dallas)

 

“You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly!” That was the tag-line for 1978’s blockbuster film Superman. Touting both the innovative special effects and the exciting nature of the film, this was enough to get an unapologetic comic book geek like myself into the theaters to see the movie. At the time I enjoyed the film, mostly. While I was very disappointed in the ending, the rest of the film was a great ride that got me back into the theater for a second look. Of course I hadn’t known about the arduous shooting or the conflicts between the producer and the director, but that only showed up on screen indirectly. It has been over a decade since I saw Superman: The Movie and I was afraid that it wouldn’t hold up as well as I had remembered it. While there are some dated parts, the movie still is a lot of fun.


The movie starts on Krypton, where Jor-El (Marlon Brando) is sentencing three villains led by the traitorous General Zod to an eternity of imprisonment in the Phantom Zone. After his task has been completed, the doomed man once again insists that Krypton is going to explode in a matter of days, only to have the council laugh at him once more. Returning home, the scientist puts the finishing touches on the space craft that will save his only son, Kal-El. He finishes just before the planet disintegrates and launches his son towards a distant planet called Earth.

Three years later the craft lands in the field of John (Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter). They take the small tot who emerges and raise him as their own instilling a sense of honesty, truthfulness, and morality into the lad. They name him Clark and soon discover that he has “powers above and beyond those of mortal men,” and train him to hide these in order not to attract attention to himself.

Eventually Clark (Christopher Reeve) leaves home and goes to Metropolis. There he gets a job as a newspaper reporter alongside ace reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and photographer Jimmy Olsen. When danger strikes however, Clark sheds his 50’s business suit to reveal the red and blue costume of Superman.

It’s not long before danger does strike. The criminal genius Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) has a plan to make himself incredibly wealthy. He has bought up a lot of desert land just east of the San Andreas fault, land that will be worth millions once the nuclear missiles Lex has reprogrammed detonate on the fault line and cause much of California to sink into the ocean. The only person who can stop this mad man is Superman, but Lex has thought about that too. This is a really fun movie in a lot of ways. Even though the Man of Steel’s origin is known to almost everyone, seeing it play out on film is really enjoyable. Watching a baby Clark hold up a pickup truck when the jack slips is sure to bring a smile to viewer’s faces, likewise the scene where Clark outruns the high school kids in a car who were teasing him. Superman’s first deeds in Metropolis are also highly enjoyable and keep the movie moving along at a good clip.

Christopher Reeve does a fantastic job as Clark Kent/Superman. He has Clark’s nebbish qualities down pat while still being impressive as Superman, a trick that few other actors can pull off. (Even George Reeves was never convincing as Clark in the old Adventures of Superman TV show.) Clark’s ‘just off the farm’ act comes across as being believable and not a parody.

The special effects stand up very well, even today. Though the flying sequences lack the “wow” factor they had nearly 30 years ago, they don’t look hokey and dated at all. Superman still looks realistic when flying and the other effects come across as natural too. There are one or two effects that don’t work that well, when Luthor freezes Superman in a block of ice for example, and it’s interesting to note that these were left out of the theatrical cut.

That said there are some aspects of the film that don’t work so well. The goofy sided kick is a bit is dated now, even as it was when the film was made. At one point Lex Luthor even wonders out loud when he surrounds himself with idiots, something the audience had been wondering for a while.

The reprogramming of the nuclear missiles was also something viewers have to take with a grain of salt. The fact that military officers would leave nukes unguarded is rather laughable. The fact that Lex’s idiotic sidekicks could reprogram them is even harder to swallow.

The worst aspect of the film is the ending, and it’s not really the director’s fault. Originally Richard Donner was supposed to direct the first two Superman films, and he managed to shoot much of the sequel while directing this first movie. This was the formula that the producers, the father and son team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind, had used with much success on the two Musketeer movies they made in the mid-seventies. For whatever reason, the constant fighting with the director or just getting cold feet, the Salkinds at the last minute decided not to end this first Superman film with a cliffhanger. Originally Superman was supposed have shot one rocket into space which explodes and released the Kryptonian criminals from the beginning of the movie. That would have worked much better than how the film currently ends.

