Continuing our recap of the very first screen appearance of a comic book superhero, the Republic serial Adventures of Captain Marvel from 1941. I apologize for the length, but I’m trying to only spend four weeks on this. As Chapter 4 was ending, Betty was unconscious in a car careening down the ramp of a parking garage, headed toward an imminent and probably fatal collision.
In Chapter 5, “The Scorpion Strikes,” Captain Marvel arrives just in time and leaps onto the running board of the car to steer it to safety. He shakes Betty really hard to wake her up, then slaps her face a few times. It’s pretty funny, only because it’s Louise Currie. She finally comes to and points out the Scorpion’s men on the roof of the parking garage. So Captain Marvel flies up in another impressively realistic flying shot.
The thugs try to set a trap for him by luring him under a lift holding an engine block, but Captain Marvel catches it as it drops on him and throws it at them, bashing one of them in the head (ironically, he’s the only one who survives past the end of this episode).
Captain Marvel tackles another thug (the garage attendant Betty spoke to last episode) and straight throws him off the roof to fall nine stories to his death.
The last thug tries to flee down the elevator, but Captain Marvel hauls it up by the cables, grabs the guy, and threatens to strangle him unless the guy gives up the identity of the Scorpion. The guy says he doesn’t know; the Scorpion always wears a mask, but he might be able to recognize his voice.
Next thing you know, the thug is walking into a private meeting of the Lensmen with… Billy. Exactly how he pulled off the switch without compromising his secret is not addressed. At this point, we have four Scorpion suspects: Creepy Turban Guy, Creepy Mustache Guy, Creepy Angry Guy, and Creepy Nervous Guy.
After all four of them have spoken, Billy asks the thug which one is the Scorpion. The thug chickens out, and the Lensmen leave in a huff, angry at Billy for having wasted their time with wild accusations. One of them secretly drops a note in the thug’s hat, telling him to lure Billy out to a certain cave.
So Billy and the thug go to the cave, where they fall into a pit to their deaths. Well, the thug does; Billy yells “Shazam!” and changes to Captain Marvel, in full view of the Scorpion, who is sitting absolutely motionless behind a card table in an absolutely unsuspicious manner.
Captain Marvel rips off the Scorpion’s mask to reveal his true identity. It’s Mike!
The Scorpion’s actually outside with Barnett, who uses the Golden Scorpion to direct a beam of energy at the mouth of the cave, causing the rock to melt.
I have no idea how they did this effect, but it is really cool. You can actually see parts of the image warp and start to run down. I wonder if it’s maybe a really realistic matte painting that they’re melting with heat or something, but the right half of the image looks too realistic for that. It really looks like they’re using a Photoshop-style Smudge effect, but I don’t know an analog method for that.
Captain Marvel finds himself trapped by the flood of molten rock. Doom!
Until the beginning of the next chapter, “Lens of Death,” in which Captain Marvel notices an opening in the ceiling of the chamber and leaps up to safety. Meanwhile, the Scorpion gloats to Barnett that Captain Marvel is dead and they pause to take a look at the abstract artwork the Golden Scorpion has made out of the cliff.
Now the Scorpion decides to hatch a new plan to deflect suspicion and get the remaining lenses. He has his men call the Lensmen and tell them to tune their shortwave to a special live broadcast. The Scorpion comes on and says that he has already stolen all the lenses except one. But wait: isn’t the Scorpion supposed to be one of the Lensmen?
Yeah, it’s a trick. Check out Barnett’s huge, uh, stereo system.
So the Lensmen take off to check out their hidden lenses. A couple of thugs chase Mustache home and discover him checking out the books in his study.
Mustache (whose actual name is Bentley) barely manages to say, “Wait, I…” before the thugs knock him cold and start rifling through the books in the bookcase. Inside one with Marine Law on the spine, they find…
I like that the book they decided to cut up to make the prop was something called How to Study. I tried to find an actual book from the period with that title, but my Google Fu isn’t good enough, apparently.
