Superman is the first and best known superhero, creating the genre in Action Comics #1 in 1938. Since then, there have been many stories written about the Last Son of Krypton, leading to the character being adapted to radio, television, film, and books. Today, a look at the first Superman feature film, 1951’s Superman and the Mole Men.
Prior to 1951, there had been theatrical Superman releases, but they were serials run before the main feature, much like the 1943 Batman series. /Superman and the Mole Men/ was a low budget film, not quite running an hour. The movie starred George Reeves as Clark Kent and Superman, Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane, Walter Reed as Bill Corrigan, Ray Walker as John Craig, and Jeff Dorey as Luke Benson. Reeves and Coates would go on to reprise their roles in Adventures of Superman, Reeves for the entire run and Coates for just the first season. The popularity of the series made getting other roles difficult for them both, being typecast as Clark and Lois.
The movie begins with Clark and Lois arriving in the town of Silsby, population 1430 and home to the the world’s deepest oil well. The well is the draw for the Daily Planet’s top reporters, but they discover that the well is being shut down. Corrigan, the foreman, isn’t forthcoming on why, not to Lois and Clark, not to company PR rep John Craig, and not to his workers, who are wondering why the expensive tools are being buried. Lois feels like the trip is a waste. Clark feels there’s another story brewing. Corrigan isn’t forthcoming, though.
That night, while the visitors from Metropolis are at the Silsby Hotel, a second set of visitors arrives, coming up from the sealed well. Short, mishapen, they skulk around, eventually finding their way to the seventy-year-old security guard. The guard is found the next morning, dead. A doctor called in rules that he died of a heart attack. Given his age, it’s a reasonable call, except Clark notices that the guard’s tangerines are glowing, and the bag they came in is halfway across the room.
Clark pushes Corrigan on why the well is being closed. Corrigan comes clean; the well is deep, about six miles deep. The company kept going after finding a pocket of natural gas, hoping to find an oil gusher. Instead, the drill brought up goo that glows in the dark. Without a Geiger counter, it’s hard to tell if the goo is radioactive radium or just naturally phosphorescent. Corrigan also tells Clark that the drill suddenly hit a hollow pocket at about six miles down.
Alone, Lois starts to place a phone call. She’s interrupted by the visitors from below. The scream alerts Clark and Corrigan, who rush over to see what happened. They find Lois alone, but she describes what she saw. The group returns to Silsby, where news of the Mole Men is travelling like gossip.
Luke Benson isn’t one to let anything terrorize his hometown and will do what it takes to stop the Mole Men, including inciting a near-riot. The Mole Men, though, are peaceful. A young girl sees them and invites them into her room, where they play. It’s only when the girl’s mother comes into the room and sees the Mole Men that the situation turns worse.
The mother’s screams alert the town, and the mob rushes off to go after the creatures. Clark disappears, to Lois’ dismay, but she follows the story and the mob down the street. When she arrives, Superman is already there. The townsfolk, apparently not getting the Daily Planet, reacts badly, and they try to shoot Superman. Benson tries to punch Supes, earning a sore hand in the process. Superman disarms the mob, bending one rifle in half.
The Mole Men flee. Benson and his henchmen take a pack of hounds to try to find them, resulting in a chase across the desert to a reservoir. Superman catches up and warns Benson of what could happen. The Mole Men may be radioactive and if they fall into the reservoir, they will pollute the town’s drinking water. Benson and his cronies ignore the warning. One shoots a Mole Man. In a flash, Superman is off to catch him before he falls into the reservoir. The other Mole Man escapes, for now.
As Superman takes the wounded Mole Man to the hospital, Benson resumes his pursuit of the remaining one. The chase ends at an abandoned shed. The Mole Man is trapped inside as Benson and his cronies set fire to it. The Mole Man escapes and finds his way back to the oil well. He returns the next day with two more Mole Men and a weapon.
At the hospital, a surgeon manages to save the life of the wounded Mole Man, Lois, Corrigan, and Craig catch up to Clark, already at the hospital, though Superman has left again. Corrigan and Craig warn that Benson and the mob are on their way to kill the Mole Man there. Clark dashes out to check on the Mole Man while Lois, Corrigan, and Craig wait up front for the mob. Superman lands in front and stops the mob from entering. Benson slips away and spots the three returning Mole Men, who get the first shot on him. Superman realizes that they are looking for their friend, so brings the wounded one out, then steps in front of the laser to protect Benson.
