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Superman Week Day 4: Brandon Routh in Superman Returns (2006)

Superman ReturnsDirector: Bryan Singer

Writer: Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris

Cast: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Parker Posey, Frank Langella, Sam Huntington, Eva Marie Saint, Marlon Brando, Kal Penn, Tristan Lake Lebu, Jack Larson, Noel Neill, James Karen

Plot: Picking up where the 1980 Superman II left off (and wisely ignoring Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace), this film opens five years after scientists pinpointed Krypton in space, and Superman left Earth to examine the remains of his dead planet. Back on Earth, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacy) is claiming a vast fortune pulling a scam on a dying woman (the original filmic Lois Lane, Noel Neill, in a cameo). On his yacht, Lex tells his new girlfriend Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey) his plan – to find and raid the arctic fortress Superman left behind for the crystal technology that ran Krypton.

In Kansas, Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint) sees a startlingly familiar sight: a spacecraft landing on her property. She finds her long-missing son, Clark (Brandon Routh), exhausted from his return to Earth from Krypton. In the morning, rested, he tells his mother all he found of Krypton was a graveyard. Returning to Metropolis and the Daily Planet, he reunites with Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) and Perry White (Frank Langella), but Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is out of the office, covering the launch of a new experimental spacecraft. Examining her desk he sees she’s moved on in his absence, winning a Pulitzer Prize for an editorial explaining why the world doesn’t need Superman, getting engaged to Perry White’s nephew Richard (James Marsden), and having a son named Jason (Tristan Lake Lebu).

Luthor demonstrates his plan to his henchmen, using the Kryptonian crystal technology to create a new land mass. The experiment causes an electrical pulse that shuts down power across the country, including the tandem space shuttle/Boeing Lois is on board for the launch. The news reports on the damage to the twin aircraft, and Clark springs into action. Superman, making his first appearance on Earth in years, saves the two vessels and everyone on board, and the world cheers his return.

Back at the Planet, Perry and Lois bicker over their coverage, with Lois wanting to write about the blackout and Perry wanting to focus on Superman’s return. Lois is glad to have Clark back, but he soon realizes she’s carrying a deep anger towards Superman for leaving without saying goodbye. Superman glances in on the family that night, where he hears Richard ask Lois if she was ever in love with Superman, a notion she denies. When he speaks to her later on the rooftop of the Planet, she pointedly tells him the world doesn’t need a savior, and neither does she.

Luthor has Kitty stage a car accident to distract Superman while he breaks into a museum to steal a chunk of Kryptonite. As he plans, Lois tracks down the source of the blackout to Luthor’s yacht and, with Jason in tow, is captured. Luthor explains his plot – to create a new continent of his own that will engulf most of the United States, and he’s got the Kryptonite to back it up. When Jason has a reaction to the Kryptonite, Luthor asks Lois just who the boy’s father really is. Combining the Kryptonite with a crystal stolen from the Fortress, Luthor begins growing his new continent off the coast of Metropolis.

Lois sends the coordinates of the yacht to the Planet office, where Perry, Richard, and Clark are searching for her. When she’s caught by one of Luthor’s thugs he threatens her, only to be flattened when the wheezing, asthmatic Jason hurls a piano into him. Her fax makes it through and Clark and Richard (in his seaplane) both fly to her rescue. As they do, the growing continent sends out an earthquake that hits Metropolis. With Superman trying to minimize the damage to the city, Richard reaches Luthor’s yacht first, but a tidal wave takes it down. Superman pulls it above water and sends Lois and Jason off with Richard while he goes to Lex’s new landmass to face him, unaware of the Kryptonite in its makeup.

