Friday, February 19, 2010

The Adventures of Captain Marvel (Republic Pictures, 1941)

In the past, I've written about my long-time love for the genre of the cliff-hanger serial, and this example of the format I've always consider to the be the best of it.

From Wikipedia:

Adventures of Captain Marvel is a 1941 twelve-chapter film serial directed by John English and William Witney for Republic Pictures, adapted from the popular Captain Marvel comic book character then appearing in Fawcett Comics publications such as Whiz Comics and Captain Marvel Adventures. It starred Tom Tyler (who also played The Phantom) in the title role of Captain Marvel and Frank Coghlan Jr. as his alter ego, Billy Batson.

This serial was the twenty-first of the sixty-six serials produced by Republic and their first comic book adaptation (not counting comic strips such as Dick Tracy). Spy Smasher, also based on a Fawcett character, would follow in 1942.

This serial was the first film adaptation of a comic book superhero. That claim would have gone to the previous serial, Mysterious Doctor Satan, which was intended to have been a Superman serial until National Comics (now DC Comics) pulled out of negotiations. National Comics unsuccessfully attempted to sue Republic for producing a Captain Marvel serial.

The serial featured an adaptation of the Fawcett Comics superhero, placed within an original story in which he fights a criminal mastermind, called The Scorpion, who is determined to gain total control of a magical gold scorpion figurine. It is actually a disguised optical weapon of incredible power (including, but not limited to, melting rock via a projected death ray).

Billy Batson is an assistant radio operator with the Malcolm archaeological expedition to "the Valley of the Tombs" in Siam. The expedition is attacked by natives but Tal Chotali parleys with Rahman Bar. A sacred legend states no desecration will occur until the volcano, Scorpio, is active again. At the tombs, Billy refuses to enter the inner tomb as it would desecrate the religious beliefs of others. Instead he goes to pack pottery in another tunnel. In the inner tomb, Tal Chotali, Prof Malcolm, Prof Luthor Bentley, Dwight Fisher, and Dr Stephen Lang, find the Golden Scorpion. A ray from the Scorpion collapses the entrance to the tombs and opens a hidden passage between Billy and the ancient wizard Shazam. Shazam grants him the ability to

change into Captain Marvel in order to prevent the Golden Scorpion from falling into the wrong hands. It is his "duty to see that the curse of the Scorpion is not visited on innocent people."

The lenses from the Golden Scorpion are divided among the five scientists. Scorpio then erupts which triggers a native attack. However, the masked mystery villain the Scorpion is orchestrating it, stealing one of the lenses during the hostilities. The exped

ition is rescued by cavalry from Fort Mooltan. Captain Marvel then flies to a group of natives with a machine gun, knocks them out by throwing one at the other, and takes over the gun. Marvel then throws aside the gun and attacks with his bare fists. Marvel learns he is invulnerable as bullets bounce off his chest.

The expedition then returns to the United States, where the Scorpion attempts to acquire all of the lenses and the Scorpion device for his own power. Several expedition members are killed in his quest despite Captain Marvel's continual efforts to thwart the villain. Billy Batson soon decides that the man behind the Scorpion's mask is one of the team.

Eventually a second expedition sets out because it has been learned that Long ha

d actually hidden his lens in the tomb. The Scorpion witnesses Billy's change during this and captures him - tying him up and gagging him. The Scorpion interrogates Billy for the secret. When Billy agrees to tell him, The Scorpion removes the gag and Billy says "Shazam", which transforms him into Captain Marvel.

The Scorpion is then revealed to be Bentley. He is killed by the disillusioned native chief, Rahman Bar, who uses the Scorpion in death ray mode. Shazam himself is heard to say the magic word and Captain Marvel is transformed back into Billy Batson.

The exposure of the movie serial no doubt aided sales of the Captain Marvel magazines, and it is well-documented that for several years the character outsold Superman.

The original Captain Marvel comics, as a rule, did not absorb many elements of this serial, but there were some effects nonetheless. The characters of Betty Wallace and Whitey Murphy both appeared in the Fawcett comics for a while in the 1940s, and Whitey Murphy made at least one cameo appearance in the 1970s DC Comics incarnation of Captain Marvel.

A serialized two year story arc featuring Mr. Mind and the original Monster Society of Evil in Captain Marvel Adventures #22-#46 showed the influence and inspiration of the Adventures of Captain Marvel serial.[12] This two-year story arc was the first of its kind, and is regarded by comic book fans and historians as one of the milestones of the Golden Age of Comics.[13] In 1989, cartoonist Mike Higgs compiled this entire story arc into a hardcover limited edition collection. This book includes a photo of Tom Tyler as Captain Marvel, underscoring the linkage to this serial.[14]

Captain Marvel was the first super-powered and costumed comic strip hero to be filmed, and the first character exclusively created for comic books (as opposed to newspaper strips, such as Flash Gordon and Dick Tracy) to be filmed as well. Therefore, it fell upon The Adventures of Captain Marvel to prove that comic book heroes could be bankable movie properties. The release of the serial led to a long line of comic book super-hero serials, films, and television shows, which continues to this day.

Home video copies of this serial became commercially available in the 1990s, bringing it to a wider audience. The Scorpion weapon would reappear in the 1990s Power of Shazam comic book.

In 1994, comic book writer/artist Jerry Ordway introduced modern audiences to Captain Marvel with a long-form painted graphic novel, The Power of Shazam!, and an ongoing comic book series spin-off which ran from 1995 to 1999. Ordway used the Republic serial as his initial inspiration in his handling of the Captain Marvel characters, and the influence is evident in both the graphic novel and the series [15]: Captain Marvel's costume design was restored to the button-flap tunic version seen in early issues od Whiz Comics and this serial, and the Scorpion weapon from the film serial appears in several of the issues.

Screenwriter and B-movie producer Don Glut, a fan of the serial, would later go on to become a writer for the live-action Shazam! TV program, a popular 1970's adaptation of Captain Marvel. At least one episode of Shazam! featured outdoor shots of the famous Bronson Cave, which had been used for a memorable sequence in Adventures of Captain Marvel.


  1. "Curse of the Scorpion" (30 min.)
  2. "The Guillotine" (16 min.)
  3. "Time Bomb" (17 min.)
  4. "Death Takes the Wheel" (16 min.)
  5. "The Scorpion Strikes" (16 min.)
  6. "Lens of Death" (16 min.)
  7. Human Targets (17 min.)
  8. Boomerang (17 min.)
  9. "Dead Man's Trap" (16 min.)
  10. "Doom Ship" (16 min.)
  11. "Valley of Death" (16 min.)
  12. "Captain Marvel's Secret" (16 min.)

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