Given the low budget, the special effects can be expected to be weak. The crew, though, worked around the limitation. Most of Superman’s powers come from superstrength and invulnerability. Superman doesn’t flinch from gunshots. Rubber can be used for the rifle that is meant to be twisted into a pretzel. Superspeed is shown in his reactions, pulling Lois out of the way of a gunshot. Flight gets trickier, but the movie shows Superman running towards the camera and leaping up, then changes to show the view of the ground from his view. The big effect was the moment where Superman swoops in to catch the falling Mole Man; it’s a quick enough scene that it’s over before the wires can be seen.
Effects, though, aren’t the best criteria to judge an adaptation. Comics have a huge advantage; effects are limited to the artist’s imagination and the cost of ink and paint. Reproducing Jack Kirby‘s art in film or television would push computer graphics to the limit even today. Simpler artwork, such as Superman picking up a car, as seen on the cover of Action Comics #1, still requires extra work as a practical effect. The goal is to represent the character to the medium’s best effort.
George Reeves managed to look like both Clark and Superman. While Christopher Reeve showed the transition from mild-mannered Clark to self-confident Superman through a change of posture and voice, Reeves used wardrobe. His Clark wears oversized suits; Superman is thinner but fit. Clark isn’t as mild-mannered in the movie; he takes the lead on the investigation of the well’s closure where Lois is willing to write off the trip as a lost cause.
Personality-wise, Superman is still Superman. In the movie, he made sure that no one was hurt if he could help it. He never threw the first punch. Superman made the discovery that the Mole Men weren’t dangerous except through passive touch. Benson may have been the villain, but Superman wasn’t going to let the Mole Men take their revenge on him. Reeves’ Superman came from the comics of the time and would still be recognizable compared to today’s version.
B-movies don’t get a large budget, so corners have to be cut. Comparing Superman and the Mole Men to today’s big budget movies isn’t fair. However, the B-movie got to the heart of who Superman was, even with the limited time it had. Superman’s origins were skipped over with an narration during the opening credits. The film jumped to its story early and kept the focus on the plot and on Clark/Superman. Superman and the Mole Man was very much a Superman story.
As a genre, superheroes are dominating theatre screens. Characters from Marvel and DC are taking up residence on the silver screen, bringing in record box office returns. This wasn’t always the case. For the longest time, superheroes were relegated to television cartoons, TV series and movies much like Wonder Woman and Captain America and, before that, serials and animated shorts. The change from backup feature to blockbuster came with Superman: The Movie in 1978.
The character Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938, heralding a new type of hero. Prior to Superman, most heroes were men of mystery, costume or not. Superman blazed the way for superheroes and is DC Comics best known character. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster*, Superman started with X-ray vision, super strength and super speed, being able to out run a locomotive and leap over tall buildings. As the comic continued, Superman gained more and more powers, some serious, such as from going from leaping to flying, some silly, like super typing skills. In his secret identity of Clark Kent, Superman worked as a mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet along side colleague, rival, and love interest Lois Lane and cub photographer Jimmy Olsen, all working under editor Perry White. Over time, Superman’s rogues gallery has grown, but his best known foe is Lex Luthor, corrupt industrialist.
Another way Superman set himself aside from the mystery men of the time was his origin. Superman was not of Earth but was the sole survivor of the destruction of the planet Krypton, sent to Earth as an infant. The young boy was found by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who adopt the child as their own. The raise the young lad, naming him Clark after Martha’s maiden name, and instill a sense of right and wrong, and have him keep his powers hidden.
The 1978 Superman is a retelling of his origin, from being sent from Krypton hours before the planet’s destruction to his first appearance in Metropolis and beyond. His early years, as a young boy and as a teenager, are given a strong focus, showing the influences that his parents and his time in Smallville have on him as a hero. In Metropolis, he gets dropped into the busiest newsroom in the city at the Daily Planet and is teamed up with Lois Lane. His first night in the tights sees him rescue Lois after the helicopter she’s in malfunctions and crashes, then nab a cat burglar halfway up an apartment building, stop armed robbers from getting away from the police, rescue a young girl’s cat stuck in a tree, and help Air Force One land after losing an engine.