Luthor begins beating the weakened Superman and Lois begs Richard to turn back so they can help him. They find him stabbed by a Kryptonite crystal. Pulling the Kryptonite from his side, Superman dives beneath the ocean, ripping the growing landmass from the water, and hurling it into space. He crashes to Earth, nearly dead. As he recovers in a hospital, Lois and Jason visit him and she whispers something in his ear. When he recovers, he again goes to Lois’s house, looks in on Jason, and remembers his father Jor-El’s long-ago words to him… how the son becomes the father, and the father, the son. He promises Lois he’ll always be around, and flies once more into the sky, to gaze down on the Earth from above.

Thoughts: I know I’ll catch crap for this, but I’ve always felt Superman Returns was unfairly maligned by a lot of people. It’s not a perfect film, by any stretch, but neither is it as bad as so many make it out to be. After so many years without a Superman film, watching other superheroes populate cinemas, the opening sequence of this movie was just what we needed: a fantastic tribute and update to the Richard Donner/John Williams sequence from 1978.

The biggest problem with this movie overall, I think, is that it’s somewhat too faithful, too reverent to the Christopher Reeve films. Lex Luthor’s plot, just like in 1978, is essentially a massive, very deadly real estate scam. Marlon Brando is brought back to reprise the role of Jor-El despite the inconvenience of being dead. (They used archive footage shot for Superman II but unseen in the theatrical cut. Quick aside here – in 2006 Warner Bros released Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut to DVD. If you can find it, watch it. It solves virtually every problem with the original cut, and probably could have been a masterpiece if producer Alexander Salkind and Richard Donner hadn’t had a falling-out.) They brought back Noel Neill and her Adventures of Superman TV Jimmy Olsen, Jack Larson, for cameos. Composer John Ottman makes liberal use of the John Williams score, and even that opening sequence spins through space just like the original, but with flashier effects.

This is the good stuff, but the screenwriters and director also brought with them limitations that shouldn’t have existed anymore. In the 70s and 80s, before special effects technology could give us dinosaurs that we believed were real and outer space battles that could match any real aerial combat, the Christopher Reeve Superman was limited in how physical he could get with his opponents. His most intense battle in four films was that with the three Kryptonian criminals in Superman II, and while that Battle of Metropolis is impressive by the standards of the time, it doesn’t deliver the sort of Red Bull-charged action modern audiences demand. Most of the Reeve’s Superman’s feats were of the rescue variety, without a lot of actual violence, because what human foe could possibly stand up to the Man of Steel in a physical confrontation?

Here, once again, we see Superman battling a human foe, dealing with Kryptonite (a crapload of Kryptonite, to be certain), and not getting particularly physical except for a few moments when the filmmakers deliberately tried to show off the special effects, such as the scene where a bullet bounces off Superman’s eye. Like Reeve, Superman uses his powers far more for disaster relief than for combat. The really startling thing is that this came from director Bryan Singer, director of the first two X-Men movies, which were both full of action and a lot of fun to watch. (When he chose to do this movie instead of the third X-Men, 20th Century Fox rushed it into production with director Brett Ratner, and the film was an unmitigated disaster. Singer returned to the X-Men to produce 2011’s X-Men: First Class, which to date is the best film in that franchise and one of my favorite superhero movies in general.)

That said, in those moments where the film makes the most of these techniques, it does it well. The scene where Superman rescues the airplane (itself a bit of a nod to the 1986 John Byrne Man of Steel comic book) is as visually exciting and thrilling as anything I’ve ever seen on screen. His efforts to stop the destruction of Metropolis are exciting and visually satisfying. If the rest of the film had the energy and power as those sequences, there would be nothing to complain about at all. Even the airplane scene, though, ends with a nod backwards – Routh cribs Reeve’s line about flying being, statistically, the safest way to travel.

Let’s talk about Routh, now. Of all the ways I think this film got a raw deal, Routh got it worst. His performances as Clark Kent and Superman were both really good. As with everything great about the film, though, the greatness comes through imitation. Routh does the best impression of Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent and Superman duet any actor possibly could, imitating his voice, his tone, his mannerisms, his speech patterns. It’s an impressive performance, but it’s not really his own. The same goes for Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor – he’s doing a Gene Hackman impression. It’s a very good Gene Hackman impression, with the sort of manic energy that would swing from subtle moments of frustration to wild anger with lots of solid humorous moments in-between, but it’s an impression nonetheless.

