It almost seems unfair to review the public domain cheapie Atomic Rulers of the World as a legitimate feature film, because it has such a ludicrous pedigree. Edited together for American television from two Japanese shorts in a series titled Super Giant, this is a work that just barely qualifies as proper cinema. As far as made-for-TV schlock goes, though, Atomic Rulers is too fun to resist. In a melting pot plot of for-kids camp that touches on sci-fi, espionage, and Adam West-era Batman vibes in its all-encompassing quest for genre thrills, Atomic Rulers of the World is a live action comic book sugar blast that literally & figuratively represents the best of old-fashioned serial storytelling. The first of four films following the out-of-this-world superhero Starman as he attempts to save Earth from destroying itself in a nuclear holocaust, Atomic Rulers looks, feels, and resonates like comic book camp. In a modern context, where all comic book cinema is super serious & adult-oriented, though, its particular band of Saturday morning inanity is oddly infectious.
There are several more infamous superheros Starman could be compared to (as well as some more obscure reference points like Fletcher Hanks’s Stardust character), but there’s no clearer reflection of his character than, arguably the most famous superhero of all time, Superman. Like Superman, Starman is a bulletproof alien with movie star handsomeness, inhuman strength, and a frequent indulgence in green screen flight. The only aspects he’s missing are the adoptive parents & laser beam eyes. Instead of crash landing in Kansas as a wee babe, Starman lives on a distant world known simply as The Emerald Planet. The high council of The Emerald Planet (who look like every episode of the 1950s Dr. Who series smashed together as a dinner party theme) becomes concerned with Earth’s impending doom as the radiation from atomic weapons testing leaks from the atmosphere & poisons other worlds. They deploy Starman, who can master intergalactic flight without any kind of vessel, to stop an evil nation from deploying “atomic superweapons” that would lead to intentional nuclear peril. The alien superhero occasionally does Superman-esque things like landing on the outside of the airplanes to physically steady their landings or alternating between skin-tight supergear & sharply tailored suits, but for the most part Starman acts as a solo agent in Cold War espionage. When a gangster accuses, “You’re a police agent!” he responds “Not of this earth,” which isn’t exactly a denial. By the time he fences like a swashbuckler & engages at length in hand-to-hand martial arts, Starman seemingly encompasses all genre film cliché in a single vessel, but Superman certainly provides his basic framework.
Paced & narrated for television, Atomic Rulers of the World occasionally suffers a boring stretch of narrative or a rigidly episodic story structure, but it’s a format that works well in a superhero cinema context. In the first half of the film, Starman sets out to rescue an orphan boy kidnapped by an evil organization attempting to hold Japan hostage with “atomic superweapons.” In the second half, he has to rescue a second hostage, this time a young woman, while thwarting the impending nuclear holocaust. As this was made for 1960s children’s television, it goes without saying that Starman succeeds in both instances (even though one encounter ludicrously requires him to survive a mini-nuke in an enclosed space). If I hadn’t known that there were three more Starman films to follow, I might have found the story a little slight, but it at least feels totally self-contained. At the end of the movie Starman decides not to destroy the atomic superweapon, but to return it to the “good guys,” urging them to “use it for peace.” It’s a simplistic solution for a massively complex problem (that still hasn’t been solved half a century later), but it still works well enough as a standalone product in an episodic series. I’ve certainly seen films in the MCU with less in-the-moment stakes & frustratingly unresolved “until next time” conclusions.
Anyone who’s curious about watching Atomic Rulers of the World isn’t likely all that interested in the film’s narrative ambition, though, and it’s a work that survives largely on the novelty of its multi-genre thrills. The villainous nuclear cult that plans to take Japan hostage boasts some interesting details in the meth lab futurism of their secret base & their preferred execution method of the world’s most convoluted, slow-moving guillotine. There’s also a quaint charm to the film’s cheap production design, with its half-assed dubbing & green screen flight. The real joy of Atomic Rulers, however, is the introduction of intergalactic superhero Starman. Actor Ken Utsui’s near nude outer space get-up & everything-to-everyone invincibility/versatility turns the character into something of a campy joke, but I do have a strong nostalgia for this kind of over-the-top cartoon superhero media. Some of Atomic Rulers‘s best moments are when Starman is simply delighting an orphanage full of kids who ooh & ahh as he demonstrates his ability to fly or to mangle firearms with his bare hands. I often found myself getting giddy right along with those impressed & overwhelmed tykes, as Starman is a high camp superhero I didn’t know I needed back in my life until Atomic Rulers showed me the way.