What the Film!? – The Superman Franchise Part 1 of 4

What The Film!? is a weekly column exclusive to Under The Gun Review that brings to light the general fuckery Hollywood hoped you’d never notice. Written by Dane Sager, this column shows no mercy to films that try to pull the proverbial wool over our eyes. If you know a film with major plot holes or those that make you scratch your eyes out, tell us! Email utgjames@gmail.com with the subject “What The Film” and we’ll try to get your suggestion featured on the site.

The Superman Franchise 1940-1954 Part 1 of 4

Superman is, without question, the most famous superhero of all time. Ever. In order to celebrate the release of the upcoming release of Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel, us here at Under The Gun Review will go over the entire silver-screen history of Superman, from his frequent lows to his one high. Unfortunately, his movie adaptations are seldom worth watching, and those that are worth watching are mostly worth watching because of how hilariously bad they are. That’s what happens when you have a character that has been as popular as he has; you end on the big screen more times than any other comic book character. Well, except for Nick Fury, because in the long run, Nick Fury will definitely end up in more movies than Superman.

Patriot Games is like the weirdest prequel to The Avengers. At the very least, they could have explained why he wears an eye patch

Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster back in 1938, Superman was a symbol of hope during the Great Depression. He was as if Hercules, George Washington, and Jesus were combined into one massive figure for the sake of being good. Like Hercules, Superman has almost unlimited strength and power due to his heritage, his iconic stories are passed down from generation to generation, and in the epic poem The Odyssey, Odysseus is briefly confused, unsure if he should refer to him as a hero or a God. The only possible way someone could physically hurt Superman is through the use of Kryptonite, a rare radioactive ore that drains his power that was spread across the universe after the destruction of his home planet Krypton. Without Kryptonite, Superman is basically an American God. Not even a Demi-God, as his unwavering morality essentially makes him an invincible Boy Scout (but without the homophobia, molested children, or merit badges).

And I bet Hercules would be way cooler if his dad was the Godfather instead of Zeus.

Like George Washington, Superman is a major symbol of America. While Apple Pie was created in England and Baseball was created in France, Superman was created in Ohio. Being the first person to run for the Presidency, George Washington was the only President in American history to have won 100% of the electoral votes. He was so popular with the public that he ran unopposed for his second term that he didn’t even want to take. When Congress voted to pay him $25,000 (a little under $400,000 today) a year as his salary for Presidency, Washington declined as he believed that the Presidency was more of a Public Servant than a high paying job. After a little pressure from Congress, he decided to accept the pay because he didn’t want the first President to set a paradigm where it would look like Presidency would be limited to those that were rich didn’t need to paid. Washington refused to run for a third term, despite the fact that America loved him and he would most likely run unopposed again. He was basically given free reign over a new country that if he felt inclined, he could have ruled with an iron fist. When presented with unlimited power, he chose to help the country, rather than help himself, similar to Superman’s unconditional protection of a species he could very easily enslave to serve him.

If you look up the definition of “Humble” in the dictionary, this picture comes up.

Like Jesus, he is his father’s only son sent to Earth. While his father sends Superman to Earth to save him from Krypton’s destruction, he eventually becomes Earth’s savior. Both Lara (his biological mother) and Martha Kent (his adoptive mother) share some characteristics with the virgin Mary, being compassionate, wise, and in the case of Martha, grounds Superman by being his biggest connection to his new home world. Even Superman II and Man of Steel villain General Zod has biblical connections, formerly holding a high ranking position, but is eventually exiled due to his failed attempt at overthrowing and taking over Krypton, similar to the downfall of Lucifer. “He’ll be an outcast” Lara states in the most recent trailer to the upcoming Man of Steeltrailer before they send him to Earth “They’ll kill him”. “No”, his father replies “He’ll be a God to them” because the Biblical allegories aren’t exactly subtle when it comes to Superman.

I used to play bass for a punk band called “Super Powered Secular Jesus”. Steve Albini produced our debut album.


The very first attempt at making a Superman movie was the hilariously named Mysterious Doctor Satanserial for Republic Pictures. Unfortunately for Republic, during pre-production, the studio realized there were some legal kryptonite that made making a Superman movie at the time impossible. It turns out that the license that DC Comics (known at the time as National Comics) gave to Max Fleischer (creator of Betty Boop) for his animation studio’s famous and iconic cartoon adaptation of the character was exclusive. As long as Fleischer/Famous Studios had and paid for the license, they were the only studio who was legally allowed to put Superman on the silver screen. As a result of being knee-deep in pre-production, had to change the script, props, costumes, basically everything they could to make sure they were covering their ass legally, ultimately changing it from Superman to a slurry of every comic character they could find. Superman was changed from being Clark Kent/Kal-El to Bob Wayne, an amalgamation of The Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger, Batman, and whatever left over pulp pages they could find littered on the streets of LA.