The only major performer not doing an impression is, ironically, also the worst thing about this movie: Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. While Routh and Spacey drew on Reeve and Hackman, Bosworth has none of the fire or spark that Margot Kidder brought to Lois Lane, and as those are her two most defining characteristics, we’re left with a bland and lifeless performance. Neill and Kidder both gave us Loises that felt like a real match for Superman, a brave, witty, intellectual equal who lived up to being a love interest for the world’s greatest hero. Bosworth simply never feels worthy of the role, and she and Routh have no chemistry together whatsoever. Kidder’s Lois was a joy to watch, even when she was just sitting around the Planet office asking for orange juice (“freshly squeezed”). Every moment Bosworth is on the screen, I’m just waiting for the scene to end so we can move on to something interesting.

Plotwise, Jason is another issue that doesn’t make a lot of sense. The fact that Clark left a son behind when he left Earth inspired a lot of “deadbeat dad” jokes that aren’t really fair – you can’t blame a man for not taking care of a son he didn’t know existed. (That doesn’t quite excuse the scene where he spies on her at home, mind you.) That said, we’re now being asked to accept that human and Kryptonian DNA could mingle and create a half-breed. I suppose we can accept that, if we can accept a world where a journey from a red sun to a yellow one allows a person to fly… but if that’s the case, why is Jason so frail and sickly until the plot demands otherwise? The idea here is clear – Singer and the screenwriters wanted to employ the unused Marlon Brando “son becomes the father, father becomes the son” speech from Superman II, and they wanted to do that by giving Superman a child and removing from him the weight of being the literal “last son of Krypton.” That didn’t come across, though. In practice, Jason just weighed him down more, and probably would have been even more difficult to deal with had they ever moved forward with a sequel.

In my opinion, the good in this film outweighs the bad, but it suffers mainly from not being what people wanted out of the franchise at the time. It would be another seven years before a new movie would try to resurrect Superman again, this time deliberately starting from scratch and doing away with the trappings of Donner, Williams, and Reeve. Just last week, Man of Steel hit theaters. Come back tomorrow, and I’ll tell you how well it succeeds.

At the time I write this, I still haven’t seen Man of Steel yet (although I will have by the time you read it), so I’m as excited as anyone to see just how it all turns out.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Superman Week Day 3: Christopher Reeve in Superman (1978)

Superman 1978Director: Richard Donner

Writers: Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert  Benton

Cast: Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Marlon Brando,  Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Marc McClure, Glenn Ford, Phyllis Thaxter, Terrence Stamp, Jack O’Halloran, Sara Douglas, Jeff East, Valerie Perrine, Larry Hagman

Plot: On the distant planet Krypton, Jor-El (Marlon Brando) successfully prosecutes a trio of murderous criminals, exiling them from the planet, trapped in a “Phantom Zone.” His feeling of triumph is short-lived, however… Jor-El knows that Krypton is doomed.  The council refuses to believe him, and he sends his son away from the planet before its destruction. Kal-El is brought to Earth, where he is found by a farming couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter). Although Jonathan is initially skeptical, Martha convinces him to take the child in and raise him as their own.

As a teenager (played by Jeff East), Clark has begun to develop incredible power, and feels frustrated when he’s forbidden to play sports or excel in any way that would draw attention to himself. Jonathan tells him that he has a purpose on Earth far greater than scoring touchdowns, and Clark’s spirits are lifted, then immediately shattered when Jonathan is struck by a heart attack and dies. That night, Clark feels a summons to the barn, where he discovers a glowing green crystal from the ship that brought him to Earth. He tells his mother he has to leave and, carrying his father’s last words with him, makes his way north. On the arctic ice, the crystal constructs an enormous fortress, and a recorded hologram of Jor-El begins to instruct Clark towards his destiny.  After years of tutelage, the adult Clark (Christopher Reeve) dons a brilliant uniform and takes flight.

