The brilliant but twisted scientist Luthor (Lyle Talbot) attempts to hold the city of Metropolis for ransom with a destructive sound-wave machine, but is thwarted and captured by the invulnerable crime-fighter Superman (Kirk Alyn). A year elapses, and the jailed Luthor has apparently become a model prisoner–but is actually still running his criminal organization, using another of his inventions to secretly teleport himself to and from his cell, and assuming the guise of the helmeted and mysterious “Atom Man” when he’s operating outside the prison walls. Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent, Superman’s alter ego, correctly suspects that Luthor is Atom Man, but can’t prove it–especially when Luthor wins a parole by turning over one of his inventions to the government, and then sets up as a respectable TV-station owner. Kent must pretend to take Luthor’s reformation at face value, while doing battle with the villain’s Atom Man identity–and using his own secret identity of Superman to protect Metropolis, the Planet, and fellow-reporters Lois Lane (Noel Neill) and Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond) from the effects of the master criminal’s schemes. Luthor, for his part, assiduously tries to find a way to send Superman into an extra-dimensional limbo called the Empty Doom, hoping to rid himself of the only person on Earth capable of defeating him.
This sequel to Columbia’s successful chapterplay Superman is, like that outing, superior to the general run of Sam-Katzman-produced serials; it shares Superman’s good pacing and its unusually strong dialogue and characterizations. Indeed, most reviewers rank Atom Man Vs. Superman above Superman, due to the second serial’s improved special effects and an outstanding villainous performance by Lyle Talbot. The effects are better in Atom Man, and Talbot is terrific; however, the first serial remains superior to the second in the plotting department. Superman featured one central MacGuffin, the Reducer Ray, and the serial’s whole narrative built towards the Ray’s completion by the Spider Lady’s gang, punctuated and varied by the Spider Lady’s attempts to acquire some Kryptonite and then by her efforts to destroy the interfering Superman with it.
In Atom Man, on the other hand, writers David Mathews, George Plympton, and Joseph Poland fail to give Luthor any kind of overarching scheme. When he’s not trying to eliminate Superman or elaborately covering his own tracks, he spends most of the serial masterminding unrelated crimes that are quite petty by mad-scientist standards (jewel robberies, holdups, even burglaries of shoe-store safes). After being exposed in Chapter Thirteen, he launches a far more ambitious scientific rampage against the world in general, but still announces no central goal (besides revenge). A menacing master villain like Luthor really should have been given a menacing master plan; as it is, his battle against Superman seems too unfocused and the serial’s narrative too disjointed. Further disjointedness is caused by the random stock-footage disasters that Superman is periodically called on to fight (a flood, multiple fires), in sequences that are unconnected to the Luthor storyline and were obviously inserted to help the serial reach its mandated fifteen-chapter length. However, these scenes do make far more exciting padding than the pointless walking and talking used to fill out other Katzman chapterplays, and the last one (the flood sequence) is cleverly linked to the main plot: Superman’s rescue of one of Luthor’s television trucks from the floodwaters gives him the clue needed to destroy the villain’s respectable façade.
The writers also make a mistake by allowing Luthor to send Superman to the Empty Doom halfway through the serial, instead of saving this startling twist for the climactic episodes. When Superman manages to escape the Doom a few chapters after being dematerialized, it gives the serial’s final third a somewhat anticlimactic feel; since the Man of Steel has already faced and overcome Luthor’s most powerful weapon, the villain’s final defeat becomes basically a foregone conclusion. However, Plympton, Poland, and Mathews are still to be commended for coming up with the haunting and imaginative Empty Doom concept in the first place–and for the interesting dilemma that they hand Lois Lane, after Superman is banished there and Clark concurrently disappears. Realizing that Clark probably is Superman, Lois abandons her usual nosy attempts to discover the hero’s secret identity, and instead gets Jimmy Olsen to help her prevent editor Perry White from running a newspaper article that will expose the missing Kent as Superman–a fascinatingly offbeat but completely believable character turnabout. Characterization (and the accompanying dialogue) is similarly sharp in other episodes; Clark, Lois, Jimmy, and White trade office banter in the same lively and individualized style that marked their interactions in the first serial, while Luthor is given formal-sounding and smugly arrogant lines that make his personality equally distinctive.
Above left: “I’ll be back!” Kirk Alyn’s Superman is defiant as the “Main Arc” sends him to the Empty Doom. Terry Frost is on the left, Jack Ingram on the right. Above right: Noel Neill’s Lois engages in some soul-searching as Tommy Bond’s Jimmy watches (“If Clark is Superman, we don’t have the right to expose his secret–and if he isn’t, why give the big dope a build-up he doesn’t deserve?”).
