Several attempts to make a live action Superman serial film were made in the 1940s, but it wasn't until producer Sam Katzman negotiated a deal between National Comics and Columbia Pictures in 1948 that a film was finally made. Shot on location in and around Los Angeles, Superman was a 15 part black and white movie serial produced by Columbia that played for 15 consecutive weeks (each ending on a cliffhanger) before the feature films on weekend matinées.
Kirk Allyn was credited only with playing Clark Kent as the studio claimed it "hired Superman himself" to play the role to preserve the mystique of the character. Made on a very tight budget, the Superman flight effect (and other effects) substitute animated elements for live action. Although live action flight scenes were filmed using wires, Katzman is said to have scrapped them in favor of the animations.
Episode 1: 'Superman Comes to Earth' - When Jor-El discovers that his home planet Krypton is doomed, he sends his infant son to distant Earth in a rocket. Found and raised by the Kent family, he grows up to be Superman!
Episode 2: 'Depths of the Earth' - In his first appearances, Superman saves a train from derailing, and a woman from a burning building. Then he goes to the offices of the Daily Planet newspaper where the editor promises him a job if he can get the inside scoop on a mine disaster.
Episode 3: 'The Reducer Ray' - Superman saves Lois and some others from the mine and brings back the scoop to the Planet. Over the next few days Superman is frequently in the headlines for his heroic deeds. This attracts the attention of the government who ask him to guard a powerful new weapon - the Reducer Ray. Also in this episode, we meet the villainous Spider Lady, and Clark Kent first encounters Kryptonite.
Episode 4: 'Man of Steel' - Clark Kent reveals that he is secretly Superman to the scientist that is working with the Kryptonite meteorite. With the help of the scientist, he learns that he can't see through lead, and that Kryptonite can possibly kill him. Unfortunately, an unscrupulous individual overhears this exchange and sells the secret to the Spider Lady. Also, Lois Lane has been captured by The Spider Lady and faces execution.
Episode 5: 'A Job for Superman' has Superman rescuing Lois from her captors. This is followed by the Spider Lady taunting Superman over the police band. She threatens to steal 'something' from the museum. True to her word, the Spider Lady's henchmen stage a robbery while insuring that Superman is occupied elsewhere.
Episode 6: 'Superman in Danger!' has the Spider Lady's henchmen successfully thwart Superman with the help of the Kryptonite they've stolen from the museum. Next they break 'Hackett', a scientist criminal out of prison.
Episode 7: 'Into the Electric Blast Furnace!' The Spider Lady's henchmen have captured Jimmy Olsen, and using him as leverage, Clark Kent as well. But as long as they have the two under armed guard, Superman doesn't seem to show up, and they get impatient enough to decide to dispose of the two in a furnace!
Episode 8: 'Superman to the Rescue' Clark gets the opportunity to change to Superman, but will it be too late to save Jimmy Olsen?
Episode 9: 'Irresistible Force!' In order to save the Reducer Ray from destruction, Superman must stop a speeding locomotive!
Episode 10: 'Between Two Fires' No sooner has Superman rescued Lois Lane than Jimmy Olsen is captured by the Spider Lady's henchmen. But Doctor Graham who's also their captive may have a way to signal for help.
Episode 11: 'Superman's Dilemma' The Spider Lady has a replica of the Reducer Ray, but needs a chemical called mono chromite to make it functional. When she sends some henchmen to retrieve it, the chemical engineer becomes suspicious and phones his friend Perry White at the Daily Planet who in turn assigns Clark Kent to the case. But Lois Lane finds out about the story and plans to beat Clark to it, no matter what.
Episode 12: 'Blast in the Depths' Superman rescues Jimmy Olsen and intercepts the shipment of Sodium Chromite, forcing The Spider Lady and her cohorts to seek out a different source for the material. In the process of shaking down another source, The Spider Lady's henchmen accidentally kill the man. Perry White sends Lois to investigate the death and she's soon captured, but not before she leaves a vital clue for Clark and Jimmy.
Episode 13: In 'Hurled to Destruction' Clark gets the opportunity to change into Superman when Lois takes a blow to the head. This allows him to break out to the cave system and save them both. Meanwhile the Spider Lady's henchmen have taken the inventor of the Reducer Ray prisoner and used some form of mind control on him to reveal its secrets.
Episode 14: 'Superman at Bay' to keep one of her incarcerated henchmen from squealing, The Spider Lady sends her cohort Anton (Jack Ingram) to allow himself to be captured and make contact with the henchman. When Jimmy Olsen finds out about their escape plan, he's knocked out, tied up and put in a booby-trapped room.
Episode 15: 'The Payoff' Superman rescues Lois Lane from the effects of the Reducer Ray, but all the prisoners and records of the jail are destroyed. Left with no leads, the staff of the Daily Planet are at the mercy of the Spider Lady when she threatens to turn the ray on the Daily Planet building. But Superman manages to restore a shattered record of the Spider Lady's henchmen talking prior to their demise, which allows him to uncover one of the villain's outposts. When he shows up there, the henchman on duty uses Kryptonite to incapacitate Superman, then takes him directly to the Spider Lady herself!
Superman was tremendously popular, even showing in many theaters that normally didn't screen serials. It was released in Portugal, Sweden and Denmark in 1950. It is said to be the most financially successful film serial of all time.
Critics both at the time of its release, and it's home video and DVD releases decades later have remained sharply divided. Many are critical of the crude special effects. Others believe the dated aspects of the series are part of its charm.