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Review: 'The Adventures of Superman'

WHV Home Entertainment

In the rush to squeeze every last dime out of the upcoming feature film "Superman Returns," Warner Bros. has finally come through for long-suffering Superman fans and released Season 1 of that staple of 1950s TV, “The Adventures of Superman” to DVD.

The Season 1 set contains five discs in a nice four-color package that echoes the comic book roots of the series. The discs collect 26 roughly half-hour episodes of the series, including the two-part “Superman and the Mole Men” (AKA: The Unknown People) which was originally released theatrically and led to the series receiving the green light.

By the time Superman hit television in 1952 it was hardly the Man of Steel’s maiden voyage off of the comic book page. Superman had already appeared for years on radio, in newspapers, theatrical cartoons by the famed Fleischers (1941), and a previous movie serial starring Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill (1948).

For lovers of superheroes and classic TV alike, it’s tough to beat “The Adventures of Superman” for sheer inventiveness and half-hour episodes full of upbeat action and mystery. It’s easy to dwell on the importance of this series in ensuring Superman’s place in the zeitgeist, but the actors and stories, which helped plant the series in a position to take such prominence, are just as important as well.
George Reeves isn’t just a great Superman, he’s also quite remarkable in the guise of newspaperman Clark Kent. Reeves’ is the image of the lantern-jawed superhero, arms akimbo and ready for action in his cape and boots. However, the majority of Reeves’ screen time is spent as the mild-mannered reporter from Kansas. Reeves’ Clark Kent is a great everyman, and, unlike the comics of the time, Clark Kent appears to be the real identity for Reeves, while Superman is a useful tool for performing the terrific superhuman feats we get to see. Always played with a friendly wink and a nod, Reeves adds a playfulness to both Superman and Clark Kent that manages to disarm the inherent oddity of a man in tights and a cape posturing before c-grade thugs.

What would Superman be without Lois? In Season 1, Lois is played by the foxy Phyllis Coates (before Noel Neill would return to the role, ultimately claiming it as her own). As portrayed by Ms. Coates, reporter Lois Lane is a firecracker, utterly impulsive, standing up to crooks of every stripe and leaping into harm’s way to help others and get the story. While she manages to get herself into trouble (thereby drawing Superman into action), Lois never goes down without a good fight, making her as much fun to watch as George Reeves.
The rest of the Daily Planet staff doesn’t get as much screen time as Superman and Lois, but both Jack Larson (as Jimmy Olsen) and John Hamilton (as blustery Editor Perry White) make their marks as enjoyable and necessary parts of the Superman mythos.

In each episode, Superman faces new threats such as menacing gangsters, menacing kidnappers, an occasional menacing robot, menacingly xenophobic Texans and even menacing fifth columnists and their not-so-menacing helper monkeys. It’s a wild world of crime and weirdness only The Man of Steel can take on. Occasional episodes can be surprisingly dark in overtone, but it’s always just a matter of time before the Man of Steel leaps into action and sets things right again.

By and large the Superman effects are goofy by today’s standards. In good fun, it’s great to see Reeves leap headlong out a window into “flight,” even if the stock footage of the Man of Steel soaring over Metropolis is a bit repetitive after episode twelve. And, yes, while you can sort of see that Reeves had his costume pulled over some sort of board in order to get the flying effect, the effect is otherwise fairly good. The greatest effect is Reeves himself, who has perfected the “They just never learn” grin to compliment the inevitable hail of bullets fired in Superman’s direction.

One power which is rarely used in the series, but which shows up in the “extras” on the disk is Superman’s X-Ray vision. The extras include several vintage Frosted Flakes commercials, creating an odd scenario in which Clark Kent wanders suburban neighborhoods, peeping on kids with his X-Ray vision to see if they’re enjoying Frosted Flakes. Other extras include a lively documentary featuring interviews with Jack Larson, modern Superman comic creators influenced by the TV series and pop-culture historians digging into the genesis and ripple-effects the series had on the kids who grew up with the series.

Episode for episode, it’s tough for today’s shows to be as much fun, have such a feel for excitement and danger, and still provide a truly “all-ages” program anyone could tune into and enjoy. Sure, some of "The Adventures of Superman" is tough to buy, and viewers will probably find themselves occasionally shouting instructions to Superman and Lois as some episodes take a turn toward illogical plot points, but in the spirit of the show, it’s all worthwhile.

Ryan Steans has been reviewing pop culture since 2003, formerly of Film Fodder, League of Melbotis and currently at The Signal Watch. He sifts through comics, movies and the occasional television program seeking out the best but making time to celebrate the worst in genre media. It will surprise some to learn that Ryan does hold a film degree of some sort, and has a basic, public school education. He resides in Austin, Texas and is quite fond of Superman.