But before the crooks can make their getaway, the butler walks in and turns into a fighting machine.
I love when minor walk-on characters show up and lay into the bad guys. It often seems like they’re better fighters than the main character, like the chauffeur in 1949’s Batman and Robin or the electric company goons in Atom Man vs. Superman.
Anyway, the butler knocks one goon out quick, then bashes the other one around, destroying the room in the process. But that guy finally knocks the butler out. Then, as he’s trying to wake up his buddy to get out of there, the butler comes to and jumps him again (man, they must have really come up short some script pages for this one). The two goons finally subdue the butler then escape out the window just as Billy arrives and knocks on the locked door.
Billy changes to Captain Marvel and smashes his way in, and by this time, the room is totally devastated.
Compare this pic to the one above before the fight started. Apparently, Republic had a reputation for doing this in their serials, having fistfights that just totally dismantled sets with their ferocity.
Captain Marvel pursues the goons, catches them and retrieves the lens. When he returns to Bentley’s place, Bentley has disappeared. Captain Marvel leaves the lens with the butler and says he’s going to check on Angry (whose name is actually Fisher).
But Fisher is already being held prisoner at gunpoint in his house by the Scorpion and a thug. Fisher opens a secret panel in his wall to reveal the lens, but when the thug reaches in to get it, he is zapped by a deadly electric shock. The Scorpion makes Fisher turn the juice off so he can retrieve the lens, but Whitey shows up and pulls a gun on the Scorpion.
The Scorpion kills the lights, shoots Fisher, and sneaks around the edge of the room in the dark to club Whitey over the head. But before he can grab the lens, Captain Marvel shows up. The Scorpion hides behind the drapes and turns on the juice as Captain Marvel is reaching in for the lens. ZAP! Down goes Marvel!
Until Chapter 7, “Human Targets.” The Scorpion takes the lens from the unconscious Captain Marvel’s hand and flees. Captain Marvel comes to and discovers Fisher dead and the lens gone. Fisher should have had a butler.
The next day, as the Lensmen discuss their dwindling numbers, they learn that Billy was the one who figured out the Scorpion’s ruse after hearing about the radio broadcast from Betty. Turban (actually Tal Chotali, who has been pretty shifty from the beginning) angrily demands that their meetings be held in secret. You know, to keep Billy from saving them again or something.
The Scorpion is upset that Captain Marvel still lives, so he decides to use Betty as bait to lure Captain Marvel into a trap using “a destructive force that no living being could withstand.” Betty then gets a call asking her to bring Billy’s radio script notes to the station.
On the way there, the thug hiding in her trunk (the same who got his braincase crushed by an engine block two chapters ago) pokes his hand around the fender and shoots out her tire. When she pulls over, the thug gets out and covers her while another car shows up with more thugs.
When Billy hears about the script notes, he realizes it’s a trap and follows Betty. He finds her abandoned car and keeps following the same road. Meanwhile, trapped in a car full of gun-wielding gangsters, Betty pulls the keys out of the ignition and throws them out the window. The car coasts to a stop, and the thugs get out to look for the keys. Betty (who still has the keys hidden in her hand) takes the opportunity to run. Two thugs chase her while Braincase stays behind to look for the keys.
Billy shows up and changes to Captain Marvel. When he confronts Braincase, the guy immediately tells him that Betty has run into the woods. Captain Marvel tosses the guy contemptuously aside and starts to walk away when Braincase pulls out a pistol and shoots him in the back. Man, that head injury really did mess with him.
Captain Marvel knocks him out and goes into the woods. He finds one of the thugs beside a lake and tosses him off a cliff into the water.
Then, spotting the other thug chasing Betty across a dam, he flies down after him in a marvelous tracking shot.
The guy empties his pistol into Captain Marvel’s chest, then stumbles and falls off the dam. Betty faints from seeing this guy fall to his death (as opposed to Captain Marvel, who seems to kill someone almost every episode) and Captain Marvel carries her back to the thugs’ car. When Betty asks Captain Marvel how he knew she was in trouble, he mentions that Billy Batson called him on the radio, which he always has set to channel 16.
