Considered by many to be the finest serial ever made, Adventures of Captain Marvel chronicles the exploits of "The World's Mightiest Mortal" as he combats the Scorpion, a hooded villain intent on obtaining six optical lenses that turn ordinary stones into gold! Highlighting the serial were the fabulous flying sequences by Republic's ace special effects team, Howard and Theodore Lydecker. Combining a wired dummy photographed against real backgrounds in natural sunlight, with spectacular take-off leaps and landings supplied by action ace, David Sharpe, the final effects are still as fascinating today as they were in 1941.
Adventures of Captain Marvel marked the very first time a comic book superhero's exploits were transferred to the silver screen, and the resulting 12 chapters have yet to be equaled in excitement and entertainment.
Kino Lorber offers superhero fans and film historians a real treat with their Blu-ray release of Adventures of Captain Marvel, a theatrical adaptation of one of the most popular comic book characters in the world. Long before any version of Superman would ever hit the big screen, the caped and high-flying exploits of Captain Marvel flew into theaters in 1941 as a movie serial which now considered to be the finest of its kind. Today, superheroes rule cinema with a vengeance, but the Big Red Cheese (as he was nicknamed) was among the very first to make a live-action appearance. Now, all twelve chapters of his series are available in high definition video for a new generation to enjoy and appreciate. Casual fans of the genre will want to give this disc a spin just out of curiosity, but serious collections will want to reserve a place for it on their media shelf.
Adventures of Captain Marvel originated during a time where television was still relatively new, and costumed heroes appearing anywhere other than on pulp paper or on the radio were even rarer. Debuting in Whiz Comics #2 (there was no issue #1), young Billy Batson, an orphan living on the streets, is led to the old wizard Shazam, who bestows upon him the powers of gods (Soloman, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury), which are invoked by uttering a single magic word: "Shazam." A bolt of lightning then transforms the child into an adult, complete with costume and cape, and ready to fight for truth, justice, and the American way.
Captain Marvel first appeared in 1941 for Fawcett Comics as their answer to National Periodical Publications (later DC Comics) Superman. Soon, he became even more popular than his Kryptonian inspiration, selling millions of copies per week and generating spin-off titles like Mary Marvel (sister to Billy Batson), Captain Marvel, Jr (not exactly Superboy, but a younger version of Cap), and other members of the Marvel Family (Hoppy the Marvel Bunny and a geneticallt unrelated, non-powered relative called Uncle Marvel). Naturally, DC Comics sued Fawcett for copyright infringement, but the decline of comics sales in general led to the closing of the studio's line and abandonment of their heroes in the mid-1950's. Like Captain America, Captain Marvel lay dormant and out of sight from the public until DC bought the rights to the character in the early seventies and put him back into print with his own title, now called Shazam! A few years later, a live-action Saturday morning TV show re-introduced the character to mainstream audiences and enjoyed a modest degree of popularity until its cancellation after three seasons.
I was a fan of the very quaint Shazam! TV show since super-powered heroes were a boob tube rarity, especially in the early 1970's. The old black and white Superman series starring George Reeves was just too darned old, and too darned black-and-white for me to appreciate during reruns. Shazam!, on the other hand, looked modern and more realistic and had a main theme I found uplifting and sweeping (remember, I was a just a dumb kid at the time). I watched the show religiously, even with the disappointing replacement of the main character with a different actor in the second season. (The stately Jackson Bostwick had now transformed into the pudgier John Davey, though neither looked like Captain Marvel as he appeared in print.) Bad special effects and weak stories also sorely tested my faith, but back then, Shazam! was all we got and we made do.
Adventures of Captain Marvel is more faithful to the original comics than Shazam! (which actually never provided an origin story) ever was, and the action scenes are far more imaginative and advanced despite primitive special effects. Whereas fans of the Fawcett character must have been utterly puzzled by the TV show (a long-haired Billy Batson riding around in a motor home with some old guy actuallty named "Mentor?"), there is no doubt that the serial gave viewers a close adaptation of the comics. The costume is an accurate visual reproduction of what first appeared in the pulps (complete with a sash for a belt, a modest-sized cape and button down tunic), even if actor Tom Tyler is pretty far removed from the beefy, squinty-eyed Fred MacMurray-type which filled out those tights. Similarly, there is only one "elder" who makes an appearance, namely, the old Wizard Shazam himself, who chooses young Billy
This origin is integrated very early within the storyline, which is stretched over twelve episodes. The first chapter clocks in at a little over thirty minutes, while the remaining Chapters run at less than eighteen minutes apiece. The whole serial revolves around the discovery of an ancient weapon called the Golden Scorpion, whose power can be harnessed by its multiple lenses which when aligned, emit energy beams. Billy Batson is a radio announcer accompanying the American archaelogical expedition including friends Betty and Whitey. The main villain is a masked and robed figure called The Scorpion, and both hero and villain engage in a series of confrontations over control of the weapon where perils are continued with each successive adventure.
Tom Tyler is suitably wide-eyed and naive as Billy Batson, and Frank Coghlan is appropriately grim-jawed and serious as the Big Red Cheese. Suspense is at its greatest point with the endings of each chapter, as our hero is faced with a certain disaster that seems all but hopeless to escape. Thankfully, we breathe a sign of relief to find that the danger had in fact, been skillfully avoided, thanks to random luck or an act of ingenuity not previously seen. For example, Chapter 8 ends with a bound and gagged Billy Batson, whose doom seems certain when a bomb falls from above and strikes its target. (Viewers will quickly discover that Captain Marvel's own version of Kryptonite comes in the form of gags which leave him speechless and in a vulnerable state.) Fortunately, Chapter 9 reveals that Billy actually avoided his fate thanks to some added footage which clearly shows the gag falling off, thus allowing him to say his magic word before the bomb struck. It's definitely a letdown (indeed, all cliffhangers are resolved by some anti-climactic cheat) and the manipulation is obvious, though effective and we accept it.
