First and Last: How Adventures of Superman Got More Sci-Fi Without Supervillains

Tristan Ettleman
10 min readNov 13, 2023

This is First and Last, an essay series examining my favorite TV show debuting each year through its first and last episodes. The second installment features ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, created by Whitney Ellsworth and Robert J. Maxwell. The show ran for six seasons from 1952 to 1958 across 104 episodes, with the first being “Superman on Earth” and the last “All That Glitters.”

When I think about Superman, I often think about his foes: Brainiac, the alien genius, Mister Mxyzptlk, the fifth-dimensional prankster genius, and of course Lex Luthor, the plain ol’ human genius. All of these characters fit into a trope I would call “supervillain” (even if Luthor specifically does not have any superpowers). Only the latter two existed by the time of ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN’s premiere in 1952, but the first television adaptation of DC Comics’ iconic character steered entirely away from the outlandish figures of the funny papers.

Indeed, much of the George Reeves-led show deals with run-of-the-mill criminals and gangsters, especially in its first two black-and-white seasons. ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN has some of its roots in the 1951 test-case and totally sci-fi B-movie SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN (1951, starring Reeves and the first Lois Lane in Phyllis Coates. But it really picked up where the radio series of (nearly the same name) THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (1940–1951) left off (even though none of its stars translated to the visual medium). Producer Robert Maxwell envisioned, with the aid of Kellog’s, a noir-inflected show geared towards kids and adults. As ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN went on, however, it brightened its storylines along with its color palette, even if it never fully embraced the mania of its 1950s comic counterpart.

In the legacy of Superman media, Reeves’ sudden and, to some, suspicious end at least partly defines ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN. The whole story was even dramatized with Ben Affleck for HOLLYWOODLAND (2006), which fit into theories over the decades that Reeves was murdered. For what it’s worth, I think Reeves was a tortured soul who had great, yet double-edged, success as Clark Kent/Superman and really wanted to be taken seriously as an actor and director. That may have at least partially led to him taking his own life. Whatever the sordid tale is behind the show, which no living soul will ever really know (co-star Jack Larson [Jimmy Olsen] believed Reeves killed himself and was not murdered, also for what that’s worth), I believe ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN should still be enjoyed for its wholesome and escapist qualities.

Superman had been brought out of the pulp paper a number of times before ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, which began airing 14 years after the character’s creation in 1938. The Fleischer studio had brought the hero into animation with incredible fluidity from 1941 to 1943 and two live action theatrical serials (SUPERMAN [1948] and ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN [1950]) preceded the TV pioneer, in addition to the aforementioned radio show. But ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN capitalized on a momentum for the character to catapult the property into the merchandizing and popular culture stratosphere, speaking to a certain segment of that population’s desire for “truth, justice, and the American way.”

Most of that success can be attributed to Reeves’ portrayal of Clark and Superman. I happen to think his spectacled reporter is the stronger portion of the actor’s dichotomy, as he moves with a bemused swagger, feigning his apparent weakness. Other Superman adaptations make Clark a more buffoonish character, but Reeves’ version of the newsman is a more capable figure. There is a certain impact to his superpowered alter ego, however, which stems from Reeves almost always doing his own stunts (from catapulting out of windows to breaking through walls to posing for relatively convincing flight scenes) and looking solid in that old-school fit way that may belie strength to those used to the modern expectations of body-built superhero performers.

In any event, and to get to the premise of this piece, that isn’t readily apparent in the first episode of ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, “Superman on Earth.” Indeed, Reeves has very little screen time in the episode (something in common with the final one and much of the structure of the show later in its life). But that is somewhat to be excused by the premiere’s origin story narrative, which incidentally delivers the most fantastical visuals of the whole series’ run. About half of “Superman on Earth” follows Jor-El and his fight with the Krypton council to believe his science about the planet’s imminent destruction (sound relatable these days?). This allows for a number of over-the-top costumes, sets (including the ancient Greek-esque council hall), and ridiculous line readings concerning the incoming apocalypse.

But ultimately, of course, Kal-El is sent out to Earth in his spaceship, where he is discovered by the Kents. More of the episode proceeds without Reeves, including moments where Ma Kent explains why the ten-year-old Clark is different, until very unceremoniously he is shown in concern over Pa Kent’s heart attack. The doctor informs Clark and his mom that the old farmer has indeed passed on, and the young man heads out to Metropolis. As the narrator informs us, he seeks a job at the Daily Planet so he can keep an eye and ear out for circumstances that could allow him to flex his responsibility as a superman.

The episode proceeds with some funny business in which Clark sneaks around the edge of the building to get into Perry White’s (John Hamilton’s) office and Jimmy and Lois bust in to tell of a zeppelin accident in which a worker is dangling from a rope. Clark convinces Perry to give him a job if he can get an exclusive interview with the man, and of course then does so after saving him in the guise of Superman. Clark’s on the team and Lois’ suspicions are started.