In the city of Metropolis, Clark gets at job at the Daily Planet, where reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) is threatened by his encroachment onto her beat. She’s even more put-off by Clark’s oafish nature, his use of outdated vernacular, and the way he seems to crumble when the two of them are threatened by a mugger. He tries to talk the crook down, but is seemingly shot for his troubles. As the mugger escapes Lois checks on Clark only to find he’s “fainted.” With sly glance, Clark shows us the truth: he caught the bullet and saved Lois’s life for the first time.  The next time comes later, when a helicopter on the Planet building crashes with Lois inside. She falls out, only to be caught in the arms of a bold figure in red, blue and yellow. Carried back to the roof, Lois asks him who he is. “A friend,” he replies.

In his new identity, Clark begins thwarting criminals and rescuing people from disasters across Metropolis and all over the world, even saving Air Force One from a destructive storm. Planet editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper) demands that his paper become the official mouthpiece for the new hero, and Clark arranges a rooftop meeting with Lois, giving her the exclusive on the figure she dubs “Superman,” as well as taking her for a flight she’ll never forget.

Beneath the streets of Metropolis, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) is planning the biggest land scam in history. Along with his assistant Otis (Ned Beatty) and girlfriend Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), he steals a piece of meteor from a museum and hijacks the guidance systems of a pair of missiles. Luthor uses a high-frequency message to lure Superman to his lair and reveals his plan: he’s going to use the missiles to trigger an earthquake, making all the seemingly-worthless land he’s bought in California instant beachfront property, at the expense of millions of innocent lives. Before Superman can act to stop him, Luthor uses the stolen meteor – a fragment of Kryptonite from Superman’s home planet – to incapacitate him. As added insurance, Luthor launches one of the missiles in the opposite direction, to Hackensack, New Jersey. As he leaves, Miss Teschmacher is struck with a moral crisis – her mother lives in Hackensack. She saves Superman from the Kryptonite, but only after making him promise to stop the missile going to New Jersey first.

The missile hits the fault, triggering Luthor’s earthquake. Superman dives into the Earth’s crust to hold the fault together and minimize the damage, but cataclysmic destruction is wreaked, destroying the Hoover Dam. Once he stops as much of the devastation as he can, Superman sees a final tragedy: Lois, who was sent to California to cover the strange land deal, has died in the earthquake. Heartbroken, he disobeys Jor-El’s decree not to interfere with history and flies into space, spinning time backwards and saving Lois. Superman captures Luthor and Otis and brings them into custody before taking flight once again.

Thoughts: You will forgive me, I hope, if I fail to maintain even a pretense of objectivity about this movie. I have been a Superman fan my entire life – unironically and unapologetically – and a huge portion of that is due to the 1978 Superman. It left a mark on me, shaping my feelings about the character, about superheroes, about orchestral music, about cinema in general. I regard it, to this day, as a near-perfect film, and I make no bones about it.

The movie opens with a double breaking of the fourth wall, starting with movie curtains opening, reminding us we’re watching a film, then going into a segment with a child reading an issue of Action Comics, reminding us of the hero’s pedigree. Both of these moments are short, though, and we quickly plunge headlong into outer space, into the magnificent John Williams score, and into what I still regard as one of the greatest opening sequences in cinematic history.

In retrospect, the opening could seem a bit bloated – Jor-El’s confrontation with General Zod (Terrence Stamp) has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, but it perfectly sets up Superman II, which was written alongside this film and filmed back-to-back. The producers, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, were doing what Peter Jackson did twenty years later with Lord of the Rings, and taking an enormous risk in doing so. The risk pays off, though. It’s almost 50 minutes into the movie before Christopher Reeve or Margot Kidder appear, before Superman puts on his costume for the first time, but it never feels like wasted time. We’re going through what we need to go through to tell the story, and it flows perfectly.

