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The First Superhero Movie Ever: A Look Back at ‘Superman and the Mole Men’

Superman and the Mole Men
Lippert Pictures

“Superman! Champion of the Oppressed, the physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!”

That’s how the Man of Steel was described in his very first appearance, from the untitled cover feature from 1938′s Action Comics #1 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. This week, the Man of Steel comes to ‘Man of Steel,’ the new big budget extravaganza directed by Zack Snyder (‘Watchmen’) and produced by ‘The Dark Knight’ director Christopher Nolan. It will no doubt feature the greatest cinematic representation of Superman the physical marvel to date. But the greatest cinematic representation of Superman, champion of the oppressed, may still be ‘Superman and the Mole-Men,’ a mostly forgotten 1951 feature that is the first superhero film to hit movie theaters.

Feature may be putting it generously — at just 58 minutes, ‘Mole-Men’ was easily cut down and repurposed as a two-part episode of ‘The Adventures of Superman.’ And no one would confuse it with Zack Snyder’s action spectacular — or Richard Donner’s or Richard Lester’s or even’s Bryan Singer’s. A more accurate title given its content might be ‘The Mole-Men and Clark Kent (With Occasional Brief Appearances By Superman).’ Still, he may not be onscreen much, but when he is, there’s something about this Man of Steel that feels right, particularly as a vision of the guy that Siegel and Shuster first invented in the late 1930s.

That Superman wasn’t quite the invincible powerhouse we know today. He could leap miles at a time, but he couldn’t fly. He was strong, but not omnipotent. His skin was tough, but it could still be pierced by a “bursting shell.” Before he graduated to super villains and alien computers and crazy imps from the fifth dimension, Superman was a vigilante crusader for social justice. He was much more likely to take down corrupt politicians, slum lords, and wife beaters than mad scientists or bizarre, evil duplicates. His beat wasn’t protecting the entire world; it was looking out for the little guy.

That’s the Superman we get, albeit briefly, in ‘Superman and the Mole-Men.’ The title — and the absence of the word “versus” — is the first clue to its unusual approach. Clark Kent (George Reeves) and Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates) are sent by the Daily Planet to report on the completion of the world’s deepest oil drilling project. When they arrive to begin their investigation, though, they find that the drilling company has sealed the well and shut down the entire operation.

The next day, the drill’s night watchman is found dead, possibly of a heart attack, or perhaps something more sinister. Surveying the scene, Lois encounters a bunch of tiny, bizarre looking creatures; these “Mole-Men” quickly become suspected of the security guard’s murder, and the residents of the small town form a posse to find these monsters and kill them. But even as the town begins hunting down these fantastical beings, Kent — in both his secret identity and as Superman — works to keep the peace, and actually protects the Mole-Men from the humans, and not the other way around.

Ominous music is meant to indicate the Mole-Men’s threat, but they’re more weird-looking than scary. With their diminutive stature (they’re played by dwarfs), pointy bald heads and big bushy eyebrows they sort of resemble the Mini-Me version of Clint Howard. The thought of millions of tiny Clint Howards living just beneath our feet is an unsettling one, but it’s not exactly what I would call a job for Superman (more like a job for a couple of adult men and women of average height with clubs or other bludgeons). These Mole-Men mostly just wander around, peeping into windows, and exploring the town around the oil well. General Zod, these dudes are not.

While that initially seems like a deficiency of the story, it quickly becomes a fascinating strength. These “monsters” aren’t monsters at all — they’re sad, pathetic little critters who are lost, confused, and scared. The close-minded bumpkins of this small town (who are clearly unfamiliar with the superb and wide-ranging filmography of Clint Howard) react with fear and suspicion and almost no proof of guilt — a comment, some critics have suggested, on the era’s McCarthyism witch hunts. Even if they look a little strange, the Mole-Men are the victims of this story, not its villains.

That’s where Superman comes in, played by Reeves as the barrel-chested embodiment of Siegel and Shuster’s champion of the oppressed — here the Man of Tomorrow literally stands up for the little guy. When the lynch mob comes for one of the Mole-Men after he’s injured in a shootout, Superman refuses to give the mob what they want. They try shooting him and, yes, they also try the silly, old cliche of throwing their guns at him when they run out of bullets (SPOILER ALERT: that doesn’t work either). Then he announces that the townsfolk have proven themselves unworthy of their weapons, dives into the crowd, and starts tossing aside their pistols and rifles.

It’s true that this isn’t a particularly action-packed Superman adventure. If you don’t count the opening credits, the Last Son of Krypton doesn’t appear onscreen in costume until 18 minutes into the hour-long movie. Later, Superman vanishes for an entire sequence while he flies an injured Mole-Man to the hospital; in the meantime, we watch an endless chase between another Mole-Man and the mob of frightened townsfolk. What’s the opposite of being faster than a speeding bullet? That’s how this chase scene feels.

Even when he’s onscreen, Superman never uses his heat-vision or cold-breath and he barely flies or uses his super strength or speed. If you want to nitpick this thing, you could spend a lot longer than the movie’s 58 minutes doing so. At the end of the movie, the battle between the surface dwellers and the Mole-Men is resolved when the big oil rig is closed once and for all. “They’re destroying the well and the casing so no one can ever get to them again!” one of the characters breathlessly announces. Yes, that should work! Because I’m sure no one will ever drill deep beneath the Earth’s surface again for any reason whatsoever!

That all might sound like a Superman movie that’s not particularly super. But as the very best Superman comics teach us, heroism is about more than physical acts of derring-do; they’re about sacrifice, courage, and doing what is right even in the face of great social pressure. Cheesy and dated as it is, ‘Superman and the Mole-Men’ is a surprisingly effective Superman movie. It reminds us that the bravest gestures are sometimes also the smallest ones.

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