Atom Man vs. Superman (1950) poster

Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)


USA. 1950.


Director – Spencer Bennet, Screenplay – David Mathews, George H. Plympton & Joseph F. Poland, Based on the Comic-Book Created by Joe Shuster & Jerry Siegel, Producer – Sam Katzman, Photography (b&w) – Ira H. Morgan, Music Director – Mischa Bakaleinikoff, Art Direction – Paul Palmontella. Production Company – Columbia.


Kirk Alyn (Superman/Clark Kent), Noel Neill (Lois Lane), Lyle Talbot (Luthor), Tommy Bond (Jimmy Olsen), Pierre Watkin (Perry White)


Superman arrests Luthor. However, Luthor has invented a device that can teleport anybody who is holding a special coin. He uses this to disappear from his cell, go to his cave hideout and then return before anybody notices. From the cave he operates as the masked figure he calls Atom-Man. Not long after, Luthor is freed from jail and given a position as head of a television studio. Continuing to operate as Atom-Man, he determines to obtain control of all supplies of radium. With this, he creates synthetic Kryptonite and use the teleportation device to eliminate Superman by sending him to The Empty Doom where his molecules are dispersed in space.

Superman first appeared on the comic-book page in Action Comics #1 in 1938. This enjoyed such success that a mere couple of year later Superman was adapted to a popular radio show that ran from 1940 to 1951. Around the same time, there were seventeen Superman animated short films made by Paramount that appeared between 1941 and 1943. This was followed by the live-action film Superman (1948) – a Serial in fifteen chapters – where Kirk Alyn became the first actor to play the role – and Atom Man vs. Superman was a sequel and only a couple of years later we had the hit George Reeves tv series The Adventures of Superman (1952-8). At this point, Superman had gained just as much fame appearing on the radio as the comic-book page – as the opening credits of each chapter here note, the serial is “Based on the Superman Adventure Feature Appearing in Superman and Action Comics Adapted from the Superman Radio Program,” where both comic-book and radio show are seen as co-equal.

Atom Man vs. Superman also features the first screen appearance of Lex Luthor (who here is referred to as simply ‘Luthor’ – he didn’t gain the first name Lex in DC Comics continuity until 1960). This Luthor is bald as his comic-book counterpart was, while also comes in the comic-book’s original conception as a scientist rather than the businessman he became from the late 1970s onwards. Lyle Talbot gives the role a serviceable airing. This makes Luthor one of the first real comic-book Super-Villains to appear on screen – the first adapted from comics would be Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon (1936) and sequels. The 1948 serial had created the villainness of The Spider Woman but she was a character original to the screen.

In an unnecessarily complicated piece of plotting, this Luthor also adopts a disguise as Atom-Man behind a bulky mask. More than anything, this and Atom-Man’s desire to obtain all the radium in the city seems to be grafted onto the film because ‘atomic’ was the hot buzzword of the era. The atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki only five years earlier and the story has been contorted out of shape in order to incorporate topical reference to such. Some of the depictions of radioactive materials certainly make you balk today, including people carrying them in a valise (which admittedly is a ruse) and Lois in her handbag. In one of the more dubious pieces of science, Luthor concocts a scheme to get Superman to turn a box of nails radioactive by fooling him into using his x-ray vision to look through it!

Superman (Kirk Alyn) and Atom-Man (Lyle Talbot) in Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)
(l to r) Superman (Kirk Alyn) confronts Atom-Man (Lyle Talbot) in his cave lair

All the key actors repeat the same roles they played in the first serial and are back on form. Kirk Alyn seems to make so many changes from Clark Kent to Superman (mostly represented by the same pieces of footage of him ducking behind crates in a Daily Planet storeroom and emerging in costume) that surely only the most dense person could fail to connect the dots between Clark’s absences and Superman’s appearances. In fact, Lois and Jimmy do at one point and Perry White even seems ready to go to press with the revelation until Lois and Jimmy fake a phone call from Clark to convince him otherwise!

As per the first serial, the effects are again conducted by having Superman represented by an animated figure whenever he flies. There is somewhat more depiction of superpowers than we received in most of the other superhero serials with Kirk Alyn using a lot of x-ray vision, his super-breath, picking up and flying away with a truck and demonstrating the ability to vibrate his molecules to avoid being dematerialised. At one point, he bursts through a wall and leaving a cutout figure behind just like a cartoon character. In another sequence, he manages to get a hoodlum to confess by opening the window and tossing him up and down in the air like a ball. In another episode, we see Superman shot down and being electrocuted after falling on a power pole.

There is a good deal of the typical sort of padding you get in serials involving the chasing after radioactive materials and the like. One episode is made up by recycling the Kryptonian origin story scenes from the first serial. On the other hand, the serial does feature some fairly good cliffhangers – there’s one at the end of the Chapter 2 where we see Lois Lane appear to fall all the way out of an apartment building (only for the next chapter to conduct a cheat and reveal Superman was following her down). One of the concluding chapters features Superman riding atop a rocket as it heads for the Daily Planet building. There is what looks like some authentic flood footage, although Superman’s only feat during the midst of this is to raid a shop and then drop an inflatable life raft so that a couple can make an escape from rising waters outside their window – however the episode does have a great cliffhanger where Lois is in a van as floodwaters sweep it over a cliff. Another episode is set around Luthor’s deployment of a flying saucer – another term that has become a hot buzzword of the day.

Lyle Talbot as Lex Luthor in Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)
Lyle Talbot as the first screen depiction of Lex Luthor in his original conception as a scientist

This also offers a prototypic depiction of what DC Comics would later call The Phantom Zone projector – here it is a device that disperses people’s atoms and then teleports them into space but can also recombine them. In one of the more interesting developments, Superman is dematerialised and trapped in orbit for a couple of chapters but manages to find a way to communicate with Lois while disembodied by typing out messages on her electric typewriter.

Spencer [Gordon] Bennet (1893-1987) was a prolific director who began work in the silent era. He became known for assorted Westerns and numerous other serials. His other genre works include:- G-Men vs the Black Dragon (1943), The Masked Marvel (1943), Haunted Harbor (1944), The Tiger Woman (1944), Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945), The Purple Monster Strikes (1945), The Black Widow (1947), Brick Bradford (1947), Batman and Robin (1949), Bruce Gentry (1949), Captain Video (1951), Mysterious Island (1951), Blackhawk (1952), The Lost Planet (1953), all of which are serials, plus the feature-length Voodoo Tiger (1952), Killer Ape (1953) and The Atomic Submarine (1959).

Other Superman appearances on screen are:-

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