Fates Worse Than Death: Atom Man vs. Superman

As Atom Man vs. Superman begins, a crime wave has overtaken Metropolis, the kind of multi-pronged gang assault on property and lives that frequently opens the first chapter of serials, even though the Depression-era violence that inspired it was long-gone by 1950. Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent* suspects that a single criminal mastermind is behind it, secretly organizing and coordinating the atrocities. But who? A bulbous, oversized helmet is superimposed over the montage of stock footage and spinning newspaper headlines, the “Atom Man” of the title, but Clark believes that to be merely a cover for Superman’s arch-enemy, Lex Luthor. In this very first chapter (“Superman Flies Again”), Superman uses his X-ray vision to locate Luthor’s hideout and capture him. Yet over the next year, the crimes continue! Was Clark Kent wrong about Luthor (who claims to have gone straight and is applying for parole)? Is the Atom Man an entirely different villain?

What’s notable here is the degree to which the characters and their relationship are already established at the outset: not only is it taken for granted that audiences will know Lex Luthor, but he is caught and imprisoned within the first episode in the manner of a modern action film’s “cold open.” (Of course, Luthor is up to something, but that’s beside the point.) The assumption that audiences wouldn’t need to have things explained to them was a safe one for the filmmakers, of course: Superman was widely read in comic book form and heard on his own radio show (from which the plot of this serial was adapted); as I mentioned in my review of the previous Superman serial, that familiarity kept the producers from making too many changes to the source material in adapting it, and the faithfulness to the original says as much about the popularity of Superman as it does about the fickleness of filmmakers. It’s worth noting, in fact, that serial adaptations from comic strips were generally more faithful than those from comic books, a reflection of the newspaper strips’ higher status in those days. (It’s possible that the subtle touches in Atom Man vs. Superman also reflect an awareness of the audience’s greater sophistication by 1950, as well.)

In any case, Atom Man vs. Superman is one of the few serials I’ve seen that takes its audience’s awareness of the characters and setup for granted, going so far as to subvert their expectations for suspense or comic relief. For example, more than once when Clark Kent ducks into a doorway to transform into his alter ego, fellow reporter Lois Lane follows him under the impression that Clark is trying to scoop her or keep himself out of danger. If he can’t turn into Superman, how will he save the day? Or will Lois learn his secret identity? Something always comes along to protect Clark’s secret and allow him to make the switch, but Lois’s growing suspicions are a major subplot: not only does she ask out loud, “Is Clark Superman?”, she has Daily Planet editor Perry White so convinced that he almost publishes a front page story saying so. Ultimately, the status quo is preserved, but rarely short of Superman II have I seen a Superman film in which the truth floats so close to the surface.

It makes a difference, as well, that Atom Man vs. Superman is the sequel to an earlier serial that does begin with the hero’s origin, and this particular story was adapted from a storyline from the radio show The Adventures of Superman. (And how odd is it that the title follows the familiar “______ vs. ______” format, but unusually puts the antagonist’s name first?) All of the major players from the first serial return (including leading man Kirk Alyn, credited as only “Superman,” maintaining the fiction that the man himself showed up to film his own adventures), with the addition of Lyle Talbot as Lex Luthor. Talbot’s Luthor is just like we remember him: brilliant, egotistical, and bald; he is both the “mad scientist” of his earliest comic book incarnations and the smooth-talking public figure of later stories. Luthor has always been a complex and captivating foil for Superman, but his human strengths and failings are especially clear in comparison to the masked villains typical of the serials. (The serial hardly makes a secret of the fact that Atom Man is a convenient front for Luthor: while he “goes straight,” he receives threats from the Atom Man on behalf of the criminal underworld Luthor has supposedly turned his back on. But everyone knows that Atom Man’s plans and Luthor’s are one and the same.)

The main plot involves criminals, including one already in custody of the police, who mysteriously disappear whenever they flash a particular silver coin, making for some miraculous escapes and frustrating Superman’s attempts to connect their crimes to the Atom Man. As it turns out, these “activated coins” are signal beacons for a “space transporter,” a teleportation beam developed by Lex Luthor (and the solution to his continued leadership even while in solitary confinement: he just uses his own coin and has his henchmen beam him to his hideout for an hour or two, and then he goes back before the prison guards are any wiser). The coins and the transporter are significant devices throughout the serial, with Luthor using them to slip from one hiding place to another; help his underlings stay out of the grasp of Superman or the police; bait traps for Superman and the Daily Planet reporters; and even kidnap Lois Lane (Noel Neill) by sending her one of these medallions. The coins also further the plot when one of the coins is recovered and Luthor schemes to get it back before it can be analyzed.