Yes, it was the 1940s, but it’s still LA. Of course there was litter everywhere.

After crafting a new superhero origin and changing most of the character’s names they were able to continue production. Similar to how The Hangover Part II was just The Hangover‘s script put through Mad Libs, Mysterious Doctor Satan was still very clearly a Superman movie pretending to be something else. While its protagonist The Copperhead was not Superman, almost every major Superman supporting character showed up in the movie. Due to the legal issues, they were all presented with different names, but they still the same jobs, looks, characterization, and in the case of Lois Lane, the beautiful headline-hunting reporter, they only changed the last name. She became Lois Scott, the beautiful headline-hunting reporter. It’s creativity like that is why writers get paid so much. Another strike against Republic Pictures was that the money that they spent on the Superman license that they were unaware that they couldn’t use was a large part of the movie’s budget. Further money spent into quickly and sloppily reworking the script, props, and costumes drained the budget even more. One of the major props was a robot created by the titular Doctor Satan that would fight the Copperhead. Originally, the sequence was to include “an army” of robots, but due to resources being stretched to make sure they weren’t making a Superman movie, they could only complete one sad phallic robot. This robot would later show up as a joke an episode of Star Trek. 

When Star Trek makes fun of your production values, you know you’ve made a mistake somewhere

1948’s Superman

The very first official live-action Superman movie was a serial made by Columbia Pictures after producer Sam Katzman convinced the studio that it could be done. Columbia likely purchased the license confidently after the success of their 1943 serial adaptations of both Batman and The Phantom. However, unlike Batman and The Phantom, Superman isn’t a normal person fighting evil without superpowers and his adventures generally require more special effects than his detective in a bat-suit counterpart. To deal with this using the technology of the time, Columbia decided to hand drawn and animate what they couldn’t create in camera. Contrary to how Fleischer/Famous Studios would rotoscope their cartoons, filming parts live-action and tracing over them for more fluid animation and (at the time) saving time, Columbia animated by hand. Problems arose with this, as they were unable to smoothly combine the two different mediums. As they found out, it much was easier for them to cut from a live-action Superman to the animated flying sequences than it was for them to cut from an animated Superman landing to a live-action Superman. Because the animators couldn’t make Superman landing convincing enough, they compensated by having him always land in the far distance of the shot or his landing would be hidden behind some sort of object on the set, where the live-action Superman would emerge from. Another headache with this method was that because of the high price of animating the special effect shots, the studio decided it would be in their best interest to reuse some of the animation throughout the movie. There is a shot of Superman flying over a mountain that is reused over fifteen times during the movie. Superman’s stunt double had only one stunt over the course of the entire 244 minute long serial where he jumped from a moving truck, which resulted in a broken leg and the stunt double leaving production. It is unclear if this happened before or after the decision to animate the special effects, but I’m sure it made the studio look at a medium where people don’t get hurt as a much better alternative. Columbia Picture’s Superman was one of the most successful movie serials at its release. Theaters were unprepared for how successful and popular it would become. Advertisements for the movie claimed that Columbia was unable to find a fitting actor for Superman and that while Kirk Alyn played the alter ego Clark Kent, for the role of Superman, they had “hired Superman himself!”. In retrospect, this seems like a creative and fun way to explain why the action shots of Superman looked wildly different from when Kirk Alyn was on screen.

Not sure why they worried about it, it looks pretty seamless to me.

1950’s Atom Man Vs Superman

Due to Superman’s success, Columbia quickly started work on a sequel serial, not only being the first live action version of Lex Luthor, but also intended to up the “action” as much as they could. Atom Man Vs Superman continued the majority of the issues of its predecessor, while luckily ignoring several of the problems of Columbia’s Batman serials (most notably being that they weren’t horrifically racist towards the Japanese). Because of the upped action, the story’s structure seems a bit skewed. Understandably, the serial format tells a story over fifteen fifteen minute segments and should be expected, but the earlier Superman adaptation had a more coherent story instead of a series of episodes of Lex Luthor doing something bad for the sake of being bad and Superman stops him. This game that Lex Luthor (who is called the Atom-Man in this adaptation for some damn reason) and Superman play in this movie of going between failed schemes after failed schemes finally climaxes with horrible cartoon UFOs attacking Metropolis. On a lighter note, while they still used cartoons to do most of the action, they did find a way to do closeups on Superman as he flew by using the creative and technologically intense method of turning the camera on its side to shoot him at a different angle. They also used a smoke machine and a fan to make it seem as if he was in flight, but they still used the cartoon animation for the majority of flight sequences.

Still looks better than Dragon Wars.

