This is the fourth installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes. For the previous installment click here, for the first installment click here.
The first superhero in comics, ironically, was one of the last to be adapted for live action. Superman had previously been adapted for theatrical audiences in the form of a series of successful animated shorts by the Dave and Max Fleischer studio, but his first live action iteration didn’t come until 1948. Republic Pictures had tried to get theatrical serial rights to the character years earlier, but were unable to because of the deal National Periodical – now known as DC Comics – had already made with Max and Dave Fleischer. Republic ended up producing “The Adventures of Captain Marvel” instead.
Casting Superman had turned out to be an adventure in and of itself. Producers originally approached horror film star Lon Cheney, Jr. for the role. National Periodical had originally approached both Columbia Pictures, who had already had success with several National characters, and Universal Pictures to produce the serial. Universal was interested and had allowed Cheney to screen test for the role of Superman alongside Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane. Although National had liked the screen test very much, they were unable to reach an agreement with Universal.
When the project was picked up by Columbia, interest in having Cheney star continued. Cheney was under contract with Universal, but he was much more interested in doing Superman than more films as the Mummy, mostly because he hated the exhausting hours of being wrapped in gauze. In the end, Cheney was unable to get out of his contract with Universal and was instead convinced to do two more Mummy pictures.
After Columbia was unable to secure Lon Cheney, Jr. to play Superman, they approached Tyrone Power, who had previously played a masked adventurer in “The Mark of Zorro” in 1940. Filming began with Power as Superman in 1947, however after a week of filming Power had to drop out of the role due to illness. It was at this point that producer Sam Katzman hired Kirk Alyn, who would eventually go on to play the part in two Columbia Pictures serials.
“Superman” was released to theaters in 1948 and co-starred Noel Neill as Lois Lane, Pierre Watkin as Perry White and former “Little Rascals” star Tommy Bond as cub reporter Jimmy Olsen. As with the two Batman serials, “Superman” used an original villain, not one taken from the source material, in the Spider Lady.
The first chapter, “Superman Comes to Earth,” told the Man of Steel’s origin story, beginning with the destruction of the planet Krypton. Much of the script from the Krypton scenes would be reused almost verbatim in the first episode of “The Adventures of Superman” a few years later. Many of the costumes would also be reused.
The Kents – who had yet to be given names in the comic books – were Sarah and Eben in the serial instead of Jonathan and Martha, names they would later be given in the pages of the Superboy comic books. Aside from a very brief scene in which a 12 or 13 year old Clark uses his x-ray vision to find his mother’s watch in a haystack, the serial brushes past Clark’s life on the farm and moves him almost immediately to Metropolis.
The story is very similar to the plots of both “Batman and Robin” as well as “Captain America,” mostly due to the writer Joseph F. Poland having worked on all three. In “Superman” a mysterious villain called the Spider Lady plots to kidnap a scientist, Dr. Graham, in an attempt to acquire his invention called the Relativity Reducer Ray.
The flying effects were unique to the Superman serials. The original plan was to hang Kirk Alyn from wires in front of a rear projection screen, but the wires were visible and couldn’t be used. Instead, producers chose to use rotoscoping animation, the same animation style developed by Fleischer Studios and used in their Superman cartoons. While the animation didn’t have the photo-realism of the dummy technique used in “The Adventures of Captain Marvel,” it did give a fluidity of movement the dummy didn’t have. The effects were enhanced by the wonderful take off and landing pantomime done by Alyn, who had been a dancer classically trained in ballet. In the end, the effect proved disappointing to audiences, but was significant for filmmaking. Many of the techniques developed for the animation are techniques still used when employing full CGI characters in modern movies; only the animation style is more advanced and photo-realistic.
Despite its disappointing flying effects, “Superman” was a huge success for the studio and led to a sequel in 1950, “Atom Man vs. Superman.” This time, a villain from the comic books was used. “Atom Man vs. Superman” would mark the first live action appearance of Superman’s arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor. In the serial, Luthor was played by Lyle Talbot who had previously played Commissioner Gordon in “Batman and Robin.”
The entire main cast from the first serial returned for the sequel, as well as most of the crew. As was the case with the fist serial, again Kirk Alyn was credited only as “Superman” and not by his own name. This was done as a fun way to preserve the believability of the character with small children.
The plot mostly revolves around Luthor, disguised as the Atom Man and pretending to have gone straight in his real life, plotting to gain revenge on Superman for sending him to prison in an unseen previous encounter. Luthor uses a machine and special coins which will transport anyone holding one of the coins to anywhere Luthor chooses in order to steal several radioactive ingredients, which can be combined to create synthetic Kryptonite. Natural Kryptonite was shown to have dilapidating effects on Superman in the previous serial.
The machine can also be used to transport someone to another realm which Luthor calls “The Empty Doom” and which bares similarities to the Phantom Zone. In chapter six, Luthor uses his synthetic Kryptonite to subdue Superman long enough to send him to the Empty Doom. Chapter seven sees Superman trapped within the Empty Doom, before he finds a way to escape.
The flying effects were beefed up a bit by inter cutting live action close ups of Kirk Alyn with the animated flying effects from the first serial. The problem of the visible wires was fixed by turning the camera on its side and having Alyn pretend to fly while actually standing upright. The animation was mostly used for flying, but was also used sparsely to depict other superhuman feats, such as Superman crashing through a cave wall in the first serial.
By the 1950s, serials had begun to wane, and while they would continue to be shown until 1956 new serials were being produced less and less in favor of re-releasing older serials. Kirk Alyn would return to play another DC Comics hero, Blackhawk, in a 15 chapter serial in 1952, but “Blackhawk: Fearless Champion of Freedom” would end up being the last DC Comics hero to be produced as a theatrical serial. There was, however, a new medium for superheroes to conquer.
Harmon, Jim; Donald F. Glut. “9. The Superheroes “Could Superman Knock Out Captain Marvel””. The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury. Routledge. pp. 206–217.ISBN 978-0-7130-0097-9.