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September 2, 2013

Movie Mondays: Atom Man vs. Superman

Atom Man!? Who is Atom Man? Oh, Lex Luthor in disguise! Cool!

Atom Man!? Who the hell is Atom M- Oh, Lex Luthor in disguise! Cool!

Title: Atom Man vs. Superman
Director: Spencer Gordon Bennet
Writers: George H. Plympton, & Joseph F. Poland, David Mathews (Based on Characters created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster)
Distributed By: Columbia Pictures
Starring: Kirk Alyn, Lyle Talbot, Noel Neill, Tommy Bond, Pierre Watkin
Release Date: July 20, 1950
MPAA: Approved

Welcome back to another installment of Movie Mondays’ salute to Superman!  As you know, this year marks the 75th anniversary of The Man of Tomorrow, and throughout the year Movie Mondays will be taking a look at all of his live-action adventures on the silver screen.  This week features a real treat as we take a look at the 1950 theatrical serial Atom Man vs. Superman!  Why is it a treat, you might wonder.  Well, this marks the first appearance of Lex Luthor in any adaptation of the Superman comics!  So, without further adieu, let’s check it out.

Our story begins with Lex Luthor as an already well-known super-villain at large once again, and out to terrorize the citizens of Metropolis.  Shortly thereafter, Luthor concocts a clever scheme, creating a secret identity as a new supervillain called The Atom Man, while announcing to the world that he has gone straight and intends to become an honest law-abiding citizen.

Top Right corner: Lex Luthor's disguise as Atom Man looks like one of the giant heads from Easter Island

Lex Luthor’s disguise as Atom Man looks like one of the giant heads from Easter Island.

Lex Luthor: Mad Scientist Extraordinaire!

Lex Luthor: Mad Scientist Extraordinaire!

Soon, Luthor creates his own television news network, and also uses his “formerly” criminal cunning to help thwart the evil machinations of the mysterious Atom Man.  This way he can outshine The Daily Planet and Superman all in one fell swoop.  As it turns out, Luthor’s television news network and fleet of news trucks are all used as his evil plotting as The Atom Man, where the trucks house many of Luthor’s gadgets and weapons that allow him to see through walls, copy vault codes, level buildings, and other nefarious acts.

Eventually, everyone in town is fooled, with the exception of good ol’ Clark Kent, who sets out to prove that Lex Luthor and Atom Man are actually the same dastardly mastermind.  Now it’s up to Superman to put an end to Luthor’s wicked ways before it’s too late.

So, the premise of this serial is great.  It gets the ball rolling with a promising set-up, an interesting story line and…it’s mostly downhill from there.  It’s not that this serial is terrible in any way.  It’s just not very good.  It’s a major step up from the previous theatrical serial in the form of higher stakes, bigger action, and a villain straight out of the comics.  But it’s a step down in nearly every other way, from pacing and storytelling, to production values as well as acting.

Show us those pearly whites!  Gosh there's a lot of smiling in this!

Superman: Just smile along with her and she’ll seem less creepy… that’s right.

Lyle Talbot (who portrayed Commissioner Gordon in Batman & Robin the year before)  delivers an enthusiastic and entertaining performance as Lex Luthor.  Kirk Alyn performs to his usual charming standard as Superman.  But the rest of the supporting actors all seem to be sleepwalking through their roles.  Even Noel Neill’s portrayal of Lois Lane takes a step back from her performance in 1948’s Superman.  Though, it may be due to the way she’s written this time around.  With the previous theatrical serial, Lois was a spitfire, full of gusto and gumption.  This time around, she’s just full of stupidity.  She smiles more this time around, which is nice, but that seems to be all she does.  She’s basically been reduced to a walking plot device, getting the audience and Superman to the next bit of action.

Some of the story developments get a bit ludicrous as the serial goes on, as well.  Luthor invents a small squadron of flying saucers to attack Metropolis, and builds a nuclear missile to destroy the city when that fails.  He also spends a great deal of time creating synthetic Kryptonite in an attempt to kill Superman.

Another story development that is unfortunately ridiculous is Luthor’s first attempt at disposing of Superman.  He taps into some sort of pocket dimension that he dubs “The Empty Doom.”  Once inside it, his victims are like a ghost, still observing the regular world, but unable to touch, speak, or otherwise interact with anything in any way.  So, once sent to this void, how does Superman get help once he realizes he can’t interact with anything?  Why, typing a message on Lois’s typewriter of course…because that makes sense…right?

Yay for Kirk Alyn and ... Wait! What is that silly looking cartoon flying saucer in the bottom right?!

Yay for Kirk Alyn and … Wait! What is that silly looking cartoon flying saucer in the bottom right?!

Remember that earlier complaint about the drop in production values?  Well, these parts of the film are fine examples of that considerable drop.  During his time creating the synthetic Kryptonite, Luthor explains that he knows how to make Kryptonite by revealing that he knows all about Superman’s past, complete with about 15 minutes of reused footage from the last serial.  And those flying saucers I mentioned…they’re all poorly drawn, badly animated cartoons.  Now, there’s no knocking the fact that it’s a cartoon.  As I said about the previous serial, the cartoon aspects used for flying look good and are simply a precursor to the CGI of modern films.  However, these flying saucers just look abysmal.

It’s not all bad; of this you can be certain.  The action is top-notch this time around.  There are car chases, exploding buildings, exploding airplanes, evil henchmen with ray-guns that can topple buildings, Superman saving people from floods, the list goes on and on.  Unfortunately there isn’t much else going on.  In the previous serial, there was a lot of entertaining character building and interaction; here there isn’t much of anything.  The audience is treated to a few nice character moments by way of Tommy Bond as Jimmy Olsen, but not much else.

Superman redirects a nuclear missile by using his cape as impromptu air-brakes.  But his face is so silly!

Pic 1) “I’ve got to redirect this rocket! Pic 2) “Rocket redirected!” Pic 3) “Fweeeee!!!”

Overall, this theatrical serial isn’t the worst adaptation of Superman in any form, but it’s quite simply not very good.  When it comes right down to it, it’s all rather middling.  It’s still worth checking out for Lyle Talbot as Lex Luthor, just don’t expect this follow-up to be as much fun as the last serial.  Atom Man vs. Superman earns a mediocre 5 out of 10.

Awesome poster!

Awesome poster!  Too bad the serial doesn’t live up to it.

Aaron Nicewonger
aaron@comicattack.net
aarongni@gmail.com

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