Atom Man vs. Superman (15 chapters) (1950)
Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet
Atom Man vs. Superman was the second of two Columbia serials that starred Kirk Alyn. The film serials were soon overshadowed by the very popular Adventures of Superman series starring George Reeves that ran on TV from 1952 to 1958.
It’s safe to say that if you’re digging into the Kirk Alyn serials, you’re a serious enough Superman completist to want to watch both of them.
However, if you’re only a mildly die-hard Superman fan and just want to watch one of the Kirk Alyn serials, I’d recommend this one. I know some comic-book fans love origin stories, but personally I find origin stories tiresome, and once they’re out of the way the real fun can begin. (See, for example, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.)
Atom Man vs. Superman treads a lot of the same ground as Superman (1948) — it’s still a low-budget affair helmed by producer Sam Katzman and director Spencer Gordon Bennet — but unlike the first serial, this one features Superman’s greatest nemesis, Lex Luthor. Also, Kirk Alyn physically looks better in the role of Superman than he did in the first serial. His physique is still nowhere close to what you’ll see in comic-book movies today, but he does look like he hit the gym and packed on some muscle after his first appearance as the character.
Character actor Lyle Talbot was the first actor to portray Lex Luthor onscreen, and despite wearing a bald cap instead of having a shaved head, he looks like the character we know from the comics and delivers a pretty good performance. And, just like the first serial, Noel Neill is fantastic as Lois Lane. With all due respect to Margot Kidder, Neill’s interpretation of the character is my favorite of all time. In fact, Neill was the only actor from the Columbia serials who went on to play the same character in the 1950s TV series.
Atom Man vs. Superman is not without its problems. The titular “Atom Man,” who wears a black robe and a glittering bucket over his head, never quite works as a villain. And this is still a Sam Katzman production, which means it’s a low-budget affair that plods along without ever hitting the delirious heights of the best serials, like Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941).
Still, it’s got plenty of goofy fun, not to mention that every chapter opens with the cheeriest montage of atomic bomb explosions you will ever see.
Batman and Robin (15 chapters) (1949)
Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet
Batman and Robin was the second live-action Batman movie to hit the big screen.
The first, simply titled Batman, was also a 15-episode Columbia serial. It starred Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin, and was directed by Lambert Hillyer, the man who made Dracula’s Daughter (1936), one of my favorite Universal horror movies.
The 1943 version had a slightly darker and more sinister tone than the 1949 version. I believe it featured the first appearance of “The Bat Cave,” and emphasized the Gothic elements of the Batman mythos. The title card and music were far superior to the 1949 version, and Wayne Manor looked a lot better.
On the other hand, the 1943 version had slightly less impressive stunts than the 1949 version, and was made during World War II, so the 1949 version is probably a better choice to watch with your kids, unless you want to have a conversation with them to explain lines like “a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs.”
The 1949 version was made by producer Sam Katzman and director Spencer Gordon Bennet, the same creative team behind the serial Superman (1948), which starred Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel. Batman and Robin stars Robert Lowery as the Caped Crusader and Johnny Duncan as the Boy Wonder.
Katzman and Bennet’s version starts out less impressively than the first Columbia serial. Batman and Robin leap onscreen, ready for action, and then stand there looking around as the music plays and the credits roll, as if they’ve lost something and can’t find it.
Maybe they’ve lost the keys to their 1949 Mercury convertible, which they drive in lieu of a Batmobile.
Both serials have their good points and their bad points. Unfortunately, neither is a comic-book masterpiece like Republic’s Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), but both are essential viewing if you’re a serious Batman fan.
Katzman’s Batman and Robin is campy fun if you like chapterplays, and I think it works a little better than Katzman’s Superman, if for no other reason than Batman looks great in black & white, whereas with Superman it seems as if something’s missing without those bright blues and reds.
Unlike the 1943 serial, the 1949 version features Commissioner Gordon (played by Lyle Talbot). He has a little portable Bat Signal in his office that he can turn on and wheel over to the window to beam the sign of the bat onto clouds. It’s ridiculously tiny and looks like an overhead projector, and Commissioner Gordon refers to it as “the Batman Signal.”
