I decided to get out the boxed set of the two Superman serials made by Columbia (but now owned by Warner Bros.) in 1948 and 1950 and start screening the second one, Atom Man vs. Superman. The critical consensus on this one is it’s a better movie than the previous Superman serial from 1948, both of them starring Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel (though rather churlishly not crediting him; evidently Columbia thought kids in the day would be credulous enough to believe that not only did Superman really exist, he was playing himself in these movies!), and so far that’s proving to be true, at least partly because the film didn’t need to give us a lot of tiresome exposition about who Superman really was and where he came from. It launches right into its action, depicting a series of crimes in which elaborate scientific gadgets are used — which leads Clark Kent, a.k.a. Superman, to deduce that renegade scientist Lex Luthor (Lyle Talbot, wearing one of the least convincing skullcaps ever put on an actor to make him look bald — ironically Talbot became so identified with Luthor that for the next 15 years or so Joe Shuster and the other people drawing the Superman comics made Luthor look like Talbot!) is involved.
Superman almost instantly discovers Luthor’s cave with his X-ray vision (one wonders why Luthor didn’t take the basic precaution of lining the cave walls with lead) and arrests him, so he’s in prison midway through the first episode, “Superman Flies Again.” Only you can’t keep a good-bad guy down: Luthor’s henchmen are still in the cave and they’re using a gizmo he invented that can dematerialize matter and rematerialize it in another place (essentially the Star Trek transporter 16 years early), so any time he wants to Luthor can have his henchmen beam him out of prison and then beam him back in again before he’s missed. There’s also a super-villain named “Atom Man” who’s harnessed the power of nuclear energy to run his own high-tech gizmos for nefarious purposes, and the serial seems to be aimed at keeping us in suspense as to whether Luthor and Atom Man are criminal allies or one and the same person. (The imdb.com page on Atom Man vs. Superman — odd that the title gives the bad guy top billing! — gives it away by crediting Lyle Talbot with playing both.) Spencer Gordon Bennet, an old serial hand, was the director, and while he sometimes comes off in serial-buff books as the serial director everyone loved to hate, he’s actually quite good, keeping the show fast-moving and avoiding the dull longueurs between action sequences that often afflicted the rival serials from Republic. The writers are also part of the old gang — George Plympton, Joseph Poland and David Mathews (Charles couldn’t resist joking about the similarity of the name to the modern rock musician Dave Matthews, but Mathews with one “n” was actually quite a good writer whose script for the Lucille Ball vehicle The Magic Carpet — also a Sam Katzman production — managed a quite engaging balancing act between appealing to kids taking this Arabian Nights stuff seriously and adults who could see and enjoy it as camp) — and so far they’ve managed to come up with some inventive sequences even though the cliffhangers of the first two episodes (the ones we watched last night), “Superman Flies Again” and “Atom Man Appears” (in an uncomfortable-looking metal helmet that seems to anticipate the dress of Dr. Doom in the Fantastic Four comics), were a bit disappointing.