REVIEW: THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN – SEASON 1-6

 

MAIN CAST

George Reeves (Gone With The Wind)
Phyllis Coates (Gunsmoke)
Jack Larson (Young Paul Baroni)
John Hamilton (Captain America 1944)
Robert Shayne (The FLash 90s)
Noel Neill (Superman 1948)

untitled

RECURRING NOTABLE GUEST STARS

Herbert Rawlinson (Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe)
Stuart Randall (Laramie)
Aline Towne (Send Me No Flowers)
Frances Morris (The Big Clock)
Danni Sue Nolan (FLame of Youth)
Tom Fadden (Empire of The Ants)
Robert Rockwell (Our Miss Brooks)
Jeffrey Silver (The Young Stranger)
Maudie Prickett (Hazel)
Allene Roberts (The Red House)
Pierre Watkin (Meet John Doe)
Effie Laird (House By The River)
Tristram Coffin (King of The Rocket Men)
Richard Benedict (Ocean’s 11)
Milton Kibbee (In Old California)
Dan Seymour (Key Largo)
Veda Ann Borg (Guys and Dolls)
Leonard Penn (Batman and Robin 1949)
Gloria Saunders (O.S.S.)
Jane Adams (Batman and Robin 1949)
Billy Curtis (The Terror of Tiny Town)
Jeff COrey (Conan The Destroyer)
Jean Willes (Gypsy)
Hugh Beaumont (The Mole People)
Eve Brenner (Walk of Shame)
Norma Varden (The Sound of Music)
Dona Drake (Road to Morocco)
Sterling Hollowy (Alice In Wonderlan 1951)
Doris Singleton (I Love Lucy)
Ruta Lee (Funny Face)
Mickey Simpson (Wagon Master)
Herb Vigran (Benji)
Trevor Bardette (Gun Crazy)
Chuck Connors (Airplane 2)
PhilTead (Six of a Kind)
Elizabeth Patterson (Pal Joey)
Gloria Talbott (All That Heaven Allows)
Robert Lowery (Batman and Robin (1949)
Joi Lansing (Touch of Evil)
title1032For a 1950s kids this program was astounding brilliant adaptation of iconic character. first season of Adventures of Superman was previously unseen by Savant except through the theatrical pilot show Superman and the Mole Men. By the time I found out the series existed it was already 1959 and the 104 episodes had probably all been recycled three times in reruns. As it turns out, this first season has an unfamiliar but good Lois Lane in Phyllis Coates and plays much more like a crime serial than the later color seasons.
The disc set tells the whole tale of Superman on television. According to New Wave’s making-of interview documentary, producer Robert Maxwell filmed Superman and the Mole Men with the cast and crew planned for his TV show. It was released by Lippert films and was a moderate kiddie success; Daily Variety’s review called the film “sock moppet bait.” Then Maxwell had to film the entire first season — 26 episodes — before landing a network spot. Copyrighted in 1951 and ’52, the show didn’t premiere until 1953.

As pointed out in the documentary, Adventures of Superman was more crime-oriented than science fiction. Some episodes feature strange inventions, as with a mind-control device in The Mind Machine. More often than not Lois or Jimmy Olsen is held by despicable gangsters, a problem solved when the news finally reaches Clark Kent. He leaps into a ‘storeroom’ and zooms off to the rescue. That stirring anthem blasts in along with a flying sound effect that reminds us of Dorothy Gale’s tornado. Crook confrontations usually include a demonstration of Superman’s invulnerability in the form of a bent knife or “bullets have no effect” scene (no animated bullet ricochets yet). Our hero often trades blows with the bad guys, who fall as if kayoed by your average serial hero. The way Reeves throws the punches we expect to see their heads come off!

