Lyle Talbot is the best thing about Atom Man vs. Superman. Overall, he might even give the best performance–he flubs some material, but it’s better material than his only serious competitor, Noel Neill, ever gets. There aren’t great performances in Atom Man vs. Superman. The serial wouldn’t know what to do with them.
Talbot is Atom Man. Or Lex Luthor. The serial tries to confuse the good guys by creating two villains, even though it’s pretty obvious from early on Talbot’s both of them. Though it’s actually unresolved; Atom Man might–technically–not be Talbot. Doesn’t matter. A lot of Atom Man vs. Superman doesn’t matter. Like most of the first half of the chapters–it runs fifteen–and the last two. Atom Man isn’t one of those serials where nothing in between the first chapter and the last chapter matter. The last chapter is nowhere near impressive enough to matter.
The serial has a few subplots, like Talbot making artifical kryptonite, Kirk Alyn getting trapped in another dimension (“the empty doom”) while his coworkers wonder what’s happened to Clark Kent, Neill going to work for Talbot. The artificial kryptonite plot line requires a lot of precious metal theft, which means good guys chasing goons and goons kidnapping good guys. Jimmy Olsen Tommy Bond–who starts off the serial in a repeat from the previous one picking on Neill for, you know, being a woman–ends up the most frequent damsel in distress. Neill gets grabbed a couple times, but she at least sticks up for herself. If only then to turn around and beam nonsensically at Alyn when he arrives to save her.
But Neill and Talbot are good adversaries. Neill and Alyn don’t have much chemistry, which seems more the fault of director Bennet and the three screenwriters than anything else. When she’s rescued, she beams at him. When Alyn’s in the Clark Kent spectacles, they bicker without chemistry. They’re both slightly petty towards each other without much cause. Usually because the pettiness just puts them in danger–Neill’s always in the soup because she ignores Alyn (as Superman) warning her about a danger–but the toxic professional environment is a problem. It comes from the top down, of course, with editor Pierre Watkin. He sits at his desk–the strangest thing about Watkin is I think he’s supposed to be gruffly likable and instead he’s just a boob–anyway, he sits at his desk, tells his reporters they’re lying to him, defends super-villain Talbot, has Bond turn on his radio for him. It never gets too bad because Watkin’s part is never so important he’s not dismissible; it’s just another of Atom Man’s easily fixable fails.
Again, director Bennet and the three screenwriters. They do no one any favors.
The serial’s at its best when Neill is working for Talbot. She’s doing on the street interviews for his TV network start-up. Of course, it’s all a front for his robbery ring. Talbot can make robots, flying saucers, earthquake rays, atomic missiles, a teleporter, a spaceship, fake kryptonite, and some other things, but when it comes to fueling his endeavors? Breaking and entering. And when he gets busted, his fallback plan is to literally destroy the planet. Again. Screenwriters not doing anyone any favors. Especially not Talbot.
The three or four chapters with Neill working for Talbot get her out of the Daily Planet newsroom and onto the backlot streets. There are chase scenes, there’s banter with the interviewees, the serial all of a sudden shows some personality. Because when Neill’s playing second-fiddle to Alyn, it has none. She stands, usually silent, staring at him with a beatific smile, and time drags. Usually because it’s just after Alyn–as Superman–has come up with some idiotic plan. The script has zero awareness for Alyn, both as Superman and Clark Kent; at least as Clark Kent, he’s not constantly going into danger and getting in trouble. Plus, Talbot’s teleporter gets the most use getting goons out of trouble so it’s not even like Alyn can catch them. He’s a dunce.
Sadly the script doesn’t give Talbot any material observing Alyn’s constant mistakes; instead, Superman’s supposed to be a worthy foe. Even if he walks into every one of Talbot’s traps with a big grin on his face.
The special effects are another issue. Or lack thereof. Superman flying is, just like in the previous serial, an animated figure over live action footage. At one point, Atom Man vs. Superman does a great sequence–with the little animated Superman–for the flood and it’s awesome. The serial hadn’t suggested it was going to be so ambitious as to use actual miniatures up to that point. It’s never anywhere near as ambitious again. The last two chapters, which kind of should be the big finish, have nothing. Superman versus atomic missile and spaceship and flying saucers ought to be a lot better.
A bigger budget, a better director, a better script, any of these things would help immensely. Because without them, the serial’s something of an incomplete effort. Especially with that lackluster finale. Take Alyn, for example. He does the job the serial asks of him. He has a few good moments throughout the fifteen chapters, but nothing sustained. When Neill is off working for Talbot, Alyn starts ridiculing Bond just because he can. It shouldn’t be a surprise; as Superman, Alyn’s not always concerned with people’s safety or, you know, even their lives. He’ll occasionally let someone die. Or torture out a confession.
Atom Man vs. Superman, despite running over four hours, never gives Alyn any character development. He does go to cover the flood, but it’s just a setup for some Superman. He doesn’t have anything independent of the main story. Even when it seems like he might get something–the kryptonite subplot–the serial just skips away from him. It usually skips away to go back to Talbot, which isn’t terrible, but the slightest semblance of character development might do wonders.
Neill gets the most sympathy in bad scenes. She’s got zip the last two chapters. Her big showdown with Talbot–in her final kidnapping of the serial–doesn’t pay-off.
In the supporting cast, which is practically bit part level of supporting, Don C. Harvey and George Robotham are good. Harvey’s a science goon, Robotham’s Neill’s cameraman. If Jack Ingram–as the chief on-the-street goon–were better, it might help. He’s not terrible, but he’s utterly flat.
Atom Man vs. Superman’s a disappointment to be sure, but more because it doesn’t deliver on the promise of its midsection than the opening. It starts an okay serial (minus Bond being such a dip), gets better (as Bond shuts up), then defaults back to okay (with Bond still keeping the dip to a minimum because he’s barely in it). Neill and Talbot keep it moving, with Alyn a sturdy enough “lead.”
Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, and David Matthews, based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Earl Turner; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.
Starring Kirk Alyn (Superman / Clark Kent), Noel Neill (Lois Lane), Lyle Talbot (Luthor), Tommy Bond (Jimmy Olsen), Pierre Watkin (Perry White), Jack Ingram (Foster), Don C. Harvey (Albor), Paul Stader (Lawson), George Robotham (Earl), and Fred Kelsey (Police Chief Forman).