Captain Marvel, though always considered second best to Superman by most pop cultural historians, has actually bested the Man of Steel a couple of times in their history together. Seeing the second stringer version of the character as he is published today by DC Comics, it is hard to believe that by the year after his debut in Fawcett Comics he was outselling Superman almost 2-1. That was his first win against his blue tights wearing rival. His second, and final victory was making it was the live action movie screen first. You might be able to say he had a third victory in making a better serial than either one starring Superman at the end of the decade.
There is a remote area of Siam that is vigorously guarded by the natives as it is considered sacred. It contains the Tomb of the Scorpion God, which supposedly houses the Golden Scorpion, a statue capable of turning base metals into gold, melting rock, and producing a deadly atom smashing ray. Seeking this priceless discovery comes the Malcolm Scientific Expedition, led by Prof. John Malcolm (Robert Strange).
He and the other scientists Carlyle (Bryant Washburn), Bentley (Harry Worth), Lang (George Pembroke), and Fisher (Peter George Lynn) uncover the tomb and prepare to enter. Teenaged radio operator Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan, Jr.) decides not accompany them, feeling it isn’t right to disregard the religious beliefs of the natives by desecrating the tomb, and goes off a side tunnel to catalogue some minor crockery. Just as the scientists uncover the Golden Scorpion statue, an earthquake caused by the nearby active volcano causes the entrance to collapse, trapping the scientists in the tomb.
Billy is also trapped in the side tunnel. He is visited by the spirit of the great wizard Shazam (Nigel de Brulier), who informs Billy that the discovery of the Scorpion statue can bring death and misery to mankind. Because Billy showed wisdom by not entering the tomb, he has been charged with protecting the world from the evil that the statue could cause. To help with this, Shazam tells Billy that he will be granted the ability to become Captain Marvel; a being with the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury; just by saying the wizard’s name.
Billy cries, “Shazam!” and is transformed in the towering Captain Marvel (Tom Tyler). Freeing himself from the side tunnel, Captain Marvel rushes to the entrance of the tomb and pulls away the large rock blocking the scientist’s inside. Seeing that they are all unconscious, Captain Marvel is able to change back to Billy unobserved by simply repeating Shazam. Billy helps the scientists out of the tomb, where they return to their base camp with the statue.
Since the statue is powered by five specially made lenses, the scientists divide them between themselves, and give the scroll that tells how to work the statue to Billy as he is the only one who doesn’t know how to translate it. Now the statue can only be used if all them are together. Unknown to the group, one of their number wants the statue and its power for himself. Wearing a hood and robe of the legendary Scorpion God, he has garnered the loyalty of the local tribe and uses them to help him steal the statue and scroll from Billy’s keeping.
Fate also works against the expedition as the volcano erupts soon after. This has always been considered a sign that their god is angry, and the tribe attacks the expedition. Billy radios to a nearby army base for help while everyone in the camp piles into vehicles and runs for it. Billy manages to stay behind so he can change into Captain Marvel.
Captain Marvel dives off a cliff into a machine gun nest, where he discovers that he is bullet proof when he is shot at point blank range. After routing the natives in the nest, by shooting them in the back with their own gun, he learns that he can fly and zooms to other spots to battle natives and make sure that the expedition members can get away. He’s so busy he doesn’t see two natives plant an explosive charge on the bridge the expedition has to cross to safety. It goes off and the bridge collapses when the last car is in the middle of it. Inside the car are Carlyle’s secretary Betty Wallace (Louise Currie) and camp gofer Whitey (William Benedict). Their car falls into the river and sinks out of sight.
Some natives try to run down Captain Marvel with their horses, but he simply flies away. Spotting the damaged bridge, he dives into the river and rescues his two friends. Getting them to shore, Captain Marvel turns back into Billy, and the three friends hoof after the rest of the expedition who have met the arriving army.
Once the expedition has returned to the states they all heave a collective sigh of relief at being safe. This is not the case. The Scorpion (voiced by Gerald Mohr) not only controls the native tribes of Siam, but he also has a large criminal organization at his disposal. The Scorpion starts to collect the rest of the lenses immediately by sending his main henchman Barnett (Kenneth Duncan) to kidnap Carlyle. Once Barnett has Carlyle he learns that the scientist doesn’t have the lens with him. Barnett has Carlyle write a note detailing that he will be killed if Betty doesn’t meet the thugs and hand over the lens.