But the technology underlying the space transporter is also capable of sending its target’s atoms into space, “where they will circle endlessly” without solidity, a fate Luthor refers to as “the Empty Doom.” At one point he uses it briefly on one of his underlings as punishment for failure, demonstrating its effectiveness but also revealing that the effects can be undone. Luthor’s ultimate plan is to consign Superman to the Empty Doom, ridding himself of his archenemy forever; he succeeds, but only for a chapter. While in this state, Superman is insubstantial and invisible (except to the audience, through the miracle of double exposure), as if on the astral plane, or like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. The scenes in which Superman, in double exposure against a background of planets and stars, struggles with a henchman sent to check on him (and here the Empty Doom functions more like the comics’ Phantom Zone), are great fun, and in some ways closer to the loopier sci-fi elements of the comics than we usually get when the character is adapted to film. Through great effort, he is able to communicate with Lois through her electric typewriter, and eventually his instructions to her help him break free.

The space transporter isn’t the only high-tech invention Luthor brings to bear in his war against Superman, but it does get the most screen time. Luthor also has an “atomic projectile” (a high-powered mortar shell that Superman simply catches and returns against its operator, exactly the same as when the Spider Lady tried the same thing in the last Superman serial); a remote control flying saucer; a robot (spoiler!); an earthquake machine; an atom bomb (there’s a lot of nuclear anxiety in this serial, from the title on down); and even a spaceship! At one point, Luthor synthesizes his own Kryptonite, a step up from the “synthetic radium” that so many serials feature; however, to make it work correctly, Luthor’s Kryptonite requires just one ingredient he must steal: radium! Oh, well. There is a clever sequence in which Luthor manipulates Superman into using his X-ray vision on a box of nails: Luthor has prepared an alloy that turns into plutonium when bombarded with X-rays, tricking Superman into generating the fuel that will be used against him.

And of course there’s television; at first, Luthor earns his parole by offering a new invention to the government, a “combination of radar and television.” Regular readers of this series will be aware of my interest in how television was presented in the serials, as an almost-magical scrying device that allowed remote viewing even of places inaccessible to cameras. By 1950, television was less a futuristic pipe-dream than a definite reality with a growing audience, and viewers and filmmakers alike were now aware of the medium’s limitations, so super-science was invoked to make it exciting (and useful to the plot) again. The only difference between the fantastical view of television common in the 1930s and its use in Atom Man is the gloss that presents Luthor’s device as a new spin on the now-familiar medium. At the same time, television is an everyday occurrence, with Luthor setting up a mundane television studio as a cover for his more esoteric spying. (Hilariously, the cover blurb on the DVD claims that Luthor “says he’s just a simple repairman for those new devices called televisions!”, a synopsis that is garbled at best.) At one point, Lois Lane goes to work for Luthor as an on-camera personality, mostly for tepid “man-on-the-street” interviews. Although regular broadcast television is shown in a decidedly unthrilling light, it wouldn’t be long before the new medium killed theatrical serials for good, or rather absorbed them, as low-budget storytelling-by-installment became the default mode of TV entertainment, even including the Man of Steel himself.

What I Watched: Atom Man vs. Superman (Columbia, 1950)

Where I Watched It: Superman: The Theatrical Serials Collection DVD set

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Superman Saves the Universe” (Chapter Fifteen) Well, what else would we expect Superman to do?

Best Cliffhanger: Although there are more than a few classic perils here, Atom Man vs. Superman finds the filmmakers chafing at the formal restriction of the end-of-chapter cliffhanger. Some of the chapters end with one or more characters in a state of uncertainty rather than immediate peril: at the end of Chapter Seven (“At the Mercy of Atom Man!”), Superman, weakened by Luthor’s synthetic Kryptonite, is loaded unconscious onto an ambulance which the audience knows is being driven by Luthor’s henchmen. Not only does Superman not get out of trouble immediately in the next chapter by escaping or undoing the peril as in so many serials, he is forced to step into Luthor’s matter transporter and face the “empty doom,” from which he doesn’t escape until the next chapter after that!