Lex Luthor, during this time, is hatching a scheme to corner the market in seaside real estate. Step one was to buy up desert land in the west. Step two is to steal a nuclear missile that in step three he will detonate along the San Andreas fault, sending California into the sea. Lex recognizes that Superman is a potential threat to his success With the story printed with the interview Lois has with Superman, Lex figures out that shards of Krypton, kryptonite, could be lethal to the hero.
The movie stays faithful to the character of Superman, but not necessarily his powers. The ending involves Superman flying fast enough to go back in time, something that hadn’t been demonstrated in the comic. Helping to stay faithful is the casting of the characters. Christopher Reeve was an unknown actor at the time, but he was able to play both Clark Kent and Superman, showing differences between the two through voice and posture. In one scene, he straightens himself, gaining confidence and changing his voice enough to look like Superman, then deflates and slumps to go back to being Clark. Margot Kidder as Lois Lane protrayed the reporter as someone who not only can get into trouble but can also get out of most of that trouble. Gene Hackman, as Lex, with Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty as henchmen Eve Teschmacher and Otis, showed the deviousness of the original character with chemistry among the three to carry their parts of the film. Marc McClure looks the part of Jimmy Olsen.
The cast isn’t the only factor turning the movie into a success. The scope of the film is epic, despite focusing on Clark. Lex’s scheme threatens the entire West Coast. The film even starts deep in space for the credits, coming in to Krypton, then follows young Clark on his trip to Earth. The music adds to the epic feel. The main theme even uses the syllables in the name Superman as part of the music.
As mentioned a while back, there are adaptations that become the definitive version of a work. Such is the case with Superman. It was the top grossing film of 1978, with people returning to see a man fly. Audiences use Christopher Reeve as the measuring stick to compare other actors in the role. The influence of Superman is still felt even almost forty years later.
* Joe Shuster was the focus of a Heritage Minute, a short film that features key times in Canadian history.
A few tidbits for the month. The big news involves the Doctor Strange movie.
Jem and the Holograms comic due in March.
The new design for the characters has been released. The art is updated while still keeping to the original looks of the dolls and TV series. The hair is outrageous, as to be expected, but either hair spray or holographic display can explain it.
Benedict Cumberbatch to start as Doctor Strange.
Marvel has confirmed that Benedict Cumberbatch will play the title role in Doctor Strange, the first of the Phase 3 movies. All Marvel needs to do now is get Loki in the movie.
JK Rowling releasing new Harry Potter.
The releases started on December 12. Among the works are stories about the Malfoy family, Prof. McGonigle before Hogwarts, and how Floo Powder is made.
TOHO announces first Godzilla movie since hiatus.
TOHO will be ending the fallowing of Godzilla movies in 2016. The success of the 2014 American Godzilla has encouraged TOHO in bringing back the iconic kaiju.
Archie Comics restarting at #1.
Mark Waid and Fiona Stevens will helm the title after the reboot. Archie Comics, the publisher, has been on a rejuvenation spree of late, adding darker elements while still being family friendly.
SyFy picks up Krypton.
Air date is still unknown, but SyFy will air the Superman prequel series, Krypton, which will follow Jor-El, father of Kal-El, aka Clark Kent, aka Superman. As with the other DC properties airing on television, there is no connection to the cinematic releases.
Titans pilot to shoot in 2015.
Geoff Johns confirmed that Titans, the live-action version of the follow-up to /Teen Titans/, will have a pilot filmed in 2015. Nightwing, aka Dick Greyson, has been confirmed as one of the characters and rumours have added Starfire and Raven. The show will draw influence from Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s New Teen Titans.
Welcome to Lost in Translation’s news round-up, looking at information about upcoming adaptations, remakes, and reboots.
Warner reschedules Batman v Superman – Dawn of Justice
Warner Bros blinked and moved their movie to March 25, 2016, so that it wouldn’t be in direct competition with Marvel’s Captain America 3. That moves the film to outside the summer blockbuster months, but may gain a bit with March Breaks in high schools.