With a hero who’s virtually invulnerable, about the only way to do a cliffhanger was to put one of his friends in mortal danger, and that’s what the writers did here. In episode one Jimmy Olsen has been kidnapped by two of the bad guys, operating a truck supposedly from Metropolis TV (one gets the impression from this movie that the TV people were anxious not only to out-compete the Daily Planet but to use violence to put it out of business altogether!), and the baddies beam themselves out of the truck and then blow it up (it turns out that they beamed Olsen out of the truck, too, because their assignment was to kidnap rather than kill him — though they don’t do anything with him that advances their plot one whit!), and in episode two Lois Lane takes a header out of a tall building. Atom Man vs. Superman had a marginally bigger effects budget than its predecessor — there are a few shots of Kirk Alyn perched against a backdrop of sky to bolster the illusion that he’s flying (but he still turns into an animated cartoon every time the plot requires him to move through the air) — and a surprisingly artful use of stock footage: in episode one, Luthor threatens to blow up the Metropolis Bridge, and I found myself wondering whether Columbia was going to use the famous film of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington state. This bridge actually collapsed in 1940, and a pair of amateur filmmakers caught the collapse with a home movie camera and then sold their footage to a newsreel company — and so it wasn’t a surprise to see their famous film appear in this movie representing the Metropolis Bridge that Luthor collapsed with one of his atomic-powered ray guns, complete with an artful sequence in which the police are able to walk on the bridge long enough to rescue a woman trapped in a car that was resting on the bridge when it finally self-destructed. (The real occupant of the car was a man, Tacoma News Tribune editor Leonard Coatsworth, who fortunately recognized what was happening and walked out of his car and back over the bridge to safety before it finally sank into the water.) Superman is shown under the bridge, holding it together long enough for the cops to rescue the woman before he lets go and the bridge collapses completely. — 5/11/13
I screened the next two episodes in sequence of the Atom Man vs. Superman serial made by Columbia in 1950 (but now owned, and released on DVD by, Warner Bros. — Warners bought the rights to the Superman character when they acquired DC Comics and they and Columbia’s current owner, Sony, settled on the rights for the Superman and Batman serials Columbia had made under license from DC in the 1940’s, with Warners getting the two Superman serials and Sony getting the two Batman serials — and quite frankly I think Sony got the better of the deal!). The episodes we watched last night were three and four, “Ablaze in the Sky!” — referring to a fire at an oil field which Superman puts out — and “Superman Meets Atom Man!” They were generally quite cleverly done, but in the script for these episodes (the writing credits for the entire serial went to George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland and David Mathews, the last the writer of the very engaging 1951 Columbia kids’ adventure movie The Magic Carpet) it’s harder than usual for anyone to believe that Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen can have so many interactions with both Clark Kent and Superman without realizing that they’re the same person (or being, or whatever). The gimmicks for this one include a gangster firing a bullet at Clark Kent and it bouncing off him — later he says that the magic coin invented by Lex Luthor (Lyle Talbot) deflected the bullet, Lois says, “In that case, the coin would be dented,” and Kent a.k.a. Superman obligingly dents the coin with his super-fingers before handing it to Lois. There’s also a scene in which a bomb planted by one of Luthor’s henchmen on the plane Clark, Lois and Jimmy are flying to see scientist Professor Stone (Edward Hearn) to have the magic coin — when activated, it triggers Luthor’s teleportation machine so the person carrying it can be disassembled into his or her component atoms and reassembled somewhere else (Luthor essentially invented the Star Trek transporter five centuries early!) — analyzed is about to go off. Clark ducks to the back of the plane, saying he needs to check if there are any parachutes in case they have to bail out — only he changes to Superman, gets rid of the bomb, then opens the door of the plane and re-enters as Clark Kent, to derision from Lois and Jimmy over his cowardice as compared to the heroism of Superman. (The gimmick of making Clark Kent such a milquetoast in order to contrast him to Superman got really overdone over the years.)
