The forgotten Superhero Serials

Iann Robinson looks at the film serials of the 1940's.

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The forgotten Superhero Serials

By Iann Robinson
The roof of the cellar is lowering faster; Batman and Robin are caught inside, the spikes from the top slowly sealing their doom!! Will they escape? Will their enemy get the Super Laser Ray Machine? Find out next week at this theater!!!

That was the common end to the film going experience from the late 30s through the early 50s; it was the movie serial, one of the greatest and most under appreciated forms of entertainment in the history of motion pictures. I first learned about them when I was in my mid twenties and a local theater decided to run the old Batman serial before a double feature they were showing. I wasn’t sure how I would react to this old time serial idea but I sat down with an open mind and watched. I was blown away, the simplicity of the storyline was engaging, the cut and dry idea of good guys and bad guys, even the cheap sets and stilted dialogue entertained me. I was instantly hooked and to start researching if there were anymore of them out there. I found several but they were hard to track down, many of them had become public property due to their age and the fact that nobody had re-registered them. Every now and then you’d spot one on VHS but the quality was always ass.

I knew they had made serials for Batman, Superman, Blackhawk, Captain America, Dick Tracy and a bunch more but finding them was next to impossible in the early nineties. As pirate DVDs became easier to produce I started finding more of them at conventions. The first one I purchased was Dick Tracy, and I watched it over and over. When the Batman franchise started gaining popularity they released the original Batman serial and with Superman Returns out came the Kirk Alyn Superman serial (he also played Blackhawk). That one was a real treat because it was the first time they showed Superman flying. Sadly they had to do it through animation so Kirk Alyn would jump and then turn into a cartoon. Priceless!!!

If you’re going to watch a serial you have to understand that it’s a totally different era of filmmaking. In those days Government was still trustworthy, the army was cool, cops were your friends and the country wasn’t disillusioned through war and sketchy political practices. The plots are usually rail thin because they were not only from an innocent era but also made for kids. In most serials there are two standard plots. The first is a secret society where we don’t know who the leader is until the last chapter and the reveal is usually somebody we thought was a good guy. The other is we know outright the bad guy and we watch as he constantly tries to come out ahead only to be thwarted by the hero. Within that set up there is always a damsel in distress but never any sexual innuendo at all. At the most the hero will be trying to save his wife, but he doesn’t even kiss her.

These serials were made for no money so the sets are cheap, cheap to the point of the walls bending and the “futuristic sliding doors” getting caught when they move. The other aspect is that every scene is simply to move the story along, so they set up a camera and the actors just go. There’s no tricky camera work, and it feels like they do one or two takes and just use what they can. The element of danger is minimal towards the hero; he always gets caught in a seemingly inescapable situation but always gets out of it, even if the way he does it makes no sense. I also love the technology aspect. You have devices called the “Super Ray” or chemicals called “Element X”, really basic old school sci-fi terms.

The only downside to the bygone era is that racially it’s not very PC. Whenever other races are portrayed they are done so through the most overblown clichés. Blackhawk and Batman were done during WWII so their depiction of the Asian community is pretty questionable. There are no African-Americans at all. Even in The Phantom where he’s supposed to be in Africa, the tribesmen are all white. In Blackhawk when they meet this contact in Mexico he’s dressed like one of the 3 Amigos and lives in a place called “The Rancho”.

The worst is Batman where the narrator claims the swiftness of the American Government was to be rewarded for sweeping up all the Chinese in Chinatown and putting them into camps to avoid them trading secrets with the enemy. It is awful but it was during World War II and everything during that era was filled with American Propaganda. It’s not all that kind of thing, some of the elements of that time are really awesome. In the Gene Autry Sci-fi serial “The Phantom Empire” there is a robot with a cowboy hat that’s actually built into it out of metal, as if when the robot was built it was decided he needed a cowboy hat. I also like that most of the action is two fisted fights and car chases. This would get tedious if each section wasn’t 20 minutes long. The worse elements aside, these are great slices of a bygone era.

Being as simplistic as they are most of my friends wonder why I love serials so much and to be honest I can’t put my finger on it. Perhaps it’s because it was from such an innocent age, where simple stories would capture a child’s imagination. I also think I like the idea of good guys and bad guys. Today everybody is so busy making people morally ambiguous that it gets to the point where you don’t care who are right or wrong. None of the characters in serials talk about their feelings and the lack of special effects means lots of fisticuffs action and stunts.

To me it’s a catapult to a pure childlike entertainment. I watch these serials and I love how easily you slide into what’s going on, how the hero always stands for what’s right and I love anything that shows filmmakers relying on story and action as opposed to plugging into the computer and wowing us with effects. It also comes from an era when you would go the movies every weekend, hang out with your friends and just be a kid. I’m 37, I haven’t been able to just be a kid for 25 years and I miss that.

If you’re interested from either a historical, filmmaking on purely entertainment stand point, serials are really wonderful things to have and watch. If you want to check them out I suggest starting with Superman, it’s the most “high budget” of all the serials. Right now both Superman serials sell on one DVD for about 20 bucks. I also recommend Batman, Blackhawk, Captain Marvel, Dick Tracy, Captain America, The Green Archer, The Phantom, The Phantom Empire and The Crimson Ghost.

Since these are now public domain you can usually find burned copies on ebay for super cheap. Don’t fret, you’re not stealing from anybody because nobody owns them. That aspect also helps because they person burning them can make really good copies because it’s not illegal. They are a really fun way to kill a rainy weekend and if you want to test yourself, try only watching one episode a week like they had to back in the day. I did that and it was really difficult to wait for the next chapter.