Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Movie Monday Supplemental - Parting Thoughts on Atom Man vs. Superman

So now that the second serial is over, what more is there to say about it?

First and foremost, of course, is that despite taking so much inspiration from the radio serial, this serial bears absolutely no plot relationship to one of the most popular and long-running storylines of the radio series, in which Superman fought Atom Man, the Nazi agent powered by a Kryptonite solution injected into his veins.

Second is that this series managed to jack up the spectacle by cheating as much as possible. By reusing as much effects footage as possible from the previous serial along with using stock footage of several natural disasters, the producers were able to pack every episode with action while saving up their money for the really big effects in the last few chapters: the flood, the flying saucers, the missile, the rocket ship. Between that and the futuristic menace of the teleporting villains, Atom Man vs. Superman feels a lot more super than the first serial.

Also, and this is pretty significant, this serial may be the only comic book adaptation of the serial era to actually use a villain from the comics. Captain Marvel, Captain America, Batman, and even Superman in his first outing battled generic serial master villains who had never appeared in the comics. And though Superman would next star in a long-running television series, not one villain from the comics appeared there. Brainiac, Luthor, Toymaker, Mr. Mxyzptlk: they were all ignored in favor of generic gangsters. Not counting any of the animated series, Superman would not face another villain from the comics onscreen until he faced Luthor again in the Richard Donner film we'll discuss in two weeks. So that was one significant thing this serial did right.

That being said, Kirk Alyn still makes an underwhelming lead. It's not just the way he moves, either. There are scenes where he's got this goofy grin on his face like he's not all there, and there are other scenes where he seems to be having trouble with his teeth or something; his mouth twists funny when he delivers his dialogue.

And that's not counting the inconsistencies in the writing, when the writers seem to forget that he's just as super when he's Clark Kent as when he's in costume as Superman. One of the cooler moments in the series is when Clark uses his super-thumb to dent a coin to make it look as if it was struck by a bullet. One of the dumber moments is when Clark spends 25 seconds changing clothes when a plane crash is imminent, just so he can rescue a fainted Lois and change back before she wakes up.

Not the mention all the times the writers simply invent new super-powers to get Superman out of a jam, like being able to divine the combination of a safe merely by spinning a dial or control an electric typewriter with the power of his ghostly mind. This wasn't unique to the movies, of course. They did it in the comics of the time as well. Superman gets cornered by Lois who's sure she has proved he is Clark Kent, and whoops, suddenly he has the power of Super-Ventriloquism! Nor was it unique to the 40's and 50's. Superman was still coming up with weird one-shot powers even in the films of the 70's and 80's, like ripping the "S" shield off his chest and using it to trap Ursa (but we'll get to that in a few weeks).

One other thing that becomes apparent is that, at the time, Superman was way cooler than Batman. I mean, since the late 80's, when first the Tim Burton movie and then the Bruce Timm animated series redefined Batman in the eyes of the viewing public, Batman has been perceived as this edgy, cool character while Superman was this boring whitebread straight arrow who only got any kind of attention at all because he could just do anything. Batman had the interesting origin, the psychological hang-ups, the cool gadgets, the epic villains, and the moody atmospherics. Superman was a farmboy who could fly. Yawn.

But back in the day, it was Superman who was by far the more interesting character of the two for audiences. I mean, compare these serials to the two Batman ones. Superman stopped fires and floods, got sent into space, bounced bullets off his chest, got zapped with heat rays, shot by missiles and electrocuted. Though both Luthor and the Spider Lady had a pretty shallow menu of plot options (announce your plans over police band radio, then capture Lois Lane to lure Superman into a trap), the chapter endings themselves featured a wide range of perils. By contrast, Batman and Robin were constantly getting into fistfights (that they usually lost), then running their car off a cliff. It got old.

And why was this true? Two reasons. Number one, despite the adage that Superman stories were intrinsically boring because Superman's only dilemma was figuring out who to hit, his powers gave the writers great flexibility in coming up with varied situations to throw him into. And more importantly, number two (cue sound of broken record), his supporting cast--the one developed for and lifted from the radio series--was more interesting. Lois, Jimmy and Perry formed a group dynamic of varied personalities that you just didn't get with Robin, Commissioner Gordon, Alfred, and whoever Batman's girlfriend was this week.

Which is why it was over 15 years between the second Batman serial and his next live-action appearance on a weekly television series, while for Superman, the transition was almost immediate.

But more on that next week.

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