Warner Bros. // 1956 // 706 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Kerry Birmingham (Retired) // March 7th, 2007
A good intro is worth repeating: "Yes, it's Superman, strange visitor from another planet with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men! Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel with his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way!"
For many people, there's not a more memorable screen Superman than George Reeves, whose portrayal of the Last Son of Krypton in the 1952-1958 television series is still the definitive Man of Steel. In the eyes of nostalgic baby boomers and Golden Age TV enthusiasts, there's little that compares with the sights and sounds of that familiar opening, about as iconic an introduction as you'll find in the annals of television. "Iconic" is the operative word: whatever the vagaries of its budget, whatever the hokey '50s storytelling, and however limited he is as a concept to begin with...IT'S SUPERMAN, dammit!
Which is why it's so hard to have to pan this collection of episodes.
The Short Version:
Superman fights gangsters (and pretty much only gangsters) who repeatedly come up with inane schemes to beat him.
The Long Version:
Warner Bros. presents all 26 episodes comprising the third and fourth seasons of Adventures of Superman, including:
* "Through the Time Barrier"
A scientist's invention of a time machine takes the Daily Planet staff (and one irate gangster) back to the Stone Age!
* "The Talking Clue"
A young man's hobby is used by gangsters in a spree of robberies that baffles everyone...including Superman.
* "The Lucky Cat"
A series of dangerous accidents that befall members of an anti-superstition club provokes the question: foul play...or a curse?
* "Superman Week"
Gangsters aim to use a city-wide celebration of Superman to get rid of that caped do-gooder once and for all!
* "Great Caesar's Ghost"
Planet editor Perry White, who famously exclaims "Great Ceasar's Ghost!," begins to actually see the ghost of Julius Caesar, bringing him to the brink of insanity mere days before he's set to testify in a notorious gangster's trial. Could he really be seeing a ghost? (Hint: no.)
* "Test of a Warrior"
An Indian brave seeks Superman's help in surviving the incredible trials that will lead him to become chief of his tribe.
* "Olsen's Millions"
Jimmy Olsen inadvertently becomes a millionaire, and becomes the target of swindlers in the process.
* "Clark Kent, Outlaw"
Clark Kent infiltrates a band of gangsters terrorizing Metropolis in an attempt to get the story and smoke them out.
* "The Magic Necklace"
The discovery of an ancient necklace that makes its wearer bulletproof attracts the interest of Superman...and one unscrupulous gangster.
* "The Bully of Dry Gulch"
Lois and Jimmy, stranded in an Old West town, come face to face with an arrogant cowboy who's determined to take down Jimmy...but not if Superman has anything to say about it.
* "Flight to the North"
A bet between ex-con gangsters and some really good pie lead Superman on a mission to Alaska.
* "The Seven Souvenirs"
A store that specializes in Superman-related paraphernalia may have something more sinister going on.
* "King for a Day"
Jimmy Olsen is mistaken for the expatriate monarch of a small European country and is targeted by conspirators.
The Planet's acquisition of a race horse brings Superman into conflict with race-fixing gangsters.
* "The Unlucky Number"
An innocent jelly-bean counting contest starts a chain of events that leads to a gangster deceiving a young boy into believing he's Superman.
* "The Big Freeze"
Gangsters hire a scientist to develop a room so cold it will immobilize Superman.
* "Peril by Sea"
Perry White's secret work for the government is jeopardized by ambitious gangsters with their very own submarine.
* "Topsy Turvy"
An invention that makes people believe that the world is literally upside down is put to creative use by some bank-robbing gangsters.
* "Jimmy the Kid"
Jimmy is replaced by a gangster look-alike who will do anything to get at Clark Kent' secrets (and who gets more than he bargained for).
* "The Girl Who Hired Superman"
A response to a classified ad draws Superman into an elaborate con by counterfeiters.
* "The Wedding of Superman"
Finally! Lois and Superman not only get together, but plan their wedding. Everything goes exactly as planned.
* "Dagger Island"
The Planet staff arbitrates an unusual competition in which a dead man's relatives must travel to a mysterious island and find his fortune.
A bold tactic by the Metropolis Police Department backfires, leaving Superman's friend, Inspector Henderson, vulnerable to blackmailing gangsters.
* "The Deadly Rock"
A meteor shower brings to Earth the one substance that can harm Superman: kryptonite! And some ambitious gangsters know just how to use it.
* "The Phantom Ring"
A string of robberies baffle both the Police and Superman, and with good reason: the crooks have a machine that can turn them invisible!
* "The Jolly Roger"
On a trip to a small island about to be the site of a massive volcanic eruption, the Planet reporters are captured by modern-day pirates.