Batman and Robin also features Jane Adams as reporter Vicki Vale and Eric Wilton as butler Alfred Pennyworth (the only supporting character from the comics who also appeared in the 1943 version).
Unlike the dimly glimpsed and imposing Wayne Manor of the 1943 version, in the 1949 version Bruce Wayne and his ward, Dick Grayson, live in what appears to be a four-bedroom, two-bath, single-family home in the suburbs. (Incidentally, this version of “Wayne Manor” is the same movie-studio house that Danny Glover and his family occupied in all four of the Lethal Weapon movies.) When Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson relax at home with Alfred serving them drinks and Vicki Vale stops by, there’s barely enough space for all four of them in the living room.
Oddly enough, the antagonist of Batman and Robin lives in a mansion that looks tailor-made to be Wayne Manor. He’s Professor Hammil (William Fawcett), who’s confined to a wheelchair but can turn himself into a lean, mean, walking machine by sitting in something that looks like an electric chair and zapping himself. This pulp lunacy seems to allow him to don the guise of “The Wizard,” a fearsome black-hooded criminal mastermind. The MacGuffin of the serial is a powerful ray that can remotely control any vehicle.
While I enjoyed Batman and Robin, its flaws are legion. Robert Lowery and Johnny Duncan are the two most disreputable-looking versions of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson you may ever see on film. Lowery looks kind of like Victor Mature and Johnny Duncan was about 25 years old when this serial was filmed, which makes him hardly a “Boy” Wonder anymore.
Also, apparently Kirk Alyn — who played Superman — was originally cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman, so the costume was designed for his measurements. Lowery was slightly smaller, which means that he’s constantly leaning his head back to see out of the eye holes in his cowl, which is too big for him.
Lowery’s stunt double is fine, but Duncan’s stunt double looks absolutely nothing like him. Unlike Duncan’s full head of dark, curly hair, his stunt double has straight, thinning, light hair, and appears to have a bald spot.
Batman and Robin lacks the technical sophistication of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films and the colorful pop sensibilities of Tim Burton’s 1989 version, but it’s a lot of fun. I think if you’re a Batman fan you have to accept all the iterations of the character — from the excessively dark, grotesque, and violent comic-book adventures of the ’80s and ’90s to the most ludicrously campy and brightly colored adventures of the ’50s and ’60s. Batman and Robin leans farther toward the campy end, but its black & white cinematography and closeness to the era of the pulps make it a little less silly than the ’60s TV series with Adam West and Burt Ward. It’s definitely not going to be to everyone’s tastes, but if you’re a Batman fan you should make the time to watch both the 1943 serial and the 1949 serial.
Superman (15 chapters) (1948)
Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr
Here it is, folks — the very first live-action Superman film.
Superman, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is one of the most popular and recognizable superheroes of the 20th century. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics #1 in June 1938. His popularity grew quickly, leading to a second comic series, simply titled Superman, in 1939, a radio serial — The Adventures of Superman — in 1940, a series of Max Fleischer cartoons (1941-1943), and a third comic series, which debuted in 1941 as “World’s Best Comics,” but was changed after the first issue to World’s Finest, and featured stories about Superman and Batman & Robin, as well as other DC Comics superheroes.
Aspects of all of those source materials can be seen in the 15-chapter serial Superman, which was produced by Sam Katzman for Columbia Pictures and directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr. Katzman produced a ton of cheapjack serials for Columbia, and he was sometimes known as “Jungle Sam” on account of all the action-adventure pictures he made that were set in tropical locations.
I’ve reviewed a few of Katzman’s serials on this blog already — Jack Armstrong (1947), The Sea Hound (1947), and Brick Bradford (1948) — but I’ve barely scratched the surface of his voluminous output. To be honest, I really don’t want to dig any deeper. Katzman produced some fun low-budget sci-fi pictures in the 1950s, but all of his serials that I’ve seen so far have been tedious, cheaply made, and poorly acted, and Superman is no exception.