Phyllis Coates is a spunky Lois Lane. She takes no guff from anyone and also tries her hand at beating up on bad guys. She comes off as essentially humorless, with only a few wonderings why she’s never seen Kent and Superman together. The jokes are all reserved for Reeves and his literally closeted alter ego. The ‘mild mannered’ Clark Kent is forever smiling and seems to derive plenty of satisfaction from knowing a secret nobody else does.

Capable actor Jack Larson plays Jimmy Olsen as an immature clown with a good heart. Forever clueless, he can be depended on to ask the dumb questions so that Clark Kent can dispense plot exposition. Several episodes center on Olsen’s personal adventures, which play like Hardy Boys stories featuring one rather dense Hardy Boy.

Production values are on the dire side but they were generous for Televsion in 1952. It’s not unusual to see characters throw bold shadows onto sagging theatrical backdrops. Overall the direction is pretty peppy; if I remember correctly the added expense of color made the later seasons much more static and primitive-looking overall. In keeping with the crime theme, many episodes have nice low-key lighting schemes.The minimal effects range from “okay” to “so-so” to “what the heck was that?” Reeves is good on the springboard launches and gymnastic one-point landings. Some flying shots are acceptable but a lot of others simply matte a sideways image of a standing Reeves into whatever background is handy, and look like embarrassing mistakes. When one makes 26 TV episodes on spec there is no room for second tries, let alone R&D.


There are some questionable plot points as well. The docu extra covers an amazing blunder in an episode in which two crooks find out Clark Kent’s secret identity. Superman parks them on a high mountain while he sorts out the rest of the plot, telling them to stay put ’til he gets back. They try to climb down instead, and fall … to their deaths! The show offers nothing more about them – they’re just forgotten!

The first episode is called Superman On Earth and covers the familiar ground shown in the first act of the Richard Donner / Christopher Reeve 1978 effort … on 1/1000th the budget. Krypton is one throne room and Jor-El’s lab and it’s all pretty perfunctory, but the cornball drama still tugs on the heartstrings when old Mrs. Kent finds the baby in the rocket. Events are rushed through so quickly that young Clark Kent has time to grow up (“Gee, why do I have to be different from everybody else?”), come to Metropolis, get hired and rescue a man clinging to the underside of a blimp all in 25 minutes. Don’t ask. It’s all quite charming.


The TV show reprises Superman and the Mole Men as a first season ender, breaking it into two parts. I wonder if this example gave Walt Disney some ideas! The feature takes an interesting liberal point of view, with an anti-vigilante civics lesson. The Mole Men are midgets from the center of the Earth that show up and are immediately judged by some irate townspeople (including blacklistee-to-be Jeff Corey) as hostiles to be eradicated. Superman’s only role in the movie is to defend the American Way, which in this case includes protecting innocent aliens from paranoid, trigger-happy yahoos. With that sensitivity, it’s suprising that so little is made of the fact that Kal-El himself is an alien immigrant to the United States. He’s from another galaxy, yet he appreciates our freedoms. I guess he has to count himself lucky that he was in human form, specifically Anglo human form. Superman may be corny, but its sentiments ring true … he’s a hero championing values we still cherish, theoretical though they may be.

Like the first season, episodes play like single-chapter serials, crammed with action, mystery and intrigue. Superman (Reeves) “fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American Way” with the help of his alter-ego, “mild-mannered” reporter Clark Kent (also Reeves), who works for gruff Daily Planet editor Perry White (John Hamilton) and alongside perky Lois Lane (Noel Neill) and cub reporter Jimmy Olson (Jack Larson).

Adventures of Superman – The Complete Second Season is much like the first. Compared with those that followed, Year Two is in black and white, and is slightly more adult in terms of content. The big difference from the first season is the series’ single major cast change: Noel Neill replaced Phyllis Coates in the pivotal role of Lois Lane. Neill had played Lois before, in two 15-chapter Superman serials produced by Columbia: Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs. Superman (1950). Unlike Coates, Neill has remained very actively involved in Superman fandom after the show ended, appearing at comic book conventions and making cameos in the 1978 Superman movie, and again this year in Superman Returns.

