Seventy-three years before the Guardians of the Galaxy saved, um, the galaxy, and a full thirty-seven years before Christopher Reeve slipped into Superman’s tights, the very first comic book-inspired, live-action superhero movie hit the big screen. It wasn’t a feature film. It was a serial — a popular form of short subject, designed to appeal to kids, which usually ran during weekend matinées along with cartoons and other shorts before the main movie unspooled. These serials, also known as chapterplays, told a complete story over 12 to 15 weekly episodes of 15 to 30 minutes each. Each episode (apart from the final installment) would end with a cliffhanger, where the hero or another innocent would find themselves in mortal danger, as a way to entice audiences back to the theater the following week. Superman, Batman, and even Captain America made their live-action film debuts in the 1940s through these weekly serials. However, the very first superhero to fly into cinemas was Captain Marvel (today better known as Shazam). That chapterplay, Adventures of Captain Marvel, is almost universally regarded as the best of the superhero serials, and many consider it the greatest serial ever produced, period.
The Adventures of Captain Marvel tells the tale of an archaeological expedition that breaks into a sealed crypt, despite a dire warning for anyone who disturbs the tomb. Once the crypt is disturbed, an ancient wizard appears to Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan Jr.), a young journalist who was the only member of the expedition against entering the forbidden tomb. The wizard bestows upon the Billy the powers of Captain Marvel, “the world’s mightiest mortal,” in order to protect mankind against the evils of the Golden Scorpion, an idol that had been buried inside the crypt. All Billy has to do is say the wizard’s name, “SHAZAM,” and he will be immediately transformed into Captain Marvel (Tom Tyler), a superhero with 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 (plus the power of flight, which the wizard fails to mention).
The Golden Scorpion turns out to be a metallic statue, shaped like the predatory arachnid, which holds quartz lenses in it’s various appendages. When the lenses are aligned, they can transmute any object placed in front of it into pure gold. The device can also be aligned differently to cause great destruction. The members of the expedition distribute the lenses amongst themselves, so that no one member of the team can use the device without the full approval of the others. After the team returns to America, a hooded villain, calling himself “The Scorpion,” steals the device and tries to kill off members of the expedition one-by-one to gather together all of the lenses. Who is “The Scorpion,” and can Captain Marvel stop him? Return to this theater next week to find out!
While Adventures of Captain Marvel is certainly an enjoyable romp, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it the best serial ever made. I’ve seen others that I have enjoyed more, including the recent Blu-ray release of Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939). While some serials can be devoured in a single sitting (which was never the intention of the creators), Adventures of Captain Marvel, like most chapterplays, is much too repetitive for the episodes to be enjoyed back-to-back. However, watched in weekly, or even nightly, installments, it is good, goofy fun. The legendary directing team of William Witney and John English are up to their usual high standards as they lead their cast through a series of death-defying thrills, including encounters with a collapsed bridge, sinking ship, time bomb, molten lava, and a poorly-designed guillotine. Especially enjoyable are the unintentionally hilarious flying effects, by Howard and Theodore Lydecker, that often replace Captain Marvel with a stiff dummy on a wire.
The serial plays fast and loose with the source material. Captain Marvel’s comic book origin and mission had nothing to do with a Golden Scorpion; and in the serial’s biggest departure from the comic, Billy Batson was portrayed by a 25 year-old man. A big part of the appeal of the comic for young audiences was the fact that Captain Marvel’s secret identity was a 12 year-old boy. Readers could easily imagine themselves as the comic book Billy Batson, while the serial version was more of a stretch (even though Frank Coghlan Jr. was fairly diminutive in stature and had a high-pitched voice). However, the age difference in the chapterplay is understandable, as having a child lead would have greatly complicated the production (shorter shooting days, higher safety standards, etc.).
While not the single best serial of all time, Adventures of Captain Marvel ranks towards the top of the list. I’d easily recommend it to fans of the classic chapterplays of yesteryear, as well as to fans of live-action comic book entertainment.
USA/B&W-211m./Dir: John English & William Witney/Wr: Norman S. Hall, C.C. Beck, Bill Parker, Ronald Davidson, Arch Heath, Joseph F. Poland, and Sol Shor/Cast: Tom Tyler, Frank Coghlan Jr., William Benedict, Louise Currie, Robert Strange, Harry Worth, Bryant Washburn, John Davidson, George Pembroke, George Lynn, Reed Hadley, Jack Mulhall, Kenne Duncan, Nigel De Brulier
If You Like: If you feel the need to attend every DC and Marvel Universe movie in theaters on its release date, you may want to see where the phenomenon of live-action heroes in tights began.
Video: The new Kino Lorber Blu-ray of the
Adventures of Captain Marvel features a newly remastered 4K scan from the Paramount Pictures Archives, which easily bests all previous home video releases of the serial in terms of picture and sound quality. The serial probably looks and sounds better than it did in many of its original theatrical showings. In addition, the package includes:
- Audio Commentary by Film Historians Jerry Beck, Chris Eberle, Shane Kelly, Boyd Magers, Leonard Maltin, Adam Murdough, Constantine Nasr, Donnie Waddell, Tom Weaver and J.D. Witney
- A very nice booklet essay by Matt Singer, editor-in-chief and film critic of ScreenCrush.com
- Reversible Blu-ray art
Streaming: Not available on any of the streaming services at the time of this review. However, individual episodes can be found in poor quality on YouTube and elsewhere.
More to Explore: Kino Lorber has also released a beautiful 4K restoration of the 12-chapter serial
Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939) on Blu-ray. It is one of the most inventive and fun of all of the chapterplays. However, be warned that it includes a rather egregious example of racial stereotyping, which was not uncommon for films of the time. You can find my full review of Daredevils of the Red Circle here.
Trivia: Artist C.C. Beck based the look of the original comic book version of “The Earth’s Mightiest Mortal” on movie star Fred MacMurray.
For More Info: Director William Witney wrote a memoir of his early days as a serial director,
In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase: Moviemaking Remembered by the Guy at the Door, which is a treasure-trove of behind-the-scenes information. However, if you are more interested in the history of the character of Captain Marvel, the earliest comics have been collected in
Shazam!, The - Archives, Volume 1.