15-chapter serial, Superman (1948), is best in its early chapters as
it details the more familiar parts of the Superman story, including an
elaborate sequence on Krypton dealing with the planet's destruction and
Jorel's sending his son off in a rocket to Earth. We see Clark growing
up with the Kents and heading off to Metropolis and a job at the Daily
Planet where he meets Perry White, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen. We see
Superman doing super-heroic things in these early episodes like rescuing
people from a burning building or rescuing miners trapped in a tunnel.
However, after roughly the first third, each episode follows
tried-and-true serial formula with standard cliffhanger endings as Superman
gets hit with kryptonite or Lois gets trapped somewhere and only Superman
can save her. There are even long stretches where Superman doesn't use
his powers at all. It all comes to a disappointingly abrupt ending and
Superman fights an unlikely villain in the Spider Lady (Carol
Forman) and her gang of standard-issue thugs—middle-aged crooks in suits,
ties and fedoras who are constantly slugging Jimmy and kidnapping Lois.
The Spider Lady gets help from a renegade scientist who has an agenda of his
own, but he's so badly acted that he slows the film down considerably.
The Spider Lady (who loses her ridiculous mask after her first few
appearances) is more of a standard serial villain and, while not
unattractive, is coiffed and dressed like a film noir floozie and would
probably have been more at home sidling up to
Humphrey Bogart in a gambling
joint than fighting Superman.
That said, there are considerable points of interest here.
When Superman flies, the effect is created through animation as a fluidly
animated Superman cartoon figure takes over for the live actor (Kirk Alyn).
This tactic allows the makers to show Superman flying through a variety of
locales and settings. While the contrast may be jarring at first, it does
acknowledge the comic book origins of the character.
Neill is a perfect Lois Lane and is as spunky as they come. When thugs
attack, she recklessly plunges into each fight with the verve and daring
normally associated with the standard square-jawed cliffhanger hero. When
she's not fighting, she's smiling, always eager to get the story and clearly
loving her job. A seedy character named Hawkins (played by Frank Lackteen with undetermined accent) is an informant who gives Lois tips about
Spider Lady's activities. Lois is always happy to see him and at one
point pays for his tips by taking him to lunch at a restaurant called
Luigi's (surely a foolhardy act for an informant). None of the
characters gets a single change of costume throughout the serial, but it's
more noticeable on Lois. Neill played Lois in a second serial,
Atom Man vs. Superman, and later in the TV series, Superman
Jimmy Olsen, on the other hand, gets little of consequence to
do, other than getting constantly knocked out by thugs and stating the
obvious when needed. He's played by Tommy Bond, better known as Butch
from "The Little Rascals." In the TV series, Jack Larson was a vast
improvement in the role. Pierre Watkin makes a good, dyspeptic Perry
White, behaving more like J. Jonah Jameson from Spiderman than the
Perry we know and love.
A point should be made here about the sequel, Atom Man vs.
Superman (1950). It improved on this serial greatly and had a more
comic book-like villain in Lex Luthor (well played by Lyle Talbot). It
also had Superman doing a great many more Superman-like things and offered a
new twist in each episode. It had a better story structure and more
satisfying resolution. The characters also got to change their