In other cases, the cliffhangers are perfunctory: rather than being set up with the heavy-handed foreshadowing so common to the Republic formula, dangers are thrown up at the last minute, as when Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond), chasing an escaping henchman, gets his foot stuck in a railroad bed and can’t escape an oncoming train. The train has nothing to do with the events that have come before, but it’s the end of the chapter, so something has to happen. Both examples are probably extensions of the playful formula-tweaking mentioned above: by 1950, even kid audiences were ready for twists on familiar material. Fortunately, the awareness that cliffhangers alone weren’t enough to satisfy audiences pushed the filmmakers to create interest in other ways, through character and novel special effects. (As in the previous serial, animation is used to depict Superman’s flight as well as other effects too expensive to create otherwise.)

Having said that, there is at least one truly great cliffhanger in this serial: in Chapter Fourteen, “Rocket of Vengeance,” Lex Luthor sends a missile loaded with an atomic bomb to destroy Metropolis, his final act of defiance before taking off into space, leaving the Earth behind forever. Superman intercepts the missile, climbing on top and riding it, Dr. Strangelove-style, as it heads straight for the Daily Planet building and the office of Perry White (Pierre Watkin). The sequence, which cuts between close-ups of Superman riding the missile, shots of the city from the missile’s point of view, and White, Lois, and Jimmy watching its approach, is among the most exciting in this serial.

Sample Dialogue:

Lois: Let’s head back to the office.
Jimmy: What for, to be hit by that rocket?
Lois: We’ll write the story, even if it’s our last one.
Jimmy: I’d rather read about it.
–Chapter Fourteen, “Rocket of Vengeance”

What Others Have Said:Atom Man vs. Superman was far more gimmicky and gadget-prone than the first serial, Superman, but was flawed by the same [producer Sam] Katzman cheapness in production values, despite the cast and crew.” –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

Well, I liked it.

What’s Next: Summer isn’t over yet! Join me next time as I explore Dick Tracy’s G-Men!

* (who is secretly Superman)

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Points of Connection, Part Four: Mirror Universes

One of my favorite scenes involving the Squadron Supreme is in Mark Gruenwald’s follow-up to the SS miniseries, the graphic novel Squadron Supreme: Death of a Universe.  In Death, a mysterious growing blot threatens to erase the entire universe, a danger that brings former enemies together for the sake of survival.  Dr. Emil Burbank, alias “Master Menace,” who has been established as the Lex Luthor to Hyperion’s Superman (although his armor makes him look more like Dr. Doom—this is still a Marvel book, after all) volunteers to travel forward in time in order to develop a solution using the future era’s advanced technology.  (It’s one of many possible futures; as one character points out, the universe they’re in may not have a future.)  Nearly an hour after his departure, his time machine returns.  Burbank steps out, an old man: he has spent fifteen years of intense labor in the future perfecting his device.  Hyperion is shocked at the sacrifice his old enemy has made.  “At last he treats me with the respect one of my stature is entitled to!” thinks Burbank.

From Squadron Supreme: Death of a Universe, art by Paul Ryan and Al Williamson.  Source: Comic Book Resources.  Brian Cronin was struck by the same scene as myself.

From Squadron Supreme: Death of a Universe, art by Paul Ryan and Al Williamson. Source: Comic Book Resources. Brian Cronin was obviously struck by the same scene as myself.

It’s a little too on-the-nose, but it’s of a piece with Gruenwald’s interest in illuminating the relationships between comic book archetypes.  It’s also, in a way, a rare moment of understanding between two antagonists; comic book narratives depend on direct conflict, and have historically placed emphasis on action, not détente.  It’s clear that Master Menace is acting from self-interest as usual, but he also seems intrigued by the possibility of playing hero, if just this once.  If we accept the notion that villains are most compelling when they reveal something about the hero*, it suggests that what Hyperion and Master Menace share is both a higher purpose and a natural superiority to others (why deny it?), but in Burbank’s eyes only Hyperion has received the acclaim he deserves.  Burbank has had to work for his success, and has seen his ambitious visions thwarted (usually by Hyperion, obviously), but all Hyperion has to do is flex his muscles and punch a few bad guys and he is universally beloved.  What Master Menace really wants is to be seen as a worthy opponent instead of just another criminal, to have his greatness recognized.  I’m probably reading some of the shared history of Lex Luthor and Clark Kent into this scene, but isn’t that the point? (For a similar take from the villain’s point of view, see Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.)