Babylon 5 getting a feature film reboot.
J. Michael Stracysnki has announced that he will be writing the script for the reboot film. JMS was the creator of the TV series, and is hoping to get Warner Bros. to fund the film. If not, then Studio JMS will provide the funding. No other details are known.
John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War becoming TV series Ghost Brigades.
The pilot script is still being developed, but SyFy will be airing the series. Scalzi has a FAQ and an interview with one of the scriptwriters, himself. This is in addition to the Redshirts TV series on FX.
Shazam movie confirmed; Dwayne Johnson has undisclosed role.
Dwayne Johnson may play either Captain Marvel (get it right, CBC!) or Black Adam, but he didn’t say which. However, one of his favourite characters is Black Adam.
Casting announced for Andy Serkis’ Jungle Book.
Benedict Cumberbatch has been named as the voice of Shere Khan in the Warner Bros.’ version of The Jungle Book. This should not be confused with Disney’s remake, which will have Idris Elba as the tiger.
Phineas and Ferb to have Hallowe’en special.
Sure, most of Disney’s properties have Hallowe’en specials. None had Simon Pegg or Nick Frost recreating their roles from Shaun of the Dead until now. The pair will join the rest of the cast from Phineas and Ferb in a so-far undisclosed story. The writing for the cartoon targets the entire family and has been known to throw in references to The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the past.
Power Rangers movie has release date set.
Lionsgate has set June 22, 2016, as the release date for Power Rangers. Now all they need to do is film it. Cast and director have not yet been named.
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life to be adapted for TV.
Canadian astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield, who commanded the International Space Station during Expedition 35, will have his book adapted for television. ABC has picked up the rights and will have Col. Hadfield as a consulting producer on the pilot.
Minority Report in development for TV series.
Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television may be adapting his movie Minority Report, based on the Philip K. Dick short story “The Minority Report”. The series is expected to focus on the PreCrime unit from the movie.
Superman has been around for a long time. Last month marked the 75th anniversary of the release of Action Comics number 1, Superman’s first appearance. Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster created the characters for a thirteen page story in the comic, originally an anthology. The story showed the now-classic origin story of a baby sent from a dying planet to be adopted and raised in the American Mid-West to become a champion of the oppressed. An entire genre – superhero comics – built up after publishers noted the success of Superman. Generations have grown up with the adventures of the Man of Steel; Superman has appeared on radio, in serials, in movies, on television (live action and animated), video games, novelizations, and even a Broadway musical. Superman is an iconic character, one of the most recognizable.
In short, people know who Superman is.
This level of familiarity, though, can make it hard to adapt the character. As with other works, like the Incredible Hulk and the Addams Family, what the general public knows about a character doesn’t necessarily reflect the original or any development that has occurred, with the knowledge coming from a popular adaptation. Superman, as iconic as he is, has had iconic adaptations done; the main one in the collective subconscious being Superman: The Movie with Christopher Reeve. The 1978 movie introduced distinctive theme music that is now forever associated with the name “Superman”. All incarnations of Superman since then, including Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Smallville have had nods back to the Christopher Reeve movie. To be fair, Superman: The Movie was well done, captured the feel of the Silver Age Superman, and Reeve did show how a pair of glasses could protect Superman’s secret identity*.
Man of Steel opened last month after a turbulent five year development that saw numerous writers directors approached. Eventually, Zack Snyder was signed on to reboot the movie series instead of continuing from the 2006 Superman Returns. Man of Steel takes the audience back to the last days of Krypton, as the planet died through an ecological disaster, and follows, through flashbacks, Clark’s arrival on Earth and how he adapted to his powers, Clark’s search for who he is, and his choice to protect his new home when the old war finds him. The movie is one part an orphan’s story, one part a refugee’s story, and one part an immigrant’s story.
Given the nature of the story, with an alien refugee hiding from terrestrial authorities, having Lex Luthor as a villain would defeat the purpose of the general theme. First, there is a gross power unbalance between Superman and Luthor; Luthor has far more power available to him just through wealth that he could defeat the Man of Steel before the latter knows something is up, while, in a fight, Superman would have to hold back to avoid looking like a dangerous invader. The choice of General Zod, though, sets up Superman as the saviour of Earth and forces Clark to decide whether he is a Kryptonian or a Human. Having Zod also allows the film to show the destructive potential a battle between Kryptonians and, hopefully, sets up a “World of Cardboard” speech in the next movie or in a potential Justice League film.