Superman, as a character, has always faced particular challenges, bound by being the quintessential superhero and suffering from a certain level of squareness as a result. By that same token, the name alone conjures up an expectation of epic adventure and high-flying heroics. Unfortunately, under the constraints of '50s television standards and budgets, there's not too much super about ol' Kal-El. It's sad to say, but a lot of Golden Age television doesn't particularly hold up when the haze of nostalgia is stripped away. Fifty-plus years on, what could be described by fans as "quaintness" comes across more as a creaky production showing its wear in light of modern expectations. Reeves's Clark Kent comes across as smug and condescending, traits which don't really change when he becomes Superman; only the smile becomes bigger.
Speaking of Superman, we see precious little of the red and blue tights (rendered presciently, and for the first time, in full color here). Most episodes play out like Hardy Boys mysteries instead of Superman stories, with episodes like "The Talking Clue" and "The Lucky Cat" being the most egregious examples of "Clark Kent, Boy Detective." Indeed, there's a distinct lack of supervillainy in Adventures of Superman's Metropolis. There's plenty of wacky science -- invisibility rings, deep-freeze chambers, logistically unsound time machines -- but not a hair (so to speak) of Lex Luthor, one of the Big Blue Boy Scout's few notable villains, ever more conspicuous in his absence as Superman outclasses impotent thugs week after week. (If you doubt, the word "gangster" appears in the above episode summaries no fewer than sixteen times.) It leads to a certain monotony, as Superman trounces the gangster-of-the-week with little difficulty, usually performing one of only a few "super" stunts in the process (bending something with his bare hands, bursting through a wall, and the famous flying image that admittedly looks pretty good for the period). All of the core concepts associated with Superman are nowhere to be found here: no Fortress of Solitude, no Ma and Pa Kent, a limited repertoire of powers; only kryptonite makes a couple of appearances in missed-opportunity clunkers like "Superman Week" (which features a particularly inane plot with a gangster disguised as a famous painter).
No, there's very little to suggest that this is the World's Greatest Superhero. With plots geared more toward younger viewers than earlier seasons, the show suffers by aping other popular TV genres of the era, partially explaining the preponderance of gangsters and the occasional oddball like the faux-western "The Bully of Dry Gulch," which takes place in an anachronistic Old West town that doesn't seem odd to 1950s Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane, and "Test of a Warrior," an inoffensively offensive depiction of the Native American experience that you tend to find in early film and television. Perry White (John Hamilton), Jimmy Olsen (Jack Larson), and Lois Lane (Noel Neill) are all there and all at the Daily Planet, and mercifully remain the most utterly clueless newspaper reporters in journalistic history. Larson's Jimmy Olsen is often called upon to play in impostor or mistaken identity plots, as in "King for a Day" and "Jimmy the Kid," playing upon Jimmy's gee-whiz naivete despite Larson looking nothing like a teenager. Lois Lane is, of course, as shrill and neurotic as any sitcom spinster. And there are the usual logic problems that come with Superman. Aside from the standard "It's obviously just Superman wearing glasses" observation beloved of all bad comedians, Lois and Jimmy alternate between waiting for Clark to slip up and reveal he's Superman and being completely dismissive of the possibility. They do, however, know their role: Lois and Jimmy are there to be taken hostage for a third-act rescue, and in that regard they, at least, seem like their comic book selves.
Both picture and sound are unrestored, and have all the flaws one would expect of material from that period. Two brief but informative featurettes detail the mechanics of the special effects and the then-unusual decision to film in color beginning with these seasons. An excerpt from the Bryan Singer-produced documentary "Look! Up in the Sky!" effectively pimps Superman Returns and makes Superman seem more interesting than he ever appears in this series.
Allow me to repeat myself: IT'S SUPERMAN, DAMMIT! I'm willing to admit that my lack of enjoyment of Adventures of Superman may be more generational than anything else; I have no fond memories of sitting in front of the radiation-spewing TV watching all three glorious channels in living monochrome and rooting for the Man of Steel, for you see, I am not old. This is a set aimed squarely at those with fond memories of these episodes from the first time around (or in syndication), not for casual viewers whose interest has been piqued by Superman Returns, or comic book nerds like myself who will spend much of each episode trying to figure out how they could have done Brainiac on a 1955 television budget. If you find these episodes' quaintness charming and can take the phrase "truth, justice, and the American Way" exactly as it was construed fifty years ago, no amount of irate snarkiness from me will (and shouldn't) convince you otherwise.
No amount of kvetching on my part will detract from the admiration of this show's (and character's) devotees. If you're looking for high-gloss superheroics in the vein to which modern audiences have grown accustomed, you're better off with the mid-'90s Superman animated series instead. Or watch something featuring Batman, who's much more interesting anyway.
Guilty. But, you know, I do feel kind of bad about that.
Review content copyright © 2007 Kerry Birmingham; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 706 Minutes
Release Year: 1956
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "Adventures of Superman: The Color Era" Featurette
* "Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: The Special Effects of Adventures of Superman" Featurette
* Look, Up in the Sky!: The Amazing Story of Superman Documentary Excerpt
* Superman is a Dick
* Judge Birmingham's Batman: The Animated Series (Volume 4) Review