Despite being too heroic as Clark, Reeves’ Superman is unfailingly appealing. In a decade of iconic heroes – The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers – his Superman fit right in. Jack Larson’s Jimmy is also dead-on, with just the right balance of enthusiasm, naivete, and gregariousness. The later films reinterpreted Clark/Superman and Lois, but their scripts were wise in keeping the flavor of the television Jimmy and Perry White largely unchanged.

Episodes run the gabit from inspired to flaccid. Some are exciting and imaginatively conceived, while others seem content to simply play out a relatively simple idea in flat medium shots on colorless sets. One can forgive the constant recycling of sets and the rudimentary special effects given the budgetary limitations of early television, especially for a syndicated (non-Network) series such as this, but the same drab angles of the Daily Planet’s offices and hallways do become wearisome. Instead of filming one episode after another, a batch of shows were apparently shot at the same time, with all of the scenes in Perry White’s office for a bunch of shows shot one day, then all of the scenes in Clark’s office shot the next, etc. For this reason, the actors rarely change their wardrobe, and understandably struggled remembering what was going on from one script to the next. This more than anything accounts for the occasional stylistic schizophrenia apparent in shows like “Panic in the Sky,” which is dynamically shot in some scenes, barely adequate in others.

Considering how little Reeves’ appearance changes from Clark Kent to Superman, why Lois and Jimmy don’t instantly recognize Clark as Superman is one of television’s great mysteries. Season two shows, however, broach this subject now and then. In one episode Clark and Lois are involved in a car accident; his suit is torn, revealing his Superman costume underneath, requiring some fast-thinking on the superhero’s part. In another good show a criminal tries to blackmail Superman with a photograph showing Clark changing into Superman in an alley. How this is resolved is cleverly handled.


These Superman episodes are the ones we remember from. The characters are charmingly inconsistent. Lois is sometimes given cute or revealing business to conduct, but her part is just as often limited to little more than a handful of grumpy dialogue lines. Perry White is still after Jimmy Olsen to stop calling him “Chief”, when the real head-scratcher is wondering why Olsen still has a job. Jimmy only intermittently takes photos. He seems a total dimwit incapable of holding a thought more than a few minutes, or even writing a sentence on paper. The stories vary in charm and interest with the usual juvenile ideas — silly crooks, over-eager “gee whiz” children — but for every middling plotline there’s an episode with a clever idea. One invention makes people think they’re upside down, enabling crooks to do their stuff. In the color opener for the third season, a professor’s time machine takes the principal players back to the Stone Age for some forgettable dramatics. We also see an interesting demonstration of Political Correctness from the early 1950s. When Superman finds himself in the company of an impressionable adolescent (the actor must be at least 20!) he sternly states that only Superman can fly, and that nobody should try to do something so dangerous. Shades of the old Peter Pan furor about children imitating their fantasy heroes!

The usual buzz about the color Supermans is that they’re cheap, and the style of filming bears that out to some degree. With color film rolling through the cameras every budgetary corner seems to be cut. The cave and jungle sets from the Time Travel show are recycled for the “pirate adventure” episode and another about helping an old Indian pass a qualifying test for Chief-hood. A vault door appears several times as a trap, whether to hide Lois and Jimmy or to freeze Superman. Interestingly, nuclear bomb shelters figure in several of the stories.

