Seeing Superman in the theater as a kid was one of the most exciting movie-going experiences of my life. It was released in 1978, I was seven years old and fresh from the excitement of seeing Star Wars the previous year. When it comes to the pop culture landscape of the late 70’s, Superman was huge, but the character had several film adaptations prior to this. His first big-screen appearances came via a series of animated shorts from the Fleischer Studios. However, the first live-action version of the Man of Steel came in the form of a 15-part serial, simply called Superman, released in 1948. Let’s begin our look at this classic serial with chapter 1 – Superman Comes to Earth.
This chapter gives us the origin story for Superman that we’ve seen many times before. We begin our story on the planet Krypton where we are introduced to the scientist Jor-El (Nelson Leigh). He has noted recent changes that indicate the planet will soon be destroyed by its own sun. He is even experimenting with a small prototype rocket in order to later build much larger ships to evacuate the planet’s inhabitants to Earth. When he goes before the council to get them to start evacuation plans, they decide he’s a nut and vote it down. Wouldn’t have done any good anyway, for before the meeting is even done, violent volcanic eruptions start. Jor-El rushes to his home and puts his infant son into his prototype rocket and sends it off to Earth.
The ship crash lands in a field, right before the eyes of a farm couple Martha Kent (Virginia Carroll) and her husband Eben (Eben?) Kent (Ed Cassidy). Inside the ship they find the infant and take him out just before the whole thing bursts into flames. They then take the boy home and raise him as their own. They call him Clark. As he grows, they realize that he has amazing powers. We see this demonstrated when as a teenager he rescues his father from an approaching tornado. I guess this version of Pa Kent has better luck with tornados than the Kevin Costner version.
As he becomes an adult (now played by Kirk Alyn), the Kents inform their son that with his amazing powers comes big responsibility. Whoa there! Was Stan Lee in the audience for this back in 48? Anyhow, Martha gives her son a uniform she made out of the blankets she found him wrapped in as a baby. A short time later, the Kents pass away (we don’t know how) and Clark decides to sell the farm and head off to the big city of Metropolis. As he waits at the train station, an emergency occurs. A cracked rail is discovered with a train hurtling toward it…and no way to stop in time. Oh, by the way, onboard the train is a young reporter named Lois Lane (Noel Neill) and her photographer Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond). Clark quickly ducks behind a tree, changes into his uniform and rushes off to bend back the track. We then see the train rush past the camera and we are left to wonder what happens until next week.
People often bemoan superhero origin stories on film today as a necessary evil. I admit that this first chapter does get a bit too bogged down in the backstory. After all, we only get to see Superman himself for a few seconds at the end. I did find certain things intriguing about this version of Superman’s origins, though. For one, Krypton is portrayed as being quite rocky; using shots of southwestern landscapes right out of a John Wayne flick. It’s a much different look from the crystal landscape used in the 1978 and wahtever that weirdness was in Man of Steel. There is also a cool painting used to show a Kryptonian city. It’s very Tomorrowland.
What was kind of fun, and completely unexpected, was the use of animation in a few sequences. The destruction of Krypton and the ship carrying the young Kal-El were both realized through animation. At first it threw me, but in the end I found it quite intriguing. Later, the tornado is also achieved with animation. Now, this sequence is a bit more awkward since the tornado doesn’t seem to actually cause any high winds or debris. It’s a perfectly normal day, but a tornado happens to just walk through. Beyond the use of animation, the visual effects are quite impressive. When Krypton is destroying itself, we see a volcano erupting complete with lava oozing down the side of the mountain. It’s very well done; way beyond the quality of Peter Brady’s science project (so help me, I had to get in a Brady Bunch reference). There’s also a brief shot of a castle collapsing that is fantastic. It may very well have been lifted from another film, but I don’t care, it looks cool.
We do get a few fun moments as we see the young Clark Kent utilizing his powers at a young age. At one point we see the youngster use his x-ray vision to locate his mother’s missing watch which is buried in a massive pile of hay. The best moment though is when we see young Clark at roughly age four pulling a large wagon that would normally be towed by a team of horses. The look of determination on the face of the young actor as he pulls the cart is priceless.
A lot of this episode is devoted to set up for the chapters to follow. So, I get why we don’t really get any Superman action. Ultimately, though, the target audience for these types of films were children. I can imagine kids in 1948 would’ve found this first chapter to be a bit dry. We only get to see Superman in the cape and tights in the last few seconds. So, I don’t really have a good sense of how Kirk Alyn fares as the boy in blue. I’m sure we’ll get a better taste of things next time in Chapter 2: Depths of the Earth.