Nonetheless — and despite the continued silliness of having the live-action Superman (Kirk Alyn) change into a cartoon figure every time the script obliges him to fly (as the resolution of the episode two cliffhanger a cartoon Superman rescues a cartoon Lois Lane as she’s falling out of a building) — Atom Man vs. Superman is a quite good serial, consistently interesting and with some surprisingly creative cliffhangers. The one at the end of episode three features Professor Stone, who’s just been visited by some of Luthor’s thugs and hid out from them inside his wall safe and is therefore unaware that Clark, Lois and Jimmy have vanquished the thugs, pulling a few levers and setting off fires inside his home, apparently willing to burn the whole place down to kill the people who invaded his home, knocked him out and impersonated him — Clark has to do a quick change to Superman and rescue his friends, and afterwards Stone denounces the whole thing as a Daily Planet circulation stunt and refuses to analyze the coin (good for him — though one would think there are other scientists in Metropolis who could do the job) or cooperate in any other way. The episode four cliffhanger is also a doozy; learning that Lois Lane is holding one of his coins, Luthor sets his gizmo to beam her into his secret redoubt — and Superman traces her there with a chunk of fake Kryptonite he’s planted in a museum and announced to the world so Luthor would send his gang to steal it, only Luthor, in his “Atom Man” guise (a thick, heavy helmet that’s lead-lined so Superman can’t use his X-ray vision to discern his real identity), tells Superman that in order to save Lois, he’s going to have to stand in the “Master Arc” which will disassemble his atoms, zap him into space and thereby kill him without a trace. He steps in the Master Arc, Luthor pulls the switch — and Superman completely disappears! Just how are the writers going to get him out of that one? — 5/15/13
I screened episodes five and six of the 1950 Columbia serial Atom Man vs. Superman, a surprisingly engaging late serial starring Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel (he got a few process shots of his body laying horizontally against a backdrop of sky to suggest he was flying, but most of the flying shots were done the way they were in the first Columbia Superman serial from 1948, with Alyn turning into a cartoon version of the character whenever the script obliged Superman to fly). The episodes were called “Atom Man Tricks Superman” and “Atom Man’s Challenge,” and had some surprisingly clever bits I suspect were the work of David Mathews, the third-billed writer, who brought some of his mordant camp sensibility to the task of doing a serial. The neatest bit was the scene in which Lex Luthor (Lyle Talbot, probably wishing his scientific genius could invent a time machine so he could go back to making movies with people like Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis and Ginger Rogers instead of Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill — little did he know that an association with Ed Wood awaited him just a few years later!) tricks Superman — the script toys with us and sometimes makes it seem we’re supposed to think Atom Man is a separate person while at other times it levels with us that Luthor and Atom Man are the same person (just as it makes it even harder to believe than usual that Clark Kent’s colleagues at the Daily Planet remain oblivious to the fact that he and Superman are the same person!).
Luthor sends the Planet a message, through his ability to jam all radio stations and crash the police frequency any time he chooses, that he’s waiting for a package at the Central Depot. Accordingly, Superman uses his X-ray vision to search all the packages at the Central Depot, including what appears to be an innocent shipment of nails. Only that’s Luthor’s trick: by getting Superman to use his X-ray vision on them, he’s transformed these ordinary nails into plutonium, an ingredient he needs to synthesize Kryptonite so he can annihilate Superman and continue his evil schemes without super-interference. Then Luthor realizes that he also needs radium for his synthetic Kryptonite (which makes a certain degree of serial-plot sense, since both radium and Kryptonite are green) and he sends his thugs out to steal it from the two places in Metropolis that have any, a hospital and a chemical company (the firm’s factory is called a “reduction plant,” and unless you remember your high-school chemistry you won’t know why: one of the most basic chemical reactions is called oxidation/reduction, opposite process that turn things either acid or alkaline by moving electrons between them; as the chemistry section of the about.com Web site defines it, “Oxidation occurs when a reactant loses electrons during the reaction. Reduction occurs when a reactant gains electrons during the reaction. This often occurs when metals are reacted with acid”).
