The screen’s first super man.
Uttering the mystical word, “SHAZAM!” young Billy Batson becomes the mighty Captain Marvel, using super powers to aid his archaeological expedition in fending off a villain called The Scorpion.
It’s the world’s first superhero movie, with the world’s first comicbook superhero – Captain Marve—hang on a sec!—Isn’t Superman the world’s first comicbook superhero?! Yes, but Captain Marvel was the first to leap to film because he was more popular than Superman!– [Wash your mouth out, Poffy, for such blasphemy!]
Superman may have been published first in 1938 (by DC Comics, then known as National Comics), but when Captain Marvel debuted in 1940 (published by Fawcett Comics), he actually outsold Superman – and then DC sued Fawcett for plagiarizing Superman. I mean – come on! Of course it was plagiarism: Captain Marvel (created by C.C. Beck and Bill Porter in 1939) had exactly the same powers as the man from Krypton (published just the year before by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster).
Republic Pictures (which had nothing to do with the plagiarism lawsuit) wanted to make a Superman film serial, but were tied up in other legalities over the Man of Steel… so they turned to the only other superhero of the age – Captain Marvel. (Outraged bat-ophiles will remind me that Batman was existent in comicbooks since 1939, yet for his lack of supernatural abilities, Bats was truly just an updated Lone Ranger or Zorro.)
Thus, ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL, a 12-part, black and white Republic serial, which set the template for all superhero serials to come. Actually, this serial itself is based on the template for all heroic pulp adventure serials (such as DICK TRACY, ZORRO, THE LONE RANGER, etc. all produced by Republic before CAPTAIN MARVEL), so the new breed of “super” heroes was written much like the “merely flamboyant” heroes that simply pursued crooks on a basic level.
There was short shrift given to the fact that the supers were actually, uh, “super,” which is why the main form of combat in these serials was still the decidedly un-super method of punching. And there was no introspection at all with these characters, as film producers had to zap these stories out to the public in brisk 15-minute installments, as “shorts” that ran prior to feature films, so retained a linear storyline with clear demarcations on baddies and heroes. And each Chapter a cliffhanger, to drive audiences into the theaters the following week, dizzily speculating what might have become of their bland hero who somehow procured their emotional investment.
ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL opens with the Dr. Malcolm Expedition in Siam (Chapter 1: Curse of the Scorpion), unearthing a scorpion talisman that can transform objects into gold by inserting lenses into its claws. The expedition consists of six barely-rugged white guys, two sappy white youths, and a blonde white woman dressed in tight skirt and secretariat blouse – perfect archaeological clothes!
I mention the expedition’s “whiteness” because their rivals are Siamese soldiers, who believe the white people are desecrating their Valley of Tombs – yet they all look suspiciously like white guys dressed as Asians. Also, one of the white guys in the expedition is dressed to look ambiguously Asian-Arab (John Davidson as Tal Chotali – trying to look like Yul Brynner, putting on an exotic accent to match), and one of the youths is named – appropriately – Whitey. And the blonde is named Betty, who has no lines, because it is taken for granted she is a woman, and therefore a second class citizen/ secretary/ eye-candy.
In the cave of the scorpion, the other sappy youth, Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan Jr.) stumbles into a secret chamber and discovers the Old Man from the cover of Led Zeppelin IV – “I am Shazam!” He entrusts Billy with a mystical power, “…to ensure the curse of the scorpion does not fall on the innocent.” Before anyone can ponder or ask exactly what the “curse of the scorpion” IS, Billy is accessing his new-found power by saying the word “Shazam,” whereupon he transforms into an adult man in fruity Mardi Gras tights named Captain Marvel. There is no wonderment at all in this transformation, as Billy and the audience simply accept that Billy becomes another person – what the–?! – or is he an adult version of himself? If so, then casting did a great job with weightlifter Tom Tyler.
Tom Tyler actually looks like an adult version of Coghlan, and makes a rugged Captain Marvel (well, once we get past his cameltoe and sideways cape decorated with floral needlepoint). With his commanding alpha presence, he was tapped in his early career for many leading cowboy roles in silent films, and with the advent of talkies, he worked hard to lose his Lithuanian accent. Supporting roles leading up to this starring turn as the Captain include STAGECOACH (with John Wayne, 1939) and GONE WITH THE WIND (1939). And as the Captain, his accent sounds all-American (and he must also say, “Shazam” to turn back to Billy). He appeared in over one-hundred and fifty films, dying tragically in 1954 at age 50, after suffering crippling arthritis, which dogged the last decade of his career.
Then there’s that abomination of a lightning bolt emblem on his chest – drawn by a 2nd grader! Of course they were on a tight budget, yet the producers allowed that lame design to be seen week after week, even though it was clearly obvious it looked nothing like the lightning bolt from the comics, or even like a lightning bolt!
For brevity, there is just blank acceptance of Marvel’s “powers” – he runs out and immediately starts punching crooks and stopping bullets and flying around. There is no pondering on the limits of his powers, or even questioning how and why they exist. All I know is, his mystical tailor musta been high to put that cape on sideways like that.
