Movie Review: Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)
This is it. The breakthrough.
Yes, we’d had John Carter, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. We’d seen Tarzan swinging, Zorro dueling, and Robin Hood splitting arrows. The Shadow laughed, The Lone Ranger rode, The Spider swooped, and The Green Hornet ... did whatever The Green Hornet does. We’d come close but “Adventures of Captain Marvel” is the first true live-action superhero movie ever made.
And for its time, it ain’t bad.
Captain Marvel’s flying is actually decades ahead of its time. The flying here looks better than the flying in any of the live-action Superman serials or TV shows of the ’40s and ’50s, or even the “Shazam!” TV series in the mid-1970s, all of which relied on animation, window jumps, or early green-screen effects to simulate human flight.
“Captain Marvel” uses a bit of this, but its more common technique is to send a mannequin zipping along an invisible wire. If that sounds lame, it isn’t.
Bolts of lightning
The plot borrows from ur-superhero serials but improves upon it. A half-dozen civic leaders sitting around a table are periodically menaced by a cloaked figure named for an animal—the Scorpion here rather than the Octopus (“The Spider’s Web”) or the Black Tiger (“The Shadow”)—and whose secret identity is in fact one of the men sitting around the table. But which one? Show up next week at your neighborhood theater!
So where’s the improvement? The Scorpion actually has a specific reason—rather than general greed/evil—to eliminate everyone. All the men, plus, of course, Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan, Jr.), were part of an archeological expedition in Siam, which ... Here. I’ll just quote the opening title:
In a remote section of Siam, near the Burmese border, lies a desolate volcanic land which for centuries has been taboo to white men—the Valley of the Tombs! To this realm of mystery, jealously guarded by native tribes unconquered since the dawn of time, has come the Malcolm Archelogloical expedition to find the lost secret of the Scorpion Dynasty.
I love the assumptions in “taboo” and “jealously guarded”—not to mention “unconquered.” Those tribes just haven’t learned their place yet.
In the tomb, the archeologists find a golden scorpion idol, with adjustable legs, like some Mattel toy from the 1960s. And once the lenses in the claws are properly aligned, all hell breaks loose. It can cause earthquakes or turn any base metal into gold. Later in the serial, the Scorpion will bring up its “atom smashing” ability, by which point the whole gold-making thing will be sadly forgotten.
But it’s the gold-making in Chapter 1 that causes the leader of the expedition, John Malcolm (Robert Strange), to suggest divvying up the lenses so the device can never be used except for the good of all. Which is why each civic leader has a lens. And why the Scorpion is after them. He wants gold. Gold.
Now that I think about it, isn’t this a bit like Thanos with the infinity stones? Did this influence that? Or is placing half a dozen smaller objects into a bigger object to achieve ultimate power a more common plot device than I realize?
I’m also surprised I never made the Captain Marvel/Thor connection before. For each:
- a civilian stumbles upon something (a word, a stick) that transforms him into a superpowered being
- this superpowered being is a god (Thor) or has the power of the gods (Solomon, Hercules, et al.)
- this superpowered being is basically a completely different person
For a moment I also thought both were disabled, but in the Captain Marvel universe that's Freddie Freeman/Captain Marvel Jr., not Billy Batson, who walks fine and sells newspapers on the streets. Here, Billy isn’t a teenage newsboy but a twentysomething radio news operator. Why is he on the Malcolm expedition? For the news? Whatever the reason, once the golden scorpion causes an earthquake in the Valley of Tombs, a secret tomb is revealed and Billy is greeted by an old man with a long beard who trills his Rs in the fashion of turn-of-the-century ham actors. In this case, it’s Nigel De Brulier, who began acting in the silents in 1914 and tended to play regal types, including Cardinal Richelieu four times. He tells young Billy about the powers of Captain Marvel (Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, Mercury), how to call upon them (acronym), but adds this warning: “You must never call upon this power except in the service of rrrright. To do so, would bring the Scorpion’s curse upon your own head.”
You know what’s odd? Besides all of it? How quickly the Scorpion appears. Think of it. The Scorpion is one of the men on the archeology team, and the very night after the Golden Scorpion’s power is revealed he shows up in camp, robed and cloaked, with an image of a scorpion on his hood, chest and back. Was that the plan all along? If not, where did he get the costume? Who brought along the sewing kit?
Initially I was worried we’d be stuck in the jungle for all 12 chapters, but thankfully by the second chapter we’re back in the city. Then I remembered, “Right, that can be dullsville, too.“
This is the first time movie serials had to deal with a truly superpowered being as protagonist. It’s not an ordinary dude in a mask; it’s a god. And how can gods be imperiled enough to have cliffhangers? Answer: The cliffhangers are mostly about imperiled civilians: chiefly, John Malcolm’s secretary, Betty (Louise Currie), or Billy when he's unconscious or gagged. That said, they do knock out Captain Marvel (Tom Tyler) several times via electrocution. That's right. They decided that a being who is transformed into a god by a bolt of lightning can be electrocuted.