What’s amazing is that the characters — both the good guys and the bad guys — are so blasé or ignorant about the dangers of handling radioactive materials that they freely carry around the radium in cardboard boxes, and at one point, when either Lois Lane steals it from the villains or the other way around (I can’t remember which), the recipient cheerily lifts the lid of the box to make sure it’s there. Handling radium that way in real life would be a good one-way ticket to a cancer ward! Though Atom Man vs. Superman is a bit too reliant on car chases for the action scenes — director Spencer Gordon Bennet was really fond of staging car chases on California’s vertiginous mountain roads — for the most part it’s great by serial standards, fast-moving and without the ponderous dullness between the action scenes that afflicted serials from Republic (though the Republic stunt guys were much better than those at other studios, which meant they could stage more and more elaborate fistfights as the action highlights), and also at least a bit more creative in the cliffhangers than their fellows at Republic even though the gimmick with which Superman escaped having his atoms blasted to bits by Luthor’s transporter at the end of episode four strained credibility even for a serial: it’s partly because he’s a Kryptonian and his atomic structure is different from that of Earthlings (which leads Luthor to work on increasing the power of his infernal gizmo so it will work on a Kryptonian) and partly because he moved so much faster than a normal human he made himself invisible, thereby appearing to “disappear” when the gizmo zapped him. — 5/16/13
Charles and I screened three more episodes of the Atom Man vs. Superman serial — chapters seven through nine, “At the Mercy of Atom Man,” “Into the Empty Doom,” and “Superman Crashes Through” — and once again were quite impressed not only by the (relatively) good production finish of these episodes (though Superman’s flights are still represented by turning Kirk Alyn into a cartoon character and back to a live actor again when he lands) but also by the imagination with which they were scripted, for which I largely credit David Mathews. He was the writer who did the 1951 film The Magic Carpet and, to my mind, did a superb balancing act with that script so the youngsters in the audience could take it seriously as an action-adventure film about Arabs while the parents who’d had to come with their kids could enjoy it as camp. He did a similar balancing act with Atom Man vs. Superman, keeping the serial just tongue-in-cheek enough to steer away from the leaden seriousness of all too many modern-day superhero films (though a bit of that crept into chapter 7, which contained a leaden flashback to the first chapter of the first Superman serial from 1948, in which Lex Luthor [Lyle Talbot], of all people, retells the story of Superman’s origins as a baby on the planet Krypton and his father Jor-El’s futile attempt to get the governing council of Krypton to build spaceships to evacuate the entire population to Earth — which sounds like it might actually be an interesting premise for an alternative version of the Superman myth in which the Kryptonians do migrate to Earth en masse, they’re all super-people in Earth’s much lower gravity, and the good Kryptonians have to fight off the bad Kryptonians while at the same time making sure they don’t lord it over the Earth people simply because they’re super and we’re not).
The main action in these episodes is that Luthor, a.k.a. Atom Man (though why the super-villain, as well as the superhero, needs a dual identity gets a bit mysterious), has managed to beam Superman into the Empty Doom — i.e., he’s scattered Superman’s atoms throughout outer space via his transporter (which is basically the same as the one the original Star Trek came up with 16 years later). This is something he tried to do in a previous episode but couldn’t because his transporter didn’t have enough nuclear energy to handle Superman’s denser atomic structure, but he’s beefed it up with plutonium (unwittingly created by Superman himself when he subjected ordinary-looking nails to radiation via his X-ray vision — that sounds like a David Mathews touch!) so this time he’s able to send half of Superman into space while the other half remains a ghostly presence on Earth, able to witness crimes happening but, because he’s incorporeal, not able to stop them. Eventually he reunites himself by summoning enough energy to make Lois Lane’s (Noel Neill) electronic typewriter go telepathically — earlier there’s been a nice scene in which Lois complains that her new high-tech typewriter doesn’t function, and Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond) rather snottily explains that it’s electric and therefore has to be plugged in first (to be flashed back to an era