The Complete History of Comic-Book Movies, Chapter 10: ‘Atom Man vs. Superman’
ScreenCrush editor, comic-book lover, and undiagnosed masochist Matt Singer is systematically watching every single (American) comic-book movie ever made in the order in which they were released. This week in The Complete History of Comic-Book Movies: Superman returns (but not Superman Returns).
Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)
Director: Spencer Gordon Bennet
Writers: George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, David Mathews
Starring: Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Lyle Talbot
Based on: Superman, created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, in Action Comics #1.
Onscreen Iteration: Second appearance.
The Best Special Effect: Much of Atom Man vs. Superman’s plot revolves around the use of a “space transporter” that can teleport people from one place to another. Anyone who possesses a special coin can instantly be zapped to any location on Earth (or, by the end of the serial, outer space) by the diabolical mad scientist, Lex Luthor (Lyle Talbot). The targets of the space transporter fade out wherever they are, and fade in at their destination.
It’s a very rudimentary version of the Star Trek transporter effect. But Atom Man vs. Superman was made 15 years before Star Trek, and rudimentary or not, it’s a pretty convincing visual.
The Worst Special Effect: Not a convincing visual: The flying saucers and rocketships Luthor starts using to torment the citizens of Metropolis in the serial’s final chapters. Here’s the flying saucer, which is rendered, like Superman’s flight, via crude animation:
And here’s Luthor’s cheap children’s toy rocketship:
That is the setting for the big final conflict between Superman (Kirk Alyn) and Luthor. Fifteen chapters and four hours builds up ... to this:
(They’re look down at Superman there, by the way. He looks like this:)
Feel the excitement! It’s absolutely a satisfying payoff to 250 minutes of buildup! I definitely do not regret spending four hours of my life watching this! I’m fully confident in the life choices that brought me to this day! I’m 100 percent not lying right now!
Most Dated Moment: In order to maintain his standing as a legitimate businessman, Luthor disguises his villainous activities by masquerading as “the Atom Man.” It’s a solid plan, one the Luthor of comics, film, and television has used to hound Superman for decades. There’s really just one problem. This is what Atom Man looks like:
This is supposedly the world’s most dangerous man:
According to IMDb, Atom Man vs. Superman is the highest-grossing serial in cinema history. And this is what its title character looks like:
There’s no way around it: Lex Luthor is wearing a bedazzled kettle as a hat. And that bedazzled kettle has eyebrows for some reason. I guess without them you wouldn’t know what kind of mood he was in under there.
(A supplementary Most Dated Moment to the name of Luthor’s secret lair: Cave Mountain. Guys, it’s either a cave or a mountain. By definition, it cannot be both. [For the record, it’s a cave. There’s no mountain in sight.])
Most Timeless Moment: Atom Man vs. Superman is very much a film of its time (that time being the last we’re-not-spending-anything-on-this gasps of the serial era in Hollywood) but it does have a couple standout scenes. Midway through the series, Luthor manages to trap Superman inside the “Empty Doom,” an alternate dimension from which there’s supposedly no escape (and predates the “Phantom Zone” of the comics and later Superman movies by more than a decade). For a chapter or two, Superman is trapped in this Empty Doom while he figures out a way to return home. Eventually, he manages to type a message to Lois Lane on her typewriter, in a cool sequence where this ghostly Superman is hovering invisibly in the Daily Planet offices.
It’s a classic Superman moment, where the Man of Steel proves he’s more than a bunch of muscles and imperviousness, at least until Superman gets really happy that his plan works and starts looking like this.
Too far, Superman! Now it’s starting to feel like you’re actually enjoying being invisible. With that expression, I’m a little concerned you might be exploiting this invisibility gimmick for sexual gratification. Bring it down a notch. In fact, bring it down like twelve notches you Superperv.
Further Thoughts: From a visual perspective, Atom Man vs. Superman feels like a step backwards from the last Superman serial. Superman still turns into a shoddy cartoon character whenever he flies, and if they drew any new cartoons of the Man of Steel for Atom Man, I didn’t spot them; almost everything looks recycled from 1948’s Superman.
Speaking of which, Atom Man vs. Superman recycles several full sequences from its predecessor. At one point, Luthor explains the origins of Kryptonite to one of his henchmen, which prompts a flashback to the Krypton section of the first chapter of the first Superman (which Luthor obviously did not witness). Later, in an attempt to trick Luthor while he’s still trapped in the Empty Doom, Superman “appears” on television foiling some bad guys in what’s supposedly a newsreel but is actually just a scene from the last serial. The cost-cutting measures are constant, obvious, and dismal. If I produced this stuff, I would go out in public wearing a bedazzled kettle on my head so no one would recognize me.
That said, Atom Man vs. Superman does mark some fairly significant milestones in the history and development of the comic-book movie subgenre. After ten serials of wizards and scarabs and spider ladies, we’ve finally got our first, authentic, from-the-comics supervillain in the form of Lex Luthor. When he’s not dressed like a doofus, he’s a pretty great bad guy too; Talbot has a perfect sinister sneer and he really relishes delivering Luthor’s deranged pronouncements. (“Then, from the ionosphere, we shall beat our enemies into submission!”) When he tells a goon “You have the spine of a jellyfish!” you feel every bit of his haughty superiority. Once his schemes are finally exposed by Superman and the Daily Planet team, Luthor also becomes the first comic-book movie villain to attempt to destroy the entire world. He gets so angry at the people of Earth that he decides to fly off in his spaceship and then nuke the planet from orbit. His scheme is honestly not all that different from Ultron’s in Avengers: Age of Ultron, a movie made some 65 years after Atom Man vs. Superman. Some things never change.
The notion of maintaining certain elements of continuity from one film is another thing Atom Man vs. Superman brought to comic-book movies. Certainly non-comic-book franchises like The Thin Man and Dr. Kildare had carried stories across multiple films before 1950, but Atom Man was really the first comic-book film that suggested a wider universe outside the edges of its frame. The only previous comic-book sequel, 1949’s Batman and Robin, recast every single one of its main characters, and essentially ignored everything about the original Batman serial beyond the basic premise. Atom Man vs. Superman brought back all four lead actors: Alyn, Noel Neill (Lois Lane), Tommy Bond (Jimmy Olsen), and Pierre Watkin (Perry White). It deepened the rivalry between Clark and Lois, and made Lois’ ongoing suspicions of Clark as Superman a key subplot. It also introduced Lex Luthor, a recognizable villain from the Superman comics. It felt like a direct continuation of the first Superman serial, not a soft reboot.
That continuity wouldn’t last, as just one year later Alyn and Neill were replaced by George Reeves and Phyllis Coates in Superman and the Mole Men, a feature designed as a potential pilot for a Superman television series. Whatever this serial’s strengths, that made sense; at the time, television was on the ascent and serials like Atom Man vs. Superman were in terminal decline. Interestingly, television plays an important supporting role in Atom Man; Superman not only uses it to fool Lex Luthor at one point, Lois Lane also quits the Daily Planet and goes to work as a reporter for the Planet’s rival ... an early TV network owned by none other than Lex Luthor. It’s probably not a coincidence that one of the last serials ever portrayed a television station owner as a homicidal madman.
Like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice nearly seven decades later, Atom Man vs. Superman gives its star second banana status in his own sequel title. All told, Atom Man doesn’t treat Superman all that well either. As a character, the Man of Steel can do almost anything. With just a few exceptions, this serial fences him in to a repetitious formula of chases, fights, and very unconvincing flights. He had nowhere to go from here but up, up, and away.
Atom Man vs. Superman is available on DVD in a box set that also includes the 1948 Superman serial.