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Film / The Adventures of Captain Marvel

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This page contains unmarked spoilers. You Have Been Warned.

Back in the 1940's, Captain Marvel was quite the trend setter. He was one of the first superheroes to really utilize multi-issue storylines and continuity (including the Monster Society of Evil ongoing story that lasted 22 issues), the first hero who literally transformed from a normal mortal into a superpowered alter ego, one of the first true Flying Bricks in comics (combining true flight with strength and invulnerability even before Superman), his sister Mary Marvel was the second Distaff Counterpart in comics (right after Hawkgirl), and in this instance, the very first superhero to appear on the big screen.

The Adventures of Captain Marvel was a 1941 film serial starring Tom Tyler as Captain Marvel and Frank Coghlan Jr. as Billy Batson. The 12 chapter serial focused on the Malcolm Expedition, a group of Adventurer Archaeologists who discover an ancient tomb which holds the prized Scorpion Idol. The idol contains several lenses that, when properly aligned, could cause a number of different effects, from transmuting the elements to completely obliterating matter. The scientists decide to divide the lenses among them to ensure that the idol cannot be used without the consent of the entire group. However, almost immediately one of the scientists assumes the masked identity of the Scorpion, and steals both the Scorpion Idol and the scroll which tells how to use it. The Scorpion then sets into motion a plot to steal the lenses from the other scientists and become the most powerful individual on the planet.

All is not lost though. Billy Batson, who was along to report on the discovery and chose not desecrate the tomb, is secretly chosen by the wizard Shazam to see to it that the Scorpion Idol is not used for evil. To do this, Billy is granted the power to become Captain Marvel by speaking the wizard's name. Using the power of Captain Marvel and his own resources, Billy must uncover the secret of the Scorpion's identity and prevent the master criminal from gaining all the lenses and using the full power of the Scorpion Idol.

As the first superhero film of its time, The Adventures of Captain Marvel had a lot of new ground to cover. Since no one had done a serial like this before, the studio utilized aspects of other serials, borrowing from the archeologist/explorer and murder/mystery genres, as well as having a lot of aspects similar to pulp heroes of the day. There was a lot riding on the serial as well, as it would basically decide whether or not superhero films were a viable option. That there was an explosion of superhero serials following it is a testament to the film's quality, and its importance to the superhero film genre cannot be overstressed.

Today, The Adventures of Captain Marvel is considered one of the best Film Serials ever made along with the three Flash Gordon epics.

The character of Captain Marvel is also the main hero of a 1970s TV show, and after a name change to "Shazam" a 2019 movie. He also has no relation to the Marvel Comics Captain Marvel character.

The Adventures of Captain Marvel provides examples of:

  • Adventurer Archaeologist: Most of the cast are these, as it's the discovery of an ancient tomb and the MacGuffin within it that gets the plot going. Interestingly enough, Billy Batson was not primarily an Adventurer Archaeologist, instead being a news reporter who was both covering the Malcolm Expedition and sort of being an apprentice archaeologist learning the trade.
  • Age Lift: Captain Marvel's alter-ego Billy Batson is a 12-year-old boy in the comics. In this serial however, although he is still the youngest member of the expedition, he is clearly already somewhere in his twenties.
  • All Your Powers Combined: Captain Marvel has the combined powers of several gods and heroes, as spelled out in the first episode.
  • Artistic License – Geography: The series was filmed in the deserts of Southern California, despite the fact that the first episode takes place in the jungles of Siam. In addition, the series folds in footage from other adventure movies that were set in Thailand and the Middle East creating a hodgepodge of Geography on display in the movie.
  • A Wizard Did It: In this case, it's literally used to explain the existence of superpowers. The wizard Shazam grants Billy the power to become Captain Marvel in order to protect the world from the misuse of the Scorpion Idol.
  • Big Bad: The Scorpion.
  • Bound and Gagged: Since to become Captain Marvel, Billy has to say the magic word, he ends up being gagged a lot. Ironically, this is due to the standard kidnapping protocol of film serials. The villains actually have no clue he's Captain Marvel until the very end when the Scorpion sees his transformation from a distance. Greedy to learn how he changes into Captain Marvel, the Scorpion has Billy captured and brought to him bound and gagged. After threatening to kill Betty to force him to reveal his secret, it leads to this very satisfying exchange:
    The Scorpion: Remove the gag, but don't untie his hands... Are you ready to tell me?
    Billy: Yeah, I'll not only tell you how, I'll show you how it's done... SHAZAM!
  • But Now I Must Go: A magically Enforced Trope: Once the Scorpion Idol is no longer a threat to humanity, the powers of Captain Marvel are automatically revoked and Billy Batson is returned to normal.
  • By the Power of Grayskull!: Billy transforms into Captain Marvel with one magic word.
  • Cast as a Mask: To keep audiences from figuring out which of the scientists is secretly the Big Bad, the studio brought in Gerald Mohr to do the Big Bad's voice all the way up to The Reveal. The Scorpion even receives his own listing in the film credits, while Gerald Mohr goes uncredited.
  • The Cape: Played with. Captain Marvel is still presented a noble individual who wants to protect innocent people and stop a madman from causing harm to the world. At the same time, he's also willing to kill his opponents and use Batman-style intimidation techniques.
  • Cliffhanger: It's a 1940's serial so of course every chapter ends in a cliff hanger. This is managed despite Captain Marvel's Nigh-Invulnerability by either placing his mortal alter ego in danger, presenting him with a threat that actually seems capable of harming him or placing someone else in danger and leaving the audience wondering if he'll be able to rescue them in time.
  • Cliffhanger Copout: At the end of chapter 7 "Human Targets", Billy and Betty are held prisoner in the last of three old shacks on a bombing range. As a plane flies its bombing run, we see the first two shacks destroyed. On the final run, the bombs are dropped, the third shack is hit and we clearly see debris falling on the bound and gagged Billy as the shack blows up. However, at the start of the next episode, we see that it was actually the second bombing run that caused debris to fall on Billy as well as Betty conveniently knocking her out. As the third bombing run starts, Billy shakes his gag loose, transforms into Captain Marvel and gets Betty safely out of the shack BEFORE the final set of bombs have even been dropped.
  • Clueless Mystery: The Scorpion is secretly one of the original scientists of the Malcolm Expedition. The story is filled with red herrings and false clues as to his identity to keep the audience engaged in the mystery but, ultimately, it's not possible to determine who the Scorpion is prior to the reveal based upon what it presented in the story.
    • The Scorpion speaks with a distinctly unique voice (that is actually provided by another uncredited actor). The Scorpion is even given his own "cast of characters" credit.
    • On several occasions The Scorpion tells his underlings about how he will use his position with the other scientists to introduce suggestions which will further his plans. Come the next meeting of scientists, several of the scientists are offering up suggestions that all seem to do just that.
    • Every scientist at some point tends to act in a cagey and shifty manner in a way that conveys a "I hope they're not onto me" attitude.
    • At one point The Scorpion is shot in the hand. When Billy learns of this he creates a ruse to reveal which of the scientists has an injured hand; but the one who has a clearly bandaged hand ultimately proves to be innocent and we never learn how he injured his hand, nor how The Scorpion managed to hide his own injury.
    • In the end, there are only two suspects left. One murders the other. But we don't know which is which, because they're dressed identically, and their faces are in shadow the whole time.
  • Damsel in Distress: Betty is a competent character in her own right, but as the only female in the cast, she can't escape this role. Even when she shows initiative, it's not allowed to be completely successful, such as in episode four, where she manages to kick the chair out from under her guard and jump in a nearby car to escape... only to run straight into a wall which knocks her out and sends her careening into a building. Cue Captain Marvel.
  • Darker and Edgier: At least compared to the modern comics. Here, the villain goes around murdering scientists for their lenses, and even Captain Marvel is willing to threaten and, in some cases, kill his opponents. This serial was created when the comic series was still very young, before it ended becoming quite so...cartoony.
  • Death Trap: The villains have several death traps (including a trap that shocks you into unconsciousness, rolls you along on a conveyor belt and then guillotines you), plus several of the Malcolm Expedition scientists have death traps of their own to protect their lenses, including, at one point wall mounted Tommy Guns.