in which the electric typewriter was the highest-tech writing device available was really a trip!) — and Superman bids her and Jimmy summon the police to invade Luthor’s cave and throw the switch that will reverse the transporter and enable him to return to earth in one piece and with a physical body. Only Lois and Jimmy go themselves and get caught by Luthor’s men — one of whom has in the meantime finally figured out that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same (when Clark collapsed at the Daily Planet office while being exposed to Luthor’s synthetic Kryptonite and the person who’d planted it there — a Luthor thug disguised as a janitor — put two and two together), and by the end of episode eight, Lois, Jimmy and Perry White have figured it out too. Finally! Perry’s talked out of running a story exposing Superman’s incognito when Clark Kent phones him — though it’s really Jimmy Olsen impersonating Kent’s voice — but at least we don’t have to keep believing that these otherwise intelligent journalists are unable to figure out that their colleague Clark Kent and their friend Superman are the same person because they never see Clark and Superman at the same time. — 5/22/13
Charles and I ran the next two episodes in sequence of the Atom Man vs. Superman serial, “Atom Man’s Heat Ray” and “Luthor’s Strategy.” After the truly imaginative writing of the previous three episodes we’d watched the last night we had out the four-DVD set of both Superman serials, these two seemed to be disappointing: this time out the henchmen of Lex Luthor, a.k.a. Atom Man (and why the villain should have a dual identity is never quite explained), are out committing quite ordinary robberies and using one of Luthor’s Metropolis TV trucks as a distraction. The gimmick is that Lois Lane has been fired by the Daily Planet newspaper and hired by Metropolis TV, though midway through episode 10 it’s revealed that that’s just a blind; she’s secretly still working for the Planet on assignment to see if Luthor has indeed gone straight or is still involved in crime and using his TV enterprise as a cover for it. What’s more, one of Luthor’s henchmen overhears this while Lois is briefing Clark Kent and Jimmy Olsen in the Daily Planet building — where naturally they’re surprised to see her since they didn’t know she was still working there — and so Clark has to overpower the guy without showing off his super-powers, since for some reason only the writing committee (George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland and the genuinely interesting David Mathews) could explain, Lois, Jimmy and Perry White (along with one of the baddies) all figured out Clark Kent was Superman in episode 8 and then totally forgot it in episode 10. Add to that some relatively ordinary cliffhangers, including a so-called “heat ray” that’s really a gas gun (it heats up the bank vault in which the baddies have locked Lois and Jimmy and fills it full of toxic fumes — of course, Superman rescues them!) and this looks like one serial that’s starting to plod as it goes on — a common failing as it often seemed the writers and directors were losing interest as the production continued — but Atom Man vs. Superman is still quite a bit better than the serial average, and I’ve even come to like the camp cheesiness of those effects scenes in which Superman becomes a cartoon whenever the script obliges him to fly … and so does anyone or anything he’s carrying as he does so! — 5/27/13
Charles got in late from work last night and instead of a feature film we ran the twefth and thirteenth episodes of the 15-chapter serial Atom Man vs. Superman — a really impressive work by serial standards even though superhero action is one of the few things modern movies really do do better than classic-era ones (this was from 1950, the cusp of the classic era). After a falling-off of imagination from the writing committee (George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland and David Mathews) in episodes 10 and 11, they got a second wind as they neared the home stretch and came up with some lulus this time, from the chapter 10 cliffhanger (Superman has to carry both Lois Lane and her TV truck to safety after a dam bursts and threatens to drown her — the two male crew members with her ran for safety in time but she insisted on Getting That Story and staying as long as she dared, though frankly if you had a super-friend continually getting you out of jams you’d probably run more risks than we not similarly blessed people) to the “thermal ray” Lex Luthor has invented that can incinerate the Daily Planet building by remote control, and at the end of episode 13, a fully functioning spacecraft with which Luthor intends to rain havoc on the innocent citizens of Metropolis since Superman is temporarily distracted by the aftermath of the dam break.
