THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL (1941; directors: William Witney and John English)
Believe it or not, but there was a time when superheroes were considered strictly B-movie fare. No big star would’ve been caught dead in a cape and mask. No major screenwriters or directors would have considered it. The most popular characters from the comics page only made it to the screen in weekly fifteen-minute serial chapters spread across 3-4 months.
That’s the main difference between superheroes in movies circa 1941 and superheroes in the movies these days. Watching the 12-chapter The Adventures of Captain Marvel (the first traditional superhero on film?) nearly eighty years after it first lit up the Saturday matinees, it’s remarkable how its formula has endured. Things haven’t changed all that much.
Today, there’s no such thing as a standalone superhero movie. They ALL set up sequels and franchises (the only standalones are the ones that bomb). The movie business in the 21st century is so confident that they announce their superhero sequels and spin-offs years in advance, right down to exact release dates so you can make absolutely certain that you clear your schedule for June 15 in four years. You could call it brazen. You could call it boring. You can call it the sign of a movie business that’s figured out a winning formula and will continue to flog it with little risk. You could call it inspiration to start up your own “geek culture” Youtube channel and make some money off of bribes and sponsorships for helping to publicize it all.
Or, if you’re feeling charitable, you could call today’s superhero movie deluge just a mega-budget, high-octane update of the old serials. It’s all part of the tradition. There are no one-shot stories. Everything is part of a SAGA.
The roots of this go deep. Trash and pulp fiction has always, since forever, thrived on recurring characters, whether you’re talking about The Shadow, Race Williams, The Continental Op, Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes.
The plot, such as it is, of The Adventures of Captain Marvel is that that there’s this masked asshole, The Scorpion, who’s collecting special lenses, by hook and crook and gunfire, from various scientists, because these little shiny MacGuffins are the parts of an ancient destructo machine in Siam that will allow him to TAKE OVER THE WORLD.
That sounds a helluva lot like the underlying plot thread to the billion-dollar Marvel movies today, where bad guys are constantly chasing after mystical power sources that will help them TAKE OVER THE WORLD.
The Adventures of Captain Marvel is a Republic serial, which means that it’s a cut above the rest, even if co-director William Witney (who later made the great G-Men Vs. the Black Dragon) gets little opportunity to stage his usual explosive fight scenes. Action sequences aren’t all that amazing when the good guy has super strength, can’t be hurt by bullets, can fly and can make short work of any of the fedoras who try to challenge him. Some truly impressive special effects make up for that, though. The flying scenes (Captain Marvel is pretty much Superman in a different costume) are amazingly seamless. Let’s also mention the one proto-Hong Kong fight scene in the first chapter in which Captain Marvel does a backwards somersault while kicking two guys in the face at once.
Also, superheroes aren’t supposed to kill people, right? Nobody told Captain Marvel! Check out chapter 5 when he picks up one of The Scorpion’s henchmen and throws him off the roof of a tall building without hesitation while the doomed man goes down screaming.
Watch this old black-and-white serial today for a glimpse of the past, the present, and most likely the future, too.