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Tuesday, July 20, 2010


One of the interesting side-effects of the encroaching extinction of video rental/sales shops in the wake of NetFlix and Amazon is that every now and then a store will pop up that sells of loads of brand new but unsold DVDs, presumably stuff that was gathering moss in warehouses someplace, for dirt-cheap prices. While perusing such a place the other day I picked up a boxed set of the old black-and-white Superman serials starring Kirk Alyn (the first live-action Superman on film), specifically SUPERMAN (1948) and ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN (1950), for the super-low price of $6.99. It's a four-disc set, two discs per serial, and though the 1948 serial is rather lackluster, even by the standards of its day, its followup is a marked improvement and very entertaining.

Kirk Alyn, the screen's first in-the-flesh Superman.

The original Superman serial relied on the thrill of seeing the Man of Steel in live-action for the first time rather than a solid script full of wonder and amazing feats that were worthy of the then ten-year-old hero, instead pitting him against the pistol-toting fedoraed gunsels common to the serial genre, led by a rather rote criminal mastermind known as the Spider-Lady (who admittedly looked great in a domino mask and slinky dress that fairly screamed "femme fatale," and she also had great taste in decor for her lair, what with its huge electrified spiderweb and all).

Noel Neill, the screen's first and (in my opinion) definitive live-action Lois Lane.

Other than Kirk Alyn — whose Superman/Clark Kent I rank at third place, following George Reeves and Christopher Reeve, who is simply impossible to beat in the roles of Clark or Superman — the 1948 serial is notable for the first live-action depiction of Superman's origin, 1950's ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN television series regular Noel Neill's debut as Lois Lane — for many, including myself, Neill was the definitive version of the character and a glorious pain in the ass while at it — former OUR GANG regular Tommy Bond as an inappropriately imposing-looking Jimmy Olsen, and the movie debut of Kryptonite, depicted as a huge chunk of glowing translucent rock that I bet would look like the world's largest sour apple Jolly Rancher if seen in color.

As previously stated, SUPERMAN was no great shakes, and the one most oft-cited major flaws that it possesses is its truly awful flying effects. To be fair, flying effects for Superman were rarely done convincingly until the ill-advised SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006), a film whose sole saving grace was its excellent special effects, but the filmmakers in the case of the serials would show Superman about to leap into the air, only to have him turn into a poorly and very obviously animated cartoon figure, a move that quite literally removes the viewer from their willing suspension of disbelief. THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL (1941) predated SUPERMAN by seven years and features vastly superior flying effects involving a very convincing dummy standing in for the Big Red Cheese, and one would think that the technology would have been stepped up a few notches in the years separating the two serials. But perhaps that's an unfair comparison to make, because THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL is simply a better serial in every way and is deservedly hailed as one of the very best that the genre has to offer, an appraisal that the Superman serials only receive from Superman nostalgists. Anyway, now that you know all the pertinent info on the first one, let's get to ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN.

Another cinema first: Lyle Talbot as Lex Luthor.

Having had two years to presumably think over the numerous deficiencies of their first go at the Man of Steel, the filmmakers came back with a much better chapter play, bringing audiences the kind of briskly-paced adventure that Superman fans had every right to expect. While the crooks straight from central casting are still on hand, this time around they are in the employ of Superman's arch-enemy, evil scientific genius Lex Luthor (Lyle Talbot), aka the bucket-headed "Atom Man," and the bald baddie gives our hero much more of a challenge than Gene Hackman's version ever did. (NOTE: I hate Hackman's Luthor, but I blame the script for that and not his acting skills.) This early Luthor is coldly intelligent and does not come off at all as "mad" per se, but rather as a great mind who doesn't give a fuck about laws or common decency, and as such he's a bad guy I can totally get behind. In fact, it seemed to me like he was enjoying frustrating Superman instead of just robbing stuff and kidnapping people, which only added to the fun. Luthor brings to bear against our hero devices I did not expect to see in a Superman story of this relatively early vintage, among which can be counted a "space transporter" that allows him to teleport his henchmen to safe locations in the blink of an eye just after they've committed some nefarious act, synthetic Kryptonite, a flying saucer, and, most interestingly to fans of the comics, "the Empty Doom," a portal that transports unwilling victims to another dimension where they are rendered non-corporeal and out of Luthor's hair (or lack thereof) until electronically recalled. This concept is basically the same as the Phantom Zone, which later figures prominently in SUPERMAN (1978) and SUPERMAN II (1981), and predates its introduction in the comics by eleven years. The only real difference is the absence of a pack of fetish gear-wearing Kryptonian sociopaths residing within its extra-dimensional confines.

I had not seen ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN in around twenty-two years and my memories of it as the better of the Superman series proved sound. In fact, I enjoyed it even more this time around and I urge any who are curious about early/primitive big screen depictions of Superman and his exploits to check it out.

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