The filmmakers’ special effects actually improved over the course of the movie — though live-action Superman Kirk Alyn (the first person to play Superman on screen in a live-action film; before Columbia made its first Superman serial in 1948, of which this was the follow-up, the only Superman films had been 17 one-reel cartoons made by the Fleischer Brothers between 1939 and 1941) still turns into a cartoon when the script requires that he fly, at least we get a few shots of Alyn (not his animated avatar) in front of a backdrop representing sky, with a wind machine blowing his hair and making it look like he’s making it through the air under his own power. What’s more, when the cartoon Superman picks up Lois’s truck, it’s a physical truck (a model) instead of an animated version, so at least they’d got down the effect of being able to combine real objects with animated characters and make them move in synch. The two episodes we watched last night are called “Atom Man Strikes!” and “Atom Man’s Flying Saucers” [sic] — Charles noted that the announcer at the end of chapter 12 gave chapter 13’s title as “Atom Man’s Flying Saucer,” but the singular is in fact correct because, at least in chapter 13, we only see one — oddly, since Atom Man does not in fact appear in either. Actually Atom Man is Lex Luthor in disguise, though despite the long-standing convention in superhero fiction that the superhero zealously guarded his ordinary non-super identity it’s unclear why the bad guy needed an incognito as well. It may have to do with the fact that Lex Luthor has been released from prison on parole and is claiming to be a legitimate TV network owner, though he orders his gang around and plans crimes whether he’s donned the Atom Man drag (a robe and an excruciatingly uncomfortable-looking metal helmet that I suspect inspired the design of Dr. Doom in the Fantastic Four comics) or not. Lois Lane has left the employ of the Daily Planet and taken a job with Metropolis TV, Luthor’s outfit, though back in episode ten it was revealed that she was still on Perry White’s payroll and she was actually infiltrating Luthor’s TV operation to see if he had genuinely gone legit or if the TV network was just a blind for Luthor’s continued crimes.
As it turns out, Luthor is still planning crimes; he sends Lois and one of his TV trucks to various establishments he’s planning to have his thugs rob and gets the combinations for their safes. He writes them down on a note pad and tears off the top sheet, but Lois, realizing that notes written on note pads can be read by studying the impressions left on the next sheet of paper, steals the note pad and leads Luthor’s thugs on an exciting enough chase one wishes Noel Neill, who played Lois here and later on the Adventures of Superman TV show with George Reeves, had been given an action lead herself. Much to Charles’ amazement, when she takes the note pad to the Daily Planet, no one on the Planet’s staff thinks of shading the top sheet with a pencil to read what had just been written on it; instead Jimmy Olsen talks about sending it to the photographic department for a higher-tech way of lifting the message, and Clark Kent uses Superman’s X-ray vision to read the safe combinations and thereby assure himself that Luthor is still a baddie before Luthor’s thermal ray burns up the paper. Superman himself is shot down from the sky by the thermal ray — it’s unusual, to say the least, to see him vulnerable to something besides Kryptonite — as the cliffhanger to chapter 12, but at the start of chapter 13 he lands on a high-voltage power line and the electricity actually revives him long enough to fly to the Daily Planet building and save it from incineration. The chapter 13 cliffhanger is equally clever: Clark Kent and Lois Lane are flying a plane to chase a “sinister-looking truck” (that’s what the dialogue calls it, though all we see on screen is a black truck with no markings — maybe the fact that it didn’t have logos on it advertising its owner’s business was what supposedly made it “sinister-looking”) in hopes of locating Luthor’s headquarters, only Luthor launches his flying saucer to chase it and shoot it down. Not only do we get to savor the irony of Clark Kent, a.k.a. Superman, “flying” in the way the rest of humanity has to do it — by using a plane — but we get a good shot of the animated flying saucer and the plane (corporeal, though probably a model again) in the same frame and the saucer shooting down the plane so it blows up … though the only real answer to the how-did-they-get-out-of-it question has to do with how and when Clark sneaked away from the cockpit long enough to change to his super-drag. — 5/31/13
Charles and I watched the last two episodes of the Atom Man vs. Superman serial. The disc also came with a couple of “Special Features,” mini-documentaries on the two Columbia Superman serials and the overall Superman mythos (this release on Warner Home Video was obviously intended to publicize the 2006 film Superman Returns, a box-office washout that took down the career of its Superman, a slightly-built unknown named Brandon Routh who took over after Keanu Reeves, possibly noting the fate of his two namesakes who had played the super-part before, backed out at the last minute), which featured a late-in-life interview with Noel Neill (who played Lois Lane in both serials and returned to the role for the third season of the Adventures of Superman TV show with George Reeves, staying in it until the show’s run ended), who grew up much the way Ruby Keeler did: she looked recognizable and remained the same size, and also retained the cutting intelligence that was apparent from the way she played the role of Lois Lane. The special features claimed that the two Columbia serials about Superman were the highest-grossing serials ever made — I’m not sure how they could tell given that serials were usually booked as add-ons to a Saturday matinee program, but it is clear that Superman was already an incredibly popular character and one who hadn’t been seen on screen in live-action until Kirk Alyn debuted as him in the first Superman serial from 1948.
