Barely a superhero show, Adventures Of Superman was a surprise success

Barely a superhero show, Adventures Of Superman was a surprise success

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced or reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

Superman’s Golden Age didn’t coincide with comics’ Golden Age. In the ’30s and ’40s—when the character’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were still generating stories, and the American comic book was experiencing its first and largest wave of popularity—Superman comics were simple and punchy but rarely sublime. Superman really flew highest in the late ’50s and early ’60s, in the thick of what came to be known as the Silver Age, when writers like Otto Binder and artists like Wayne Boring and Curt Swan came up with wild new ideas seemingly every week. The men in charge of the Superman family of comics during the Silver Age introduced romantic complications, wonky sci-fi elements, and unpredictable waves of transformative Kryptonite radiation, turning the Superman line into a feverishly surreal combination of a radio melodrama and a Lewis Carroll storybook. It was a magical time.

And while this was going on, the TV series Adventures Of Superman was airing in syndication, and was nowhere near as creative.

It’s not entirely television’s fault that it’s proven so ill equipped to handle superheroes over the years. Heck, comics haven’t always been as good at superheroes as they could’ve been. The only real limitations on what a comic book can be are set by the talents of their creators, the demands of the market, and the pressures of a deadline. Yet far too often, superhero comics have been stunted and formulaic, with thin characters and inane, convoluted plots. The most reliably thrilling elements of superhero storytelling have been the dynamic fights between colorfully attired, godlike men and women, but those have been difficult for movies and TV to replicate, especially in the pre-digital effects era. And for a long time even the animated superhero shows were stiff and simplistic, aimed at the same elementary-school audience who tuned in to Yogi Bear.

And that’s a shame, because television should be the ideal medium for adapting superhero comics, given that modern, serialized weekly TV series and post-Marvel-revolution monthly superhero comics share a basic storytelling structure. The best Fantastic Four and X-Men stories really aren’t suited to the big screen; their long-simmering subplots and rich relationships would work best as TV series. There have been some very good superhero shows, especially in recent years, but none with the ambition and vision of the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Spider-Man comics of the early ’60s, or those crackpot Silver Age Superman stories.

Would an Adventures Of Superman as way-out as the Superman comics of the late ’50s have been a hit? That depends on what the viewers of the series back then were really looking for. Were they watching for the plots—which were typically as straightforward as any cop show—or were they waiting each week to see a man fly?

Whatever the reason, they were watching. Adventures Of Superman was a surprise hit when it debuted as a syndicated program in 1952, and the show ran until 1958, notching 104 episodes over six seasons. Adventures Of Superman then lived on in repeats for decades, for two big reasons. The first was that, beginning in 1954, producer Whitney Ellsworth ordered that the show be shot in color, even though its first-run broadcasts were still being transmitted in black and white. By the time a large number of TV fans owned color sets (and were clamoring for color programming), Adventures Of Superman had banked 52 episodes’ worth of a guy in a bright red-and-blue suit, leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

The other reason why Adventures Of Superman was so successful was that even though superhero comics back then routinely sold in the millions, fans of those comics didn’t have many other places to turn for those kinds of stories and characters. Adventures Of Superman was frequently barely a superhero show—it was more like a dirt-cheap police procedural sprinkled with a few minutes of unconvincing special effects—but it still featured the most famous, popular superhero of all time. So what else was the nascent geek clan going to watch?

The addition of color wasn’t the only way that Adventures Of Superman changed over the years. For the first season, Phyllis Coates played Lois Lane, the intrepid Daily Planet reporter who works alongside Superman in his secret identity as mild-manned, bespectacled Clark Kent. Coates had the brass of a film noir heroine, and helped set the tone for the early Adventures Of Superman episodes, which showed confidence and bustle, like the better B-movies of the era.

But because the complete first Superman season was in the can long before the producers knew whether there’d be a second, Coates found other work, and Noel Neill took over as Lois for the remainder of the series, bringing with her an energy that was shriller and even a bit snappish—more Lucille Ball than Barbara Stanwyck. Meanwhile, Jack Larson’s portrayal of eager cub reporter Jimmy Olsen became more overtly comic, as the character became more of a cowardly stooge; and the show as a whole grew more slapdash and silly, the victim of producers who’d put so much money into shooting in color that they didn’t have much left for actors, writers, or retakes.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of pleasures to be had from watching Adventures Of Superman—some of which are timeless, and some of which are a function of looking back at the ’50s with wonder. For starters, Adventures Of Superman had one of the greatest openers of any show, with the same subclause-heavy narration that previously appeared on the Superman radio show and cartoons (with the addition of “the American way,” a phrase that had previously only been used on the Superman radio serial during World War II): 

Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman! Yes, it’s Superman, strange visitor from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men! Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way! 

