The 1940s were a monumental period for the science fiction film. Before the end of the decade several important milestones would be reached that have had far-reaching effects on both film-making and science fiction in general. 1948 would mark the end of the Universal Horror series with Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Batman and Robin made their screen debut in serial-form in 1943, with Captain America following in their footsteps the following year. Superman flew onto the scene (pun partially intended) in a 1948 serial, and the first Batman (and superhero) film sequel the year after that. Also, seeing as how the world was engulfed in World War II during the early part of the decade it is not surprising that there was also a call for highly patriotic and inspiring science fiction, both in book and movie form. Out of all of this, however, there was one film (serial, actually, but a film nonetheless) that stands out above the mentioned masterpieces and failures above. This is the world’s first film ever featuring a comic book superhero, 1941’s The Adventures of Captain Marvel. Starring Tom Tyler as the hero and Frank Coghlan, Jr. as his alter-ego Billy Batson, it is widely considered to be one of the finest movie serials ever made, and indeed one of the best of the 1940s.
It was originally intended to be a Superman film, but failure to acquire rights to the character led to the Man of Steel being replaced by the very similar Captain Marvel. At the time Marvel was equally as popular as Superman, but over the years mismanagement and improper treatment led to him falling out of popularity for a long while, during which time Marvel Comics snatched up the rights to the name for its character Mar-Vell, who is also usually known as Captain Marvel. As a result, the modern Captain Marvel character, under the ownership of DC, is called Shazam.
The plot, as with the vast majority of film serials from that time period, has the hero attempting to stop the villain from using a death ray weapon to take over the world. This villain, the original masked mystery villain The Scorpion, is as clever as Marvel is strong and thus is able to foil Marvel’s (and his human alter-ego Billy’s) attempts at capturing him. All that is known of The Scorpion is that he was a member of the same scientific expedition that Billy Batson had accompanied overseas. There, in the desert, the expedition had discovered an ancient scorpion-shaped device that has various capabilities, such as turning any substance into gold or disintegrating people. The device is powered by several lenses, which are divided up by the scientists so that the scorpion device cannot be used without the consent of all the scientists. As this is happening, the young reporter Billy stumbled upon a secret passage that lead him to an ancient wizard who warns him of the scorpion’s dangers and gives him the ability to transform into Captain Marvel (by uttering the word SHAZAM) in order to “protect innocents from its evil use.”
This happens at the perfect time, because almost immediately afterwards The Scorpion unleashed his henchmen on the scientists in order to retrieve the lenses to further his claim for world domination. During his pursuit of the Scorpion Marvel had to contend with attacking Siamese natives, a guillotine, a flood of molten lava, and the constant danger his friends find themselves in. To make some of the cliffhangers even more exciting for 40s moviegoers, there are several instances where Billy Batson finds himself bound, gagged and unable to repeat his catchphrase in order to transform and fly out of danger. Billy is noticeably the only captured character in the film to have had this happen to him, even though the villain does not learn until the bitter end that Billy and Captain Marvel were the same person.
At the end of the final chapter, having exposed the identity of The Scorpion and destroying the Golden Scorpion artifact, the wizard reverted Captain Marvel back into Billy permanently, as there was no longer a need for a protector. It is worth noting that, with the exception of a cheap live-action 1970s show featuring the character that had almost nothing to do with any comic book material that this 1941 serial is the only live-action appearance of Captain Marvel/Shazam, despite its return to popularity under DC’s ownership. Over the past several years, there has been talk of a live-action Shazam film being in the works, but so far nothing has come of it (as of June 25, 2014).
Regardless, no matter what the future has in store for the Captain Marvel character he will always be remembered as the very first comic book superhero to appear on the silver screen.