Okay, I’ll have to apologize in advance, because I went a little screen-cap crazy on this one. But you’ll see why once we get into it.
I wanted to cover this serial last year during the Origins series, but I couldn’t get hold of it in time. The Adventures of Captain Marvel, a serial released by Republic Pictures in 1941, is the first screen adaptation of a comic book superhero ever. It would be interesting from an historical perspective even if it weren’t worth viewing on its own merits. But it’s also a rousing adventure serial, said by many to be their favorite. So let’s check it out.
But first, just who was Captain Marvel? Well, he was completely unrelated to the Captain Marvel I wrote about yesterday. This Captain Marvel was introduced in Whiz Comics, published by Fawcett in 1940. Young orphan Billy Batson meets a mysterious wizard in the subway who grants miraculous powers just for saying his name–Shazam!
Over time, Captain Marvel would develop a large supporting cast, including the Marvel Family–Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr., Uncle Marvel, and the Three Lieutenant Marvels (Tall Billy, Fat Billy and Hill Billy)–as well as sidekick Tawky Tawny, a talking humanoid tiger, and villains Dr. Sivana and Mister Mind (a genius talking worm–really). And Captain Marvel would become the most popular superhero in the business, until National Periodicals managed to kill him in a lawsuit by claiming copyright infringement due to his similarities to Superman.
I’m only doing Chapter 1 this week, both because it’s extra-long (30 full minutes) and because there’s so much packed into it. Like other Republic Serials, the opening credits show each of the principal cast members. That guy on the right looks extra-sinister, doesn’t he?
Then we get a text card describing an archaological expedition to a “remote region of Siam” seeking the secret of the lost Scorpion Dynasty. ‘Siam’ in this case doesn’t mean Thailand so much as “someplace really far away and exotic.” How exotic? Well, they kill leopards just to have something fancy to hit their gongs with.
The natives, who look more like Afghani mujahideen than Thai fighters, ride to attack the archaeological outpost, run by these guys.
Look at the size of that cast. It’s like watching an episode of Lost. Luckily, they’ll start dying off pretty quickly. That guy on the left without a helmet is Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan, Jr). He’s too young to rate a hat, apparently.
Anyway, the natives attack, led by this devilishly handsome guy…
Who is convinced by the sinister, turbanned Tal Chotali to call off his attack unless sacrilege of the sacred tomb is proven by volcanic eruption. Seriously. The expedition members take this as a hint to get into the sacred tomb as quickly as possible and loot what they can before the natives can return.
So they enter the tomb, which is an amazing mish-mash of pseudo-archaeology. The writing on the outside of the tomb looks pseudo-Chinese, but inside, the ancient writing is made up of solid shapes that look like dropped confetti. So anyway, the men attack the seal on the wall of the outer chamber…
Which falls away to reveal…
An almost identical seal. Ha! Only this one had some confetti writing, warning of a terrible curse to those who enter the inner chamber to steal the secret of the scorpion. Billy decides to take the warning seriously and heads off to another section of the tomb to loot… ahem, collect some pottery.
So the members of the expedition break through the second seal to find the secret of the scorpion, which is… a scorpion.
A golden scorpion, with strange lenses in its claws. And when they align the lenses with the sunlight streaming in through an opening in the wall…
There is an explosion which rocks the entire complex, knocking the men out and knocking a huge slab of stone down over the opening, sealing them in.
Only Billy Batson isn’t trapped, and he discovers a secret chamber in which he finds an old man. Stick with me now, because this next bit is incredibly silly, even in the context of a comic book serial based on a guy whose archenemy was a talking worm. We’ll get past this bit together, and then things will get better. Trust me.
See, the old man says he is the wizard Shazam, just like in the comic books. And just as in the comics, he tells Billy that his name is an anagram of the names of great heroes (almost all drawn from Greek and Roman mythology, except for Solomon), and that by saying the wizard’s name, Billy will be transformed into Captain Marvel, the guardian of the scorpion’s secret.
See, the thing is, the origin story is silly, but to me, it feels less silly when it’s happening in a strange, secret subway chamber than when it’s happening in an ancient Siamese tomb. Why is this old white man named after Jewish, Greek and Roman gods and heroes stuck in this Asian tomb? I can’t quite get my head around it.
