What was the first on screen TV version of Superman?

18 March 2023
The 1948 15-part Columbia Pictures film serial Superman is an adaptation of the Superman comic book character, featuring an uncredited Kirk Alyn as Superman (credited as Kirk Alyn on promotional posters) and Noel Neill as Lois Lane. 

This serial is noteworthy as the first live-action portrayal of Superman in film, similar to Batman (1943), and for its extended distribution period. 

The production was directed by Thomas Carr and Spencer Gordon Bennet, produced by Sam Katzman, and filmed in and around Los Angeles, California. 

The serial was initially shown during matinées, and all but the first three episodes ended in a cliffhanger.

Due to budget constraints, animated scenes were used for Superman's flight sequences.

The serial was a commercial triumph, shown in theaters that had not previously screened a serial. It made Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill prominent figures and marked the beginning of Neill's career.

 A sequel, Atom Man vs. Superman, also directed by Bennet, was released in 1950.

kirk alyn as superman

The first plot:

Following the destruction of Krypton, Superman is sent to Earth by his parents and is taken in by a farm couple who raise him as Clark Kent. As he grows older, he discovers his extraordinary abilities and decides to use them for the greater good. 

After his foster parents pass away, Superman assumes the guise of Clark Kent and moves to Metropolis, where he takes a job at the Daily Planet to stay up-to-date with current events. While investigating a new mineral called Kryptonite, which renders him powerless, he faints and realizes his newfound weakness.

Whenever there is a crisis, Superman reveals his true identity and comes to the rescue. The plot of the first serial centers around the nefarious plans of a villain who goes by the name of the Spider Lady.

The production efforts to get some Superman live action on screen:

Republic Pictures made two attempts to produce a Superman serial. The first one was scrapped when they failed to secure licensing negotiations with Superman publisher National Comics (later called DC Comics) and was replaced by Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940). 

The second attempt, advertised for a 1941 release, faced two major obstacles.

Firstly, National Comics insisted on having absolute control over the script and production, and secondly, the rights to Superman were already committed to the Paramount cartoon series. 

In 1947, Sam Katzman acquired the live-action rights to Superman but failed to sell them to Universal or Republic, who claimed that a flying hero would be impossible to adapt despite the success of Adventures of Captain Marvel in 1941.

Katzman discovered Kirk Alyn after searching through photographs, but National Comics' representative initially opposed the idea of casting him. Alyn's sporting of a goatee and mustache during his screen test did not help matters, but he eventually landed the part. Columbia's advertising campaign claimed that they had "hired Superman himself" as they could not find an actor to play the role.

To suit the black and white film format, the Superman costume was grey and brown instead of blue and red. The one-sheet posters, however, depicted the costume as red and green without explanation. In the first episode, "Superman Comes to Earth," Eben Kent (played by Edward Cassidy) delivers the line to Clark Kent (played by Kirk Alyn), "Because of these great powers - your speed and strength, your x-ray vision and super-sensitive hearing - you have a great responsibility."

 Fourteen years later, Stan Lee's Amazing Fantasy #15 popularized the phrase "With great power comes great responsibility" in the introduction of Spider-Man.

How they made the special effects for the Serial Show

According to Harmon and Glut, the use of animated flight sequences in the Superman serial was its weakest aspect. They believed that while the special effects in other areas were effective, they were overshadowed by the low quality of the flying scenes. 

In an attempt to find a better method, the crew tested a technique that involved Kirk Alyn being suspended by wires in front of moving clouds. However, the results were not satisfactory, so the animated method was chosen instead.

One result of the combination of live-action and animated footage was that Superman's take-offs were often visible in the foreground, while his landings were usually hidden behind objects like parked cars, rocks, or buildings. This was because it was easier to transition from live footage to animation during take-offs than during landings. As a result, Superman frequently landed some distance away from his intended destination and had to run to reach the scene.

Due to budget constraints, the production team reused footage frequently, especially scenes of Superman flying. For example, a sequence showing Superman flying over a rocky hill was used in nearly every episode of the first serial.


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My name is Jimmy Jangles, the founder of The Astromech. I have always been fascinated by the world of science fiction, especially the Star Wars universe, and I created this website to share my love for it with fellow fans.

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