The film has a gravity to it. From the beginning, as Jor-El makes his plans to send Kal-El to Earth, we see  film with great production values that takes its character seriously. There’s genuine heartbreak as Jor-El and Lara place their baby in his spacecraft, there’s genuine terror as Krypton begins to crumble. Williams, again, blows us away with his magnificent musical score – aside from the main fanfare, the Krypton scenes have my favorite music in the entire film. You can close your eyes and listen, imagining all the while an ancient civilization full of beauty and grandeur, and you can hear it sicken and die. About 15 minutes later into the film, Jeff East as young Clark grieves for Jonathan’s death, and we grieve with him, for the fact that all of his power couldn’t save his father from a mundane heart attack.

This, friends, is what so many people don’t understand about Superman. They focus so much on his power and all of the things that he can do that they totally miss moments like this one, the moment where his power simply isn’t enough. This is where the true Clark Kent is shown, when he finds something he can’t just punch his way through, and bleeds for it. The compelling thing about Superman is that no matter how much he does, he always wants to do more. If you don’t see something uplifting about that, I don’t know how to talk to you.

Not to say that everything about the film is weighty or depressing. Once we reach Metropolis there are many good, lighthearted moments, and not just from Ned Beatty’s clownish performance as Otis. (It’s not a bad performance, mind you, but it’s almost too goofy at times.) Once in Metropolis, the film has to strike a balance between the silly and the serious, and this is where it’s time to talk about Christopher Reeve.

Reeve is perfect. Flawless. Without error or fault. In this film, he does no wrong. He’s pretty good, is the point I’m making. This is the movie where any argument about how silly Clark Kent’s disguise is falls apart, and it’s solely due to Reeve’s performance. As Clark, he adopts a bit of a silly, corn-fed attitude. It puts people off, it makes them underestimate him, it makes them think he’s less of a man than he really is. It’s a sacrifice he chooses to make, because the moment he drops the mask he becomes remarkably charismatic, emboldened, and powerful. Even when he’s pretending to be the oaf, there are plenty of moments when he allows his true personality to shine through, even if it’s just for the audience. Any doubts about the disguise crumble the moment he catches the bullet in the alley. As soon as Lois walks away we see his true glee at the success of his ruse shine through on his face. Superman’s disguise isn’t a pair of glasses, it’s the performance of a master actor who adopts a persona that would never even allow people to think of him in the same breath as Superman. Reeve plays two characters who are both the same man, and he nails it.

As Reeve is the perfect Clark Kent, Margot Kidder is almost as good as Lois Lane. She’s Noel Neill on a caffeine rush – a quick, clever wit and a biting sarcasm that befits the character. She also plays Lois as someone utterly without fear – she’ll rush in to any situation to get her story. The chemistry between Kidder and Reeve is almost tangible. They play off one another with verve and vigor, each of them playing a bit of a chess game over the question of identity, even if Lois isn’t fully aware of who her opponent is. The game, in fact, begins even before Superman appears. The first time Lois and Clark meet, he puts on his act and struggles to open a bottle of soda. She “helpfully” takes it and bangs it on the desk a few times, loosening the cap, but causing it to spray all over him when he opens it. At first blush, it seems like a simple comic moment, establishing who this incarnation of Clark Kent is, but in the next beat it tells us everything we know about both characters. Lois apologizes and says it was an accident, and Clark says he’s sure it was, because who would try to make a complete stranger look like a fool? It’s a brilliant moment of characterization: Lois pulls a little passive aggressive crap because she’s mildly threatened by the new reporter in the room, and Clark calls her on it without ever allowing his disguise to slip. The game has begun.