S.H.A.Z.A.M.’s name bestows all the powers of the heroes in its acronym:
S = Wisdom of Solomon
H = Strength of Hercules
A = Stamina of Atlas
Z = Power of Zeus
A = Courage of Achilles
M = Speed of Mercury.
Dr. Malcolm (Robert Strange) proposes that before they leave for America, the six men each take one lens, to avoid disaster if the scorpion should fall into the wrong hands; they entrust the instruction scroll to Billy. Yes, the pasty boy with zero muscle mass, rather than the adult woman, who gets nothing, because – secretary/ untrustworthy/ brainless. It’s a wonder she even got any lines of dialogue, from Chapter 2 onwards.
A doughy villain called The Scorpion (–what are the odds?), hooded like a dominant BDSM bear, accosts the expedition with some native Siam henchmen (uh, white guys), steals the scorpion idol, easily abducts the scroll from Billy (who could have shouted “Shazam” at any point in his bitch-beating) and larks into the night.
Meanwhile, the Siamese soldiers attack, because they think their god is being angered by the white men’s presence. And Billy suddenly gets the gumption to yell, “Shazam!,” turns into Captain Marvel, and starts killing innocent Siam soldiers that are just defending their own land. He even turns one of their own machine guns on them as they flee! Repeat: Captain Marvel – the superhero – fires a machine gun on Siamese soldiers fleeing from him, murdering them in the back. Then – as if to make a statement on how evil guns are – he flings the machine gun away! (So much for the Wisdom of Solomon.)
Moral ambiguity this ain’t – it’s pure unadulterated racist murder! The Scorpion’s henchies were a completely different faction – Billy knows this, as he was girl-slapped by them and divested of his scroll – yet when the Siamese natives attack, Captain Marvel nonchalantly murders them, when he obviously has the power to reason with them, being impervious to their bullets. No one thinks twice about the murdered Siamese, because it was bred into audiences of the day that any “colored” people were expendable if they attacked white people, even unknowingly.
The Scorpion’s quest over the course of the serial is to retrieve the six Infinity Stones– I mean, lenses.
In a later Chapter it is revealed that The Scorpion is one of Malcolm’s men, with each hat-wearing doofus giving us enough red herring askew glances to suspect each one of them, especially the faux-foreigner Tal Chotali. Firstly, that turban makes him an “other” right? What self-respecting Caucasian wears a turban instead of a hat in this modern day and age?
Captain Marvel’s workmanlike practical flying effects are not half bad for their innovation. The “rear projection sky” or “dummy on a cable” efx were so revolutionary that they were utilized all the way up to 1952 in the COMMANDER CODY serials and television’s ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN. And Captain Marvel landing on people’s heads is a pretty potty visual, as we know it’s some guy being catapulted from offscreen and edited into falling on his victims in that vivid cossie.
But how did Billy know he could fly in the first place? Even with that “Speed of Mercury” thing, no one mentioned any actual flying.
In the comics, Captain Marvel actually started flying before Superman. Recall that Superman’s slogan was always “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” He was a long jumper – NOT a flyer. Even in the early episodes of the heralded 1941 Fleisher cartoons, Superman only leaped terrific distances (thus, if he was descending from a leap, and trying to stop some big thing from hitting the ground, he couldn’t just catch it and fly upwards with it – no, he had to catch it, then make contact with the ground in order to push off in another direction. In the later episodes, he could fly, because this shortcoming was becoming too crippling for the bigger and bigger tasks the writers were burdening him with. Also, that Shazam fella was flying – why shouldn’t we?…
As a character, Captain Marvel is superficial, simply here to punch and torture and kill. There were not five screenwriters in order to brainstorm good ideas, rather to share the load in churning out Chapters weekly, using their protagonist as a blunt instrument to mete out pain – not even “punishment” or “justice” – as Marvel would just as soon toss a burglar out a skyscraper window as shoot down natives trying to protect their land. He only has a few lines, most of them torturing crooks into giving him information (Wisdom of Solomon), and his fights are not discerning – they are simply punch punch punch the guys who are punching him (Stamina of Atlas). And woe to you if you shoot him mistakenly – he’s not going to arrest you for attempted murder, he’s going… to kill you (with that Power of Zeus).
CAPTAIN MARVEL as a pulp thriller is barely watchable by today’s standards. Like all these Golden Age serials, it is academic. Watch it as a completist or as a curiosity.
By Chapter 5: The Scorpion Strikes, Captain Marvel has insinuated himself into the consciousness of the Malcolm Expedition, who are all fending off attempts by The Scorpion to steal their lenses. What bugs us as viewers is how they unequivocally accept him as a “super” being that is specifically helping them.
Firstly, no one questions or marvels at this absolutely magical being that can stop bullets, fly and bend steel; secondly, his level of involvement in these particular people goes beyond simply flying by and helping them out of jams – he’s on the inside track with all the lenses and maps and who the bad guys are, etc. We, of course, know he is really Billy Batson, but the Expedition doesn’t know his secret identity, yet they converse with him as if they are continuing a conversation, rather than explaining any situation to him when he suddenly appears in a hail of fruity sideways-cloak. (Maybe they are put at ease by that Cameltoe of Lawrence.)
