Mike Gold: Superhero Movies of the Ancients

Don’t you just hate it when work interferes with work? It’s a sure sign that you’re working too hard.

I am rarely accused of this. Nonetheless, it’s late Tuesday, my column goes up early Wednesday, and I’ve got more work stuff I’ve got to do. So, instead of the well-researched, rabid screaming think piece that surgically eviscerates the comic book world as we know it today, I’m going to share with you some stuff I love.

There was a time when comics fans were in touch with related media such as illustration art, pulp magazines, science fiction, old time radio and newspaper comic strips. This was a time that preceded the mega-million dollar superhero motion pictures in which many fans find their legitimacy. No, what we had were movie serials. Most of them preceded comic books per se, but not those media noted above that were our cultural forbearers. Some of these serials were a lot of fun. A couple were brilliant. Most were crap, but, to be fair, Sturgeon’s Revelation – 90% of anything is crap – is as vital today as it was when he stated it around 1958.

Keeping this in mind, and acknowledging one person’s crap might be another person’s holy grail, I want to share with you some of the heroic fantasy serials I deem worthy of attention.

SupermanWe’ll start with what I regard as the best superhero serial of them all: the above-illustrated Adventures of Captain Marvel. Well acted, well written, fairly faithful to the Fawcett comic book, and featuring special effects that were quite good for their time and minuscule budget.

Whereas we’ve had a lot of other superhero serials, including the surprisingly well-made Spy Smasher (another Fawcett hero), the second-rate The Phantom, the third-rate Batman serials, and the god-it-truly-sucks Captain America serial, my second favorite are the two Superman serials, particularly the second, Atom Man Vs. Superman… Atom Man being none other than Lex Luthor. Superman was played by Kirk Alyn, who later had the lead in the pathetic Blackhawk serial (for one thing, the Blackhawk serial really didn’t have any air fight scenes). Noel Neill, who reprised the role in the 1950s teevee series, played Lois Lane.

Captain AmericaA lot of fans dislike these serials because the flying scenes were animated. Animated not like Ray Harryhausen, animated like Hanna-Barbera. I suspect kids in the late 1940s didn’t have a problem with it, as it really isn’t that bad. Ms. Neill was the perfect Lois, and she continues to hold that title to this day. Kirk Alyn was fine as Superman, kind of cute as Clark Kent, and in costume he looked better than anybody save Christopher Reeve. An oddity: Lex Luthor was played by Lyle Talbot, who also played Jim Gordon in the second Batman serial as well as a major part in The Vigilante serial, based on DC’s long-running Action Comics feature. He also appeared in an uncountable number of television shows.

There’s more. A lot more. Really good ones such as The Shadow, The Spider, and the best of the bunch, Flash Gordon.

Next week.