The most obvious budget shortcut is the re-use of special effects sequences. Superman’s flying scenes in season one consisted of rather pitiful rear projection setups, perhaps mandated by Reeves’ insistence after an early accident that he not be suspended by wires. Seasons 3 and 4 re-use the same four or five process shots ad infinitum through the ‘magic’ of optical duplication: Get a good take of Supe flying in front of some buildings, an empty sky; up and down, and print up enough dupe negs to last the season. Whether he’s flying across town or to Alaska, it’s always the same shot. When Superman carries someone with him in flight, we’re never shown the key action. George Reeves performs rather adroit trapeze landings for entrances (he never looks too out of breath) and vaults out of scenes with the aid of hidden springboards. After watching Chris Reeve gazelle out of shots like a flying Nureyev, those champion-diver launches now seem funny. We wonder why George Reeves doesn’t smash through whatever floor he’s bouncing on.

Producer Ellsworth skimps everywhere he can. Clark Kent almost always enters the storeroom to change costumes in the same duped stock shot peeking around an office corner, and the same goes for his Daily Planet landings. It looks as though scenes for multiple episodes taking place on the same set were filmed at the same time where possible — all the Perry White office material, all the time-wasting in Clark Kent’s office. Jimmy Olsen gets his usual three or four signature episodes, as when he wins a million dollars or gets to play a Burgonian prince in a story about baddies de-stabilizing a European monarchy. He even does the ‘evil twin’ routine, playing himself and a criminal look-alike. Some of the stories are on the weak side. Crooks try to fleece people by running a rigged jelly bean counting contest, and a wild west bully threatens to shoot Jimmy by sundown. In the freezer-threat episode, Superman takes sides with Daily Planet editor White on a local election. Kal-El insures that gangster thugs aren’t intimidating the voters, and then makes his prejudices known by asking a voter for whom he’s voting!


Even John Hamilton’s Mr. White and Robert Shayne’s Inspector Henderson get spotlight episodes, although they’re not the most imaginative either. Crooks make White think he’s crazy by conjuring up Great Caesar’s Ghost, while bad guys frame Henderson. Old favorite George E. Stone is a weasely crook in a few episodes, along with Myron Healey, John Doucette and Paul Burke as more fumbling thugs. The best surprise guest actors are Gloria Talbott I Married a Monster from Outer Space as an heiress tricked into decoying Superman away from a robbery, and Chuck Conners, who makes an excellent yokel with the name Sylvester Superman.

The wildest episode by far is The Wedding of Superman. Lois hasn’t been given much attention all season, but here she’s the center of a dream identical to the wish-fulfillment plotlines in the comic books. The whole show turns out to be a figment of her unconscious, as Lois imagines that Clark, Superman and even Inspector Henderson are gaga over her. The critical altar scene is handled very well, although there must have been many a groan as the dream gag (actually extremely transparent) was revealed. Lois tells the story directly to the camera, and it’s quite odd that she’d come to the obvious conclusion about Clark’s secret identity in the dream, only to dismiss it when she wakes up. It’s the only episode where Lois doesn’t have a sour or defeatist remark to make, somewhere. As an added fillip, in a brief bit part the show features none other than Ed Wood’s angora paramour Dolores Fuller!

By the time Adventures of Superman began production on its last two seasons (that aired during 1957-58), the series more or less had overcome its tight budgetary restrictions by evolving into a veritable universe unto itself. And it was a wacky universe indeed, operating under its own screwy story logic often totally disconnected from any semblance of reality. That gangsters would watch their bullets bounce off Superman’s chest then, having emptied their cartridges, throw their empty guns at the superhero, as if that would stop him, or that Superman’s pals never seemed to realize that the Man from Kypton and mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent were one and the same, mattered not one iota to its legion of young viewers.


For fans of the comic books, the big-budget movies and TV shows of recent decades, Adventures of Superman rightly appears quaint and at times depressingly cheap, but if you stick with it, chances are you’ll find that it has a peculiar but very real charm all its own. The film Hollywoodland, about Superman actor George Reeves’ last years as a struggling actor and a private eye’s investigation following Reeves’ death (barely a year after the last show aired), adopts a curiously contemptuous attitude toward the show and especially its fan base. Though young children took its wild stories at face value, for many adults the very charm of the show is its good-natured goofiness.

