The is the first installment of a series of articles, tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes.
Produced in 1941 – just three short years after the first superhero appeared in the pages of Action Comics #1 – “The Adventures of Captain Marvel” became the first live action superhero film to hit cinema screens.
A 12-chapter serial, “The Adventures of Captain Marvel” was the 21st Saturday matinée serial produced by Republic Pictures and was based on the Fawcett Comics character now known as the DC Comics character Shazam. The serial came about after a failed attempt at adapting Superman, which ended up being rewritten and released as “Mysterious Doctor Satan.”
“The Adventures of Captain Marvel” told the story of a teenage boy named Billy Batson who, while on an archaeological expedition Siam’s volcanic Valley of the Tombs, discovers a cave which houses an old wizard named Shazam. Because Billy obeyed a sign not to enter a the Scorpion’s Crypt, the wizard grants Billy the powers of Captain Marvel, whenever he speaks the word “Shazam.” The serial then follows Billy as he tries to retrieve the lenses to the Golden Scorpion, a device of great power that was buried within the crypt.
In a time before television was a thing, movie serials filled the role that would later be filled by television. A chapter would play every week for the duration of the serial during Saturday matinées before the main feature. This made Saturday afternoons – when dad was off work – family day at the movies and it also set up the idea of Saturdays being set aside for children’s programming, giving rise to the tradition of the Saturday morning cartoon. Interestingly, Saturday morning cartoons would also become home to many superhero adaptations.
Captain Marvel was played by Tom Tyler, who had been a veteran of cowboy serials, as well as a weightlifting champion of the day. Tyler had a very lanky and slender build, which reflected the original portrayal of Captain Marvel in the comic books. Before the release of the film, however, artist C.C. Beck had taken over art duties on the title, and he had turned the character into much more of a baby-faced beefcake. The now drastic difference in appearance between Tyler and the character did lead to some criticism from fans.
The serial employed a wide array of techniques to achieve the illusion of Captain Marvel flying. Chief among the techniques was a papier-mâché mannequin, dressed in a lightweight version of Tom Tyler’s costume. The mannequin was hung from wires and flown with an intricate system of pulleys and what amounted to a zip line. Republic Pictures developed this flying technique for its Superman serial, which ended up being canceled. The illusion was accented with the use of a stuntman for take off and landing shots, as well as several close-ups of Tom Tyler in front of a rear projection screen.
“The Adventures of Captain Marvel” was well received by audiences of its day and it led to the live action superhero movie genre being born. In their book, “The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury,” Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut state rather matter-of-factly that “The Adventures of Captain Marvel” is “unquestionably one of the finest movie serials ever made, possibly the best with the exception of the three Flash Gordon epics.”
Tom Tyler would return to the superhero role in the Columbia Pictures serial “The Phantom” in 1943, making him one of very few actors who have played multiple superheroes on-screen.
Republic Pictures followed up “The Adventures of Captain Marvel” with “Spy Smasher” another Fawcett Comics character now owned by DC Comics – in 1942 and “Captain America” – the only Marvel Comics character to get an old movie serial adaptation – in 1944.
Stedman, Raymond William (1971). “5. Shazam and Good-by”. Serials: Suspense and Drama By Installment. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 125. ISBN 978-0-8061-0927-5.
First superhero “taken directly from a comic book”
Cline, William C. (1984). “2. In Search of Ammunition”. In the Nick of Time. McFarland & Company, Inc. pp. 20, 26, 37, 83, 142. ISBN 0-7864-0471-X
Harmon, Jim; Donald F. Glut (1973). “9. The Superheroes “Could Superman Knock Out Captain Marvel””. The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury. Routledge. pp. 219, 222, 223, 226, 227, 230. ISBN 978-0-7130-0097-9.