As an adaptation, the movie mostly succeeds. The problem, as noted above, is that the general public is more aware of an adaptation than the current comic. As a result, the tone feels slightly off, darker than what the audience may be used to in previous incarnations. At the same time, Man of Steel is a Superman movie, with Henry Cavill’s portrayal of Clark on the mark. It’s just that the story isn’t what people are used to out of the Superman franchise.
Next week, Alien from LA.
* Watch Reeve’s body language as Clark Kent. There’s one scene where he’s about to reveal himself to Lois, taking off the glasses, with a noticeable change in his posture. When he changes his mind and puts the glasses back on, he deflates, slouches, and his voice loses confidence.
Superman, the superhero who started the entire genre, the Man of Steel who has been adapted many times to radio, television, and film, is returning to the silver screen in a reboot movie. Part of the movie will cover Superman’s origin. Which is great, except, well, if there’s one superhero whose origin is widely known to audiences, it’s Superman. The last son of Krypton, sent away by his parents as an infant as his homeworld exploded, landed on Earth on a farm in Kansas, raised by the Kents, then moved to Metropolis to become a mild-mannered reporter. The quick version can be, he was raised well by adoptive parents. How much time is going to be spent on Superman’s background? How do you show “raised well” when you have a limited time in the film. Spend too long, and you run into the problem Battleship did and lose a lot of energy, especially if the destruction of Krypton appears on screen. At the same time, Clark’s early years could be delved for great drama. In fact, Smallville was all about that delving. Why cover that same ground?
It may sound like I’m harping on origin stories, and I am. It feels like every reboot, remake, and adaptation of a superhero story has to spend time showing the hero getting his abilities. Lately, superhero movies have been focusing on the origin. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Some heroes, such as Iron Man and Thor have compelling beginning stories. With others, such as Batman and Spider-Man, the compelling feature isn’t getting powers (or, in Batman’s case, his wonderful toys), but why they turned to being heroes. Tony Stark created a suit of power armour to escape captors. Peter Parker failed to stop a robber who wound up killing Peter’s uncle. Bruce Wayne wanted revenge on the criminals who killed his parents in front of his young eyes. Clark Kent . . . was raised well. Something just doesn’t fit.
Don’t get me wrong. If a, say, Cloak & Dagger TV series were to be made, I’d expect the pilot to show how they got their powers.* Same with other characters like the Punisher, Zatanna, and Speedball. Not to mention, with television, there’s more time to set up longer arcs. In a movie, though, very few last longer than three hours, with most run times being under two.
Superman, though, isn’t known to just comic readers. He is arguably the best known superhero character around.** He’s been around since 1938. He’s been adapted to radio, serials, television, and movies. The most recent television adaptation, Smallville, was a ten season long origin story. Before that, Lois and Clark, the New Adventures of Superman*** managed to remind viewers of Clark’s humble beginnings by including Jonathan and Martha Kent as regular characters, even if they only appeared when Clark phoned home. The 1978 Superman movie with Christopher Reeve, the definitive Superman film for a generation, did spend time with Clark’s upbringing, but not in depth. However, remaking that movie shot for shot will leave people wondering why they just didn’t pop the 1978 film into the DVD player instead.
My hopes for the Superman reboot is that, if the director really needs to show the origin, then Clark’s background is done as a montage, quick enough to not lose energy, but long enough to show where Clark is from. The movie then should get to the heart of the plot.
Next week, despite the above, the Avengers Adaptation continues.
* In fact, how they got their powers – forcibly injected with synthetic drugs triggering their latent mutant abilities – is key to most of their comic runs, as they took the War on Drugs down to the pushers.
** Definitely in the top three, with Batman and Wonder Woman. Marvel’s Spider-Man and X-Men (as a group) fill out the top five.
*** Lois and Clark also took a different approach to Superman stories by examining the relationship between Lois Lane, Clark Kent, and Superman.