Republic Pictures may have been considered a “Poverty Row” company when compared to bigger studios like Warner Brothers, Columbia and Fox – being relegated to mostly doing B movies and westerns – but when it came to producing serials they left all the others in the dust, giving us such great entries as Dick Tracy and Zorro’s Fighting Legion, which dominated Saturday morning matinees. Then in 1941 Republic Pictures brought to the world the Adventures of Captain Marvel a serial that was not only the greatest one of its kind but also the first time a comic book superhero had ever graced the silver screen.
In 1940 Republic Pictures struck a deal with National Comics (later to become DC Comics) to make a fifteen chapter serial based on Superman – being one of the biggest selling comics in the world this was considered a no brainer – but unfortunately disagreements with the script and how to handle the character forced the two companies to part ways. Enter Fawcett Comics, the publishers of Whiz Comics, who offered the serial rights of their flagship hero Captain Marvel to Republic Pictures, and they were more than happy to tackle The Big Red Cheese’s filmic incarnation. And why exactly does the Adventures of Captain Marvel stand head and shoulders above its serial brethren? Republic Pictures certainly didn’t spend any extra money to bring a superhero to life – the action isn’t any better than what you’d see in a typical King of the Rocket Men or Zorro serials – and the cast though filled with excellent character actors it wasn’t anything to write home about, but what the Adventures of Captain Marvel serial did have was an iconic hero who actually looked to be flying through the sky. For close-ups of Captain Marvel the standard process shot of a guy on wires – in front rear-projected screen – was used but for the long wide shots of our hero flying across the landscape, or up to the top of a building, they actually filmed on location without any optical effects, this was done by having a slightly larger than 1:1 scale papier-mâché dummy of Captain Marvel being slid down a long cable between the two points. This was a simple but effective technique that must have blown the minds of any 1940s kid who had the pleasure of seeing it.
The plot of the Adventures of Captain Marvel wasn’t all that dissimilar from the dozens of other serials that came out before or since, we get an American archaeological expedition traipsing into the country of Siam so that they can loot the Valley of the Tombs and thus find the lost secret of the Scorpion Kingdom. And what exactly is this lost secret? Well turns out that hidden inside the tomb is an artifact called the Golden Scorpion, which is basically a large model of a scorpion with special crystal lenses located in each of its pincers, and when the legs of the scorpion are moved, and the crystals aligned, you could either find yourself at the wrong end of an atom smasher or being turned into gold. Needless to say, both its destructive power and its ability to generate endless wealth gets the Malcolm expedition all hot and bothered, so the group decides to divide the crystals amongst the members, giving Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan Jr) the scroll that contains the directions on how to operate the Golden Scorpion, and after this is done they plan a quick return to the United States.
Of course, it’s not a proper serial if it doesn’t have a nefarious villain for our hero to thwart at every turn – sadly no Black Adam or Dr. Sivana will be making an appearance – and for this entry, we have a hooded dude named The Scorpion, who manages to incite the locals to attack the Malcolm Expedition for defiling the Sacred Valley of the Tombs. During the attack, Billy is knocked out, and both his scroll and the Golden Scorpion are stolen, but it’s when members of the expedition get trapped after the nearby volcano causes the tomb to shake apart that we are introduced to the wizard Shazam (Nigel De Brulier). It’s this immortal wizard who tells young Billy that he will be given the ability to transform into Captain Marvel (Tom Tyler) by simply speaking the wizard’s name, and with this transformation, he will be granted great power that he must only use in the service of right. He’s also supposed to protect the secret of the Golden Scorpion, but we comic book fans could give a rat’s ass about that.
These powers consist of the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury and it is because of this incredible line-up of powers that this serial had a tough time coming up with viable threats for a character who was basically a demi-god. In his first real battle, he approaches a few of the Scorpions men who are manning a Browning heavy machine gun, they open fire on him but the bullets bounce harmlessly off Captain Marvel’s chest, which results in the goons making the logical decision to run away in terror. What many fans of comic books may find surprising is Captain Marvel’s response to this particular act was to pick up the Browning and gun down the fleeing natives by shooting them in their backs.
