1951’s Superman and the Mole-Men may be more true to the original character than any other versions we’ve ever seen on the silver screen. Before McCarthyism created an environment of forced jingoistic conformity in American culture, and before psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s campaign against subversive elements in comic books made any straying from 1950s-era norms a career-ending move for writers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created a character in the 1930s known then as the “champion of the oppressed, the physical marvel who has sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need.”
Originally, Superman was a social justice crusader, a vigilante who took down corrupt politicians, white collar criminals, slum lords, wife beaters, and those who would hinder the free press. He spoke out against bigotry of all kinds. Like Siegel and Shuster’s parents, Superman was a refugee and he never shied away from defending those in American society who weren’t afforded the same rights and opportunities as the majority enjoyed.
“Really, Superman was the first crusader for social justice in comics. He was sprung from two Jewish kids who were picked on and this was their idea of empowerment,” added DC and Marvel writer Mark Waid.
While later turns at the character contain subtle hints of Superman’s conscience, they’ve been primarily concerned with the “physical marvel” aspect of the character. Superman and the Mole-Men, however, is the best live action representation of the “champion of the oppressed” part.
The film is less than an hour long and, at first glance, the plot is thin. Reporter’s Clark Kent (George Reeves) and Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates) are sent to the small town of Silsby to cover the world’s deepest oil well. Unbeknownst to the townsfolk, the drill shaft has penetrated the home of the “Mole Men”, a race of humanoids. The townspeople become afraid of the Mole Men because of their peculiar appearance and traits. They form an angry mob in order to kill the “monsters.” Superman, of course, is the only one able to resolve the conflict, stopping the mob.
On closer examination, we see the depth of the plot or, more specifically, the message that promotes tolerance and diversity. In one famous scene, Superman stares down the armed and angry mob and states, “you’re not going to shoot those little creatures… they haven’t done you any harm.” The mob is an obvious analogy to segregationist vigilantes. Superman literally calls the townspeople “Nazi storm troopers.”
Reeves plays Superman with a certain earnestness and has an obvious respect for the source material yet, to most, the movie will appear dated. The special effects are sub-par, even for that time. The TV series that followed would be stripped of most social messages, sanitized for a white, middle America TV audience and comics wouldn’t regain their social commentary swagger again until deep into the 1960s. Yet Superman and the Mole- Men, in all it’s black and white, simplistic glory, gives us an early glance at what the comic book genre was born to be.
Watch the pivotal scene of the movie below (and notice the Man of Steel’s advocacy for gun control and Lois Lane’s act of feminism as well.)
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