For the scholarly types, here are the cliffhangers:
- A bridge collapses with Betty’s car on it
- Captain Marvel is electrocuted and knocked unconscious on a conveyor belt heading toward a guillotine (classic!)
- Billy is flying a plane with a bomb aboard
- Betty is unconscious in a runaway car
- Captain Marvel is trapped by molten lava
- Captain Marvel is electrocuted (again)
- Betty and Billy (gagged) are in a shack about to be bombed
- Billy is unconscious in a car with a bomb in it
- Billy and Betty, trying to open a safe, are in the sites of a machine gun
- Billy and Betty are on a sinking ship off the coast of Siam
Is this the first time we’ve seen a movie character whom bullets bounce off of? They display that power quite a bit—it’s probably the cheapest to film—and always in the same fashion. Bad guys shoot, bullet ping off his chest, and Captain Marvel, maybe after looking down, smiles and slowly walks forward. It would become a staple/cliché of the early superhero genre (bullets pinging, slow walk forward) and I’m curious if this is where it began. Anyone?
But the problem with a superhero battling non-superheroes is that he can’t be too smart or it’s over like that. So Captain Marvel is always turning back into Billy at the wrong time. In chapter 2, for example, Betty has to deliver a lens as ransom and Billy agrees to follow her—but he takes his friend, Whitey (William Benedict), too? Why? So he can’t say “Shazam”?
My favorite script idiocy is in Chapter 9, “Dead Man’s Trap.” The Scorpion has taken Dr. Lang (George Pembroke) hostage but Captain Marvel shows up and frees him. The Scorpion escapes through a sliding bookcase in his den and into a series of tunnels and caves below. There, somehow, he manages to elude a superpowered being and returns to the den—where Lang is making a phone call to Betty. By this point, the Scorpion is unmasked, so Dr. Lang sees who he is. (We don‘t.) And what does he say with Betty on the other line? A name, maybe? Of course not.
Lang: You’re the Scorpion?
When Captain Marvel finally makes it back to the den, however, Lang is still alive. And with his dying breath, he tells Captain Marvel the true identity of the Scorpion. Kidding. He talks about his safe, and the “death trap” (a machine gun) there, but not the name that would end the whole thing. Of course not. We’re still in Chapter 9.
At times, this stupidity seems to extend to the production staff:
Freedom, equality and justice
This Captain Marvel definitely has his dark side. In the first chapter, he scatters natives machine-gunning the archeologists and then trains the machine gun back on them; he slaughters them, basically. Then there’s Chapter 5, where he just picks up a dude and throws him off a roof.
”Captain Marvel" does hold our interest more than most serials of its day. During Chapter 11, I noted the following about our list of potential suspects:
- Chai Tochali
I’d long suspected Malcolm, the expedition leader, who divvied up the lenses in the first place. Chai Tochali is the native loyal to the expedition but often filmed in shifty-eyed menacing angles. Given both, I figured the Scorpion had to be the nondescript Bentley, who, in Chapter 6, had his lens stolen but survived. A bit of a giveaway, when you think about it. Everyone else whose lens was stolen died during the robbery.
For the final chapters we return to Siam, where, beneath Mount Scorpio, all the lenses are brought together and the golden scorpion’s atom-smashing ability is demonstrated on a native, who is incinerated. Next up: Betty. Except now it’s the Scorpion’s turn to get stupid. He suspects a connection between Billy Batson and Captain Marvel and wants to know the secret. So he removes Billy's gag, Billy shouts SHAZAM!, and ... Etc. As Billy is revealed to be Captain Marvel, so the Scorpion is revealed to be Bentley—a false prophet. His right-hand man, Rahman Bar (Reed Hadley), thus atomizes him with the golden scorpion.
In the real world (or a sequel-crazy one), Rahman Bar would then try to use the golden scorpion to bring power and wealth to his unconquered peoples, but here he just gives it back while Captain Marvel makes a speech:
This scorpion is a symbol of power that could’ve helped to build a world beyond man’s greatest hopes: a world of freedom, equality and justice for all men. But in the greedy hands of men like Bentley, it would’ve become a symbol of death and destruction. Then until such time when there’s a better understanding among men, may the fiery lava of [Mount] Scorpio burn the memory of this from their minds.
Then he tosses it into the lava. Off-stage, we hear a voice (not Billy’s) say “Shazam!” and Captain Marvel is gone. He’s no longer needed in a world without a golden scorpion. Just men like Bentley. Not to mention Hitler.
I’m curious if Republic Pictures ever thought about a sequel. They made four Dick Tracy serials, four Zorros, two Lone Rangers, but just one Captain Marvel. Because it was so expensive? Because the good Captain was tied up in IP litigation with DC Comics for most of the ’40s? Because Frank Coughlan, Jr. joined the miltary and left show biz for 20 years? I don’t know. But 30 years later, “Shazam!” became the first live-action series I would watch regularly—Saturday mornings. No throwing guys off roofs by then; instead, long hair, moral lessons and winnebagos. In one episode, Frank Coughlan, Jr. guest-starred as a guard. It’s his last acting credit.