I’ve been watching The Adventures of Superman through, with the final episodes watched yesterday. Here is what I learned about the Superman mythos during that time…
First, the problem with the show’s flying effect isn’t that it’s cheap or primitive, but that nobody on the cast or crew seems to care about making it feel important. Reeves almost seems annoyed, for example. Worse, flying always means that the fanfare music plays, no matter what the context—even when Superman is flying for an unfortunate reason, we get the music meant to be fun and uplifting, which comes off as insincere—stretching a scene where nothing happens for that length. And in the rare cases that Superman is flying for a longer period, they loop the fanfare! You will believe a man can fly and that it’s boring.
Second, that trope that we all know from the show, where the crook shoots at Superman until he’s out of bullets and then, out of frustration, flings the gun at him? It never happens, unless I zoned out. My entire life has been a lie!
Then, Lois, Jimmy, and Perry are almost certainly only pretending not to know that Clark Kent is Superman (spoiler for a show older than some great-great-grandparents…). His identity is exposed to them multiple times, including them having several conversations with Clark without his glasses, but they still throw around half-accusations and accept pathetic excuses. The acting comes across like they’re needling him to see if he’ll admit it, rather than actually challenging him. It might explain why nobody seems to have a problem with Clark—the newest member of the staff with the least experience, and not exactly the most trustworthy worker, as we see in the pilot—also takes on editorial duties when Perry isn’t available and is mostly treated as Perry’s heir.
Honestly, Superman is probably the least-interesting character on the show. You’d obviously never get the show on the air without him, but a show about a crusading reporter who just happens to secretly be an alien and have a bunch of powers (and doesn’t realize that his colleagues know his secret) might actually be more fun to watch.
Then, Perry White is a weird polymath, taking occasional vacations to pursue scientific interests with the Navy, having an unclear (unless I missed something) military background, having a law degree and passed the Bar exam at some point, and I think I heard one of the characters mention that he was once the mayor. If I didn’t imagine that last bit, the mayor story actually comes from the radio show, as does Perry. If this were a modern show, the final episode would have revealed Perry to secretly be Vandal Savage or something, to have had so many side and former careers.
The show occasionally tries to 1950s itself hard, but is also surprisingly self-aware. The most obvious example is an early episode with a “voodoo priest,” who’s obviously some jackass in obvious blackface and sufficiently stereotypical to make you worry that the series is going to be a racist nightmare. But no, the plot is that some jackass in blackface is running a cult and pretending it’s native “voodoo.” That still wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) fly on TV, today, but it’s pretty funny to realize that they conned me into assuming that they’d be more racist.
Another odd example is that Panic in the Sky, the episode where Clark crashes out in the country and loses his memory, seems to be the a rare instance of that amnesia story (superhero or not) where the protagonist doesn’t end up moving in with the locals and starting to build a new life before regaining their memory. Instead, he’s carrying his street clothes when he tries to destroy the meteor, and the nameless motorist that finds him just checks his ID and gives him a ride home. They were definitely not interested in asking what Clark is like without Superman, which makes the subplot seem all the weirder. In some of the show’s nods to continuity, though, we find out that the episode has resulted in periodic meteor showers depositing kryptonite or something comparable.
However, for a superhero show with no supervillains, the show provides the template for an awful lot of supervillains, including most interestingly, a crime-plotting AI before Brainiac appears and decades before Brainiac was associated with computers, a balance-scrambling machine decades before Count Vertigo, a (not-criminal) radioactive long before the Atomic Skull or Reactron, and a super-robot with a kryptonite power source a few years before Metallo. The show also floats shrinking to microscopic size to travel by phone lines and an ancient kingdom where the royal family’s policies are guided by dreams, basically prototypes for the Atom and Dream Girl. There’s an anti-gravity fluid, too, that’s reminiscent of Hawkman, but that’s not as interesting, since Hawkman (and ninth metal) had already existed for fifteen years, by that point. Tying in with the aforementioned meteor showers, we find out that some unfortunate humans temporarily gain Kryptonian-like powers from exposure to kryptonite, but those powers also come with a weakness to kryptonite, making those powers less useful. The one we meet is Clark’s old friend Gary Allen.
(Of course, I can’t help imagining the version of DC history where Reeves survives and the show got a massive budget to flesh out some of these hypothetical heroes and cross over with the 1940s serial characters—Hop Harrigan, Vigilante, Congo Bill, and Batman—to build out a TV version of the Justice Society. But then, I was also the sort of person who thought that DC was missing the boat by not bringing together the 1990-ish Batman, Superboy, Flash, Swamp Thing, and Human Target, so maybe don’t go by me…)
And then there’s my crackpot theory: I’m convinced that Clark is secretly in a relationship with Inspector William Henderson. When the two of them are in a room with anybody else, they butt heads over policy and don’t seem to like each other at all, but when they have scenes alone, they talk openly about fairly personal issues, and are much more understanding of each other, even tender, when Clark isn’t that open around anybody else. And, in Lois Lane’s dream sequence where she marries Superman—and discovers that he’s Clark Kent, so it’s hinting at her observation skills—her dream-version of Henderson becomes jealous at the wedding announcement, though framed as him being attracted to her, instead, even though they rarely interact.
I’d also add that Clark seems to have almost no romantic interest in Lois in either identity, the most personal interactions being one or two times they’re walking the street together in the evening. As a compelling twist, Jack Larson—Jimmy Olsen’s actor—was gay, and saw Clark as bisexual, suggesting that there’d have been no difference in the show between a Superman with a crush on a Louis or a Lois.
Presumably, in a grand unified DC-TV continuity, the relationship doesn’t end well, since forty years later, Henderson’s actor Robert Shayne played Reg, the blind newsstand proprietor who fed Barry Allen tips in The Flash.
Less-serious conspiracy theory: Crime in Metropolis is the result of too few community theater productions of Anything Goes to keep the growing community of mediocre actors off the streets. So, they’re forced to pretend to be toughs from old-timey Brooklyn in a town that’s clearly more of a suburb outside of Los Angeles than a major city near Kansas or New York. I have never figured out why Hollywood thinks that generic cities are near large gold/silver mines, deserts, mountain roads, and the ocean, not to mention how much business in Metropolis goes down on Maple and/or Elm Street.
Overall, the show is occasionally a slog, but outside of the kid-oriented episodes that would never keep any kid’s attention, there’s enough going on that it’s worth a watch.