Adventures of Superman is one of the most iconically ’50s/Eisenhowerian programs of its era. Superman was, after all, fighting not only for truth and justice, but also for “the American Way.” Instead of super-villains like Lex Luthor, Superman’s foes were more likely to be communist types, and ironically enough union activist Robert Shayne, the actor who played Superman’s ally Inspector Henderson of the Metropolis Police, was during its run subpoenaed to appear before The House Un-American Activities Committee and nearly lost his role were it not for members of the cast and crew who rushed to Shayne’s defense. A wonderful example of this very ’50s tone is “The Atomic Captive,” a Cold War masterpiece. After Russian fifth columnists fail to bring back a Russian-immigrant nuclear scientist (and loyal naturalized American citizen), Daily Planet reporters Jimmy Olson (Jack Larson) and Lois Lane (Noel Neill) drive out to the desert to interview him. However, the scientist is dying of radiation poisoning, and so “hot” his mere touch is likewise fatal. Jimmy and Lois rush in, and naturally ignore his pleas not to go near him, each pawing the man with reckless abandon.

When the scientist tells them they’ve just given themselves a fatal dose of radiation, all Jimmy can do is turn to Lois and say, “Golly Miss Lane, I guess we’re done for.” Making matters worse, they then drive out into the desert, taking a short cut through “ground zero” at a nuclear test site, wrongly figuring they wouldn’t possibly reschedule that H-Bomb test they had flown out to cover in the first place. Well, they were wrong, and take the full force of a nuclear blast, just like Glenn Manning in The Amazing Colossal Man.  This complete lack of common sense on the part of Lois and Jimmy is used throughout these later seasons, apparently as a kind of shorthand to propel the narrative forward without the need for lengthy (and logical) character motivation. In “The Perils of Superman,” an imposing man in a lead mask (Michael Fox) shows up at the Daily Planet to grimly announce that he’s devised fiendishly imaginative means to “liquidate” Lois, Jimmy, Clark, and Planet editor Perry White (John Hamilton). Within a minute or two after he leaves, Lois and Perry are blithely off to a meeting, business as usual. It’s no surprise then that they’re kidnapped the minute they get into Lois’ car. Then again, if nothing happened to them, there’d be no show.

The budget precluded Superman actually performing feats as grand as “changing the course of mighty rivers,” but the production values on these later shows is better than those when the show began. Seasoned B-movie directors like Lew Landers and Howard Bretherton helmed episodes, as did star George Reeves.

Though the Adventures of Superman’s scripts leave all logic at the door, stories in these last 26 episodes are pleasingly close in spirit to the light-hearted tone of that era’s comic books.

REVIEW: ATOM MAN VS SUPERMAN

 

 

CAST

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.

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REVIEW: SUPERMAN (1948)

CAST

Kirk Alyn (When Worlds Collide)
Noel Neill (Music Man)
Tommy Bond (Five Little Peppers at Home)
Carol Forman (Blackhawk)
George Meeker (Road to Rio)
Jack Ingram (The Cisco Kid)
Pierre Watkin (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)

we are taking a look at the big blue boy scout’s first attempt on the film screen. That’s right, it’s time to take a look at the first Superman movie serial starring Kirk Alyn. Released in 1948 by Columbia Pictures, the serial was produced by Sam Katzman who produced many film serials starring superheros (and just about every single one I’ve reviewed so far) and contains Kirk Alyn as Clark Kent / Superman.