For the time, the special effects are pretty impressive. The outer space sequences are as good as anything in the first Star Wars film, the creation of the Fortress of Solitude is awesome, and the flying scenes… there’s a reason why the tagline for this movie was “You’ll believe a man can fly.” Today, no doubt people would mock the clear use of greenscreen for the flying effects, but in 1978 it absorbed audiences completely, and if somebody can get over a modern hipster attitude and look at the film in context, it’s still pretty damn impressive.

As I say, the movie is merely “nearly” perfect. There are some small flaws that I can recognize. For example, in the sequence where Kal-El is sent to Earth, we listen to Marlon Brando’s voice tutoring him in the history of Krypton and the “28 known galaxies,” which sounds like a cool sci-fi premise, but doesn’t go anywhere. Kal-El is still a baby, and Clark Kent doesn’t remember any of this later. At most, you can point out the philosophy, where Brando entreats him not to interfere with human history… which, of course, he does at the end of the movie anyway. At any rate, most of the instruction is repeated later when Clark enters the Fortress of Solitude, making that voiceover portion of that otherwise-stunning sequence redundant.

Other problems are more due to the inherent limitations of the time. Today, we refuse to accept a supervillain plot that doesn’t include some sort of massive special effects spectacle, which is fine. Today we can do that. In 1978, as impressive as this movie was, it wasn’t at the point where we could see high-speed in-flight battles or massive explosions that weren’t obvious models. So the supervillain’s scheme is, in essence, a real estate scam with a massive loss of life. It works for the movie, but it isn’t quite as thrilling as it could be.

And finally, the one sequence where the film falls from the heights of Olympus to the pit of a pot of cheese whiz: the “Can You Read My Mind?” scene. The interview with Lois works very well, with Reeve now given the chance to be bold and aggressive while Kidder plays a little bumbling and awkward for a change. Then he takes her to fly, another beautiful piece of music begins… and it’s all derailed by one of the most unnecessary and irritating voiceovers in movie history. Lois ponders, in verse, who this strange man is and the audience rolls its eyes.

On the other hand, it’s hard to be too mad at this scene. As awful as the flight sequence dialogue is, the line “I like pink very much, Lois” is one of the greatest things ever written.

I love this movie and I don’t care who knows it. Even now, it stirs the soul, brings a tear to my eye at all the right moments, and makes me believe in things like courage, and heroes, and the basic decency of humanity. It does everything Superman is supposed to do, bringing out the best of the human spirit, and reminding us what “truth, justice, and the American way” is supposed to mean. Today, 35 years later, this movie has aged very well. Today, 35 years later, it is still a wonder.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Superman Week Day 1: Kirk Alyn in Superman (1948)

Superman 1948Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennett & Thomas Carr

Writers: George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, Arthur Hoerl, Lewis Clay, Royal K. Cole

Cast: Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Tommy Bond, Carol Forman, George Meeker, Jack Ingram, Pierre Watkin, Terry Frost, Charles King, Charles Quigley, Herbert Rawlingson, Forrest Taylor, Stephen Carr, Rusty Wescoatt, Robert Barron, Virginia Carroll, Ed Cassidy, Mason Alan Dinehart, Nelson Leigh, Luana Walters

Plot: On the distant planet Krypton, scientist Jor-El (Nelson Leigh) has discovered his world is being drawn towards its sun. He and his wife, Lara (Luana Walters) prepare an experimental spacecraft that would allow his people to escape the world’s destruction, but only has time to complete a prototype before the cataclysm begins. Unable to rescue the people of Krypton, Jor-El places his infant son Kal-El into the ship and sends him away just before their world is destroyed.  Landing on the planet Earth, the infant is found by Eben and Martha Kent (Ed Cassidy and Virginia Carroll), who adopt the child and raise him as their own. As he grows up, young Clark Kent (played by Ralph Hodges as a teenager, then Kirk Alyn as an adult) discovers he has the power to fly, incredible strength, super-hearing, and a sort of “X-Ray vision.” When he reaches adulthood, Eben implores his son to use his power for good. Martha makes a special indestructible uniform from the blankets he was wrapped in on his way to Earth, and Clark goes out into the world.

