Once upon a time, in the 1930’s & 40’s, there were these things called movie serials. They were generally short, episodic action pieces that played in theaters before the main feature rolled. Studios put together a wide assortment to appeal to audiences eager for spectacle, and in many cases comics were mined for content for characters like Flash Gordon, Captain America, and Captain Marvel (Shazam!). They may not look like much by today’s standards, but they hold up as the earliest examples of comic books brought to life. They also hold up as a source of entertainment for those with minds open enough to except them for what they were.
For those who can’t get past how these shows have aged, I’d like to point out that they can also be entertaining as all get out for what they are: often hilarious, albeit unintentionally so, looks into the world of yesteryear. With mind wide open, I dove into The Adventures of Captain Marvel, a 12 part serial produced by Republic Pictures in 1941.
Things start off, as they often did in those days, with an expedition into the mysterious land of Siam. The explorers are searching for the Valley of Tombs, hoping to find the lost treasure of the Golden Scorpion. Working against this stalwart group of grave robbers… uh, I mean archeologists… is the evil mastermind known only as the Scorpion. See, he’s got his own ideas of how the Golden Scorpion might be used, and they’ve got nothing to do with science or prosperity. To that end, he riles up bands of local tribesmen who were already upset at these people rooting around in their backyards.
I know, petty right?
Before too long, things go badly for the “explorers”, and in the ensuing chaos they get separated. Billy Batson (played by Frank Coghlan) finds himself confronted by none other than the ancient wizard, Shazam, guardian of the Golden Scorpion and bearer of great mystical power. With a word, the wizard bestows upon young Billy the might of Captain Marvel: Wisdom of Solomon, Strength of Hercules, Endurance of Atlas, Power of Zeus, Courage of Achilles, & the Speed of Mercury.
Between you and me, I think that Marvel (played by Tom Tyler) could have maybe relied a little more on the Wisdom thing… he gets caught up in a lot of ridiculous fixes. Also, if I’m being honest, he’s kind of a dick, jumping into the middle of things and throwing people around like a bully.
Without a doubt, there are issues with the production. First and foremost for many modern viewers, there are going to be problems with racial stereotypes. Also to really stir things up, I’m going to say right up front that the serial’s single woman, Betty Wallace played by Louise Currie, repeatedly falls into the old “damsel in distress” trope… however I do have to give her some credit because there are a few instances where she tries to get out of trouble but winds up being dragged down by her inept male cohorts. Aside from the less woke attitudes inherent in the time the film was made, there’s some charm to be found alongside a whole lot of unintentional hilarity.
Okay, spoilers… One of my favorite scenes starts off when Marvel smashes through a window & tears through steel bars to get into a room where the bad guys are holding a guy hostage. They’re about to feed him into a very well thought out trap where anyone pushed into this hallway gets zapped unconscious and then a conveyor carries their body down the hall & under a guillotine blade. The blade would then drop and chop them in two.
So anyway, Marvel bashes his way into the room, stalks up really slow with this grin on his face as the bad guys unload their guns at him. It’s okay though, cuz he’s bullet proof. So he starts tossing bad guys and furniture around, and he’s smiling the whole time like “screw you, and screw you, and screw you too” when all of a sudden a guy throws a chair at him which must be one of his weaknesses cuz it knocks him back into that trapped hallway.
Get this! Marvel gets zapped, and I guess that’s another one of his weaknesses… thrown chairs & electrical charges… cuz the episode ends with Marvel unconscious, laying on the conveyor and being moved slowly (why do traps always move so slow?) down the hall to the waiting guillotine!
Dude! Total cliffhanger!
I don’t know what it is about this that has me thirsty for more, but once I’m done with Captain Marvel, I’m gonna see what else is out there to dig into. Objectively, yes, this is pretty awful viewing. If you’re a stickler for modern production, best to stay with the more current fare. If, however, you have an interest in seeing precursors to the Snyder Cut and the MCU, there is some fun to be had. You can find The Adventures of Captain Marvel on Amazon Prime Video, free to watch with your existing membership.