Although they aren’t cast as hero/villain, Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) and Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman) have a similar dynamic in the 1999 film Galaxy Quest.  Bound together by their roles on the long-cancelled television series of the same name, as “Commander Peter Quincy Taggart” and “Dr. Lazarus” respectively, Nesmith relishes the adulation of fans and the chance to relive his glory days as the boyish, heroic starship captain, while Dane mourns that a classically-trained Shakespearean such as himself has become trapped in a one-dimensional, prosthetic-forehead-wearing role defined by a single catchphrase: “By Grabthar’s Hammer. . . .”  To Dane, Nesmith is a hammy showboat; to Nesmith, Dane is a snob who needs to lighten up.

Galaxy-Quest-Lazarus

Of course, it’s immediately obvious that “Nesmith/Taggart” is William Shatner playing James T. Kirk, and “Dane/Lazarus” is Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, and indeed the entire setup, from the canceled cult TV show to the easily mocked conventions, is a pastiche of Star Trek and its real-life fandom.  An early moment in the film, when Nesmith lashes out at his fans, snarling “It’s just a television show,” is undoubtedly inspired by the well-known Saturday Night Live sketch in which William Shatner tells his fans to “get a life;” Dane’s self-loathing is a comic exaggeration of Nimoy, who was so famously ambivalent about his best-known role that he published two autobiographies, one called I Am Not Spock and, twenty years later, I Am Spock. Galaxy Quest gets a lot of story across in a short amount of time because we already know its premise and characters in broad outline, and the casting adds more layers to the joke. Rickman surely knew a thing or two about lending his theatrical gravitas to B-movie genre roles; Gwen DeMarco (the eye-candy communications officer Tawny Madison, whose job is to repeat everything the computer says) is played by Sigourney Weaver, Ellen Ripley herself; Sam Rockwell plays Guy, the unnamed crew member terrified he’ll be as expendable as Star Trek’s “red shirts;” my favorite is Fred Kwan (Tech Sergeant Chen), who admits Kwan isn’t even his real name, played by the Lebanese-American Tony Shalhoub (himself frequently cast in Italian, Arab, or Russian “ethnic” roles).

It’s a testament to the strength of the performances and the attention to detail that the pastiche works as a commentary on Star Trek without descending into simple parody.  As the story unfolds, with the cast of the TV show mistaken for actual space explorers and drafted into an alien war**, there are stakes, and there is character growth; there are jabs at cheap sets, formulaic writing, and rubber masks, but they are, in a sense, coming from inside knowledge, an elbow nudge from one fan to another.  The writers and director clearly have an affection for the subject, and like fans everywhere have earned the right to point out the more risible aspects of the show without giving up the reasons they fell in love with it in the first place.

It’s also hilarious.  Based on the films that have already been made, it would seem to be difficult to make a humorous science fiction film, at least one in which the comedy and science fiction elements are given equal footing.  Sure, humorous elements have been present in written science fiction almost since the beginning, Fredric Brown being an early practitioner, but when it comes to putting fantastic visions on celluloid, there has historically been a divide between the self-seriousness of sci fi and the tendency of TV and movie comedians to deflate, to tear down artifice (or at least there was through much of the twentieth century; a balanced combination of comedy and genre elements isn’t quite the rarity it was in 1999).  Galaxy Quest finds a lot of its humor in the backstage bickering and self-delusion of actors, as well as lazy writing that amps up tension at the expense of believability (like the self-destruct timer that only stops at 0:01, or ridiculous obstacle courses that would be safety hazards in a supposedly utilitarian spaceship***).  The phoniness on display is that of show business in general, not science fiction specifically.  When the film finally turns its attention to cheesy special effects, usually the lowest hanging fruit for satire, it’s the deepest moment of pathos, a point of complete disillusionment.