Wearing his costume and using the name “Superman,” Clark saves a train, whose passengers include Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Noel Neill) and cub reporter Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond), from derailing on a broken track. Clark later approaches Planet editor Perry White (Pierre Watkin) for a job, as working at a newspaper will allow him to stay up-to-date on potential danger that needs Superman’s intervention. Although reluctant to hire the neophyte, Perry gives Clark a chance when he claims to be able to get inside a collapsed mine to get the story. Naturally, Lois is after the same story, and gets trapped inside. As this is a movie serial, this begins a series of disasters roughly every 15 to 20 minutes, which require Superman’s intervention.

Clark gets the mine story and the job at the Planet, and both his career and Superman’s begin. The Man of Steel is soon considered a national hero, and is summoned to Washington D.C. to help guard an experimental “Reducer Ray” developed by the government. A mysterious villainess called the Spider Lady (Carol Forman) plans to turn the technology for evil. A meteor shower later brings chunks of the destroyed planet Krypton to Earth, and Clark discovers exposure to the radioactive rocks saps his power and, with prolonged exposure, could kill him, or at the very least, make it harder for him to wrap this plot up in about seven seconds.

Over the course of the serial’s 15 episodes, Spider Lady tries time and again to trap or kill Superman, often with Lois and/or Jimmy (and even Perry White, on rare occasions) getting caught up in the schemes, but he always manages to pull through. In the final segments, the Spider Lady gets on the radio to announce she’s perfected the Reducer Ray and will use it to destroy the Daily Planet building in nearly four hours. Rather than… y’know… evacuate the building, the police ask them to keep quiet and everyone carries on with business as usual. Lois and Jimmy get a tip that the ignition systems of cars are oddly breaking down, and reason that the Ray may be responsible, so they decide to fly a plane into the area. Suddenly, and with no warning (except for the fact that cars are oddly breaking down), their plane breaks down, crashes, and they’re captured again by the Spider-Lady. Superman fakes a Kryptonite reaction to trick one of the Spider Lady’s henchmen to bring him to her hideout. He finally faces the villain, who stumbles into her own device and is killed, proving once again that criminals really need  to build their hideouts according to OSHA requirements. Returning to the Planet office, Lois and Jimmy find Clark “asleep” at his desk, wake him, and they all have a good laugh over a woman’s brutal death.

Thoughts: It saddens me how Kirk Alyn has been forgotten by so many Superman fans. The first live-action Superman may not have made the mark on history that some of the others did, but by virtue of being first, he deserves at least some respect. It especially saddens me because Alyn is really good in the role. His Clark Kent has a sweet earnestness about him, and his Superman brings just the power the role demands. Alyn seems to take his inspiration from the Max Fleischer-directed animated features from the early 40s, almost perfectly replicating voice actor Bud Collyer’s change in tenor from Clark Kent’s high-pitched “This looks like a job…” then plunging into a powerful baritone with “…for Superman!”Alyn’s performance is almost Collyer’s brought to life. These days, Warner Bros seems intent on keeping every incarnation of the character as different from the others as possible. In 1948 the producers of this film drew on the Collyer’s well-known voice from the shorts and from the radio. The story is even credited as being “adapted from” the popular radio program. Synergy may not have been a corporate buzzword yet, but it was there.

Noel Neill was a prototypical Lois Lane, with a wardrobe and hairstyle lifted directly from the comics of the time, and a nice, biting sort of sarcasm that set her eternally apart from the wallflower females that surrounded the typical action hero of the era. Neill’s Lois is smart, confident, and fearless, perfectly willing to stumble into the most dangerous situations in pursuit of her story. At times, this can make her seem reckless or foolhardy, bumbling into the most obvious kind of trap, such as at the end of the series where she has Jimmy fly a plane into an area specifically because car engines are malfunctioning there, never stopping to think that a plane engine isn’t that different a device. There’s a delicate line that has to be walked here – Lois can seem single-minded and even unconcerned with danger, but the minute she looks foolish the character loses everything that makes her work and turns her into the caricature she often becomes in the hands of lesser writers or actresses. Neill usually walks that line very well, rarely straying too far into the territory that makes Lois look bad.

