It is not so very many years ago that a new big-buget super-hero movie was a very special occurrence. Something to look forward to and be excited about. These days, it seems that a new one is released just about every other month or so, and I am starting to lose count of the number of X-Men movies. The latest super-hero flick is Man of Steel, just in time for Superman’s 75th birthday.
I am not really sure what all this says about our society. Why do we have this enormous urge, all of a sudden, to identify with flying men and women in tights? (Or body armour, as the case may be?) Or is it just that the new technology makes it possible to create believable-looking superpowers on screen? Well, maybe. But I have a feeling that it is also connected with the strong individualism that is so important in our society.
However, this is not the first period in history that super-heroes have been popular on film. Back in the 1940s, there were a number of movie serials based on popular super-hero characters, including Superman. (Some time I will tell you more about movie serials and their impact on popular culture, but for now let’s focus on the super-heroes.)
The one that started this wave of super-heroes was the twelve-part Adventures of Captain Marvel. It has often been praised as the best movie serial ever produced, and that may very well be correct (at least as long as we stick to soundie serials). The budget and production values were definitely higher than perhaps any other serial around that time, and the script was also uncommonly good. The serial, in fact, made Captain Marvel so popular that for a time it outsold Superman in the comic book racks.
The basic story is not much more complicated than other contemporary serials. A scientific expedition discovers an ancient scorpion statuette and a number of lenses that, when properly combined, produce a fearsome weapon. The scientists decide to divide the lenses between them, so that no one person may hold so much power, but one of them wants it all for himself and starts plotting against the others.
Meanwhile, Billy Batson, the expedition’s radio operator, stumbles upon an ancient man, Shazam, who gives him the power to become Captain Marvel whenever he utters this word “Shazam”. Along with the powers comes the task to make sure that the lenses do not fall into evil hands.
Adventures of Captain Marvel, of course, is not nearly as powerful and polished as Man of Steel. But it has a charm and playfulness that all the new movies lack, and the special effects, though relatively simple and repetitive, are well executed and perfectly adequate. If you are going to watch just one post-1930 serial, then this is the one.
This film is best enjoyed one episode a day, or less. More than that will quickly cause Billy Batson over-dose.
Adventures of Captain Marvel
Running time: 3 h 36 min
Directors: John English, William Witney
Stars: Tom Tyler, Frank Coghlan Jr.
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (630×480, not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable