Superman is a long fifteen chapters. The first two chapters are the “pilot.” They set up Kirk Alyn as Superman. He comes to Earth as a baby–with the Krypton sequences in the first chapter the most impressive thing in the entire serial–and grows up through montage to become Alyn. The first chapter has him heading off to Metropolis, intent on becoming a reporter so he can keep his ear to the ground for trouble. Except there’s trouble–a runaway train; wouldn’t you know it, Lois Lane (Noel Neill) and Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond) are on that very same train.
For a while, Superman keeps up the pretense its a special effects spectacular. Sure, Superman flying is just a cartoon, but there’s a lot of super-action. And then there’s less. And then there’s less. And the script doesn’t make up for it. Screenwriters Arthur Hoerl, Lewis Clay, and Royal K. Cole take away from Alyn and, eventually, Neill and Bond to focus on the villains. Because only the bad guys get any developments. They’ve got the schemes, they have all the new characters, they have all the action. Alyn, Neill, and Bond are mostly just cliffhanger bait.
The first two chapters of Superman set up the ground situation. They also introduce Perry White (Pierre Watkin), the Daily Planet, whatever else. Third chapter brings in villain Carol Forman. She’s playing the Spider Lady. Most of the cast is her gang of interchangeable thugs. Except George Meeker and Charles Quigley. Quigley because he’s a mad scientist, Meeker because he never gets to do anything except bicker with Forman. Wait; he does torture the good scientist (Herbert Rawlinson), but it’s offscreen. Chapter three also introduces the “Reducer Ray.” Superman has a mission from the government to protect it. But Forman wants to steal it.
At one point, she tries to steal it using a ray more powerful than the reducer ray. Superman’s short on sense.
Alyn foils most of Forman’s early schemes. Then she discovers Kryptonite. For a while, Alyn versus Kryptonite is a big part of Superman. He can’t rescue Bond because of Kryptonite, he can’t rescue Neill, whatever. Bond or Neill. One of them is always in trouble, usually for doing the exact same stupid thing they did to get in trouble before. By the end of the serial, Bond ought to have more rapport with the bad guys; he spends most of his screentime their captive.
After the Kryptonite plotline, Superman just becomes about Forman trying to get Quigley to try to get Rawlinson to do something with the reducer ray. Steal it, duplicate it, destroy it, something. And Watkin wants Neill, Bond, and Alyn to get to Quigley before the cops–even though everyone’s aware of Forman’s Spider Lady, she’s not the target of the investigation. There aren’t really any cops in Superman. The occasional flatfoot or jail guard, but otherwise, it’s all either Neill, Bond, and Alyn or Forman and her goons. Even when Alyn–as Superman–captures a goon, he’ll deliver them to the Daily Planet for interrogation instead of the cops. It’s a very, very strange system of criminal justice they’ve got in Metropolis. It’s also incredibly ineffective because, while Watkin can fight, Bond can’t. Neill can’t. Alyn can’t. Alyn’s never Superman when he needs to be. He’s always Clark Kent at the worst times. Sometimes intentionally. Alyn goes on the reducer ray transport mission–the one Superman’s supposed to be doing–as Clark Kent to cover the story.
Four screenwriters and they couldn’t come up with anything better. Directors Bennet and Carr wouldn’t have been able to handle much better though. Not with action. Their problems shooting action–specifically rising action and tension–are clear from the second chapter. They never improve. They may even get worse once the serial gets into the treading water portion of its chapters. Chapters nine through fifteen are pretty much indistinguishable from one another; the set pieces are never significant (except for Watkin’s fight scene). Superman frontloads its superhero action. Alyn gets a little bit more to do at the end–in chapter fifteen, not fourteen, they really wait for the end in fifteen–but it’s not spectacular. In fact, his great scheme to put a stop to Forman once and for all is something he could’ve done in chapter five. And spared us the rest of the serial.
Bennet and Carr end up showing a lot of aptitude for comedy. The bickering between Neill and Alyn is narratively problematic–even though there’s an indeterminate but at least a few months flashforward in chapter three, Neill and Alyn never act like they know each other any better than after they first meet. Four screenwriters and none of them can figure out how to write a scene for the two top-billed actors. Not even when Alyn’s Superman. Neill is passed out for nearly all of her rescues and only really gets to chitchat once. Before Alyn tells her to scoot off to her office. Because with the good guys, Alyn’s Superman is authoritative. With the bad guys he’s either vicious (which is at least interesting) or a complete goof. Alyn’s showdown with Forman is utterly anti-climatic. He’s grinning like a moron, she’s barely paying attention to him; not a great showdown.
