The First Comic Book Superhero to Fly to Film

This summer looks like it will have a plethora of huge, blockbuster films. Superhero movies will figure high in the hopes of movie studios with The Avengers: Age of Ultron premiering on May 1, Ant-Man on July 17, and Fantastic Four coming on August 7. The superhero craze continues in 2016 with Deadpool, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, and X-Men: Apocalypse. And further down the road we have even more supes on the silver screen with Suicide Squad, Doctor Strange, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, The Inhumans, Wonder Woman, Justice League, Spider-Man: Venom, The Flash, Aquaman, and Shazam!.

It’s hard to believe that superheroes now rule at the box office and are worth literally billions of dollar. Back in 1981, The Greatest American Hero was the only super powered hero on TV. The star, William Katt, and his TV character complained endlessly about how embarrassing his super suit and super powers were. Today, suiting up in a caped costume almost always means a trip to super stardom.

While this decade is shaping up to be the decade of the super powered this is actually not the first time studios have struck gold with costumed heroes. Way back in 1941, Republic Pictures made another champion of justice take flight and battle bad guys. With a cry of Shazam! and a puff of smoke, Republic dazzled movie fans with the 12 chapter serial called the Adventures of Captain Marvel.

In 1939, Fawcett Publications had noticed the success of the new super powered heroes, Superman and Batman, whose adventures were published in comic books put out by National Publications (later DC Comics). Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in June 1938 and Batman in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939. Fawcett decided to create its own comics division and hired writer Bill Parker to create some new hero characters. Bill originally created a team of six super powered crime fighters who each got their power from a different legendary figure. Fawcett’s executive director combined the six heroes into one mighty superhero originally named Captain Thunder. Fawcett was all set to publish the adventures of Captain Thunder in books titled Flash Comics and Thrill Comics when they discovered that “Captain Thunder”, “Flash Comics”, and “Thrill Comics” were already being used. An emergency name change was needed. Flash and Thrill Comics became Whiz Comics. Fawcett artist Pete Costanza suggested Captain Thunder’s name change to Captain Marvelous. Fawcett editors shortened that and Captain Marvel was born.

Captain Marvel’s comic book alter ego was 12 year old newsboy, Billy Batson. A wizard named Shazam granted Billy to power to transform into an adult superhero by speaking the wizard’s name which was an acronym for six legendary figures. Each of the legends gave a power to Captain Marvel: Wisdom of Solomon, Strength of Hercules, Stamina of Atlas, Power of Zeus, Courage of Achilles, and Speed of Mercury.

For much of the Golden Age of Comics, Captain Marvel was the most popular of the caped crime fighters, outselling even Superman. Captain Marvel sold 14 million copies in 1944 alone. In 1940, Republic Pictures wanted to make a serial featuring one of the new breed of heroes. They first approached National Publications about bringing Superman to the silver screen, but National turned them down. So Republic turned to Fawcett Comics and Captain Marvel.

Filming on the new serial began on December 23, 1940 and lasted just over a month with a budget of $135,553. Actor and weightlifting champion Tom Tyler (August 9, 1903 – May 3, 1954) was cast as the hero at $250 per week for four week’s work. Tom had previously been best known for the many low budget westerns he had starred in during both the silent and early sound eras. Tom later went on to star in another serial: The Phantom (1943). But just a few years after these two popular serials, Tom’s career screeched to a halt as crippling rheumatoid arthritis limited him to the occasional minor role. He was nearly destitute when he died in 1954 at age 50 of heart disease.

Frank Coghlan, Jr. (March 15, 1916 – September 7, 2009) was hired to play Captain Marvel’s non-powered alter ego, Billy Batson. Billy was only 12 years old in the comic book but was changed to a young man in the film serial. Frank Coghlan, Jr., just 25 years old at the time of Adventures of Captain Marvel, had had great success as the child actor Junior Coghlan. But just a year after filming the serial, Frank joined the United States Navy and became a naval aviator in World War II. He made a second career of the Navy and remained in active service until 1965 when he retired and returned to his first career of acting. One of Frank’s last roles was as a zoo employee in the 1974 CBS Saturday morning live-action Captain Marvel TV show Shazam! He was 93 years old when he died.

Many of spectacular special effects in today’s superhero yarns are the result of computer animation but before 1941, no hero had ever taken to the skies like Captain Marvel. A seven foot tall papier-mâché dummy that weighed only 15 pounds was used to create the illusion of flight. “Four pulleys connected to each shoulder and calf, which were strung on two wires so the dummy moved along them by its own weight”. The wires were then strung between two objects across the camera’s view and the dummy slid from one side to the other. When Captain Marvel flew upwards, the dummy was simply slid down the wires and the film was reversed to make it look like he was going up. Added to this effect, stuntmen leaped as if they were taking off and landing and Tom Tyler hung from wires and posed in front of rear-projected moving clouds. All combined to make Captain Marvel appear to really fly in what author Raymond Stedman said was “the most successful illusion of such aerobatics ever put upon the screen, in serial or feature”.

