Adventures of Captain Marvel [US 1941]

Info: This review was originally written and published on 02/09/2018. I embedded the fan edit of the movie serial below. This trims down the runtime heavily but you can’t really see the cliffhangers.

THE PLOT

A scientist expedition discovers the tomb of an archaic emperor. The group of researchers steal various artifacts, among them the statue of a scorpion that can transform any material to gold. However, a young man of seemingly pure heart was given the opportunity to transform into a hero with supernatural powers, granted by the spirit called Shazam. Back in the US, the men encounter a villain named the Scorpion, who sends out his henchmen to retrieve his sacred item. What follows next fits the overall story arch of the serialized form: the Scorpion seeks to retrieve the remaining parts of his artifact and hunts down the members of the scientific research group individually. As the Scorpion is always on step ahead, it becomes clear that he must be a member of the original expedition group.

WHAT I LIKE

The overall plot and pacing is entertaining. The action is well presented and although some stunts or the fight choreography seem partly cringeworthy by today’s standards, it is fun to watch the main characters struggle over the pieces of the artifact. The many chase sequences add tension and the mystery about the Scorpion’s identity keeps the viewers thrilled. This is emphasized by the structure of the series: the viewer is taken by the hand and knows what to expect, when cliffhangers are used, and when the next big fight scene will happen – which is by no means a bad thing, given the serial’s other qualities.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

Over the course of the movie, the structure becomes repetitive, as its serialized nature becomes obvious. Many situations (e.g., traps, fight scenes, dialogues) are alike: central plot devices are constantly repeated, as several key characters are often trapped in a certain location, with Billy transforming to Captain Marvel and fighting his way out, always following the Scorpion. Generally, the movie lacks in choreography, acting of side characters and many scenes have a feeling of staginess to them. Of course, one should keep in mind the production values of movies produced in the 1940s, however, there are flaws in editing (e.g., unintentional jump cuts) and even the score is gratuitously used. Considering its serialized nature, these repetitions make for a very familiar feeling – however, when expecting a coherent movie experience, the atmosphere becomes tedious. It does not help, that some fight scenes and dialogues detract from the viewing experience, making the viewer aware of the many shortcomings of the production.

SIDENOTES

At a time, where streaming services have rejuvenated the interest for serialized content, with e.g. Netflix focusing on superhero content, it is worthwhile to check out the beginnings of that genre. From today’s perspective the technical aspects of the movie are mostly flawed, yet the basic premise is well-written, featuring comedic moments, decently paced actions sequences, and interesting settings. Overall, it is fascinating that such a fantastic and adventurous story could be realized in a serialized adaptation at that time. The structure curiously even resembles today’s viewing habits featuring a large story arch without focusing too much on the events of single episodes. In comparison to newer efforts, it seems clear, that the expectations we have towards the genre have changed in quality and quantity. As movies and tv shows provide darker more mature tones and complex shared universes, this serial boasts a more naively entertaining plot, building up tension very neatly and making one care for the characters and follow their misadventures with great interest.

THE VERDICT

The Adventures of Captain Marvel is an entertaining adventure movie with a fun and thrilling main story arch. Evaluating this superhero adventure partly depends on the expectations the viewer holds: as a series of short movies the plot is a blast – if dated in execution; as a single movie, it has a repetitive structure and several tedious moments, as well as bland, almost interchangeable characters. However, as this serial sports a more ingenuous superhero plot than most of today’s offerings, it does have its charm.

Overall 6/10

INTERESTING FACTS

– Remade for TV as Shazam! [1974-1977] and as Shazam! [2019].

– Frank Coghlan Jr., who played Billy Batson, had a cameo in the TV show Shazam! [1974].

– This was the first depiction of a comic book superhero on film, and the failed attempt at licensing National Periodical Publications’ (today: DC Comics) Superman character.

Adventures of Captain Marvel was the 21st of 66 film serials produced by Republic and their first comic book character adaptation (not counting comic strips).

– The effect of Captain Marvel flying was achieved by filming an over-sized dummy that was slid along a fine wire.

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