The world of Adventures Of Superman is a fascinating one. The show’s actual 100th aired episode—“Superman’s Wife,” originally broadcast on March 31, 1958—begins with a premise somewhat similar to the Silver Age Superman comics, as Superman breaks Lois Lane’s heart by publicly marrying a policewoman, played by Joi Lansing. It turns out this is all part of a sting operation, designed to get criminal mastermind Mr. X to kidnap Superman’s new bride, so that she’ll be able to infiltrate his operation. Throughout, the episode takes for granted certain preconceptions—not just about gender roles but also about professions. It’s expected that that the bad guys will target Superman through his wife, and that Lois will be jealous that the man she loves has chosen another. There’s also a lot of chatter about how “newspeople are naturally curious” and that as a policewoman, Superman’s wife is “probably deeply interested in explosives.” In other words: the script (credited to Ellsworth and Robert Leslie Bellem) keeps explaining what the characters are going to do and why, and then everyone just sort of follows along, as though completely absent any individual will.

An Action Comics version of this story circa 1958 would’ve been shot through more of a dream-logic, likely involving robots and Kryptonite and multiple doppelgängers. Both the Superman comics and the Superman TV show were exercises in permanently delayed gratification, in which nothing changed. No one really ever got married, or died, or had kids. But at least the comics worked in time-travel and miniature cities and super-pets—all the stuff of fantasy. “Superman’s Wife” features a fancy futuristic computer in Mr. X’s office, but otherwise the height of its technology is a rotary phone and Joi Lansing’s bullet-bra. It doesn’t really feel like it takes place in an amazing world populated by superheroes and supervillains. Most of the episode looks like it’s set in an insurance office. 

Partly that was the inevitable product of the performances. With one exception, Adventures Of Superman lacked charismatic actors. The show was populated almost exclusively by character actors, playing their single notes loud and flat, whether they only appeared in one scene or whether they were one of the series’ regulars.

That one exception though? Pretty major. It’s hard to talk about Superman himself, actor George Reeves, without dwelling on how he died: naked and drunk, at age 45, of a possibly self-inflicted gunshot wound. (The incident was dramatized in the 2006 film Hollywoodland, starring Ben Affleck as Reeves, and mocked on The Simpsons, where Bart once asked at a comic-book convention whether Radioactive Man TV star Dirk Richter “haunts the bordello where his bullet-riddled body was found.”) Since the show was produced on the cheap, Reeves didn’t make a lot of money from playing Superman, and he had a hard time finding other work as an actor, because of the demands of his Adventures Of Superman shooting schedule and his public association with such an icon. So anyone who knows anything about Reeves might well feel a twinge of sorrow watching him play the Man Of Steel.

They shouldn’t though. It’s true that Reeves’ Superman suit looks like it was made out of bolts of felt from Hobby Lobby, and that the writers on Adventures Of Superman made their hero look like a smug, smirking jerk a lot of the time. But Reeves still had a heroic presence. He was a big, beefy block of a man, who came across as so assured that, even as Clark Kent, he seemed like he could take out a room full of crooks without using any super-strength.

The essential gravity of Reeves is what helped set Adventures Of Superman apart from contemporaneous Superman comics—but not really for the better. The Superman of the comic books cuts a similar figure to Reeves, with a waistline as rounded as his barrel chest. The big difference is that the comic book Superman back then always had the alien quality he was meant to, as an immigrant from the planet Krypton. And Reeves always looked human. Moreover, he looked old. (That’s not entirely Reeves’ fault; even the teenagers in the 1950s looked like they were 47.)

Such was the fundamental flaw in the superhero show back in 1958—and even today, to an extent. Even the most “realistic” superhero stories require some degree of exceptionality, as the characters zip through the air or fling beams of energy at each other in ways far outside the possibilities of our mundane daily existence. Ultimately, on television, all that power is vested in a mere actor, who can be handsome and strong and inspiring, but can never be Superman.

Next time: Grey's Anatomy