The Empty Doom is far from the only colorful science-fiction gimmick in the serial; Kryptonite (synthetically manufactured by Luthor) plays a major part in the plot, as do devices such as a heat ray, an earthquake ray, a super-X-ray hidden in the front of Luthor’s TV truck, and–most memorably–Luthor’s teleportation ray. The props used to depict the aforementioned gadgets–and the “Main Arc” that sends people to the Empty Doom–are quite effective, while the teleportation “fadeout” effect also works well (helped by a distinctive sound effect); less impressive is Luthor’s flying saucer, depicted via stock shots of the animated UFOs from Bruce Gentry. Luthor’s “ionosphere” spaceship is a more convincing miniature (stock footage of the “Aeroglobe” from Jack Armstrong). As in the first Superman serial, Superman’s flights and many of his feats of strength are depicted through cheap-looking animation that prevents the hero from looking as impressive in action as he should. However, this time out the animated shots are intercut with–and notably enhanced by–a variety of live-action closeups of Kirk Alyn against a convincing fake sky.
The cartoon Superman is also superimposed over a wider variety of scenes than in the first serial–swooping not only over the roads and hills at Iverson’s and Bronson Canyon, as he chiefly did in Superman, but also appearing (rather dramatically) against the Metropolis harbor skyline, alongside a huge warping bridge, in outer space, and in the various locales connected with the stock-footage disasters mentioned above. His pursuit of Luthor’s deadly missile (and his wild ride on it) is striking, too; but the serial’s most interesting piece of animated Superman derring-do is probably the rescue of the TV truck in Chapter Twelve, which appears to have been carried off with a combination of animation and miniature work. The numerous–and obviously archaic–flooding stock-shots that precede this rescue are not very convincingly combined with the serial’s new footage, but most of the stock use in the other disaster sequences is fairly smooth (and also more limited). Stock footage from the first Superman serial is used sparingly, being limited to some of the animated flight scenes, a flashback sequence in which Luthor tells of the history of Krypton, and the scene that has Superman catching and tossing back a small missile (lifted wholesale from the first outing).
Above: Superman flies to rescue a motorist from a twisting bridge threatened by Luthor’s sound-wave machine (actually the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which collapsed in 1940; striking newsreel footage of its wind-caused fall is neatly incorporated into the serial).
As in the first Superman serial, the invincibility of the hero largely precludes fistfights and gunfights–but the serial is so effectively filled with incident, colorful gadgetry, and entertaining character interactions that the pace never seems slow, despite the absence of extended combats. That isn’t to say that Atom Man is entirely free of traditional serial-style action scenes; among other highlights, there’s a brief chase to the Daily Planet roof in Chapter Two that ends memorably with two pursued villains leaping from said roof and teleporting to their hideout while in freefall, a short Chapter Three fight in a lab, a brawl between power-company linemen and thugs in Chapter Nine, an entertaining clash with an armed crook in the Daily Planet office in Chapter Ten, and an exciting long chase sequence in Chapter Twelve that has Lois being pursued through city streets, up office-building stairs, and down a fire escape by Luthor’s men. Director Spencer Bennet stages these and other bits of action with all of his usual professionalism.
The serial features plenty of good pieces of more offbeat super-powered action, too–Superman’s repeated indulgences in wall-smashing and thug-lifting, his unexpected use of a car motor to trap a villain inside an overturned auto, his rescue of a burning plane in Chapter Three (a nearly animation-free sequence that’s carried off quite well with the aid of a wind machine), and his slow-motion pursuit of a henchman in the Empty Doom in Chapter Nine. Stuntmen Paul Stader, George Robotham, and Chuck Roberson all have noticeable acting bits in the serial–meaning that they were probably active behind the camera too, although it’s hard to understand just why so many stuntmen were even needed; star Kirk Alyn seems to do his own take-off and landing leaps, and lengthy fistfights (as mentioned) are almost non-existent in the serial–save for that Chapter Nine brawl, in which the participants (Rick Vallin, Jack Ingram, Rusty Westcoatt, and an unidentified player) appear to be undoubled.
The cliffhangers in Atom Man, much like the ones in the first Superman serial, are generally set up with more care than most Columbia chapter endings–particularly the gas-chamber scene that ends Chapter Ten; instead of being cut off by Knox Manning’s preview narration as soon as the gas starts to pour into the room (as one would expect), the scene actually continues to show Lois, Jimmy, and Clark apparently succumbing to the gas one by one. Other good cliffhangers include Lois’s Chapter Two window fall, the bombing of a car containing Jimmy in Chapter Six, and the Chapter Fourteen ending, with Luthor’s missile closing in on the Planet building. However, the best cliffhanger in the serial is a less spectacular one–the memorably ominous Chapter Seven ending, which has Luthor’s henchmen coolly proclaiming “we got him for good,” as their bogus ambulance carries the unconscious, Kryptonite-stricken Superman to a meeting with the merciless Atom Man and his Main Arc.
Above left: Don Harvey (holding a box of Kryptonite) and Terry Frost gloat over the fallen Kirk Alyn for the Chapter Seven cliffhanger. Above right: The nose of Luthor’s missile looms over Metropolis at the end of Chapter Fourteen.
