The first official Superman story, in Action Comics #1, was published in 1938. Just two years later, Superman took flight on the radio, in The Adventures of Superman. Eventually, the character made the leap to the screen, first in the Kirk Alyn serials, and then the film 1951 film, Superman and the Mole Men, starring George Reeves and Phyllis Coates, which quickly led to a full-fledged Adventures of Superman television show, which ran from 1952 to 1958.
While strictly a low-budget affair, even for its time, the show captured fans’ imaginations in a big way. Let’s explore why Superman’s first television outing is one of the definitive versions of The Man of Steel, and how well the sixty-four year old show still holds up today. Here are 10 Reasons You Should Watch The Adventures of Superman.
A Superior Origin Story
Even many of the most die-hard Richard Donner and Zack Snyder fans often express their discontent at the perceived indecisiveness of young Kal-El/Clark Kent, and Jor-El being something of an omniscient and infallible space-God who knows everything. Many feel that Superman’s character is lacking in those stories in part because Clark Kent doesn’t choose to become Superman, but he is instead told to do so by his father.
The first episode of The Adventures of Superman, “Superman on Earth,” offers what some believe to be a much more favorable alternative. In the episode, young Clark Kent has no knowledge of his Kryptonian heritage, and he becomes Superman once he’s old enough to leave the Kent homestead; his kind-hearted Earth parents simply raised him to be that kind of a man. Near the end of the episode, Clark and his mother have a brief exchange, which is rather similar to the old Spider-Man line, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”
The great George Reeves was the glue which held The Adventure of Superman together. While some episodes are undoubtedly better than others, George Reeves always gave it everything he had, and was a pitch-perfect choice to play the title character, and his acting is still held in legendary regard by fans. As Superman, Reeves is a paragon of barrel-chested virtue, and he has an athletic physicality which comes through in his performance.
Meanwhile, his Clark Kent is arguably the greatest and most iconic version of the character. Rather than being a sheepish reporter happy to keep his head down and hide until it “looks like a job for Superman,” Reeves’s Kent was an intrepid journalist and cool-headed leader during a crisis, only sneaking away at the last minute to return as Superman and take down the bad guys. He was a real film noir tough guy, and a huge part of the show’s lasting appeal with older viewers as well as children. Plus, he filled out his double-breasted suits like it was nobody’s business.
Film Noir Drama
Speaking of George Reeves as a “film noir tough guy,” the first season of the show was way into dark themes and gritty scripts. Clark Kent and Lois Lane constantly went up against gun-toting gangsters and their murderous henchmen. Episodes featured the deaths of many characters, sometimes indirectly caused by Superman himself, as seen in the excellent “The Stolen Costume.”
Another great season one episode is “Czar of the Underworld,” in which Kent and Inspector Henderson (a character created for the radio show who eventually found his way into the comics and subsequent adaptations) travel to Hollywood to solve the murder of an actor associated with a biopic of a mafia boss. Other episodes ventured into gothic Batman-esque territory, such as “The Evil Three,” which is a macabre psychological thriller and fairly unsettling, especially by the standards of 1953.
Phyllis Coates played Lois Lane during the first season of the series (as well as the pilot film, Superman and the Mole Men), but backed out of returning to the role for its second season, leaving the role to Noel Neill, who had previously played Ms. Lane in the 1940s film serials. So we guess they can both be called “The Original Lois Lane.” Some fans adore the progressive, feminist vibe of Coates’s tough-as-nails, ahead of its time version of Lois, while others enjoy the more lovestruck characterization of Noel Neill’s version of the character.
Either way, they both had an excellent rapport with Geroge Reeves. Meanwhile, Jimmy Olsen (played by Jack Larson) often acted as Lois’s sidekick, making her something of an authority figure. Neill and Coates are 95 and 89 years old, respectively, and we would love to see them both make cameo appearances in one of Zack Snyder’s Justice League films.
Appreciation for the Source Material
Hollywood has long had a reputation for ignoring the wishes of comic book creators when adapting superheroes to the screen. Such frustration with the system was what led to the creation of Marvel Studios, who went on to create the MCU, one of the most successful film series of all time. They had a reverence for their source material that had not been seen since… The Adventures of Superman.
