Tuesday, November 27, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*

The SUPERMAN serial was immensely popular in its day, and today it remains historically important for a number of reasons, not least being the first time Superman was played on screen by a living actor. Further, given how often American serials played mix-and-match in adapting characters from pulps and comics, the first chapter treats the hero's origin with considerable reverence, allowing of course for the dimestore production values. And while comic-book editors were hesitant to incorporate kryptonite into Superman's mythos after its official introduction in a 1943 radio serial, the serial adapts this element (heh) from the radio-screenplay to good effect. DC introduced kryptonite into Superman's four-color adventures the year after the serial, and though the poisonous rock didn't become truly ubiquitous in the comics until the late 1950s, it's arguable that the serial played a vital role in encouraging the editors to incorporate what most fans consider an important part of the mythology.

Unfortunately, ninety percent of SUPERMAN's script is just mundane cops-and-robbers, and since the hero is too powerful to duke it out with ordinary criminals, the serial can't pull off what a crimefighting serial can do well: fights between the crooks and the crook-catchers. In addition, the serial pursues the same narrative strategy often seen in the actual comics: since Superman can't be harmed by most perils, the only way to generate suspense is to jeopardize someone the hero cares about: usually either Lois Lane or Jimmy Olsen. However, even if a monthly Superman comic imperiled a support-character every single month, the stories were not coterminous, so readers may not have tired of this trope in that format. Even if I'd been watching SUPERMAN chapters once a week, as they were intended to be seen, I tend to think I'd still have become very tired of this schtick, particularly because the production values only allowed for the most basic cliffhangers. Only the charisma that actors Noel Neill and Tommy Boyd bring to the roles of Lois and Jimmy make these low-suspense perils halfway appealing.

True, the story follows that tried-and-true trope of serials: a villain trying to gain control of a super-weapon: in this case, the poorly dubbed "Reducer Ray" (actually your standard "destruction beam.") This trope always involves assorted time-killing plot-threads-- villain tries to kidnap the weapon's inventor, inventor delays villain by asking for special gizmos, which the villain's henchmen must seek out. This trope, however, only works well when the villain has a formidable appearance or when the actor playing him brings a lot of energy to the role. Though Carol Forman had played some visually striking evildoers in both THE BLACK WIDOW and BRICK BRADFORD, her "Spider Lady" just sits around barking orders at underlings and has no moxie to speak of. Her only gimmick is that in her (cheap looking) hideout, she has a big metal web mounted between two walls, in which she can electrocute those who displease her. Not surprisingly, this doesn't happen very often.

As for the guy making history as the "first Superman actor," Kirk Alyn is just fair in the role, projecting a breezy charm in his scenes as Superman. Unfortunately, most of his scenes show him as Clark Kent, and, since the script gives Alyn no help in developing a viable version of Superman's alter ego, he simply "plays down," perhaps trying to make Kent seem fairly subdued. However, Alyn's expression as Kent sometimes looks so constrained as to look constipated.

Lastly, though the early episodes of the serial are adequately scripted, the scripters apparently decided to get goofy in the final episodes. In the most ridiculous scene, Superman captures a henchman, but, instead of taking him to the cops, the hero takes the thug to the office of Perry White, so that the Daily Planet editor can interrogate the man. However, Superman then flies away, having done nothing to bind the ruthless crook. Does the editor call other employees to help him contain the thug? Of course not, and this allows the thug to beat down Perry and toss him out a high-rise window-- and only Perry being able to grab onto a ledge saves him from dying a really stupid death. By contrast, the climactic face-off of Superman and Spider Lady is ably if not spectacularly handled, ending the tedious story on a comparatively strong note.

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