The returning cast members from Superman–Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Tommy Bond, and Pierre Watkin–are again ideal in their roles. Alyn once again plays Clark Kent in mild-mannered but humorously sly fashion, while giving Superman an enthusiastically jovial but firmly authoritative demeanor; he can also be completely serious when necessary, as when he groggily but grimly defies Luthor even after being subjected to Kryptonite. Neill is given a shorter, less attractive hairstyle than in the first serial, but is still very charming; as before, she uses her sparkling smile, bemusedly wry expressions, and general perkiness to make Lois seem quite appealing, despite her sarcastically sharp-tongued attitude towards poor Clark Kent. Bond is cheerfully cocky and comically perplexed by turns as Jimmy Olsen, and is equally entertaining in either vein; his cautious alarm when confronted with bizarre scientific devices and his commonsensical grumbling when dragged into danger by the reckless Lois (“I hope you know what we’re doing”) are highly enjoyable as well. Finally, Watkin is in fine sarcastic form as Perry White, dryly needling his reporters in his pursuit of big stories, but conveying an unswerving determination that makes his acerbic character seem admirable in his own way, if far from conventionally likable.
Lyle Talbot, the only major cast member who didn’t appear in the first Superman serial, is just as good as the returning players; his performance as Luthor is one of the most memorable serial-villain turns of the entire post-war era. What makes Talbot’s characterization work so well is the soberly rational air with which he plays his certifiably mad scientist; using his resonant voice to excellent effect, he outlines schemes, explains outlandish gadgets, and makes threats with a cool, haughty self-assurance much more intimidating than snarls or rants–only occasionally breaking into an exultant smirk or an angry glare that suggests a repressed insanity beneath his calm veneer. His coldly cruel manner when he banishes people to the Empty Doom (“There, the vapor particles that make up your body will wander forever like a lost spirit”) is particularly chilling; his upright, dignified pose when Luthor is insisting that he’s a reformed man is good as well. The indeterminate foreign accent that he affects in his Atom Man guise is effectively weird, but doesn’t really disguise his voice; however, in a serial in which a pair of glasses can hide Superman’s identity, it’s easy to accept that a fake accent can hide Luthor’s.
Luthor’s gang consists of several reliable members of the Bennet-Katzman stock company; Don Harvey plays the villain’s lab assistant, and fittingly adopts a slightly condescending air when talking with the other henchmen, while simultaneously conveying a genuine admiration and respect for Luthor’s scientific genius. Terry Frost functions as the principal action heavy, coming off as tough, resourceful, and justifiably wary of his crazed boss; Jack Ingram and Rusty Westcoatt are the other two principal thugs, the former crafty and furtive, the latter slow-witted and bullying. Stuntman Paul Stader is severely under-energized as a burglar cohort of Luthor’s in the early episodes, but his fellow-stuntman George Robotham is fine as the driver of Luthor’s television truck. Wally West and a grizzled-looking Kit Guard have small recurring henchman roles, while John Hart and Hugh Prosser make blink-and-you-miss-it appearances as other henchmen; Pierce Lyden plays a more memorable bit role–a heavy who encounters Superman in the Empty Doom.
William Fawcett pops up briefly as the Mayor of Metropolis, while gruff Fred Kelsey, bumbling cop in many a feature and in the serial The Green Archer, appears in several chapters as the Metropolis police chief–who, unlike virtually every other Kelsey-portrayed lawman, is depicted as serious and competent. Marshall Bradford is a plant manager, Tommy Farrell a TV-station official, Rick Vallin a power-company lineman and a frequently-heard radio announcer, Chuck Roberson a policeman, Frank Ellis a henchman, and Stanley Blystone a “man on the street” interviewed by Lois while she’s working as a TV reporter. One-time Mascot serial regular Edward Hearn makes an unexpected but welcome appearance as an extremely irritable scientist, while good old Charles King has a very enjoyable extended walk-on as an opportunistic henchman who first tries to blackmail the good guys and then resorts to slugging Jimmy and Clark around the Planet office, before finally being felled by Superman.
Atom Man’s music score relies, for the most part, on the standard cues that appear in almost every Katzman release–including the ubiquitous Relentless theme—but more distinctive pieces from the first Superman serial are on hand as well, namely the striking Superman flight theme and the eerie Kryptonite music; a new, boomingly dramatic theme that accompanies Atom Man’s entrances and his utilizations of the Main Arc is very good as well.
The lack of a central plot keeps Atom Man vs. Superman from topping Superman, despite Atom Man’s better effects, excellent chief villain, and memorable collection of science-fiction trappings. However, the aforementioned qualities–along with a strong and well-portrayed cast of characters–do manage to overcome Atom Man’s plotting shortcomings, and make it every bit the equal of Superman; like its predecessor, it’s easily one of the most entertaining of Columbia’s post-war chapterplays.