I’m going to go out on a limb and declare Kirk Alyn not only the first live-action Superman but still the best: tall, muscular without being Mr. Universe ridiculous about it, good-looking and with the famous curl over his forehead, he seemed more than any Superman since to have stepped (or flown) out of the pages of the comic books, and as Clark Kent he managed to be milquetoast without making the character as nellie as Christopher Reeve and most of his successors have. The special-feature documentary mentioned that Alyn not only had a long movie career (though, like a lot of Superman actors thereafter, he wasn’t taken seriously as an actor after that and had a hard time sustaining a career, though he got a for-old-times-sake minor role in the 1978 Superman movie) but he’d been a dancer on Broadway, and as a result he could handle Superman’s moves with a deft grace and do a dancer’s leap whenever Superman had to take to the air. Alas, the actual flying throughout most of the serial was done by an animated version of the character — they tried to wire up Alyn the way they did later with George Reeves on the TV show, but abandoned it when they couldn’t get the wires not to show on screen. (Christopher Reeve did his flying gestures in front of a blue screen so his figure could be matted into the rest of the on-screen action — for all the deficiencies of the 1978 Superman as a movie, you really did believe that a man could fly the way the ads promised you would.) A lot of serials tended to peter out during their final episodes — as if the writers were thinking, “Well, this has been fun but it’s got to end sometime” — but the writing committee behind Atom Man vs. Superman actually threw quite a lot into the two final episodes, “Rocket of Vengeance” and “Superman Saves the Universe,” much the way people who do fireworks displays save the biggest, most extravagant part of the show for the end. In his spare time (when did he ever have any?), as well as building the thermal rays and other gadgets we’ve seen up to this point, Luthor (Lyle Talbot) had invented an earth-vibrating machine that can induce earthquakes and has built himself two rockets, a nuclear-armed missile with which he attempts to incinerate Metropolis when the police refuse to drop their search for his headquarters, and a spaceship with which he intends to leave Earth altogether if the going gets too hot for him here — and take Lois Lane along as a consort as well as a hostage to prevent Superman from going after him.
I’m going to go out on another limb and say Lyle Talbot was the best on-screen Luthor (like Alyn, he was basically what I’d imagined when I read the comics decades ago as a kid), matter-of-factly malevolent in a way he might well have learned from masters like Bogart he worked with in his days in the Warner Bros. galley, and willing (as Gene Hackman wasn’t) to wear a headpiece to look properly bald as Luthor did in the comics. The writers (George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland and David Mathews, whose dry, campy wit seemed apparent through much of the script) threw all these plot complications at us and were obviously having too much fun with the concept to worry about things like continuity and credibility — one would think Luthor would have had to have his own Nibelung-like underground workforce to manufacture all his stuff — but their only real misfire was the trick scene at the end that was supposed to convince Lois Lane that Clark Kent wasn’t Superman (after she’d figured out that he was in Chapter 8 and then forgotten all about it by Chapter 10). Otherwise Atom Man vs. Superman was an excellent serial, well worthy of the character and the mythos, and though there are at least two serials I like better (The Return of Chandu, from 1934, with Bela Lugosi as the hero, showing off dimensions to his acting almost none of his other movie roles demanded; and the 1943 Columbia Batman — but then I’ve always found Batman, a normal human being who willed himself to be a superhero, a more compelling character than Superman, who had so few weaknesses his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, had to invent Kryptonite simply so he’d be vulnerable to something), this is quite a good one — better than the earlier 1948 serial and, I’d have to say, better (despite those tacky effects of the cartoon Superman flying) than any filmization of the Superman legend since. — 6/4/13