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Back in the 1940's, Captain Marvel was quite the trend setter. He was one of the first superhero 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 transform from a normal mortal into a superpowered alter ego , one of the first true Flying Brick 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 first superhero to appear on the big screen.
The Adventures of Captain Marvel was a 1941 film serial starring d 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 hold the ancient 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 kill the other scientists and steal their lenses for himself, to become the most powerful individual on the planet.
All is not lost though. Billy Batson, who was along to report on the discovery, 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 taking over the world.
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 perhaps the best movie serials ever made, with the three Flash Gordon epics being the other contenders for the number one spot.
The Adventures of Captain Marvel provides examples of:
- Adventurer Archaeologist: Most of the cast are these, as its 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.
- All Your Powers Combined: Captain Marvel has the combined powers of several gods and heroes, as spelled out in the first episode.
- A Wizard Did It: In this case, the 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 words, he somehow ends up being gagged a lot. Even though the villains have no clue he's Marvel until the end.
- 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.
- Cliff Hanger: It's a 1940's serial, of course every chapter ends in a Cliff Hanger. Managed despite Captain Marvel's Nigh Invulnerability by either placing his mortal alter ego in danger or presenting him with a threat actually capable of harming him.
- Darker and Edgier: At least compared to the modern comics (the Golden Age comics weren't as Silver Age silly as some people *cough*Dan Di Dio*cough* seem to think). Here, the villain goes around murdering scientists for their lenses, and even Captain Marvel is more willing to threaten and, in some cases, kill his opponents. In a more literal example, since the serial was filmed in black and white, the costume Tom Tyler wore as Captain Marvel was primarily gray and black in color instead of red and gold, making his outfit literally Darker and Edgier than his comic counterpart.
- Death Trap: Played Straight and Subverted. Not only do the villains have several death traps (including a trap that shocks you into unconciousness, rolls you along on a conveyor belt and then guillotines you), several of the Malcolm Expedition scientists have death traps of their own to protect their lenses, including, at one point wall mounted Tommy Guns.
- Flying Brick: One of the first, if not the first, in film.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: The Scorpion spends the entire serial murdering his fellow scientists in order to acquire a magical idol that can completely disintegrate matter, sometimes by employing a tribe of desert dwellers who believe that he is the living embodiment of the god Scorpio. Guess what happens when they find out he isn't?
- I Am Not Shazam: Averted. VHS and DVD covers of this serial are one of the only instances where you can find the Fawcett/DC Captain Marvel called by his name on the box art.
- 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: Averted. While Captain Marvel is the only guy in the serial with out and out superpowers, and normal weapons like guns and blades have absolutely no effect on him, he isn't completely immune to harm. Several times advanced enough technology was actually able to knock him out, and there were a few instances where it seemed like he might actually be killed from things like molten lava. 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, who we never see get 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.
- There Are No Police: With a Malevolent Masked Man going around brutally murdering the scientists one by one, no one ever thinks to call the police.
- Thou Shalt Not Kill: Averted. 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. 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 pull off a passible 'mystical explosion' through a combination of editing and smoke bombs.
- World's Strongest Man: Captain Marvel, by virtue of channeling the Strength of Hercules and being the only guy on the planet with superpowers.