Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Superman: following the peacekeeping exploits of super-powered alien Kal-El, who was sent to Earth moments before his home-planet exploded, and was then subsequently raised by middle-American farmers under the name of Clark Kent. Created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster as a comic book character, the franchise has expanded into pretty much every single conceivable medium, spanning from 1938 to the present. For our purposes here, we’ll only be examining the theatrically released live-action films.
The Installment: Superman and the Mole Men (1951)
Clark (George Reeves) and Lois (Phyllis Coates) arrive at the site of the world’s deepest oil well to do a story, only to discover the well has been shut down. Why? Well it turns out that they drilled too deep and hit the civilization of the “mole men.” When two of the mole men arrive to say wazzup to us surface dwellers, the local townsfolk freak out and decide the mole men must die. But Superman thinks the mole men mean us no harm, even though they might be radioactive and are lame and boring. Turns out we were both right — they do mean the townsfolk no harm, and are lame and boring. So the mole men go back home and the townsfolk learn a lesson in tolerance or whatever.
George Reeves is a much better actor than Kirk Alyn.
What Doesn’t Work:
This 60-minute “movie” was the trial run for the popular and long-running George Reeves TV series Adventures of Superman (it eventually was recut and used as a two-part episode on the show, titled “The Unknown People”). It is a real shame Mole Men is serving as the lone representative of the series here in Franchise Me, because this movie is complete crap, displaying none of the charm or humor the Adventures of Superman was known for. But we’re here to judge this installment on its own merits (of which it has none) and not what eventually became of the TV version. I just wanted to note that my reactions to this film and to Reeves’ performance aren’t meant to reflect the series too.
The Kirk Alyn serials were cheap, but they had b-movie gusto. However wonky using animation to achieve Superman’s flying was, all you need to do is snooze your way through Mole Men to see how helpful it ultimately was. Mole Men‘s solution to getting around hard-to-achieve FX is — don’t have any! It seriously doesn’t feel like anyone was trying on this production. The movie feels like an episode of a TV show, like a random fifth season episode, once the writers were running low on ideas and enthusiasm. No Metropolis. No Daily Planet. No Jimmy Olsen or Perry White. Granted this came out only one year after Atom Man, but it boggles my mind that this is the story the filmmakers wanted for their reboot. Superman isn’t even fighting the mole men! He isn’t really fighting anyone! The antagonist of Mole Men is a local resident named Luke Benson (played by the otherwise excellent Jeff Corey) who forms a posse to try and hunt down the mole men after they kill an old man. Superman believes the old man died from fright, and that the mole men are innocents. Clark and Superman tell Benson to back off, but he doesn’t listen to either of them. But why would he? Clark is just some smug big city dick, cramming his nose in other people’s business. I wouldn’t listen to him either. Also, for some reason Clark/Superman keeps leaving out the information that the mole men might be radioactive when he attempts to quell the mob. But that’s the most relevant piece of information! Regardless though, whether Benson’s motives are sound or not, he is a flabbergastingly feeble villain for a Superman movie. First he fought the Spider Lady. Then he crossed swords with Luthor. Now Superman tackles his greatest foe yet — ignorance! Superman is a superhero. He needs to fight a super villain. Or, hell, at least fight someone! Or face some kind of extraordinary threat. Teaching a well-intentioned jerk the error of his ways is a job for fucking Michael Landon, not Superman! Come on, people.
The filmmakers clearly had some commentary on their minds. Aside from the topical radiation element, the film is obviously angling on xenophobia, mob mentality, and other McCarthy-era paranoia. This is very much a “but who is the real monster?” story. That’s all well and good, but this is no The Day the Earth Stood Still. And the film fails in the one area a Superman movie should be most concerned with — entertainment. Even though it is only 60 minutes long, the movie is dull as hell. I could barely get through it. And please keep in mind that I watched both serials, which were each nearly 300 minutes long. Coming on the heels of the serials, I can understand that the filmmakers didn’t want to have another lengthy prologue detailing Superman’s origin story. Though the brief and lax opening narration we get instead (featuring the cable-access-esque image at the top of the article) is not a very good compromise. This is a movie. We want to be invested in Superman. And the whole stupid theme of the stupid story is alienation and fear of outsiders! You know, outsiders like Superman that normal slobs might at first glance have reason to fear! At no point does the film really draw that connection either! Anyway, then, expounding on this lack of proper set-up, we first meet our hero when he shows up at the oil well. We don’t even get a bit of convo between Lois and Clark in the car? Or getting the assignment at The Daily Planet? They seriously just hop out of the car and start talking, as though we already know who they are. Yes, Superman and Lois are famous characters, but this is a movie, right? It needs to tell a complete story. Plus, we don’t already know these versions of Clark and Lois. We’re starting all over here! Most damning of all is probably the fact that Mole Men served as the season finale to the first season of the TV show, and not the pilot. The pilot actually has set-up! You know, so a new audience could get involved with the characters, uh, whatchacallit — emotionally?
George Reeves would go on to become an iconic figure in the Superman franchise for people of a certain generation. Kids of the ’50s loved his Superman. The show ran for six seasons. So I will accept that the man has charm. But he is wasted in Mole Men. He looks like a joke in his Superman costume, which very noticeably has shoulder padding to help beef him up. And though his Clark is a lot more fun than Kirk Alyn’s wooden clod, Reeves plays both Clark and Superman the exact same way — which just exacerbates the fact that no one guesses they are the same person. It also makes him having a secret identity seem pointless. Plus, Reeves’ Clark doesn’t seem that “mild manner.” He’s aggressive, proactive, and kind of a dick. Reeves is fun as a dick, but again, it seems an odd choice. But at least Reeves has personality. Poor Phyllis Coates is practically absorbed by the film as Lois. One of the superhero genre’s first and best leading ladies is reduced to a pointless sidekick. Actually, she isn’t even a sidekick. Lois serves zero purpose to the plot. She doesn’t even need to be rescued at any point! She’s just there for Clark to talk to every now and then. Lois sucks in Mole Men. The fault almost entirely lies in the writing, but – no offense to the lady – Coates also is a huge step down in charisma coming on the heels of Noel Neill. I’d say they should have cast Neill here, but then I would have felt bad seeing her wasted like this. Unsurprisingly, though, Neill replaced Coates on the TV show after the first season (so clearly I’m not the only one who liked her more).
Every aspect of this movie is shoddy. The mole men are fucking abysmal characters, especially once they’re revealed to not be evil, which is almost immediately. Then we’re just stuck with some lame-ass mole men wandering around. They don’t talk, which isn’t a problem conceptually, but they make no noises of any kind. It’s like a silent movie when we’re with them. The ‘little people’ playing the two mole men aren’t exactly skilled mimes, so every second they’re on screen the movie stops dead in its tracks. And they have a lot of camera time! I’m not sure what the filmmakers wanted me to take away from the mole men, because the performances are so lifeless. They also all have the same non-personality. That would be okay if they were villains, but they’re supposed to be sympathetic good guys. Their costumes are heinous too — you can even see the zippers!
And the action in the film shouldn’t even be called action. There is a moment when Superman tells an angry mob that he is going to take away their guns, and then he slowly walks into the crowd and start slowly pulling away their guns. I could only stare blankly in disbelief at the scene. Is Superman seriously just walking from person to person, in real-time, grabbing their guns? They aren’t going to speed up the film? Or do some other FX trick?
Body Count: 1
Number of Times Superman Smugly Lets a Villain Shoot Him in the Chest: 3
Best Villain Dispatching: None worth mentioning.
Superman’s Superest Feat: Taking a ray gun to the chest.
Best Use of His Brains: Not applicable.
Should There Be a Sequel: Not as a movie. TV is where this incarnation belongs. If that.
Up Next: Superman: The Movie
previous franchises battled
Back to the Future
Planet of the Apes