The Adventures of Captain Marvel begins with a scientific expedition to a remote section of Siam (what is now Thailand). The Malcolm Archaeological Expedition is intent on exploring the mysterious Valley of Tombs despite angry local tribes. In one of the ancient tombs, the Expedition uncovers the secret of the mystifying Scorpion dynasty: a Golden Scorpion statue with quartz lenses that can be adjusted to make a deadly weapon. When the Expedition members accidentally awaken the Scorpion weapon and cause an explosion that rocks the tomb, young Billy Batson discovers a doorway to a hidden chamber. Inside the chamber, Billy meets an ancient wizard named Shazam who gives Billy the ability to become a super powered hero. The wizard Shazam tasks Billy with the job of protecting the Golden Scorpion from those who would use its powers for evil. The Expedition members, meanwhile, remove the Golden Scorpion’s lenses and divide the lenses amongst themselves so no one can use the Scorpion as a weapon. But all too soon, they discover that someone is out to gather all the lenses even if it means eliminating everyone in the Expedition.

Adventures of Captain Marvel is great good fun. It is typical serial in that every chapter ends in a cliffhanger with one or more of our characters in deadly danger. Poor Billy Batson and Betty, the Expedition secretary, get bashed on the head so many times I began to worry their marbles would be permanently knocked loose. Frank Coghlan, Jr. is very young and earnest as Billy Batson and even resembles his comic book character while Louise Currie as Betty is pretty much a blank faced damsel in distress with almost no personality. She’s not completely helpless; she does make a few half-hearted attempts at getting out of trouble but she also walks right into trouble every time she turns around. Tom Tyler as Captain Marvel looks heroic although many critics at the time complained that he looked nothing like the big, brawny, but baby-faced comic book Captain. It’s interesting to note that Tom’s Captain Marvel costume in the serial looks very much like the comic book costume but in reality it differed in one very big way: Captain Marvel’s costume is bright red but the film costume was actually blue and grey because those colors filmed better in black and white. Other than looking strong and heroic, Tom Tyler really does not have much else to do. He does have a couple of speeches but they are nothing very memorable.

The serial’s video is in good shape and the special effects, though decent and sometimes even ground breaking for the times, are pretty simple by today’s standards. But they are also fun. I got a kick out of it every time the Captain Marvel flying dummy went zipping across the screen. Even the scenes with Tom Tyler hanging in front of clouds are reasonably good and at least he pointed his toes (I hate it when the actor is supposed to be flying but his feet are flat because he is actually standing on the ground). And it is funny when Captain Marvel is supposed to be flying upwards and the background clouds are horizontal but just awkwardly tilted.

The audio is also in excellent condition although the dialogue is pretty hokey and lame at times. For example: the Malcolm Expedition discovers an inscription on the tomb wall and John Malcolm exclaims, “Why, there’s an inscription here! Can you translate it, Tal Chotali?” Tal Chotali, the Expedition’s guide calmly answers, “Why, yes, I can translate it. It says, ‘Let what reposes behind this stone remain hidden from the eyes of mankind … for all time’.” Cue the pregnant pause. It is certainly not Shakespeare but then the serial does not try to be. It does not take itself too seriously. Adventure is the name of the game and the serial rockets merrily along from one adventure to another.

Overall, I enjoyed the Adventures of Captain Marvel  very much, more even than I thought I would. Each episode is very short, the first is 30 minutes long but all the others are only 16 to 17 minutes. This makes the story feel like it is zooming along. I watched the 12 chapters in two sittings and it seemed like no time at all. Of course, the cliffhangers every 16 minutes helps keep the story moving. Young movie fans do not have to worry about rough language, this serial has no explicit language. However, several characters are killed throughout the serial, although they are mostly cardboard henchmen. But Captain Marvel does get very tough with the villains, tossing them around like rag dolls, even using a gun and shooting at several bad guys, and even killing at least one evil doer (although it was accidental). Still, it’s all very mild by today’s standards. And despite that, the Adventures of Captain Marvel is just a good old fun adventure.

Of course, the best thing about the Adventures of Captain Marvel is that it is FREE in the Public Domain. The Internet Archive has the serial available as all-in-one-location and as 12 separate chapters. Fans can find all 12 chapters in one spot by clicking the link.

The Internet Archive also has each chapter at separate spots. Just click each link for the corresponding chapter:
Chapter 1– “Curse of the Scorpion”, runs 30:09
Chapter 2 – “The Guillotine”, runs 16:34
Chapter 3 – “Time Bomb”, runs 17:52
Chapter 4 – “Death Takes the Wheel”, runs 16:51
Chapter 5 – “The Scorpion Strikes”, runs 16:45
Chapter 6 – “Lens of Death”, runs 16:45
Chapter 7 – “Human Targets”, runs 17:06
Chapter 8 – “Boomerang”, runs 17:13
Chapter 9 – “Dead Man’s Trap”, runs 16:42
Chapter 10 – “Doom Ship”, runs 16:37
Chapter 11 – “Valley of Death”, runs 16:51
Chapter 12 – “Captain Marvel’s Secret”, runs 16:46

Movie fans, do not forget to keep your eyes open for the upcoming Captain Marvel film, Shazam! Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is signed to play the villain, Black Adam. Coming April 5, 2019.

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