Superman must defeat his greatest arch-enemy, Luthor, and constantly save the only two people in the world, Lois and Jimmy.
ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN is a 15-part Columbia serial, directed by Spencer Bennet (who also directed the precursor serial, SUPERMAN, in 1948, and also helmed Columbia’s other superhero property, BATMAN AND ROBIN, in 1949). As with all the Columbia superhero serials, production values are barrel-bottom, writing is childish, and the framing and presentation of the tale is atrocious. In 2018, it’s purely an academic exercise viewing this, or any, serial from this era.
Kirk Alyn reprises his role as Superman/Clark Kent; his Kent once again a dull pulse, and his Superman fruitier than ever, even with his attempts at a basso voice to separate his identities. And the size of his granny panties is just out of control.
Noel Neill reprises Lois Lane, with an unappealing new helmet hairstyle and another STUPID HAT. Her contempt for fellow reporter Clark is so virulent in this serial, it borders on psychological abuse (Clark: “I tried to chase the crooks but I got lost!” Lois: “Why don’t you get lost again?”) Over the course of this serial, the writers have at last brought to the big screen some scant intimations of Lois’s attraction toward the man of steel, and her first stirrings of suspicion that Clark might be Superman.
Tommy Bond is still Jimmy Olsen, whose role is actually larger than any other Jimmy Olsen character committed to film, as he is not just a photographer, but a fellow writer, gopher and PILOT! Yes, in many scenes, Jimmy is piloting a small plane with Lois (simply for economy of characters; so that the studio didn’t have to pay an extra actor for “pilot”)! And even Clark gets piloting duty! I’m sure with his busy schedule as Superman, he could put in the requisite hours behind the gearstick of a plane to secure his pilot’s license! The baby-ness of this production is astounding!
Old Pierre Watkin is still Perry White, the editor of the Daily Planet newspaper where they all work, if you call chasing down crooks like they were appointed deputies and not taking one note ‘working.’ And Superman STILL brings crooks to Perry White’s office instead of to the police and tells Perry, “Lock him up!” which would be great if Perry was an appointed deputy and/or judge and/or jury; or tells Perry, “Call the police to come get this guy!” Do you not have the address of the local PD, Superman?
This serial marks the first onscreen appearance of Superman’s most potent comicbook nemesis, Lex Luthor, played by Lyle Talbot in a bald cap. Audiences must have had a snigger when they realized Talbot, just a year prior, had been Commissioner Gordon in BATMAN AND ROBIN! Writers George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland and David Mathews have given Luthor an interesting premise: As Luthor the philanthropist, he appears to be working with the police (pronounced “pleece” in black and white American movies) to stop a crime wave in the city, yet that crime wave is being perpetrated by his own alter ego, Atom Man! (Old props, New uses: the golden papier-mâché mask that Luthor wears as Atom Man, is the Metallogen Man costume from 1945’s THE MONSTER AND THE APE – which coincidentally, starred Robert Lowery, who was Batman in BATMAN AND ROBIN. The mask comes with a long black cassock and a FANTASY ISLAND accent.)
Atom Man’s main scientific device is a machine for “the transmission of matter over short distances.” Oh, you mean a teleporter? It allows all his henchmen to escape capture by holding a special coin that allows them to teleport back to Villain HQ (hey, no stupider than Neo and Trinity having to pick up a ringing phone to get back to Green Shithole Land). When Luthor was in jail, he escaped by having one of these coins in his pocket (guess they didn’t search you that hard when they incarcerated you in the 50s). His ambition is to “move armies across continents,” and his desire is to lure Superman into it, so he could “project Superman’s atoms across space, wandering aimlessly.”
Luthor punishes his henchmen by putting them “in the main arc” i.e. making them stand under the archway of the teleporter, whereupon they dutifully do not move, until the machine warms up enough to eventually teleport them into the ether; into what Luthor calls “The Empty Doom.” It’s a punishment which really relies on the cooperation of the punished party. So when Superman is blackmailed into the main arc, no one could foresee that he would use his super speed to disappear instead of simply standing there and being transported into The Empty Doom.
Being a serial, they replay this plot point later, and Luthor succeeds in sending Superman away. While in the Empty Doom, we see Superman’s spirit self, like a ghost, trying to stop crimes and ineffectually passing through crooks he is trying to grab. Eventually Luthor sends a henchie into the Doom to check on Superman (I warned you: idiotic writing), and Superman “flies up the beam” to return to our reality. Fun Fact: The writers were smoking Kryptonian uberweed when they wrote this episode.
Superman’s flying scenes are innovative: as soon as he leaves the ground, he turns into a cartoon, resembling the old Max Fleischer Superman cartoons in posture and fluidity. It’s the only way they could make his flying work; add to the cartoons, closeups of Superman in flight, which was really Alyn standing on the ground, arms upraised and looking up, with “clouds” blown into his face, and you’ll believe a man can jive. Since this is black and white, the cartoons blend pretty well into the live action, yet we can see the producers get cocky, as they show many more closeups of Superman turning into a cartoon while there are still live people in the shot with him, before he zips away. The cartoon is quite mobile and goes through many poses for landings, takeoffs and coasting, and every time he lands, it is done behind a rock or building, and then a noticeable cut in the film when the live action Kirk Alyn runs out from behind the obstacle like a fruit.
Whenever Alyn appears onscreen as Superman, having just changed, or run out from behind a rock, he must always – ALWAYS – do his prancing “arrival” pose, with arms akimbo, wrists limp, gaily fluttering this way and that as if to say, “Yoohoo, I’ve arrived!” to no one in particular. Throughout the fifteen reels of this drivel, no one thought to advise him, “Look, stop this visual curtsy every time you appear – just run out and get the job done!” It’s because they wanted this “arrival visual,” for viewers to be able to soak in the muscled majesty of doughy Kirk in the padded bodysuit.