He is overheard by Braincase, who is hiding on the running board on the other side of the car. He rides off with Betty as she leaves, with Captain Marvel waving cheerfully.
Once they are out of sight, Braincase opens the door and forces Betty over. Then he takes her to the Scorpion’s hideout. Once the Scorpion hears Braincase’s testimony, he decides to use both Billy and Betty as bait for the trap. He tells Barnett to send men to kidnap Billy and take them both to the military bombing range. Barnett is also to leave a shortwave unit in the shack so Betty can call Captain Marvel.
But before they can execute the plan, Betty tries a desperate gambit to kill the Scorpion by grabbing Braincase’s pistol and trying to shoot the mastermind. She is stopped by the four thugs surrounding her, but manages to inflict a wound in the Scorpion’s hand. Seriously, Betty is way too cool a character to have been played by Louise Currie. Also, why do I feel as if there will be a sudden rash of hand wounds to the entire group of Lensmen?
Billy is kidnapped and taken to the bombing range shack, tied and gagged. Betty manages to get to the radio to call frantically for Captain Marvel, not knowing he’s in the room with her. As she calls, military planes on a training run draw closer and start bombing the shack. It takes them three tries, but they finally do it.
Leading us finally to Chapter 8, “Boomerang.” And since this is really long, I don’t have any screencaps from this one. The second bomb causes debris to fall on Betty’s head, knocking her out, leaving Billy free to work his gag loose and shout “Shazam” before the third bombing run. He carries Betty out of the shack before it is blown up.
And seriously, was that the Scorpion’s brilliant plan? To lure Captain Marvel into a shack on a bombing range on the off chance he’ll get hit directly. It’s an awfully haphazard way to try to kill a god in human flesh. Just saying.
So the Scorpion decides to get rid of Billy Batson once and for all by having Barnett rig a bomb in Batson’s car. Meanwhile, Billy drops in on a meeting of the Lensmen with a document for them all to sign. Nervous (a.k.a Lang) has a bandage on his right hand, tipping Billy off that Lang is the Scorpion. Billy decides to search Lang’s house while he’s in the meeting. Billy takes Lang’s hat, coat, and car so Lang’s servants will let him in the front gate.
Barnett and Braincase don’t realize that “Lang” is actually Billy Batson. They finish rigging Billy’s car to blow up if it goes over 50 miles per hour. And suddenly, Lang comes out of the meeting, in a hurry to get home. Whitey tells Lang his car is gone, so Lang demands Whitey drive him home. They take Billy’s car.
Billy pulls into Lang’s estate and is spotted by a couple of the Scorpion’s men, who knock him out and leave him locked in the garage with the car running. Billy manages to croak “Shazam!” and escape while Whitey and Lang are on their way. Lang is upset that Whitey’s driving so slowly (i.e. under 50 mph), but Whitey is stalling to give Billy more time.
Captain Marvel beats up the Scorpion’s thugs, then changes back into Billy just in time to confront Lang about the evidence that he is the Scorpion. Lang invites them inside and tells his butler to turn up the heat, which is apparently code for “pour chloroform into the ventilation system.” The butler does just that, and Lang keeps his mouth and nose covered while Billy and Whitey pass out. Man, I need a butler. Butlers are badass.
Lang tells the butler that he must leave quickly, because the Scorpion is after him. He leaves Whitey at the house, but takes Billy with him, because Billy’s in danger also. They drive off in Lang’s car just as the Scorpion’s men are coming to. The Scorpion’s thugs give chase in Billy’s car. There follows a hair-raising chase at 40 miles per hour, until the thugs realize they can go faster. They accelerate up to 50 to try to catch Lang and Billy, when there’s an explosion.
Holy cow! What a cliffhanger! Those bad guy mooks totally blew up. I wonder how they’ll get out of it next week?
Be here for the final four next week!