While remarkable for its time, there is no doubt modern audiences may not be as enchanted as their (great?) grand-parents with this brand of entertainment. The production values are impressive, but the story, acting and dialogue are typical of its period. Scenes shot outdoors often look grand and cinematic (if not repetitive), while indoor scenes are far more modest when it comes to realism. Dialogue is exchanged in serious, clipped tones when drama ensues, and in flatter tones when during more static moments. I tried to recruit my pre-teens (corrupted by an occasional diet of mindless blockbusters like Transformers and Jurassic World) to watch several episodes as I provided my own running commentary ("See, unlike Superman, Captan Marvel doesn't have heat vision..."), but their squirming and sighing prompted me to relieve them of their duties. Not even the cliffhangers would compel them to wait for the next exciting episode, much to my disappointment. (It also doesn't help being forced to sit through the same beginning and end credits time and time again even in fast scan.) Personally, I would have loved to have this series available to me when I was a kid, when comic books come to life was limited to the 1960's Batman show, Spider-Man making a cameo on The Electric Company, or even Eddie's Father moonlighting as the Hulk.
The special effects are fun and work within the context of this series, where craft was more important than art. If nothing else, the Blu-ray allows for close examination while asking the question, "how did they do that?" Strings, mannequins and stunt people are amusingly visible during the action scenes, but all these elements just add to the film's charm. This series won't keep you at the edge of your seat, but it will provoke smiles throughout.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray:
Adventures of Captain Marvel is presented as a single Blu-ray disc, but thoughtfully packaged in a standard Blu-ray keepcase. The BD50 disc carries all 216 minutes of the twelve episode main feature. The cover art is reversible with stylized illustrations of our hero, and a brief, but well-written description of the main feature. A nicely illustrated booklet written by Matt Singer is included, along with a title catalog for "Kino Lorber Studio Classics."
Adventures of Captain Marvel is presented as 1080p/AVC-encoded MPEG-4 video, preserving its original black and white picture with its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (according to the boxcover) and vertical pillarboxing on each side of the frame. The Blu-ray is advertised as being "Newly Re-mastered from a 4K Scan from Paramount Pictures Archives!" and there is no doubt that even casual viewers will be impressed at the detail and clarity of a 75-year-old film.
Overall picture quality depends entirely on the condition of the original print, and can vary from scene to scene and from chapter to chapter. The first ten or fifteen minutes of Chapter One made my eyes pop with its clean and crisp look. But, as the movie progresses, defects become more pronounced with vertical lines littering certain scenes, and special effects shots looking more ragged, no doubt due to the multi-generation copies and varying film stock. Some chapters look especially detailed and squeaky clean, and others suffer from light damage. The inconsistency may dismay some viewers, but I had little problems in adjusting to the changes.
Adventures of Captain Marvel is presented in two-channel mono, encoded in DTS-HD Master Audio. The sound is better than one might expect from such a "primitive" source. The sound is hard, but not unpleasant and music, dialogue, and sound effects are well-balanced for problem-free intelligibility.
Once in long while, the original soundtrack betrays its age and source material with an occasional audio drop-out or two. The music score is naturally full of somewhat shrill highs and an absence of lows. Dynamic range is AM-radio quality at best, but volume is consistent from episode to episode and complements the picture well.
The commentary channels showcase all the guest voices with great clarity and excellent articulation. The individual narration is as well-recorded as any modern production and creates an intimacy as though the commentators are in the same room.
According to some quick research, Adventures of Captain Marvel has appeared earlier on VHS and DVD released by other studios, none of which I have reviewed. The commentaries listed below are exclusive to Kino Lorber's Blu-ray and, therefore, will be featured in our HD Exclusives section.
Comic book superheroes were once a rarity in Hollywood. Sure, we had Superman in 1978, and Burton's Batman movie became a pop culture event in 1989, but those films were far and few in between. After a few discouraging flops like Supergirl, Batman and Robin, Cannon Pictures' Captain America among others, the genre was reinvigorated by Marvel-based films like Stephen Norrington's Blade, Bryan Singer's X-Men and Jon Favreau's Iron Man. (I know fans and movie historians will disagree with me on the chronology, but that sort of fight is deferred to the Message Boards...).
Today, Hollywood seems to be run by comic book characters and their epic adventures, where anything previously printed on pulp paper can be brought to life thanks to modern technology. Every year I keep thinking that the fad will die out due to superhero overkill, but I've been proven wrong again and again. (Maybe Justice League will be the beginning of the end?) The live-action adventures of the Big Red Cheese debuted thirty years before its last incarnation, and it will now be nearly fifty years until we see another version in the flesh; that is, assuming the long-announced Shazam! and Black Adam movie actually move forward into production. I believe that the Good Captain deserves to be updated for the silver screen, but I have doubts that it will ever happen.
So until the world is re-introduced to what was once a character who was able to stand toe-to-toe with the Man of Steel, this Blu-ray release more than satisfies those who want more Shazam! in their life. Adventures of Captain Marvel won't necessarily make you believe that a man can fly, but it will make you believe that superheroes existed then as they do now.