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Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

Captain Marvel was the first comic book superhero to hit the screen.

A lot of people probably don’t know that Captain Marvel, originally a comic book character for Fawcett Publications, was the first superhero whose exploits were adapted for the screen, in a Republic Pictures serial from 1941, directed by William Witney (Quentin Tarantino’s favorite director) and John English. With an epic running time of 216 minutes, the serial played out in 12 chapters, spread out over 12 Saturday mornings, when it would run as a continuing feature as part of the Saturday matinee program at movie theaters. Serials in the sound era ended production in 1956, and the genre had been around since the silent era, but among serial aficionados, Republic’s serials have a special place of pride as being the most slickly produced and directed, with superb special effects by Howard and Theodore Lydecker, and non-stop, pulse pounding action.

As Wikipedia notes of Captain Marvel’s genesis and production, the “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 [. . .] during an archaeological expedition to Siam, the Malcolm Archaelogical Expedition unearths the lost Golden Scorpion, an ancient, multi-lensed statue with a curse attached, which has the power to transmute base metals into gold, but also to destroy those who seek to misuse its power. Billy Batson [Frank Coghlan, Jr.], a young man who has tagged along on the expedition, meets the ancient wizard Shazam, who grants him the power to become Captain Marvel [Tom Tyler] and protect those who may be in danger from the Scorpion’s curse.

The lenses from the Golden Scorpion are divided among five scientists of the Expedition, but a black-hooded villain known as the Scorpion then attempts to acquire all of the lenses and the Scorpion device itself. Several expedition members are killed in the Scorpion’s quest despite Captain Marvel’s continual efforts to thwart him. Deducing that the Scorpion always seems to know what goes on at all the meetings with the scientists, Billy later confides his suspicions to his friends, Betty Wallace [Louise Currie] and Whitey Murphy [William Benedict], that the Scorpion might be one of the archaeological team.

The Scorpion later discovers the connection between Billy and Captain Marvel. After capturing him, the Scorpion interrogates Billy for the secret. Billy transforms into Captain Marvel and reveals the Scorpion to be one of the last surviving scientists, who is then killed by an angry Siamese native. Captain Marvel tosses the scorpion statue into a volcano’s molten lava to prevent it from ever being used for evil. Once it is destroyed, Captain Marvel is instantly transformed back into Billy Batson [. . .]

Adventures of Captain Marvel was budgeted at $135,553, although the final negative cost was actually $145,588 (a $10,035, or 7.4%, overspend) — [still a mere $2,330,151.43 in 2012 dollars]. It was filmed between December 23, 1940 and January 30, 1941 under the working title Captain Marvel. The serial was an outgrowth of Republic’s failed attempt at a serial which would feature National Periodical Publications [today known as DC Comics]’s Superman. When DC refused to grant Republic the rights to the character, Republic approached Fawcett Comics, and struck a deal to bring Captain Marvel to the screen. Captain Marvel was actually more popular the Superman as a comic book character at the time, outselling Superman by a a considerable margin.

Director William Witney was, however, skeptical about trying to film Captain Marvel after the legal problems with Superman, but the serial went ahead on schedule. DC attempted legal action to prevent the filming, citing Republic’s previous attempt at a Superman serial, but was unsuccessful. Adventures of Captain Marvel was a huge success at the box office, and is considered by many to be Republic’s finest chapter play of the 66 serials the company produced. About a decade later, following a legal battle with DC and a declining market, Fawcett ceased publication of all its comic series. In the 1970s, the Captain Marvel family of characters was licensed and revived (and ultimately purchased) by DC Comics.”

The problem with Republic serials for the contemporary viewer, however, is that almost none of them are available in DVD format. When VHS tapes were first introduced, Republic put out most their serials in excellent two-tape transfers, necessitated by the long running time of each production, but when DVDs were phased in, for some reason, the serials never made the jump to the new format. Happily, Adventures of Captain Marvel is the exception to that rule, and is readily available on a legal DVD from Artisan Releasing and Republic Pictures, in a sparkling transfer.

If you’re interested in the history of comic book films, this is indispensable viewing.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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