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: This looks like a(nother) job for Superman

Superman and the Mole-Men (1951)

Director: Lee Sholem
Writer: Robert Maxwell
Starring: George Reeves, Phyllis Coates, Jeff Corey
Based on: Superman, created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, in Action Comics #1.
Onscreen Iteration: Third appearance.

The Best Special Effect: This feature puts Superman in the middle of a dispute between an angry mob and a group of “mole-men” from a civilization that lives at the center of the Earth (which, as science and Brendan Fraser movies have repeatedly proven, is completely hollow). The mole-men are simply curious travelers whose home gets disturbed by an oil-drilling team; they climb up the drill shaft to explore this strange new world, but their “frightening” appearance puts them at odds with the small-town hicks who live near the well. After one of the mole-men is shot, the others return to their underground society for some backup. The weapon they bring back blasts intense beams of energy; first, the mole-men turn it on Benson (Jeff Corey), the leader of the mob that’s been trying to kill them:

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Then Superman steps in to protect Benson. He disagrees with lynch mob tactics, but Superman protects everyone, not just the people he agrees with. There’s a nice shot of George Reeves looking very Supermanly as the rays of the mole-men’s laser bounce harmlessly off his chest.

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The mole-men’s raygun looks like an experimental vacuum cleaner, but its laser blasts seem plenty powerful and convincing, as does Superman’s nonchalant “Ooh, that tickles!” expression when he steps in to block it.

The Worst Special Effect: The mole-men themselves, though, are neither powerful nor convincing. Almost everyone that stumbles upon these weirdos, including Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates), scream as if they’ve bumped into Freddy Kruger. Do these guys look scary to you?

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I am vaguely unsettled by their hairy hands. But that’s more of an “Ew, gross, they must swallow tons of their own fur when they eat a hamburger” kind of scary than a “Sorry Venkman. I’m terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought” kind of scary. After her first encounter with these creatures, Lois claims they have “the bodies of moles [with] great big human heads.” No, they don’t; they’ve got black turtlenecks and obvious bald caps.

Superman Mole Men

“The bodies of moles”? Lois, have you even seen a mole before? Unless you’re talking about this guy, I don’t see the resemblance.

Most Dated Moment: Producers still hadn’t quite figured out how to make Superman fly in 1951. In the Superman serials, Kirk Alyn’s flight double was a cartoon; any time the Man of Steel took to the skies, he was replaced by an animated figure who swooped around and into buildings, and then always landed behind some sort of large foreground object because the filmmakers also hadn’t quite figured out how to make Superman land yet either.

Cartoonperman was mercifully retired for Superman and the Mole-Men, and for the first time, serious attempts were made to get a live-action actor to go up, up, and away. The Adventures of Superman television show that spun out of this movie used a springboard to simulate the Man of Steel launching himself into the sky, and then stuck actor George Reeves in front of a rear projection screen. Before they arrived at that technique, they used wires to simulate Reeves’ liftoff:

Superman Mole Men 8
Superman Mole Men

There’s also a couple really strange P.O.V. shots from the perspective of Superman in flight, staring down on the angry mob searching for the mole-men. Director Lee Sholem used a crane on a dolly for these shots, but the camera is pointed down and backwards while the camera moves up and forward. The only way this is actually Superman’s point of view while he’s in flight is if his eyes are in his feet. It’s a little bit improved from Atom Man vs. Superman, but special effects still had a long way to go before anyone would believe that a man could fly.

Most Timeless Moment: A bunch of diminutive George Costanza impersonators aren’t exactly a match for Superman, and when they first appear in Superman and the Mole-Man, they seem like an absurd villain for a film about an invulnerable space god. Who’s Superman going to fight for an encore? A bunch of disabled orphans?

