In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, we’ll cover the first comic book films, ones that still have an effect on today’s comic book films like Captain America: The First Avenger—the superhero movie serials.
While Superman might have blazed the way for the superhero comic book in 1938, his arch-nemesis took the lead in comic book characters being adapted into live action serials. No, it wasn’t Lex Luthor who made the first foray onto the big screen, it was Captain Marvel. Why do I say nemesis? Read on.
Captain Marvel was introduced by Fawcett Comics in the February 1940 dated Whiz Comics #2. He had super-strength like Superman, super-speed like Superman, invulnerability like Superman, a skin-tight costume with a cape like Superman, and a secret identity where he worked as a news reporter. He was also more popular than Superman, starring in the highest selling comic book in the land by the mid-1940s. What might have played a role in Captain Marvel’s greater popularity is the way his character differed from Superman’s. Captain Marvel’s alter ego wasn’t an adult who simply changed clothes to become the hero. His alter ego was Billy Batson, a 12-year-old homeless orphan who sold papers on the street. Through the magic of a wizard, he gained the ability to become the adult Captain Marvel—and got all the powers listed above. Through pluck and determination, he rose from the newsie on the street to a reporter for radio station WHIZ. In other words, he was wish fulfillment, not only for kids who wanted to grow up, but also for people down on their luck looking for hope.
But regardless of what made the character popular, popular he was. Popular enough to become the first superhero to grace movie screens. Republic Pictures produced the 12 installment serial, The Adventures of Captain Marvel. The first installment reached theaters early in 1941.
The serial was quite a bit different from the comic book, eschewing the light-hearted tone of the comic for a more serious, action-oriented format. Billy Batson wasn’t a radio announcer, but a radio technician for a group of archeologists. The wizard, Shazam, doesn’t visit Billy in a subway tunnel but in an antechamber of a pyramid. And the film Captain Marvel had no problem with killing the bad guys.
It’s ironic that the comic would eventually incorporate an Egyptian theme into the books, most notably in the form of villain Black Adam, who was introduced in the comics four years later.
National Comics, precursor to present day DC Comics, served Fawcett with a cease and desist letter over the Captain Marvel character in June of 1941. Did the serial have a role to play in this action? While National had been very proactive in trying to shut down what they thought were Superman clones (they had even sent one to Fawcett years before over their character, Master Man, which Fawcett ceased publication of), certainly the fact Republic went with Captain Marvel when they couldn’t get the rights for Superman from National didn’t hurt.
Since Captain Marvel was such a success, Fawcett fought back. The battle lasted ten years and included one judgment in favor of Fawcett that was overturned on appeal. In 1951, the courts ruled in favor of National/DC once and for all. Fawcett closed up shop and essentially went out of business. In an ironic turn, DC, the company that forced Captain Marvel and the other Fawcett character out of business, paid to license said characters in 1972 before buying them outright in 1991.
There is a full-length Captain Marvel film currently stuck in development Hell at Warners (As of 2009, it was listed as being “dead”). But if you wish to view this serial instead, it can be seen at the Internet Archive.
Captain Marvel wasn’t the only Fawcett character who debuted in Whiz Comics #2 that made its way to the big screen. Spy Smasher was another popular Fawcett character that debuted in that issue, and Republic produced a serial featuring him, titled Spy Smasher, the next year.
If Captain Marvel was Fawcett’s answer to Superman, Spy Smasher was their answer to Batman. His real name was Alan Armstrong and he was a master detective who fought crime (and, of course, spies) with a bunch of handy gadgets and his own fighting prowess.
The serial was more or less true to the original concept, with Spy Smasher battling a Nazi agent in the U.S. named The Mask.
I couldn’t find the Spy Smasher trailer online (although you can watch a three-part You Tube video of the first installment here. But beware! It might be a version of the serial that was edited down for television in the 1960s). However, I did find one of the greatest living directors mentioning the serial by name and telling of its impact in forming one of the biggest film franchises of present day. (Check around the 1:50 mark)
That’s got to be worth something.
Next Time: More serials, as we cover Bats and Marvels.