FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, sociological*
The “Classic Era” of film serials is often said to begin with 1936’s FLASH GORDON, which in terms of expense and overall quality marked a new level of ambition. Even the better serials of the early thirties are not that distinct from the silent chapterplays of the twenties. Film studios began investing more heavily in adapting properties from assorted media, such as pulps, radio and comic strips. Republic attempted to adapt SUPERMAN at the height of the character’s popularity. But when negotiations with DC Comics broke down, the studio successfully got the rights to Superman’s greatest competitor Captain Marvel, who had the honor of being the first comic-book character adapted to film.
The original Captain Marvel was, in many ways, an attempt to one-up the Man of Steel. The first adventures of Superman give him assorted limitations: he could leap but not fly, and his skin could in theory be damaged by an exploding shell. Over time Superman would take on a host of new powers and become invulnerable to everything but kryptonite. Yet Captain Marvel had no real weaknesses in his superheroic form; he only risked injury when he assumed the mortal form of Billy Batson. The serial’s writers and directorial team (the stalwarts William Witney and John English) may have anticipated that a totally invulnerable hero would prove difficult to place in peril, and so, while they did put his mortal identity in peril at times, this Captain Marvel, as essayed by the athletic Tom Tyler, proved somewhat vulnerable to dangers like molten lava and electrical discharge—though naturally the filmmakers did not eliminate one of his primary appeals: the resistance to gunfire.
Possibly the filmmakers did not anticipate visiting the Captain Marvel well twice. The comic-book character has an open-ended origin, as Batson is given his “magic word” by the wizard Shazam with the expectation that Captain Marvel will continue fighting crime indefinitely. ADVENTURES opens with young Billy Batson (Frank Coughlan) accompanying an archaeological expedition to a series of Siamese tombs, hard by a smoldering volcano. When the group deciphers a warning not to violate a certain tomb, Batson belatedly decides not to trespass on this sanctum of the ancients (though one would think he should’ve expected something of the sort from the word “go.”) Just as the archaeologists locate an insidious looking metal statue, representing a scorpion with glass lenses held in its claws, Batson encounters the wizard Shazam, who is the guardian of the temple. Shazam gives Batson the magic word only for the purpose of preventing chaos when the Scorpion-statue falls into evil hands—said hands belonging to a masked marauder who emulates his prize by calling himself the Scorpion.
The archaeologists wrangle about who gets custody of the fantastic find. It’s then agreed that they divvy up the lenses so that everyone will have a piece of the artifact, though for the scripters this makes it more complicated for the villain to lay hands on the entire artifact. For all twelve chapters, the Scorpion sends his henchmen to collect the entire statue, which when assembled can radiate rays of immense power. It’s not clear how the villain plans to use this power for conquest, though in the final chapter he and everyone else return to Siam, where he attempts to convince local tribesmen that he’s the incarnation of the Scorpion-God—who is also loosely linked with the eruptions of the volcano. In addition, Batson and his alter ego become convinced that the Scorpion is one of the scientists, and as in many serials the partitioning of suspicion is a source of narrative tension.
Though Witney and English follow the well-traveled plot-threads of the average serial, they and their writers conceive of better-than-average cliffhangers, one of the best being a trap involving automated rifles. The Scorpion’s henchmen themselves are more deadly than many such thugs, and because they are killers, the serial version of Captain Marvel is on occasion less than decorous about taking prisoners, throwing one of the thugs off a high roof to his death. This scene, and an earlier one in which the hero machine-guns some Siamese tribesmen who have also made murder-attempts, suggest that Witney and English were having a little fun with the G-rated violence of the comic-book character. That said, they probably knew they could only get away with such outbursts a few times, since throughout most of the serial Captain Marvel simply knocks out crooks with his fists.
The staging of the fights and of the hero’s flight-scenes are overall excellent, but Tom Tyler’s unfailingly earnest portrait of the superhero sells all the FX-work. The other performers do well enough with what they’re given, but the script doesn’t really fill in any blanks for Batson, the scientists, mysterious Eastern guide Tal Chotali (John Davidson) or for secretary Betty (Louise Currie). The serial’s conclusion also ends Billy Batson’s career as Captain Marvel, though presumably the hero might have returned if Captain Marvel had broken box office records. Given the exigencies of making such a super-powered character credible, perhaps it was just as well that this was the only cinematic outing for the hero in the serial venue.