And Forman’s been a lousy villain. Her grand plan isn’t even clear. She wants to extort money or maybe she doesn’t. In the first few chapters, Meeker and then Quigley tell her how wrong she is about everything and question all her orders. The scenes aren’t good but at least they have some energy. After Forman consolidates her power, things just get even more boring. Because then it’s just about waiting for things like raw materials for the reducer ray or just waiting for the ray’s battery to charge. And her underground lair, complete with an electrified spider web for unwanted visitors, is a boring set. Superman’s got a lot of boring sets, but Forman’s spider-cave is the worst. It might just be because the serial wastes so much time there.
Most of the acting is okay, without any of it being standout. Alyn, for instance, gets into a good groove as Clark Kent while Superman is getting less to do, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Same goes for Neill. She’s better than anyone else–except maybe Watkin, who’s awesome–but she’s still not able to get any momentum out of the role. The script doesn’t do character development. The best it does for the actors is one-off scenes; there’s one scene of screwball for Neill and Alyn and it’s great. There’s one scene of dread for Neill, as a reporter, and it’s great. The actors make the scenes happen–though the directors get both those examples too–but they’re just filler.
Bond is all right for a while but gets tiring. Towards the end he gets to be the crusading reporter–including threatening poor Mexican immigrants (Metropolis in this Superman, incidentally, is L.A.) and flying the Daily Planet airplane. He bosses Neill around, dives headfirst into dangerous situations, gets his ass kicked time and again. He was a lot more likable as Neill’s sidekick.
Forman’s not good, but she’s a lot worse at the start than by the end. Same goes for Quigley. Meeker’s pretty steady. So’s Rawlinson. Frank Lackteen is pretty good as Neill’s stoolie who dumps her to be Alyn’s stoolie. It’s more poorly written than weird, kind of like they wanted to have two characters but didn’t.
Technically, Superman’s fairly unimpressive. The cartoon flying Superman is never embraced. The set pieces rarely involve any superpowers. Sometimes super-strength. But the superpowers are usually only for when Alyn’s in the tights, meaning Clark Kent is played as a regular boring guy. Including when Alyn gets beat up by the goons while trying to save Neill. Why didn’t he change into his tights? Why didn’t he just beat up the bad guys while in his suit? Just another of Superman’s many logic mysteries.
Earl Turner’s editing is awful. Ira H. Morgan’s photography is fine. It’s either the same interiors (Superman reuses office sets a lot) or the same exteriors around the Columbia lot.
There’s clearly a lack of budget. There’s not much inventiveness to work within the constraints either.
Even with the always disappointing cliffhangers (and cliffhanger resolutions), the overemphasis on Forman and her goons, the utter lack of non-expository moments much less scenes, Superman almost gets through. For a while, the occasional Kirk Alyn Superman scenes payoff. For a while, it seems like there might be something for Neill to do.
Then, after the drag of the final six chapters, Superman rushes to a disappointing finish. The serial doesn’t just not make up for its losses, it goes out on bigger ones. Futzing the showdown with Forman should be the last straw, but somehow the screenwriters manage to make it even worse with a peculiar, “comedic” end tag. Directors Bennet and Carr, regardless of previous comedy prowess, do nothing to save it. Because it’s lost. But it’s also finally over.
Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr; screenplay by Arthur Hoerl, Lewis Clay, and Royal K. Cole, based on an adaptation by George H. Plympton and Joseph F. Poland and characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Earl Turner; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.
Starring Kirk Alyn (Superman / Clark Kent), Noel Neill (Lois Lane), Tommy Bond (Jimmy Olsen), Carol Forman (Spider Lady), George Meeker (Driller), Pierre Watkin (Perry White), Charles Quigley (Dr. Hackett), Herbert Rawlinson (Dr. Graham), Jack Ingram (Anton), Frank Lackteen (Hawkins), Forrest Taylor (Professor Arnold Leeds), Nelson Leigh (Jor-El), Luana Walters (Lara), Edward Cassidy (Eben Kent), and Virginia Carroll (Martha Kent).