Actually, though, the mole-men aren’t Superman’s enemy; they’re just frightened little creatures who become the targets of a bunch of ignorant country folks only because they look a little strange. The real bad guys of Superman and the Mole-Men (which, tellingly, is not titled Superman versus the Mole-Men) are the rednecks who take one look at these critters and immediately run for their pitchforks and torches. They even threaten to lynch Superman when he refuses to step aside and let the mob kill the mole-men.

When the townsfolk show up at the hospital where Superman’s taken one of the injured mole-men for surgery, they threaten him yet again. He’s restrained himself for a while, but that’s the last straw; declaring them unfit to carry guns, he walks around, tanking their weapons out of their hands and bending them in half. It’s a classic Superman move.

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Further Thoughts: After ten serials, Superman and the Mole-Men is the first true comic-book movie covered in this column, but just barely — at 58 minutes long, it almost doesn’t even qualify as a full-length feature. It was made as a sort of pilot for the Adventures of Superman television series that followed and it looks like it; the effects are scaled down even by the standards of the Superman serials. After the opening credits, Superman doesn’t even appear in costume until almost 25 minutes into the film; then he disappears again for another long stretch until the big conclusion. If I had to guess, I’d wager no more than 25 percent of the film involves George Reeves doing stuff as Superman. The rest is about the mole-men wandering around this inhospitable town, and Clark Kent working as a reporter (and, in one hilariously strange scene, as a nurse and surgical assistant in a hospital). Superman’s more of a supporting character than the star.

That really speaks to how different comic-book movies were 60 years ago. Today, a Superman movie is the biggest of blockbusters; in 1951, Superman and the Mole-Men was the definition of a B movie. Nothing about superheroes in 2015 is done on the cheap or the quick; these films are planned years in advance as part of enormous tapestries of stories. Mole-Men could have been conceived, written, shot, edited, and released in the span of a couple weeks. Some of it is really low-rent; George Reeves’ costume fits so poorly that it bags and bunches whenever he moves, revealing the outline of whatever supportive undergarment he was wearing to tuck in that super-belly.

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Physically, Reeves is no match for Kirk Alyn, much less Henry Cavill. Still, while there’s something to be said for the incredible visuals (and six-pack abs) of modern Superman movies, there’s also something very appealing about George Reeves and screenwriter Robert Maxwell’s interpretation of the character. In stark contrast to the Superman of Man of Steel, who treats innocent bystanders like an afterthought, this Superman’s first and foremost concern is the welfare of people, no matter who they are or what they look like. Though the film opens with the declaration that Superman fights for “truth, justice, and the American way,” it’s notable that Superman sides with the “foreigners” in this story, because the Americans are clearly in the wrong. Reeves’ Clark Kent is smart, courageous, and empathetic. When he protects the mole-men from the small-town mob, he’s literally standing up for the little guy in a story that operates as a thinly-veiled metaphor for racial intolerance.

What Reeves lacks in muscles, he makes up for with moral strength. And maybe that’s part of his appeal as Superman. It’s easy for Henry Cavill to beat guys up; just look at him! His arm muscles are bigger than my waist. Subliminally, his body projects the idea that his kind of heroism is unattainable to an ordinary person. Reeves, on the other hand, doesn’t look like an immortal; he looks like a middle-aged guy wearing pajamas (and possibly a girdle). His average physique and air of vulnerability are kind of inspiring. If this guy can stand up to an angry mob, we think to ourselves, maybe we can be brave too.

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Today, we tend to define and rate comic-book movies according to their action and special effects. By those measurements, Superman and the Mole-Men is a colossal failure. But if we measure them by their ability to advance the core values of superheroes — selflessness, tolerance, empathy — and inspire their audience to think and act more heroically, then it’s one of the best that’s ever been made. The Superman of Superman and the Mole-Men doesn’t perform a lot of “super” feats. But heroism sometimes means not fighting back even when you can.

Superman and the Mole-Men is available as a bonus feature on the Adventures of Superman: Season One and Superman Motion Picture Anthology box sets.

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