Despite the fact that Atom Man Vs Superman somehow managed to have parts that look cheaper and some parts look better than the prior movie, it had elements sampled and lifted from it to be used in later Superman movies including Superman II, Superman III, and Superman Returns. While strange, its precedent was set in these movies, as they reused footage not only over the course of Atom Man Vs Superman, but also they also reused an entire episode of the prior Superman serial as well as footage from the director’s older non-Superman work. After the mess that was 1950’s Atom Man Vs Superman, studios decided to wait before making another live-action Superman adaptation. Just to be safe, you know? Sometimes you need to give it time to let people forget the lack of success of a prior movie before bringing back a character to the big screen; like how there were eight years between Batman & Robin and Batman Begins.

Or six years between Die Another Day and Casino Royale. It’s necessary to let the audience forget the $150 million dollar spit in the face before seeing that character again

1951’s Superman and the Mole Men

Superman and the Mole Men hit theaters in 1951, likely while Atom Man Vs Superman was still touring those very same theaters. While Columbia Pictures was the studio behind the Superman serials, Superman and the Mole Menwere created by Lippert Pictures. For a brief period in time, Superman was in direct competition with a rival Superman franchise. The license Columbia had for the serials weren’t as exclusive as the license that Max Fleischer held ten years prior over exclusive rights to the character. It seems that Columbia’s license was limited to serials, while Lippert’s was about the feature length pictures.

“I captured these men for laughing at my girdle”.

By definition, Mole Men was technically a movie, as it fit the required feature length of forty minutes by just being fifty eight minutes long, but the real goal of the “movie” was to turn it into a weekly television show. Lippert Pictures made a pilot for a Superman television show over the course of twelve days, shooting on backlots and unused sets, and decided to distribute it to theaters to gain publicity for the potential up-coming show. The movie begins with reporters Clark Kent and Lois Lane gettin’ the big scoop on the inaugural dig of what is then the world’s deepest oil well. Unknown to everyone, the first dig ends up breaking into an underground cavern where the Mole Men live who escape the cavern late that night; ultimately killing one of the elderly watchmen on the rig by scaring him to death, but then again, he was old enough that anything could have given him a heart attack. Hell, he was old enough that his parents probably owned slaves. Due to the watchman’s death and the occasional brief sightings of the Mole Men exploring their new surroundings around the small city, the townspeople end up putting together an angry mob to kill them all. Superman is torn, where he wants to protect the Mole Men, who haven’t really done anything wrong, and attempts to find a civil and humane way to deal with both the angry mob set on their extrajudicial killings and the Mole Men. He finds a solution that’s he believes is best for everyone by destroying the shaft that the oil well created, making the Mole Men unable to escape their small underground city to the surface and the people on the surface unable to get down to cavern below. Despite this rendition’s later popularity, this Superman has no sense of humor. He’s incredibly deadpan and lacks any real charm to him, which he would eventually develop later when it was picked up as a TV show under the name of The Adventures of Superman. It’s because of what this version grew to be that for a lot of people, George Reeves is their definitive Superman. Honestly, that’s not a bad choice for your definitive Superman, as the character he played became more charming and lighthearted on the show in addition to being the first live-action Superman who managed to fly and not look like an MSpaint drawing. A lot of the cliches that are still used with Superman were created with this version and it still influences Superman to this day, over sixty years later. It’s just that this theatrical Superman adaptation has a much darker undertone than any other adaptation, one completely unrelated to George Reeve’s potential suicide.

Hollywoodland was actually kind of a great movie, despite the liberty taken with the story.

When The Adventures of Superman was picked up as a TV show, they ended up re-editing and tweaking the movie into an episode entitled “The Unknown People” where it flows a little different and every single reference to “Mole Men” was redubbed into “the unknown people”, but minor differences aside, it’s the exact same story executed the exact same way. Just like how the Batman serials of the 1940s had political elements of its time that we aren’t proud of, Superman and the Mole Men and it’s television remix “The Unknown People” has political elements of the 1950s that don’t quite stand the test of time. During the 1950s, the two biggest political issues in the United States were the “Red Scare”, a fear of Communists infiltrating and influencing American society; and the very beginning of the Civil Rights movement, one of the most important parts of American history where there were through the use of nonviolent (and sometimes violent) protests, racial discrimination such as disfranchisement, exploitation, and segregation were made illegal in the United States. Yes, seriously, now lets look at how that plot gets resolved again:  In one of the most politically tense moments of American history, Superman was presented with a situation where a nonviolent group of Mole Men, or “unknown people” as they’re known in the rebroadcasted television version, emerge from literally living under white peoplefor the first time to see a land full of opportunity that they never knew existed, and Superman makes the decision that the best way to deal with these differences in culture and race is to segregate them in such a way that makes sure that these two groups can never see each other ever again. A major problem with Superman being a super-powered Boy Scout is that his sense of morality that defines the character frequently shows how antiquated the character can actually be. Despite being an alien who can more than likely can see colors beyond our own visual spectrum, when it comes to these “unknown people”, he sees only in black and white.

Even worse is that since Superman isn’t even from Earth, he even knows he’s the proof that coexistence works.

Read Part Two here!

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