Thursday, June 6, 2013

Superman-a-thon Part 3: Superman and the Mole Men (1951)

[Author's Note - These links will become active as the blogs are written:  Superman (1978), Superman II (1980) / Richard Donner Cut (2006), Superman III (1983), Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), Superman Returns (2006)]

When people think about Superman's many incarnations, most contemporary viewers think of the Christopher Reeve variation as THE live-action version of the character. But for older audiences, the name George Reeves still ring as a truer adaptation of the Man of Steel.

Reeves portrayed Superman for more than a decade through the "Adventures of Superman" television show, but many people seem to forget that there was a motion picture set in the same universe that served as a kind-of pilot to the series as a whole. The film, Superman and the Mole Men, only has about a one-hour running time but is nonetheless a non-serial movie, which means it gets covered here.

And honestly, it's really freaking good!

Where the Reeve version of Superman movies was more heavily influenced by the Silver Age of Comics, this movie (and subsequent TV show) came right at the end of the Golden Age of Comics, and during the transition into the Silver Age. This means that while the Silver Age's hokey science is still present, the plots still have the more serious feel of the Golden Age.

In terms of the DC Multiverse, if Reeve epitomizes the Earth-One Pre-Crisis Superman, Reeves in this film is the embodiment of the Earth-Two Pre-Crisis Superman. The plot of this movie, while very Silver Age in concept, is executed with Golden Age badassery and philosophical depth.

The most unique thing about this film is that there's no real villain. The mole men (or 'unknown people' as they were originally described) are simply beings who came to the Earth's surface from under the ground to explore.

This is the questionable science I mentioned. This entire plot is based on the "Hollow Earth Theory," where instead of magma at the core of the planet, it's an empty space where all kinds of unholy creatures can come from.

The mole men are freed when a drilling company explores too deep into the earth, and two mole men (who look A LOT like that villain in Megamind if he wore a miniature Planet of the Apes chimp suit) explore the rural, midwestern town.

The problem is not that they're evil, though. They actually mean no harm and even spend some time playing catch with a little girl. The whole conflict revolves around the citizens of the town going into panic mode and one idiot in particular trying to kill the creatures.

Another unique aspect of this story is that Reeves is Clark Kent for the majority of the film. I find it interesting that in the Reeve film series Clark appears to be the mask for Superman while in this movie Clark appears to be the main personality, leaving Superman as his stronger form to be used as needed.

I find it interesting because the Reeve film spent so much time on the origin of Superman and showed his relationship with the Kents before moving him directly into Superman Mode. Here, the origin of Superman is summarized in the movie's first minute and then we go right into the story. I'd figure the personas would be reversed, but in any case it's not a knock on either movie - just an observation.

One thing I have to give this film supreme credit for is making the Clark Kent persona a competent journalist. He's strong-willed, confident and serious about getting things done. I look at the Reeve performances at times and wonder how in the hell he keeps a job in journalism, but I don't worry about that at all here.

That said, one thing Reeves doesn't do as well as Reeve is making the personas distinct. While Clark feels weak at times in the Donner-Lester series, it serves as a good contrast to the point that you'd REALLY have to look to think of Clark being Superman. With Reeves, there are some differences, (specifically a more arrogant attitude,) but it's not as big a contrast.

I will say that I don't hate it that much because people shouldn't be actively seeking Superman's identity. He wears no mask and has various locations where he could be at any time; therefore, people should have no reason to believe he's disguising himself and seek out an identity. That's a flaw with the subsequent series, but I'm not reviewing that today.

The last thing I have to bring up is Lois Lane, who is played by Phyllis Coates. She's great in the role and clearly shows great mettle and journalistic competence. She's not as good as Margot Kidder, but she serves the role well (even if Clark's behavior and mysterious disappearances should have triggered some of her suspicions).

Ultimately, while the budget here is clearly low, things are executed well. Superman stands directly in front of bullets and laughs them off and shows controlled punches, which are all both awesome and indicative of the fact that if he ever tried, he could annihilate these morons.

This story is very much a commentary on the witch hunt mentality that went through the country during the 50s and the clear moral is that no matter the differences, everyone is entitled to life if they're acting peacefully. The scene where Superman scolds the psychotic, panicked mob leader and yet still saves him without hesitating for a second provides the ideal that Superman is supposed to represent.

It's biggest weakness is small scope. There's never a real threat like a Luthor or Braniac and much of the film is spent showing the mole men exploring. But even there, there's a lot to like, as there's always a sense of dread in your mind. And also unique in this film is that someone actually gets shot. There's a lot of suspense as to whether someone will die and that's something the Comics Code made much harder to execute years later, so I'm glad they got the chance here.

This will surprise people, but this is better than I remember the first time. I have to give it 3 stars out of 4 and 8.2 out of 10.

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