Yet, the disappointment remains, and the reason is a problem which has plagued Superman in all media, particularly in the early adaptations of the character: after the origin, the film doesn’t really know where to go with the character. How does one challenge Superman? Either the Man of Steel needs to go up against someone with immense power, skill and/or intellect in order to give him a proper threat, and/or Kal-El must go up against a moral/ethical challenge that he cannot merely punch his way out of. Sam Katzman’s Superman is no better at solving this issue than other adaptations, which is a shame, as the film begins on a promising note.
The first third of the serial covers the origins of the character and introduces many of the main elements of the Superman mythology, including Lois (Noel Neill), Jimmy (Tommy Bond), the Daily Planet, and Kryptonite. This section of the serial flies by at a breakneck pace to get the main story of the battle for the relativity reducer ray, with the planet Krypton and early life on the Kent farm being condensed into roughly twenty minutes of screen time. While this pacing does lead to many forced moments where characters make declarations of intent, while key events happen off screen (Ma and Pa Kent’s deaths are particularly brushed aside), this early portion of the serial is fairly exciting and involving, as we see how many of the iconic moments of the character’s story were in place this early on. Of particular note is the Krypton section of the story, and the handling of Superman’s father Jor-El. Nelson Leigh plays the role with real sense of weight that was an unexpected delight, as he verbally spars with the doubting council of Krypton’s elders about the fate of the planet. Yes, the destruction of the planet is mostly stock footage, but everything leading up to that point is given more attention and care than I expected. Certainly, the Krypton section of chapter one fares better than the Smallville section as far as writing and acting goes.
The problem with the fast pace however is that the serial ultimately runs out of material long before the finishing line of the fifteenth chapter. The Reducer Ray story is sound enough, with the idea of Superman needing to protect the ray from the clutches of the Spider Lady (Carol Foreman) making for a solid, if generic, through line, and the Spider Lady’s introduction offers promise of her being a slightly toned down femme fatale. Sadly, the narrative goes nowhere quickly, as the Spider Lady turns out to be little more than a stock villain shouting orders over the radio at her suit wearing thugs. The film isn’t helped by Foreman’s acting, who turns the Spider Lady into less of a master criminal than a pouting teenager. Thus the film is left with Superman fighting stock thugs for the rest of the film, and after opening up with the destruction of a planet, it is a bit of a let down.
The end result is that the film falls into a pattern that repeats endlessly with slight variation: Lois gets in trouble, Superman saves her; Jimmy gets in trouble, Kal-El saves him; Lois AND Jimmy get in trouble, and then Clark needs to save them. In between, the thugs attempt to either get the Reducer Ray, the secrets of the Reducer Ray, or a part of the Reducer Ray, and Superman stops them. Were the hero of the tale a little more vulnerable, it could have been a little more exciting, but its Superman, and placing him up against a bunch of thugs just doesn’t amp up the excitement level enough. Even nifty pulp ideas such as the villains creating a rocket launching device filled with Kryptonite is tossed away as the earliest convenient opportunity.
This doesn’t mean the serial is awful, just duller than a serial featuring Superman should be. There is fun to be had though, and plenty to interest fans of the character. For starters, Kirk Alyn deserves every bit of praise he has received for his performance in the title role. He plays Superman straight and with a sense of childlike joy, like he is playing a massive joke on the world and having a ball being the only one in on it. Noel Neill is a good counterpoint to Allen’s Superman, though all too often the writing makes her the butt of a number of sexist jokes typical of the period. Furthermore, Lois spends most of her time being rescued by the Man of Steel, thus denying Neill the chance to make Lois into a fully crafted character. Tommy Bond is ok as Jimmy, with a good comic rapport with Neill and Allen, though again, he is not given enough material to make his character all that distinctive. The trio of actors manage to carry the serial through its repetitive instalments and make the events fun, but by the end I wished they had more material to work with.
For all its faults, it is hard to hold them against Superman at the end of the day, given that many are typical of for serials in general and for the character of Superman regardless of the medium his story is being told in. It is just hard to make the film an honest recommendation when better versions of the character are available to watch. For hard core fan, Superman is a must see serial, though for all others, the serial only comes with a mild recommendation.