Luckily, the scene doesn’t last long. Billy cries “Shazam!” and there’s a blast and a giant puff of smoke, and suddenly, Billy is gone. In his place stands Captain Marvel. And wow, does Tom Tyler look the part.
They may have screwed with the origin and the style and tone of the stories, but the costume is perfect, from the folded tops of his boots to the curlicues on his cape.
Captain Marvel easily lifts away the slab trapping the men, then changes back to Billy to go in after them. And I love this little detail on the side of the slab. These guys apparently had some fun building the tomb.
Once everyone is back outside and safe, they discover from a sacred scroll that not only can the golden scorpion blow stuff up, it can also turn stuff to gold. They decide to keep it, but to prevent its power from being used wrongfully, they decide to split the lenses among them. And they give the scroll to Billy to guard, because he can’t read (seriously, the reason is, “he’s the only one of us who can’t translate it”).
So everything is all right, until that night, when a mysterious figure dressed in black robes starts a signal fire in the camp, prompting the natives outside to start launching themselves over the barricade walls using a tree for a catapult (yes, if you look closely in this shot, you can see the wire pulling the tree upright).
They cut their way into Billy’s tent, knock him out and kill his tentmate Professor Howell, then steal the scroll and the scorpion. Their leader is the mysterious man in black known only as The Scorpion!
And in a neat touch, as soon as the Scorpion touches the scroll, the volcano erupts. Sacrilege alarm! When Billy comes to, he rouses the others in the camp, who begin packing up to leave. Billy summons the British regiment at a nearby fort to come help.
Meanwhile, Professor Bentley pooh-poohs the idea of an imminent attack. “I don’t think there’s a native within a mile of here!” Cue the flaming arrows!
The camp is surrounded and under attack. Professor Malcolm adopts the curious shooting style of kneeling and bracing his shooting hand on his knee, where he can’t sight along the barrel at all. And in an odd moment of realism, Billy is actually reloading!
The British troops are ambushed on the way to the camp, so the expedition members try a desperate escape in their cars. And now comes the moment that I think made the serial’s entire reputation. Prepare yourself for a barrage of pictures.
Billy sends the cars off ahead, and once he’s alone, shouts, “Shazam!” And then Captain Marvel is off to the attack!
He makes an impressive dive off a high rock onto some attacking natives.
And instead of the usual protracted fistfight that was the serials’ usual stock-in-trade, he knocks out a couple of guys with single blows, then commandeers their freaking machine gun to mow down some more.
Then comes the flying. The flying sequences in this serial were famous, and justly so. Far better than the cartoon animation used in the later Superman serials, they worked so well because of their variety of techniques and clever editing.
Captain Marvel leaps off a rock to take off (stuntman Dave Sharpe, often with the help of a hidden trampoline or springboard)…
Which cuts to Tyler as Captain Marvel in front of a rear-projection screen…
Then to a life-sized dummy sliding down a hidden wire on location…
And back to Sharpe, diving off a high platform to land on his victim.
And without a pause, he rolls to his feet and throws the guy into his buddy (obviously a dummy in this shot, but it happens so fast that it’s still exciting).
The next two guys try to flee after their bullets bounce off him, but he leaps in front of them and then knocks them both out with a backflip kick!
Then he flies off and takes down a couple more goons before pausing to show how badass he is.
The entire sequence is less than a minute and a half, but its probably the best superhero action sequence ever made before Superman: The Movie in 1978. It’s far from perfect, but it’s fast-paced and exciting, and the flying and stunts combine to look amazing. The serial never quite reaches this level of excitement again, but ask the fans why they love the serial so much, and they’ll probably cite this sequence.
But unknown to Captain Marvel, a few natives have managed to reach the bridge over the gorge ahead of the expedition, and they set a bomb which goes off just as the second car, containing Betty and comedy-relief buddy Whitey, is crossing. Peril!
Notice that they built a pretty detailed miniature for this one quick effect. Columbia, the studio that made the Batman and Superman serials, rarely wanted to spend that kind of money, which is why most of Superman’s feats take place in front of stock footage.
And that’s it for Chapter One. Over the next three or four weeks, we’ll cover the other 11 chapters. See you then.