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DVD Review: Superman – The Theatrical Serials Collection

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I was five, maybe six, when I discovered the awesome power of gravity. And I owe it all to Superman.

Like most little kids at the time, I was a huge fan of the Superman TV series starring George Reeves. It didn't matter that virtually all the flying scenes consisted of a single stock shot of him flying in profile. I was more interested in how he made his takeoffs — that had to be the key to flying. Jumping up in the air wasn't working. But then I noticed the Reeves Superman did a sort of double jump before he flew, and that set my wheels turning. If I threw my legs out from under me on that second jump, I would obviously soar to the heavens. So I marched out to the driveway, confident I had at last unlocked the secret of flight.

When my tailbone hit the concrete with a force I could have sworn shot my entire spine through my brain, I realized my plan was a wee bit flawed. I never tried to fly again.

If only I'd seen the Superman serials from some years earlier, I might have figured out that Superman actually turns into a cartoon when taking flight, and most likely I would not have contrived an experiment to turn myself into a cartoon. (That wouldn't happen until my college days, and it involved mushrooms. But that's a completely different story.)

The point is, those old serials fueled your imagination and imbued you with a sense of wonder that made you really believe anything was possible, if you just never lost sight of the magic. That's why Superman: The Theatrical Serials Collection is a genuine treat to view.

This four-disc boxed set comprises both complete Superman serials — "Superman" (1948) and "Atom Man vs. Superman" (1950). To enjoy them to the fullest, it's best not to view them through the jaded eyes of 2007, but to watch them with a wink and a nod to a time that wallowed in its wide-eyed wonder of a new era on the heels of the second world war. Somewhere in those two extremes lies the truth of why they were made in the first place. They were low budget entertainment delivered in 15 episodes of roughly 15 minutes each, filled with enough implausible thrills, chills, and cliffhangers to ensure audiences would return the next week to watch the feature film.

Superman as a character was late into the serial game — in fact, the Superman serials were among the last of the 15-chapter tradition. It didn't matter — after all, this was Superman, and this was the first time the iconic superhero was presented as a real live person. Kirk Alyn brought the Man of Steel to life with an exuberance that might have inspired Frank Miller, decades later, to refer to the character as "the big blue schoolboy." Oddly, Alyn wasn't credited with the role, supposedly because the studio wanted to maintain the illusion that he was, really was, Superman. And given the time, he really was. In those days, Superman was not the messianic figure we think of now — he was a bit of a goofus. Alyn played him exactly like the comic book — gleefully saving the world from destruction while not fully comprehending that was what he was doing. He never even picks up on Lois Lane's double entendres. ("Are you ready?" he asks, before flying her out of harm's way. "I was born ready," she coos, arms draped over his shoulders.).

These two serials are by no means high art, and that's what makes them so endearing. They are Superman comic books come to life, and as incomprehensible as the plots may be, however crude the special effects may be, they possess an innocent charm that brings a smile even to 21st century eyes. Lex Luthor was a simple mad scientist out to take over the world back then, Lois Lane was just a spunky female reporter, and Superman was just having a good time ducking into broom closets pretending to be Clark Kent.

Oh, by the way, after realizing I couldn't fly, I set about perfecting my versions of the Batrope.

You live and learn.

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About Ray Ellis