Whenever Superman is stopping bullets with his body, firstly – no movement, just stand stock still, as if the prospect of movement might make a bullet go through him; also – shit-eating grin on face. The overall theatrical acting doesn’t help, nor the dutiful blocking and amateur staging, with every character always facing the fourth wall, all standing straight and stiff with arms down at their sides while they talk to each other; unless they’re holding a gun, then the L-shaped elbow, with rest of body straight and stiff.
Most of the badly-staged sequences are embarrassing: Clark tells Lois, “I’ll go tell the pleece!” and runs into a corner to change into Superman. Lois follows him! She busts him almost taking his coat off; he sees her and stops. She corners him, “You won’t find the pleece in here, Mr. Kent!” How does Clark claw his way back from looking like a sniveling coward? Lois’s contempt is actually warranted! Or how about Luthor showing captured Jimmy his teleportation device and telling him of his plans to teleport Superman into the ether. Is Luthor’s ego that brittle that he needs to boast about his grand plan to some random nosy kid like Jimmy? Then Luthor teleports Jimmy out of his lair – but remember: to teleport, they need to give Jimmy one of their coins. So now Luthor orders his henchmen to find Jimmy to forcibly retrieve his coin! They’re villains! They couldn’t just push him out of a moving car on a deserted highway? Or why not teleport him to the Empty Doom?… Superman fans would thank you, Lex!
So Jimmy obviously shows the coin to his cohorts at The Daily Planet. Which doesn’t matter much because NONE OF THEM TAKE NOTES!
During Chapter 7, At The Mercy of Atom Man, Luthor relates Superman’s origin – blue sun, rocket to Earth, etc. – from his “studies of Krypton.” Really? I didn’t know there was that much literature. So Luthor makes his own synthetic kryptonite, which knocks out Superman, who is taken to Atom Man unconscious on a stretcher! Instead of just taping the kryptonite to Superman’s chest and letting him die, Luthor/Atom Man lets Superman come to, and tell him nicely to go stand in the arc. Which he does, while defiantly quoting a much later super man: “I’ll be back!”
There are two potentially interesting plot points: a reporter wants to take a picture of Luthor during a press conference. Clark and Lois are there, and Clark sees a gun inside the camera with his x-ray vision. He saves Luthor’s life. Later, Clark and Jimmy get into a fight with henchmen at the Daily Planet. A henchie shoots Clark. Of course, he doesn’t die. In the shocked pause that follows, Clark knocks out the henchie, then claims “the bullet hit the teleportation coin in my pocket.” Firstly, these henchies are doing well standing up to Superman-punches and getting back up again to fight; secondly, we realize, that coin itself teleports wherever it needs to be for the plot. These two plot points brush up against that old trope of Lois wondering whether Clark is Superman due to mounting evidence, but they go completely unexplored. Right at the end, Lois opens a box with synthetic kryptonite, in front of Clark (as if to test him), and it is so badly staged and acted, that again, the moment just falls apart.
Luthor also possesses a monitor that allows him to view anything anywhere, and edited with different angles as if it’s a movie. In other words, just watching this movie on his little viewscreen. His greatest weapon is a beam that causes earthquakes. And of course, he’s got a flying saucer. And a spaceship. (Hell, over 15 chapters, you’d start running dry of ideas and jumping the shark too!)
Lois gets herself dutifully captured in most episodes, while Jimmy bug-eyes and leans into his soporific fight scenes as best he can. While tailing a crook’s van, Lois and Jimmy are warned by Superman, “Don’t get too close,” so when it parks, Lois wants to approach it. Jimmy warns, “Superman told us not to get too close.” Lois: “What’s the worst that can happen?” Well, considering these are the men that have been trying to kill you for 13 episodes, probably nothing that bad.
Luthor sends a flying saucer (!) to attack Clark and Lois’s plane (that Clark is flying). Flying saucer is a cartoon, and as it approaches on a crash-course, it’s a good thing Lois screams and faints, because that gives Clark time to put the plane on auto-pilot, run to the back room to change into Fruiterman, run back to the front, grab Lois, run to the back passenger door and fly out with her, before the saucer hits. It’s not like he could have done all this as Clark Kent to save on the time. When they’re both on the ground, he changes back immediately; Lois comes to, “What happened?” Clark: “Superman saved us.” In other words, he literally got changed into his granny-panty-duds FOR NO REASON. Or – as I asked in the last serial – does he have to be dressed as Superman to access his powers?
Insane hilarity as Luthor fires a missile at the Daily Planet and Superman catches up to it and rides it bronco-sexually as it flies headlong at the Planet. Long before Slim Pickens rides the atom bomb in DR STRANGELOVE (1964), here is the man of steel doing some kind of maneuver with his thighs to make it even more sensual than necessary. Perry, watching the approaching missile from the Planet offices, yells at Jimmy to “Take a picture!” so Jimmy grabs a camera the size of a small boat. Superman, meanwhile, by the expression on his face and the tightening of his buttocks, seems to be having some kind of ejaculatory misadventure with the rocket and steers it away from the building.
That’s when Luthor knows he has to get serious and launch his spaceship and “from the ionosphere we shall beat our enemies into submission.” From the ionosphere, will it matter, dude?
And, just like Luthor’s plan, the serial gets so far away from any cogent story, it just peters out, with Luthor slated for jail, and Clark and Lois laughing over a piece of synthetic kryptonite that has lost its potency. Hmm, a metaphor for Fruiterman?…