One thing Galaxy Quest doesn’t do is so much as whisper the names Star Trek, Kirk, Spock, Enterprise, Klingons, or anything else that would tip us off; you either get it or you don’t.  Doing so wouldn’t just throw the pastiche into relief as a copycat (who would ask for Brand X when they could have the real thing?), it would rob it of the superlative element that, as I’ve said, is an important element of this kind of storytelling.  It’s one thing, for example, to create a fictional Senator, astronaut, car company, or NFL team, and have them mingle with real-life figures: in that case, they are part of a class, and adding one more doesn’t change things too much.  Cultural objects like television shows or books, however, are trickier: they generally occupy niches from which they must be displaced, not simply added to.  One would think this is obvious, but it happens all the time: Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a behind-the-scenes look at a distinctly Saturday Night Live-like sketch comedy show, had a lot of problems, but an easily avoided one was constant mentions of Saturday Night Live. If, in the show, Studio 60 was such a groundbreaking program, what was SNL?  In Mike Carey’s ongoing comic book series The Unwritten, Tom Taylor is the unwitting star of a series of fantasy novels clearly based on the Harry Potter series, the success of which is an obvious point of inspiration.  The originality and influence attributed to the Tommy Taylor series is undercut, however, by references to Harry Potter and its author, J. K. Rowling.  It comes down to the old problem of a work-within-a-work having to live up to the claims characters in the story make for it: it’s easier to suspend disbelief if we can imagine the work standing in for something we already know to be successful, but if we’re confronted with both the original and the pastiche existing within the fiction, how can the pastiche not seem like a pale imitation?

Spock_(mirror)

Finally, Galaxy Quest connects to Star Trek through the moral division of its characters: Star Trek confronted this literally with the Mirror Universe (“Mirror, Mirror”), a parallel world full of evil versions of the Enterprise crew, very much in the spirit of the Crime Syndicate of America or Squadron Sinister.  In Galaxy Quest, the division is internal: the actors aren’t evil, but fallible, and the doubles they must face are the heroic characters they play and for whom they are mistaken.  Nesmith, who loves playing the hero, is forced to bear the burdens of leadership and consequences that real leaders face, and is forced by circumstance to admit that it’s all fake; Dane, who already feels like a fraud playing the one-dimensional Dr. Lazarus, comes to realize how much he has meant to his fans, and embraces his role.  Interestingly, it is the villain, General Sarris, who articulates the themes of theatricality most clearly: despite his reptilian appearance, he is more human in temperament than the literal-minded Thermians.  It is Sarris who immediately grasps that Nesmith and his crew are actors, and forces him to explain it to the Thermian leader “as you would a child.” The final role-reversal occurs when Sarris accuses the actors of “playing war,” and Nesmith, fully embracing the role of Commander, tells him “It doesn’t take a great actor to recognize a bad one.”  Ultimately, Galaxy Quest redeems its characters by showing that, as ridiculous as they may be, audiences believe in them, perhaps not literally like the naïve Thermians, but as ideals.  It’s that optimistic spirit that most closely unites Galaxy Quest to its model.

* Batman is generally thought to have the best rogue’s gallery because the villains mirror Bruce Wayne/Batman’s qualities in distorted ways: the Joker reflects Batman’s psychosis, and his reaction to tragedy is to use violence and pranks to unravel the social order Batman strives to uphold; the Riddler mocks Batman’s pretensions as the Great Detective; the Penguin is the plutocratic face of Bruce Wayne’s inherited wealth; Two-Face is as divided as Wayne/Batman, but in an unmistakably public and troubled way, and so forth. (These observations are indebted to Richard Reynolds’ Superheroes: A Modern Mythology and Geoff Klock’s How to Read Superhero Comics and Why.)

** The element of mistaken identity in Galaxy Quest is a standard comic trope, of course, and the specific element of actors mistaken for the roles they play is as old in film as To Be or Not to Be. Galaxy Quest’s basic plot had already been used in Three Amigos and A Bug’s Life, but recognizing the similarity doesn’t ruin the enjoyment.  As with all the pastiches I’ve discussed (or Campbell’s monomyth, or any analytic framework that reduces works to an underlying recurrent pattern), the pleasure is in how the story unfolds rather than recognition of the universal pattern: we first attend to the surface, the specificity of this story, and can then proceed to the middle ground, where comparisons can be made between competing realizations of the underlying myth.

*** A trope still in use, by the way: “chompers,” or some variation, show up in the Star Wars prequels and in the revived Doctor Who series, to cite examples off the top of my head.