Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sunday Serials - The Heroes Take Over #4 - The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)

So who was the first superhero to actually make it to the big screen? Batman? No. Superman? Nope. Although both of them would later have their own serials, the first was actually the Fawcett Comics hero Captain Marvel.

Now I know for some of you, Captain Marvel is gonna be kind of a "whozzat?" hero. Others may remember him from the 1970's Saturday morning TV show "Shazam!". Still others may know him from his current comics incarnation and wonder why I called him a "Fawcett Comics hero" instead of a DC comics hero, since that's who publishes his adventures today. The truth, however, is that the history of this hero, originally created as a rival to Superman, is rather convoluted. Fortunately, it's also not all that relevant to the subject of today's essay, the 1941 Republic serial version of the character, except perhaps as an amusing sidebar in that as William Witney, notes in his book  In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase: Moviemaking Remembered by the Guy at the Door, the previous Republic serial, The Mysterious Dr Satan was originally intended to be a vehicle for Superman, in which case he would have beaten his rival to the screen. As it turned out, however, National Comics (as DC was known at the time) pulled out of negotiations, the hero for Dr. Satan was changed to the Copperhead (a non-powered masked man) and the Captain Marvel follow-up became the first official comics-to-film adaptation.

Anyway, The Adventures of Captain Marvel is a 12 chapter serial which follows the adventures of young Billy Batson, an assistant radio operator working for Professor Malcolm who is exploring Siam's "Valley of the Tombs". Unfortunately, Professor Malcolm has a rival, know only as the masked Scorpion. The Scorpion is trying to attain a magical gold scorpion statue, an object of great power. During a trek into the tombs, Billy is separated from the rest of the group, and when there is a cave-in, he finds himself in the chamber of the ancient wizard Shazam. The wizard gives Billy the power to change into Captain Marvel and charges him with protecting the world from the power of the Golden Scorpion figurine.

The serial was an immediate hit, both with crtics and the public. The special effects (especially the flying effect) created for the series were of the highest caliber, and the fact that since the super-powered Captain would have taken the head off of any normal opponent in a fistfight meant the screenwriters and producers couldn't fall back on too many meaningless brawls, there was instead much more time spent on plot and character development. The plot also takes a number of surprising twists, including one at the end (which is actually set up in the first chapter, showing that the scriptwriters had actually given some forethought to where they were going and not just flying by the seat of their pants as they went along) which would seem to preclude any chance of a sequel, and indeed, despite the serial's acclaim, none was ever made.

So, shall we take a look at the serial itself? Instead of a full chapter today, I'm actually going to give you a trailer which not only highlights the Captain's powers and the special effects, but gives a glimpse of Billy's meeting with the wizard along with a taste of the plotting of the Scorpion.

If that left ya ready for more, then head on over to the Internet Archives where you can watch or download the entire serial for free (click here for the first chapter) or to Amazon where you can get the whole thing on DVD:


Until next time, Happy Treasure Hunting

-Professor Damian


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