Members of Judge Kerry Birmingham's fan club will be disappointed to learn that "Adventures of Superman" does not refer to his forthcoming autobiography. The wait's almost over, loyal "Birmies"!
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.
Facts of the Case
The Short Version:
The Long Version:
• "Through the Time Barrier"
• "The Talking Clue"
• "The Lucky Cat"
• "Superman Week"
• "Great Caesar's Ghost"
• "Test of a Warrior"
• "Olsen's Millions"
• "Clark Kent, Outlaw"
• "The Magic Necklace"
• "The Bully of Dry Gulch"
• "Flight to the North"
• "The Seven Souvenirs"
• "King for a Day"
• "The Unlucky Number"
• "The Big Freeze"
• "Peril by Sea"
• "Topsy Turvy"
• "Jimmy the Kid"
• "The Girl Who Hired Superman"
• "The Wedding of Superman"
• "Dagger Island"
• "The Deadly Rock"
• "The Phantom Ring"
• "The Jolly Roger"
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.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
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.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Adventures of Superman: The Color Era" Featurette
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