In 1948, the Max Fleischer animated shorts about Superman were still the most impressive cinematic versions of the character. They were gorgeously animated, full of vibrant color, packed with action, and even featured the talents of Bud Collyer, the voice of Superman on the radio. In short, they were comic books come to life.
In fact, they were so impressive that Katzman’s black and white serial Superman features an animated Superman in all of the flying sequences. It’s a very different approach to a flying superhero than the practical effects featured in Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), which for my money is the greatest serial ever made.
Adventures of Captain Marvel featured a dummy that zipped along a wire, which sounds cheesier than it is. The effect actually works quite well, thanks to simple techniques like reversing the film so the dummy can fly upward, shooting in silhouette, and creative editing. The animated flying sequences in Superman, on the other hand, are well-done for what they are, but the technique of turning live action into animation and back again was always jarring for me.
If you’re a Superman fan, this serial is a must-see for its historical value, but it’s just not that great. The low-budget black and white filmmaking is less vibrant than the Max Fleischer cartoons, the storytelling is less inventive and involving than the radio show, and the physical appearance of Superman just isn’t as impressive as it was in the comic books.
At the beginning of every chapter, the Superman comic magazine flashes on screen, then Kirk Alyn bursts from its pages and stands there for awhile looking as if he’s not sure what he should do next.
Alyn was a 37-year-old actor who’d had bit parts in a bunch of B movies, but this was his first leading role. Alyn has the right face and the right hair to play Superman, but his body, mannerisms, and physical presence all feel wrong. (This is another area where Adventures of Captain Marvel excelled. Tom Tyler looked very much like the Captain Marvel of the comic books, and his physicality was impressive.)
Alyn fares a little better as Superman’s alter ego, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. I like the slightly alien edge he gives the character, but in some scenes his alien peculiarity just seems like bad acting.
My favorite actor in Superman is Noel Neill, who was so good as Lois Lane that she went on to play Lois in the Adventures of Superman TV series with George Reeves that premiered in 1951. The same honor was not accorded to either Tommy Bond (who plays cub reporter Jimmy Olsen) or Pierre Watkin (who plays Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White). I actually really liked Watkin as Perry White, but I thought Bond was obnoxious and irritating as Olsen, and not just because he’s the guy who played Butch in the Our Gang comedies.
Also, Los Angeles and the surrounding countryside don’t make for a very convincing Metropolis, but California locations are to be expected in any serial.
The antagonist of the serial is called The Spider Lady (Carol Forman), a master criminal who wears a slinky black cocktail dress and a black domino mask. The Spider Lady is after a MacGuffin called a “reducer ray,” and like every good serial villain, she has an army of disposable goons who carry out her cockamamie plans in chapter after chapter. She also has a henchman named Hackett who is introduced in Chapter 6, “Superman in Danger.” Hackett is a brilliant but deranged scientist who has broken out of prison. He’s played by Charles Quigley, who starred in The Crimson Ghost (1946), and other serials.
I love serials — even the bad ones — and I certainly enjoyed aspects of Superman. But every superhero movie is only as convincing as its lead actor, and Kirk Alyn just isn’t up to the task. I’m sure in 1948 it was thrilling for plenty of kids to see their hero come to life on the big screen. It was a time when Superman was such a mythic, larger-than-life figure that the actors who played him were never credited. When Bud Collyer made an announcement about something that wasn’t a part of the radio show’s serialized story, he was still introduced as “Superman.” Similarly, in the cast of characters list that flashes on the screen at the beginning of every chapter of Superman, Kirk Alyn is the only actor whose name isn’t listed. The first name in the credits is simply SUPERMAN.
Still, I wonder how many children in 1948 were somewhat disappointed by Kirk Alyn (perhaps in ways they couldn’t verbalize). After all, he doesn’t have the impressive voice of Bud Collyer, and he’s so much scrawnier than the strapping hero of the comics. Worst of all, he flits around like Peter Pan, and his cape frequently gets in the way during the action.