  • Dwindling Party: As the Scorpion acts to obtain all the lenses, the scientists end up being killed as a result. Played with because the Scorpion never orders his henchman to kill the scientists only to get the lenses. In the earlier chapters the scientists end up dead because they grab the Idiot Ball and do something incredibly stupid like leaving safe cover in the middle of a gunfight and are killed in the crossfire. Toward the end, their deaths become more plot driven such as learning the Scorpion's true identity and are Killed to Uphold the Masquerade.
  • Face Framed in Shadow: The few times The Scorpion is unmasked (at least, until the reveal proper), this trope prevents viewers from identifying him.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Billy and Betty are trying to open a scientist's safe which is guarded by two automatic machine guns that emerge from a panel in the wall opposite the safe. Betty stands behind Billy and feeds him the combination. Several times Billy turns to glance at her, yet even though the trap is directly in his line of sight behind her, he never sees it.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: Because of the nature of pulp-adventure serials, despite Captain Marvel's good intentions and super-powers, he is unsuccessful in stopping the Scorpion from obtaining the lenses and killing the expedition members nor can he defeat the villain until the final chapter.
  • Flying Brick: Considered to be the first presented in film.
  • Go Back to the Source: One of the scientists hid his lens back in the vault where they were originally found, requiring the Expedition to return there near the end of the film.
  • Hand Wave: Plot contrivances like how Billy ends up appearing right after Captain Marvel leaves or how Captain Marvel always seems to immediately know when a member of the Malcolm Expedition is in trouble are addressed with classic dialog like "Don't worry about that now..." or "I'll tell you about that later..." which are always accepted without question and promptly forgotten.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: The Scorpion spends the entire serial working to acquire the lenses from his fellow scientists that will allow the magical idol to completely disintegrate matter. He commands the help of a tribe of desert dwellers who believe that he is the living embodiment of the god Scorpio. When his true identity is revealed, one of the tribesmen turns the idol's disintegration ray on the imposter.
  • Implacable Man: The Captain himself, who will walk through hails of bullets completely unharmed, with a smile on his face that lets the villains know they are in for SUCH an ass kicking.
  • Invincible Hero: Played with. While Captain Marvel is the only one in the serial with superpowers, and normal weapons like guns and blades have absolutely no effect on him, however, he isn't completely immune to harm. Several times an intense electric shock was able to knock him out and when caught in the molten lava death trap, he seems to genuinely fear for his life as he tries to escape. Similarly, Billy Batson, Cap's mortal alter ego, was just as vulnerable to harm as the next guy, and much of the drama came from whether or not Billy would escape the danger he was in.
  • Karma Houdini: Barnett, the Scorpion's right hand man and primary enforcer is never shown getting his comeuppance in the serial. When last seen, the Scorpion hands Barnett a wad of cash to cover various expenses and is told to wait until the Scorpion returns for further instructions. He never appears again.
  • MacGuffin: The Scorpion Idol and its lenses, which drive most of the serial's plot.
  • Malevolent Masked Man: The Scorpion, whose identity remains a mystery up until the very last chapter.
  • Older Alter Ego: Captain Marvel is noticeably older than Billy Batson. Billy himself is actually a bit older than his comic counterparts (usually between 12 and 15 years old), looking to be between 18 and 20. (Billy's actor, Frank Coghlan Jr, was 25 at the time; Tom Tyler as Captain Marvel was around 37)
  • The Reveal: A double header occurs in the final chapter as Billy reveals that he is Captain Marvel in order to save Betty and The Scorpion is finally unmasked and revealed to be one of the scientists.
  • Secret Identity:
    • Captain Marvel, of course. Downplayed in that no one suspects (or cares) that he even has a secret identity, since he doesn't wear a mask and doesn't overly resemble anyone they're familiar with.
    • The Scorpion is the villain of the story and is one of the scientists, however his secret identity is kept as a mystery until the final chapter of the serial.
  • Shooting Superman: No matter how many bullets Captain Marvel shrugs off, the villains just keep on shooting. This is uniquely Justified for two reasons. As the first portrayal of an invulnerable superhero on film then, for much of viewing audience, it would be their first exposure to the trope. Also, in-universe, Captain Marvel is the first and only superhero and the "reality" of an invulnerable person wouldn't be widely known or believed.
  • There Are No Police: Downplayed. Early on, the Malcolm Expedition members decide to handle the Scorpion matter amongst themselves instead of calling the police. However as the serial involves car chases, gun fights and exploding planes it's odd that the police never seem to investigate.
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: An unusual aversion for a superhero. Unlike his comic counterpart, this version of Captain Marvel was equal parts pulp adventurer and superhero, and as a result, was not afraid to kill his opponents. He wasn't a callous murderer, but it will surprise people familiar with the comic to see him throw a man off a building or gun down several men with a machine gun — men who are running away from him, even! Similarly, Billy himself would often get into gun fights, and while we never see him kill anyone on screen, it's pretty clear that he is not kidding around.
  • Transformation Sequence: At least once per chapter, Billy will say "Shazam" and transform into Captain Marvel. While the effects at the time didn't allow for the lightning strike transformation fans know today, they managed to pull off a passible 'mystical explosion' transformation through a combination of editing, smoke bombs and thunderclap sound effects.
  • World's Strongest Man: Captain Marvel, by virtue of channeling the Strength of Hercules and being the only guy on the planet with superpowers. He is shown effortlessly lifting and throwing an engine block, busting down a vault door, and pulling an elevator containing one of the Scorpion's Mooks back up an elevator shaft to prevent his escape.
  • You Can't Thwart Stage One: Captain Marvel makes it difficult, but he is unable to stop the Scorpion from collecting all the lenses for the Golden Scorpion and killing the scientists holding them.