Whitney Ellsworth was a legendary Superman writer and editor during The Golden Age of Comics. Mort Weisinger was also an editor who worked on Superman comics, and both of these men worked on The Adventures of Superman, with Ellsworth, in particular, having co-writing credit on multiple episodes. This ensured that, no matter how outlandish the series became (and once the show started being produced in color, things occasionally got really bizarre), the character of Superman always remained true to his comic book counterpart.
Ben Affleck is a Fan
As if any of us needed another reason to be excited for this month’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, here it is: Ben Affleck, who is playing Batman, loves and respects Superman, and his fandom for The Adventures of Superman was well-documented in the lead-up to his 2006 film, Hollywoodland.
In it, he plays George Reeves, whose suicide is being investigated by a (fictional) detective played by Adrien Brody. While the script sometimes borders on exploitation of Reeves’s tragic death, Affleck’s performance is sincere and reverential. He watched all 104 episodes of the series to prepare for his role, and we’re hoping that his intimate knowledge of Superman helped to inform his decision to have Chris Terrio rewrite David Goyer’s script, as well as his own rumored on-set rewrites.
Superman isn’t just an American: he truly IS America, more so than any other superhero character, even Captain America. There are two Superman stories in particular which were excellent examinations of the times during which they were produced. First, the trial movie, Superman and the Mole Men (later aired as the first season’s two part finale) is seen by many to be a reaction to the growing Red Scare, and featured Superman attempting to make peace between humanity and a group of “outsiders,” to little avail.
The second story was groundbreaking for its time, and actually predates Superman’s television adventures, but is worth mentioning here regardless. The Adventures of Superman radio show featured an arc in 1946 called “The Clan of the Fiery Cross,” in which Superman did battle with the Ku Klux Klan. The arc is often credited with preventing the proliferation of the Klan’s hateful, racist philosophies into the northern United States.
That Iconic Opening Monologue
“Yes, it’s Superman, strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men…” Even if you’ve never seen an episode of the series, we bet you still know the opening monologue to The Adventures of Superman, as the iconic speech has been homaged in just about every adaptation of the character since then.
A rather enthusiastic voice spouts a rapid-fire narration detailing the origin and abilities of Superman, ending with a character-defining statement, that Superman “fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” It’s as iconic as it is accurate, as Superman’s battle is as worthy and righteous as it is daunting and endless.
Seinfeld: The Race
So this one is a little bit of a tangent, but a frequent motif in the beloved NBC sitcom, Seinfeld, is Jerry’s love of Superman, of whom he has a statue prominently displayed in his apartment. This motif is taken to its logical and comedic extreme in the tenth episode of season 6, entitled “The Race.” In it, Jerry begins dating a woman named Lois, a fact which enamors and entertains him to no end.
The episode is peppered with scenes of Jerry doing a hilariously spot-on impression George Reeves’s take on the character, complete with, at one point, a fourth-wall-breaking wink to the camera, a technique which Reeves had used sparingly, but masterfully. The episode, along with the rest of Seinfeld’s legendary run, is available to view on Hulu… Unlike The Adventures of Superman.
They’re Not Free, But They’re Cheap!
Yes, it’s true, we’re sad to report that The Adventures of Superman is not free to view on any of the streaming sites. It is available on YouTube, but like Batman: The Animated Series, the full episodes are locked behind a painfully high paywall… Well, all except for the episode, “Stamp Day For Superman,” which was sponsored by the US Department of the Treasury and has since entered the public domain, but that episode isn’t particularly good, since it is broken up by awkward speeches about the importance of buying stamps and war bonds…
But there is hope! On Amazon, the DVD releases of the individual seasons can be purchased for considerably less than ten dollars each, and the collections feature insightful commentaries from Superman historians and surviving cast members, as well as numerous documentaries about the series, its groundbreaking (if obviously dated) special effects, and the legacy of the show and its title character. It’s a great value for old-school fans and newcomers alike.
That’s all, folks. If we haven’t sold you on the show, then there’s nothing we can say. Then again, if we haven’t sold you on the show, why did you even read this whole piece? Do you love The Adventures of Superman? Are you going to pick up any of the season collections from Amazon or E-Bay or whatever? Share your own Superman memories in the comments below!