The serial stays very much true to the origin of Kal-El being launched from Krypton by his father Jor-El, but the only differences are that Jor-El is portrayed as more of a villain that actually caused the destruction of Krypton because of his science experiments and even considered using his son in a prototype rocket to see if it could carry a Kryptonian into space. So the story goes like you remember, Kal-El’s rocket arrives on Earth, the Kent’s pick him up, they take the blanket he was in and made a costume for him out of it when he gets old enough to be a reporter and so on. The plot of the serial is okay, but the only problem is that Superman finds out he is from Krypton for no apparent reason because the rocket he was in explodes mere seconds after Pa Kent rescues him from it thus destroying almost any evidence that he was from the planet Krypton other than the blanket. This is later explained when a meteor from the destroyed planet of Krypton lands on Earth and is discovered by Dr. Leeds who somehow knows it’s from Krypton and thus calls it Kryptonite. Of course, this rock affects Superman and its his Achilles heel throughout the whole serial. At the same time a scientist named Dr. Graham invents a machine that creates natural reducer rays that create a beam that can harness enough energy to trigger an atomic blast. Of course if you saw any of the superhero serials that we review on this website it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there is going to be a villain that is going to steel the device.

That villain or should I say villainess is The Spider Lady, played by actress Carol Forman who also played the villainess Laska in the movie serial Blackhawk also starring Kirk Alyn. The Spider Lady wants to steal the machine in order to rule the underworld and later learns that Superman is helpless against Kryptonite, so she figures that she could combine the Kryptonite with the device in order for it to officially kill Superman. The way she finds out about the Kryptonite is earlier in the serial when Clark reveals his identity to Dr. Leeds after the discovery of the Kryptonite and is overheard by one of Leeds’ assistants who decides to make some money by offering the information to The Spider Lady for some money.

The majority of the serial revolves around Clark working for the Daily Planet while Lois and Jimmy get into trouble until Superman bails them out. One thing I enjoy about the serial is that most of the action scenes don’t involve long take fist fights and instead focuses on Superman using his powers. One thing that gets really annoying is the fact that the filmmakers use Kryptonite almost every time when they film Superman in an action scene in order to make a decent buildup to the cliffhanger at the end of the episode. It gets old and tiring really fast but when you’re the man of steel, it’s hard to lose to two-bit thugs.

Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill do a great job of portraying Clark/Superman and Lois respectively, bringing a lot of tension and chemistry to the characters and some childish antics between the two. One of the best parts of the serial is the fact that Lois always tries to trump Clark in his stories but ends up getting saved by Superman AND also having her story stolen by Clark as a way for some type of reward for Clark. One of the reasons why Kirk does such a great job is that he adds a touch of Smallville to the Clark Kent/Superman character in that he adds that young charming farm kid-like attitude towards the character. He’s just so bright and chipper that you really feel he’s this kid from the Midwest really trying to make it in the big city and he stands out from the rest of the characters, and it’s not because he has super powers. Noel Neill even brings a feisty attitude to Lois that still resonates today in the comic book and you feel that she really nails the part of Lois.

Now before I end this review, I feel that I should probably voice my opinion on the flight scenes portrayed by Superman in the serial. If you don’t know, many fans of Superman are generally disappointed by the serial because of the fact that Kirk Alyn does not fly in the serial but is in fact, replaced by a cartoon every time he goes to fly. Even before I saw the serial for the first time, it took me years to finally stir enough interest to watch due to the fact that the only thing I heard about it was that the flight scenes suck because Superman doesn’t actually fly. To be honest, it doesn’t really bother me that much. Don’t get me wrong, I would have much preferred to see Kirk Alyn being yanked on a harness uncomfortably than seeing a cartoon,(because we already have the Fleischer cartoons for that) but the animation is okay and it is a little neat to see the animators splice the footage in with the live action scenes. Supposedly Kirk Alyn was supposed to wear a harness in order to film some flight scenes but later complained that it was really uncomfortable and Katzman did not like the test footage, so instead found it cheaper to fire the special effects team created to do the flight scenes and instead hired animators.

Despite all of its shortcomings, Superman is still a great serial to watch mostly due to its great cast and special effects throughout the whole production. The costume on Kirk Alyn looks good and the serial doesn’t rely on fist fights for their action scenes and still manages to pull off a few good cliffhangers. So if you got a couple of hours to kill and if you don’t mind a flying cartoon Superman, then I would give this serial a watch