As mentioned, the most remarkable aspect of “Superman on Earth” is how little Reeves appears in it, especially in an era when many shows began without much fanfare or backstory by jumping right into what would be the weekly premise. By extension, the relative minimization of Lois, Jimmy, and Perry doesn’t foreshadow how central they would be in the full series. Indeed, much of ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN’s episodic structure (never expanded into multi-part affairs) involved the editor of the Daily Planet initiating some kind of investigation that gets Lois and Jimmy into trouble, necessitating Superman’s intervention. It was the writers’ way of circumnavigating Superman’s extreme powers, which had long ago eclipsed the more restricted “ubermensch” aspects of the character’s 1930s appearances. There had to be some kind of miscommunication to create any kind of suspense at all.

Over time, this approach wore thin for this viewer. But the changes in ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN did enough to feel like an evolution was happening. First of all, it’s worth noting that the first two seasons of the show constitute half of the whole series’ run, while the final four make up the rest. Those first two seasons were produced in black-and-white, while the rest were produced in color, even though no one benefited from this ahead-of-its-time approach; ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN was not actually broadcast in color until it had already ended. The change in palette was not exclusively visual, as the writers and producers seemed to take a cue from the look to make the show more fantastical as it went on.

As implied, however, this never manifested in out-and-out supervillain appearances. Recurring characters like Professor Oscar Quinn (Sterling Holloway) and Professor Pepperwinkle (Philips Tead) introduced friendly sources of sci-fi developments, including time travel, but it always involved everyday gangster archetypes butting in to try to take advantage of the myriad inventions. That is the dynamic at play in ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN’s last episode, “All That Glitters,” featuring the latter mad scientist.

In the series finale, Pepperwinkle has invented a method of creating gold from other materials, prompting Perry and Treasury officials to call in our trio of reporters and urge the professor to never create more gold, else he destabilize the national and global economy. The most obvious difference between “All That Glitters” and “Superman on Earth” is the former’s color for modern viewers, which gives a delightful vibrancy to the campy cheese, but the next is a different Lois Lane.

Noel Neill, who had played the character in the two prior serials, replaced Coates in season 2. Neill’s version of the character was warmer compared to the more hard-edged reporter of Coates’ interpretation, but the former ended up suiting the change in the show’s tone, or vice versa, and of course by sheer number of episodes she is the definitive ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN Lois.

The ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN finale proceeds with Jimmy blabbing about Pepperwinkle’s new gold-creating process, which of course two random criminals overhear. They burst into Pepperwinkle’s home later and demand he makes gold for them. When Jimmy and Lois visit him later, he reveals the situation and how he will trap the gangsters with hanging sandbags before accidentally knocking Jimmy unconscious. When he comes to, another sci-fi thread is introduced in the form of kryptonite crystals that can give an ingester the powers of Superman.

In a departure from comic lore, Pepperwinkle explains that the hero gets his powers from positive kryptonite as opposed to the negative version that has been shown to sap his strength throughout the series. Jimmy and Lois take the crystals after witnessing a test mouse with super strength and get to do all the things Superman usually gets to do, such as burst through walls, fly through the air, and use X-ray vision. It’s actually a good little twist on the formula and somewhat of a fitting end to a series that kept the two characters in the same roles for years.

But after Jimmy and Lois capture the criminals, the whole powered episode is revealed to have been an unconscious manifestation of the former’s imagination. You may have been wondering why there has been a lack of Clark/Superman mentions in this plot synopsis. It’s because the reporter is sent to a convention at the beginning of the episode and is only seen again at the end when he saves everyone from the actual criminals. It’s almost a fitting end to ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN that Reeves gets so little proportionate screen time, as “Superman on Earth” similarly marginalized his performance to the final third or less. Perhaps it had something to do with Reeves’ direction. He was leading things behind the camera for the show’s final three episodes.

But “All That Glitters” was not meant to end ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, reflecting the way many shows ended in its era: relatively unceremoniously and in the same progression as any other normal episode. First, Hamilton died. Pierre Watkin was hired to play Perry White’s brother; Watkin had even played the original editor character in the two prior serials. Reeves, as mentioned, died in the summer of 1959, but the producers still envisioned a continuation featuring Larson as Jimmy, who was immensely popular and well-known, and Superman fitting into the stories with stock footage of Reeves. Larson, to his everlasting credit, rejected the pretty crass idea. Finally, a pilot was filmed for THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERBOY in 1961, starring Johnny Rockwell, who had played a young Clark way back at the beginning of ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN. It wasn’t picked up to series.

Even if “All That Glitters” wasn’t planned as a fitting send-off, its symmetry with some of the concepts of “Superman on Earth” and its display of a more sci-fi-oriented tone than the relatively “gritty” crime dramas of the series’ black-and-white years reflects how the show operated throughout its life and how it had yet evolved over its six-year run. For all its “‘50s squeaky cleanliness,” ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN’s relentless optimism, good humor, and fantastical scrappiness with the day’s TV budgets (especially going straight to syndication rather than operating as a network show) make it a satisfying and comforting installment amid the various and strange eras of its central icon’s long life.

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