- Directed by John English and William Witney
- March 28, 1941
- Based on Captain Marvel (now Shazam) created by Bill Parker and C. C. Beck
Captain Marvel must keep an ancient weapon out of the hands of a masked criminal.
Adventures of Captain Marvel is considered the first adaption of a superhero to the silver screen. It wasn’t a feature film though. It eventually was released as a film with all the parts just connected together but rather first released as a movie serial. That’s something from back in the day that would be shown at theaters on a regular basis with patrons coming in to watch the next chapter the following week. Some were better than others, but they were just fun adventure things meant to generate excitement.
It certainly was a product of its time. During this era comic books were firmly a children’s medium, and it shows in the execution pf the story. This is a fun and superficial adventure clearly aimed at children and not adults. It’s a sharp contrast to what we get today. Being for kids it glosses over certain unavoidable realities of its fictional world.
For example this is all set off because of an archeological expedition discovers a golden scorpion with lenses that when adjusted properly can do all sorts of crazy stuff like death rays and turning rocks to gold. The thing is where they’re digging in Siam, The Valley of Tombs, is off-limits to specifically Caucasians. Yet there they are and completely mystified why the people guarding it are pissed off.
Anyway this group of very wise white men decide to scatter the lenses to the four winds of their immediate area in the US which makes it so very hard for anybody to get them. If these were so dangerous why not toss them in the volcano under which they were found? More importantly why did the people who buried it not do that? The world may never know…
Frank Coghlan, Jr. takes on the part of Billy Batson and was maybe 25 when this was made but acts like he is maybe twelve years old which is the age Billy Batson should be. There is too much “Gee whiz!” in his voice and the character is just simple. I guess he is supposed to be an all-American kid and come off as a natured person, but he just come as a moron. But that all gets washed away when he becomes Shazam (Tom Tyler). Shazam is not called ‘Shazam’ here, but rather ‘Captain Marvel’. There is a whole story involved with that which could get me offtrack.
The Captain Marvel costume itself is pretty close to the comics version of the time. I follow a few accounts on social media that post images from comics and the costume certainly looks like what you would find in the pages at the time. The actor playing Captain Marvel not so much. He has a receding hairline and is not nearly as square jawed as the character.
Our hero faces off against a villain called The Scorpion (voice of Gerald Mohr) who is using an ancient curse or some such to get control of all the pieces of an artifact that’s built like a scorpion that can shoot off a death ray or transmute materials. It’s really an all-purpose piece of technology. I am having trouble getting past that.
From the get-go, it’s clear that one member of the team is The Scorpion. Who that is not quite revealed until the very end. The mystery gets dragged out a little bit too long in my opinion. There’s a red herring here and there tossed in along the way that helps make the length of the tease go down a little easier.
Adventures of Captain Marvel is just an adventure serial had no deep themes. There’s no hidden message and the characterization is pretty thin. The villain seeks world domination, and there’s a damsel (Louise Currie) that’s regularly in distress. Darn secretary! The Scorpion seems to be after the scorpion device initially to use it to turn base metals or rocks into gold which they do in the opener, but then it just grows into a weapon of mass destruction in order to conquer the world.
The dialogue is nothing great. This is kid’s stuff. And there were no great performances to be found in this. It was the ultimate in film fluff meant to entertain. And it does just that with ease. It is just enjoyable.
The special effects may not be that great today, but they were rather innovative for the time. Especially since much of what they were doing had not been tried before. And for what it is, the flight effect is good. It’s my understanding that the Captain Marvel you see zipping through the air is actually a papier-mâché model that was originally intended for a Superman serial that never happened.
Ultimately Adventures of Captain Marvel is for people interested in the history of comic book films and those who can enjoy a good film serial. It’s not for the more modern comic book film viewer nor the modern movie goer in general. It’s a nice slice of the past and for that I recommend it.