This movie serial wraps itself in the trappings of the comic book of the era, including using scenes from the comic to introduce each chapter. The opening chapter on Krypton also feels like a classic sci-fi film – the “distant planet” of “superior aliens” that’s clearly a bunch of guys in robes standing on a set that looks like it was drawn up by the artist of the Buck Rogers comic strip. It’s a little silly, a little cheesy, but all the more charming for that.

Even more charming are the special effects, most of which are animated sequences overlaid on the live-action. The first time we see Superman fly, Alyn literally transforms into a cartoon and zooms into a burning building. It was at that point I pretty much fell in love with this film. There’s really no attempt at anything resembling real physics, either. The “Reducer Ray” is powered by the natural reducing rays that bombard Earth all the time (look out your window, you’ll probably see them), and at one point Superman sees through somebody’s disguise by using his X-Ray Vision on a photograph of that person, which is somehow both ludicrous and awesome.

It’s interesting how much of a slow burn was permissible back then. The first two chapters of the serial are concerned entirely with Superman’s origins from outer space and establishing himself in Metropolis, both as a hero and as a reporter. There isn’t even a hint of the serial’s main plot – the battle with Spider Lady over the Reducer Ray – until chapter three. These days there’d be a compulsion to work such a thing in artificially, much earlier, possibly even trying to tie it in to the hero’s origin, all supposedly in the name of creating a more “sophisticated” story. If nothing else, this serial is evidence that sometimes a lack of sophistication can be a glorious thing.

As is often the case with these older movies, the modern part of the brain feels the need to invoke certain tropes and gimmicks that hadn’t quite been developed yet. In the Chapter 3 cliffhanger, for example, a scientist shows Clark Kent a meteor he has discovered, and Clark collapses, nearly dead. When Chapter 4 begins and Clark lies there, you want to shout at the screen: “It’s Kryptonite, you idiot! Close the box!” But this is 1948 – Superman as a character is only ten years old, and Kryptonite is an even newer invention (first created for the radio show before migrating to the comic books). Being so young, though, the film is also able to avoid certain bits that would become common shtick later on. In later adaptations, if Clark is threatened by Kryptonite when he’s not in his Superman suit he’d come up with some sort of lame excuse to explain why the meteor seemed to affect a mild-mannered reporter. In 1948? What the hell, he’s a scientist, right? Why not reveal your secret identity? If you can’t trust a professor, who can you trust?

For all the charm, this isn’t a movie that has a particularly high opinion of its audience. The voiceover narration can sometimes be rather intrusive… it’s hamfisted in the early chapters, giving us virtually every beat of the plot, especially on Krypton. Once we get to Earth and the story begins in earnest, a little recap at the beginning of each chapter is to be expected. But is it really necessary for the narrator to announce every time Superman uses his super-hearing or X-Ray vision, as if the fact that the wall of the safe just vanished before our eyes won’t be enough to clue us in as to what’s happening? Even the death of his foster parents is done away with quickly in a voiceover – Martha gives him his uniform and we cut to him leaving the house with a suitcase as the narrator helpfully tells us, “Okay, the Kents are dead now.”

Alyn would play Superman once more in the 1950 serial Atom Man Vs. Superman, but then was  replaced by George Reeves, who went on to play Superman in the Adventures of Superman TV show and wound up pretty much defining the character for over 20 years. We’re going to spend some time tomorrow with Reeves in his one cinematic appearance as the Man of Steel in Superman and the Mole-Men.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!