In fact, Captain Marvel ends up killing more people in these twelve chapters than the actual villainous Scorpion, and for the most part, he does it with an almost maniacal grin on his face. This stone-cold killer version of Captain Marvel so upset creator C.C. Beck that he made no bones about how much he hated this take on his beloved creation, but on the other hand he admitted to finding the almost sadistic glee in the kills absurdly funny.
In the chapter titled “Death Takes the Wheel,” the serial’s main damsel in distress Betty Wallace (Louise Currie) is unconscious in an out-of-control car, as it careens wildly down a multiple-story parking garage – and this wasn’t even the first time she found herself unconscious in an out of control vehicle – but Captain Marvel, of course, arrives in time save her. Unfortunately for the villains, who had placed poor Betty in that particular death trap, Captain Marvel is all about brutal payback, so he flies to the roof of the 30-story parking garage, catches an engine block the idiots try to drop on him, throws the engine block at one of the henchmen and then the grabs the other goon and tosses him off the roof.
So how do the Scorpion and his men even pose a remote threat to Captain Marvel? I mean you can’t really have a movie serial with nail-biting cliffhangers if the outcome is never in question. Well to solve this problem most of the chapters deal with one of Billy’s friends being in danger, whether it be Betty or his best pal Whitey Murphy (William Benedict), and occasionally it will be Billy in danger but then the script forces the henchman to gag Billy for no particular reason (we know it’s so he can’t speak the name “Shazam!” but the bad guys don’t know that), and they never gag Betty or Whitey. Of course, most of those cliffhangers are resolved with Billy managing to get the gag off at the last minute, so there really wasn’t all that much suspense after the first couple of times he does this.
The funniest cliffhanger has to be when Captain Marvel gets knocked back between an electric eye and is shocked unconscious by a bolt of high-intensity electricity – he gets shocked unconscious a total of two times in this serial and being his powers arrive via lightning I guess electricity could be a weakness – and he falls on a conveyor belt that carries him towards the deadly blade of a guillotine. Watching this cliffhanger one can only ask the question, “What in the hell is a metal blade going to do against the world’s mightiest mortal?” The answer, of course, is nothing at all.
Now you certainly can’t fill twelve chapters – roughly four hours – of your serial with just Captain Marvel beating the crap out of a bunch of dime-store hoodlums, sure it’d be fun to watch but you’d still need some kind of plot to hang it all on, so for much of serials running time you have the Scorpion trying to steal the crystals from the various members of the Malcolm Expedition, while also dealing with Billy trying to figure out which one of the members is most likely the Scorpion himself. The serial does cheat a bit to keep the big mystery of “Who is the Scorpion?” by having Billy, Betty, and Whitey almost tumbling on a clue that would reveal the secret multiple times but then the writers would just abandon that particular clue and race off to the next scene. To make it even harder for audiences to figure it out who the Scorpion was under that hood his voice was provided by uncredited actor Gerald Mohr, who sounds nothing like any member of the Malcolm Expedition.
Co-directors William Whitney and John English clearly knew that the mystery wasn’t all that important – the members sitting around a table all looking equally suspicious is almost laughable at times – as the real point of the plot is how it can be used to string together all those scenes of peril, daring do and knock-down drag-out fights the kids are dying to see. A key component to all of that was stuntman Dave Sharpe who doubled Tom Tyler for the more dangerous and acrobatic feats, and one particular moment when a couple of native goons go after Captain Marvel we get to see Dave Sharpe perform a standing back flip to kick the two bad guys in their jaws, and this physical feat is quite impressive and not at all faked. Sharpe was also integral in making the flying moments work as his acrobatic training made the take-offs and landing that much more effective. Add all that to how bang-on Tom Tyler looked in the costume and you had all the ingredients you needed to make a great superhero serial.
As serials go there really isn’t anything in the same league as the Adventures of Captain Marvel, as its stunts and set pieces makes almost all others pale in comparison, with maybe King of the Rocket Men being the closest contender, and the pure fun that fills these twelve chapters makes this a true gem. Kino Lorber has since released this action pack serial on Bluray, with a beautifully re-mastered 4K scan from the Paramount Pictures Archives, and simply put this is a must-own for fans of superhero movies and classic serials. Highly recommended!
Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)
This Captain Marvel may at times appear to be a cross between The Terminator and The Punisher but that just makes this version of the Big Red Cheese so much fun to watch.