Judge Paul Corupe often feels like he's in an eerie space purgatory, but then we remind him that's just how work is.
"Up, up, and awaaaayyy!"
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's the silver screen's very first Man of Steel, swooping down on DVD in his first two serial adventures!
Facts of the Case
Superman: The 1948 & 1950 Theatrical Serials Collection collects both of the iconic character's 15-part serials on four discs, starring the square-jawed Kirk Alyn as Superman.
Atom Man vs. Superman
Soaring onto screens only ten years after Supes made his debut on the printed page, Superman and Atom Man vs. Superman became the two most popular serials ever made. Despite some crude effects, cardboard characterizations, and the dated conventions of the serial itself, these are still a lot of fun to watch for undiscriminating fans of Krypton's first son.
Based both on the character's popular radio drama and his early comics from the 1940s, the first serial, Superman, spends its first few chapters retelling Supes' origin story by taking viewers back to the matte-painted world of Krypton. Though obviously low-budget, these scenes with frustrated scientist Jor-El preparing his son for his space voyage are some of the best moments in this outing. They have inventive set designs and costumes, good use of stock footage, and a palpable sense of danger. Before long, however, Superman arrives in the visually drab Metropolis and falls back into more typical serial cliffhanger fare. Jimmy Olsen is stuck on a conveyor belt heading towards a blast furnace, virtually every character is subjected to at least one kidnapping, and Kryptonite becomes the film's essential ingredient. It's the only thing that really keeps the plot moving forward by constantly putting our hero in jeopardy.
In a never-ending quest to get the relativity reducer ray in working order, the Spider Lady is this installment's weakest aspect, a matter that isn't helped by Carol Foreman's stiff performance. Mostly vamping around a cool lair decorated with a giant electrified spider web, the character is neither intimidating nor particularly fun to watch; she passes off most of her duties to an inexhaustible supply of virtually identical goons.
Alyn, a former dancer and serial star, is not at all bad as the Man of Steel although he would be eclipsed by George Reeves just a few short years later. His wide-eyed performance does little more than bring the two-dimensional character off the printed page, but that was really all that was necessary at this point. Though he manages to fill the iconic uniform well in many scenes, he's far less physical than you might expect. He gets into more fist-fights as Kent than Superman, and his puffed-chest heroism can occasionally be mistaken for smugness. But the biggest stumbling block for audiences viewing these serials today has been Superman's jarring flying effect. Watching Superman you really will believe a cartoon can fly. Alyn repeatedly leaps through a window so a primitively animated version of the Man of Steel can take over, soaring off to rescue Lois and Jimmy yet again. Though you ultimately gets used to this effect, it's never convincing, often pulling you out of the moment and diminishing Alyn's overall presence on the screen. Making matters more difficult, animation is used to achieve many of the film's other "super" effects as well, including having bullets bouncing off Superman' chest, breaking through brick walls, and flying rocket ships.
Atom Man vs. Superman is by far the better work here, boasting more daring technical effects and an all around more interesting villain. As Luthor, Lyle Talbot may still be the screen's definitive Lex Luthor, a ruthless scientist who really grows more insane and dangerous with each passing chapter. He graduates from robberies and blackmail to missile attacks, laser cannons, and weapon-equipped UFOs capable of laying waste to the entire city of Metropolis. Clearly the most talented actor in both of these films, the bald-headed Talbot really makes the role his own, and contributes much of the film's excitement. He finally gives Alyn a worthy villain to play off of.
A bigger budget also helps this serial leap over the earlier effort in a single bound. Sure, the cartoon flying is still here. They've also slipped in a few mid-flight close-ups of Alyn to make things a little more believable. They've given him far more to do than in the first serial, where he was able to defeat the Spider Lady simply by grabbing the back bumper of a few cars to halt villains in their tracks. This time, we get to see Superman put the breaks on a back-projected locomotive, get sent to an eerie space purgatory known as the "Empty Doom," and knock the head off a robot. In a wise move, stock footage gets promoted over the abrasive animated effects, giving Superman the chance to face much more visually impressive challenges, including earthquakes and floods—even though he's still able to stop them without breaking much so much as a sweat.
Making their DVD debut, the films in Superman: The 1948 & 1950 Theatrical Serials Collection look okay for the most part. The full-frame transfers are generally clear and sharp, although you will notice a good deal of source artifacts cropping up in the way of scratches and dust. It's not one of Warner's best restorations, but it's probably acceptable for the material at hand. The Dolby 2.0 soundtracks also receive an adequate presentation, with solid volume levels and little in the way of distracting hiss. Strangely enough, though, many episodes allow you to skip over the opening credits with a well-placed chapter stop, but some don't, causing some frustration for those who want to watch several episodes in a row.
As for extras, all you really need to know about these serials is presented in "Saturdays with Superman," a ten-minute documentary that covers the film's history with insight from genre film buff Bob Burns, and even star Noel Neill herself. Then, we have about six minutes of clips from Bryan Singer's "Look! Up in the Sky!" documentary, which serves primarily as a promotional piece for WB's other Superman DVDs.
Although probably the weakest of the live-action Superman adventures, Superman: The 1948 & 1950 Theatrical Serials Collection is still chock full of vintage enjoyment, and remains a good entry point for anyone who has never delved into the serial format before. Though crudely made, it's important to remember that these films will ultimately aimed at kids. The technical shortcomings are easily made up by fast-paced action, breakneck plot twists, and a truckload of derring-do. It may never rise above anything but silly fun, but it's still fun; these lighthearted serials offer an amusing viewing experience not far removed from the character's comic book origins.
Will Superman be found not guilty? And what of Lois and Jimmy-has Luthor really banished them to the Empty Doom? Find out next week, only at this theatre!
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Scales of Justice, Superman
Perp Profile, Superman
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Superman
• "Saturdays with Superman," a look back at the first live-action Superman
Scales of Justice, Atom Man Vs. Superman
Perp Profile, Atom Man Vs. Superman
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Atom Man Vs. Superman
• "Look! Up in the Sky!" excerpts
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