Superman is my favorite superhero. Not this lame stuff they’re putting out now claiming to be Superman stories while tearing apart his whole life, killing him off…again, trying to make him into Batman, or all this other stuff that doesn’t resemble the Superman I grew up with. They can’t even use bright colors on his costume, never mind having a sunny day that isn’t at least hazy. I love what Superman stands for, the various types of adventures you can do with the characters without any fundamental changes to them, and how the stories can be exciting but still speak to our humanity. I may not want Superman to be Jesus but I do like the idea that someone with great power uses it not for himself but to help others. Except for minor things but getting a proper razor can’t be easy when even your facial hair is invulnerable.
I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to do a “many intro” feature on Superman shows given that I’ve already done Batman and the Justice League in previous installments…and there are more Superman shows than even Batman shows. In both live-action and animation, the latter being the best way to do a Superman story in my opinion due to his powers and his part of the DC Universe, the Man Of Steel has given us countless adventures and a number of different incarnations. This series uses the intros to briefly discuss the shows and we’ll be starting with an usual spot, the movie theater.
Usually I don’t bother with movie intros because they aren’t the same as TV intros. However, back in the 1940s you had no TV. You had books, comics, radio, and movies for your storytelling. The popularity of Superman back then led to a series of shorts and two serials, so in this first installment that’s what we’ll be going over.
I hope I still have the version that includes the quick origin part. That was all you needed to get the audience up to speed on Superman’s history. Between the comics and radio drama kids already knew who Superman was. Noteworthy for history is that young Clark Kent grew up in an orphanage. Originally that was where he grew up in his Action Comics debut. When Superman got his own series (at the time Action Comics was an anthology of different stories) they expanded the couple who found him into the ones who adopted Clark, going back to the orphanage when they decided to raise him. However, that comic came out before these shorts so I’m guessing someone missed a memo.
Also noteworthy is that Jerry “Jerome” Siegel and Joe Shuster are actually credited in this intro. Considering the legal fight later to get recognized in future Superman movies and shows as well as the comics I find that interesting. They were doing the comics at the time but I don’t think the radio drama mentioned them either.
Speaking of the radio drama, Jackson Beck returns here as the narrator while Bud Coyer and Joan Alexander play Clark/Superman and Lois Lane, the roles from the show. This won’t be the last time we see them attached to a Superman cartoon. They’re really the best choice. While the Fleischer shorts weren’t big on conversation, and this continued when Paramount bought Fleischer Studios and renamed them Famous Studios, Coyer is the one who started what I call the Clark Kent Factor when judging actors playing Superman, with the serials below solidifying the division. Clark doesn’t sound or act like Superman, that’s part of why the disguise works. Coyer slowly transitioning from the Clark voice to Superman as a way to indicate to the radio audience that he was switching identities was brilliant and something to be remembered by anyone playing both roles.
There was also a difference in style between the Fleischer and Famous period, though the intros don’t change. They changed the name and dropped the backstory in favor of the video below and that was it.
I understand changing the studio name but why take extra time to change the rest of it? Neither really indicates a change in tone. Fleischer went more for the classic 1940s sci-fi angle with monsters and mad scientists with criminal inventions like laser cannons and robots, while Famous, to coincide with World War II I imagine, had Superman fighting the Japanese military, Nazi spies, terrorists, and the like. It does separate the two versions while keeping the same art/animation style and actors.
Later you had the serials, and to show how bad my history is I would have sworn the serials came first since the shorts were in color and the serials are in black and white. Republic Pictures had gone to National Comics to license a Superman serial but they turned them down. Republic then went to Fawcett Publications and tried the same thing with their biggest hero, leading to The Adventures Of Captain Marvel, still considered one of the best serials ever. So National ended up teaming with Columbia Pictures to produce two Superman serials, which are both good but didn’t make it to the same level. The first one was simply titled Superman and ran for 15 chapters.
See, they mention the comic and radio drama but not Siegel and Shuster. They also don’t credit Kirk Ayan in the role of Superman, trying to give the impression that is the very much real life Superman you stupid kiddies so totally believe it’s him and really exists. Ignore that whenever Superman uses some of his bigger powers like flying (which actually started with the Fleischer shorts because animating him jumping everywhere looked laughable) or holding up a car he turns into a cartoon character. He’s totally real and giving away his secret identity for your entertainment.
And Ayan really should be credited for his performance. While the “guiding light” aspect of the character hadn’t appeared yet and he couldn’t quite juggle planets you do believe this is a powerful but helpful Superman. Also Ayan really sells the “Clark” and “Superman” identities. If you want to see how the Clark Kent Factor works in live action this is your masterclass just like doing it audibly is Coyer’s masterclass. These should be standards for watching not for their take since that limits the actor but their approach to the two identities. In fact it’s worth noting for any hero with a secret identity.
Noel Neill plays Lois Lane, a role she would return to eventually in Adventures Of Superman, which we’ll talk about next time. None of the other performers went on past the second serial and really don’t get the praise that the later show does but they all do rathe well. Granted, Superman’s enemy in this serial is the Spider Lady, the leader of a criminal gang who despite having the femme fatale looks rarely interacts with anyone, sending her goons to do most of the work. She’s not a very memorable villain outside of being a lady gang leader in a 1940s serial. So for the next one they decided to bring in someone who could be a match for Superman…but since this is the Golden Age and Superman’s rogues gallery was a short list they only had one option when they made Atom Man Versus Superman in 1950.
At this point he might as well have posted the whole chapter but that’s the only copy of the intro I could find without being the full chapter. They both start out the same, with the Superman comic ripping open like a chestburster and revealing Ayan in his Superman outfit, but then immediately fades into Atom Man, and yes he does wear that goofy helmet the whole time…to hide that it’s Lex Luthor the whole time, not from the audience but from Superman. As a Golden Age Luthor scheme its not that bad. Granted I didn’t get to read a lot of Luthor’s stories from this period but as the only recurring foe back then they use him well and Lyle Talbot does a good job, even going bald (though that could be make-up) for the role.
Sadly the intro isn’t that great. The only thing memorable about the first serial’s intro was the music and now that’s covered over by atomic explosions replacing the random images of Superman. Considering that outside of the fake identity Luthor is using to cover up the fact that he’s not reformed nothing about atomic explosions really factor into the story from what I remember that seems rather odd. Still, he’s more memorable than the Spider Lady, if only for being Lex Luthor and having a teleporter as part of his scheme.
I do recommend seeing all the shorts and both serials. They’re all really good. However, we’re done with the theater because we don’t do movie intros in this series. Most of them are just a bunch of credits anyway and are only interesting for their theme song. That just how movies roll versus television, but these were more like TV intros because they kind of stand as the prototype for early TV shows. In our next installment we’re going to watch some TV, and the radio cast makes one last appearance.