This aspect of blank acceptance becomes especially infuriating in Chapter 10: Doom Ship, where the Expedition takes a tramp steamer back to Siam through a storm (hilarious rear projections show the raging seas at a 45-degree angle to the boat), and suddenly Captain Marvel is on the boat, saving them from the storm! And no one is amazed that he’s there; no one questions WHY he cares about this arbitrary gaggle of scientists, enough to come flying to their rescue from God-Knows-Whatever he was doing – they just take it for granted he’s going to save them! And then, when the boat is stuck on rocks, this super man to flies to the shore with a cable, so that people can individually zip-line to shore – when he could have flown them to shore himself – or maybe even lifted the boat to shore! What part of the S.H.A.Z.A.M. catalogue covers this neglect of powers – The Laziness of Skywalker? The Fruitiness of Liberace? Whitey even tells the captain of the steamer, “He’s Captain Marvel – he can do anything!” Uh, except carry us to shore because the efx department isn’t developed enough for that kinda stunt…
Billy Batson has some kind of broadcasting job and goes straight from there to snooping for Dr. Malcolm. Appealing to the youth set, he was a sniveling Mary-Sue: whiny voice, never in the wrong, never at a moral crossroads. (I know the male version of this angelic character archetype is called a Gary-Stu, but trust me, this little swish is a Mary-Sue.) What amuses us is how Mary-Sue takes it upon himself to order a crook around at gunpoint, “Show me where The Scorpion is!” Isn’t that some kind of felony? When did you learn how to use a gun? Do you have the stones to shoot this guy if he defies you?… The crook leads Billy to a cave lair, and in goes dummy without any calls for backup or even uttering “Shazam!” until he is trapped in the cave alone. In this cliffhanger, molten rock cascades down on Marvel, threatening to mess up his Brylcreem.
Betty goes snooping as well, and we start to suspect that the producers don’t really grasp the purpose of “eye-candy” as she’s always snooping in a dress, her hat, gloves and purse – like there’s a sale at Macy’s. Maybe the hotness comes from seeing Billy and Betty get knocked out and tied up so much? Like in almost every Chapter. Which raises the issue: the number of times these two are knocked unconscious by crooks, shouldn’t they have some kind of prolonged head trauma, or concussion, or just plain brain damage by now?
Although, back in the days when cars were the size of yachts, injuries weren’t what they are now; I mean, when people get shot, they just hold their sides and fall down – no entry wounds, no exit wounds, hell, not even a droplet of blood stains their neatly-pressed suits and crisp hats.
ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL was co-directed by John English (co-director of 19 Republic serials from 1937’s ZORRO RIDES AGAIN to 1944’s CAPTAIN AMERICA) and William Witney (co-director of 23 Republic serials from 1937 to 1943). These were the days when studios would sign you to work for them exclusively. No credit is given to Captain Marvel’s creators. No surprise.
We can safely say these were the 2nd-banana studio guys who wrote and directed the serials, as screen superheroes were not the economic cog they are today. These filmmakers did not aim to create anything that would last longer than the time it took to view it; nothing that should be pondered before the main feature started. No one was serious about anything storywise, except keeping the bizarre notion going for 12 installments.
And in the final Chapter 12: Captain Marvel’s Secret, soon after everyone is made aware of Billy’s secret big-man alter-ego, Marvel is divested of his powers by Shazam! Because The Scorpion (the guy, not the idol) is brought to justice. We hearken back to Shazam’s words, “…to ensure the curse of the scorpion does not fall on the innocent.” Wait – were you talking about the GUY or the IDOL, Old Man from Led Zeppelin IV? And if you were talking about the IDOL not the GUY, then the curse is a more metaphysical one – like greed. Because we’ve already seen that there is NO “mystical” curse that will bring a building down on the head of whomever owns the scorpion (the idol, not the guy), but it WILL inspire greed in anyone’s hands, not just the clutches of a hooded dom bear. These six scientists and Mary-Sue are not immune to the vagaries of a society that would want to possess them and their gold-making device, or hire it, or make them stars over it, or exploit it, or combat world hunger with it, or a thousand situations that would cast moral ambiguity over this whole talisman and its possessors. (And how did killing those Siam soldiers protect anyone from the curse of the scorpion? If anything, it was doing exactly the opposite of Shazam’s directive: killing the innocent instead of protecting them!) But – as stated above – zero introspection, zero irony, zero elevated thinking, because – short attention span audiences/ who really gives a shit about good writing for superhero movies?…
Thus, Captain Marvel comes into existence and ceases to exist in the same serial! And everyone, including Billy, loses their memory of him! To avoid those raunchy hanging threads of Betty getting moist over Marvel, or the scientists exploiting Billy, or Billy just feeling the most emasculated any man could ever feel after possessing such potent man-power. Just a big fat sigh and they all go home arm in arm. Mary-Sues for Life.
And with that big yawning anti-climax, superhero movies were born…