Betty takes the letter to meeting of the expedition members. After some arguing on Fisher’s part to not turn it over, everyone finally agrees to have Betty hand over Carlyle’s lens to save the man’s life. After the meeting Billy takes Betty aside and tells her he has a plan. Billy and Whitey hide in the back of Betty’s car and dive out to hide in the bushes so that they can watch the transfer and hopefully follow the crooks back to their hideout. After Betty hands over a wrapped package to Cowan (John Bagni), Billy and Whitey are discovered. A fight breaks out, with the two teens being on the losing side until Billy is knocked over an embankment, where he immediately transforms into Captain Marvel. Making short of work of the criminals, Captain Marvel lets Cowan get away so that he can follow the thug.
Cowan drives to a deserted building where he hands over the package to Barnett. Barnett opens the package and finds that it is empty. He tells Carlyle that it is too bad for him and plans to throw him into a devise that will knock him unconscious with a jolt of electricity, then drop him onto a moving conveyor that leads to a guillotine. Just then Captain Marvel smashes his way through the barred window and starts mopping the floor with the bad guys. Barnett gets lucky and knocks Captain Marvel into the arc of electricity on the machine, which renders the super hero unconscious. Falling onto the conveyor he is quickly sent to the guillotine, where the crooks are shocked to see the large blade shatter against Captain Marvel’s chest. The bad guys run for it, but not before Barnett shoots Carlyle, who had picked up a gun to shoot at Barnett. Captain Marvel comes to his senses in time to hear Carlyle say he knows who the Scorpion is right before dying without revealing who he suspected.
At the next meeting Betty is hired as Malcolm’s secretary. She says Carlyle’s lens is in the safe at his mountain lodge. Betty is asked to go get it. Billy has Betty take his car, which has a two way radio just in case she gets in any trouble. The Scorpion has Betty captured. Her car is forced inside a large truck and she calls Billy for help right before she is overcome by gas pumped into the back of the truck.
Billy quickly changes into Captain Marvel and flies after Betty. Quickly spotting the truck outside of town, he heads after it. The driver sees the pursuing flying man and jumps out of the truck. Captain Marvel lands on the wildly careening truck and climbs into the driver seat to put on the brakes. He changes back to Billy and helps Betty out of the back of truck. Returning to town they inform the scientists of what happened. Billy decides to take his plane to the lodge in an attempt to beat the Scorpion’s men who obviously have a big head start on him.
After the meeting the Scorpion slips into an empty room and calls Barnett, telling him to have a time bomb planted in Billy’s plane. Betty picks this time to make a phone call and overhears the conversation. The Scorpion leaves before Betty can see who it is. She calls Whitey and tells him what she over heard. Whitey immediately tries to contact Billy on the radio, but the man who planted the bomb also disabled the radio. Billy notices that some wires are hanging loose from his radio and reconnects them. He hears Whitey’s warning, changes to Captain Marvel and bails out. The plane explodes the next moment. Barnett makes it to the lodge first and gets away with the lens.
The next day the expedition’s Siamese guide Tal Chotali (John Davidson) comes to the meeting and shows them a small scorpion statue. He says he found it among Carlyle’s effects. Lang recognizes that only Chan Lai (Tetsu Komai), an oriental curio dealer could have done the work on it. Billy is dispatched to investigate this lead. While leaving he runs into Betty who says she is checking on her own lead. Billy visits Chan Lai’s shop and shows him the small figure and asks who it was sold to. Lai says he hasn’t sold his and takes Billy to his vault to show him. Billy is knocked out, tied up, and locked in the vault.
Meanwhile Betty goes to a garage she had traced the truck that had abducted her to. She discovers that this is a place run by the Scorpion’s men. While trying to get away she is captured by the arriving Owens (Stanley Price). He telephones Barnett for instructions.
Billy comes to and finds himself in the vault. Thinking quickly he uses a knife hanging on the wall to cut through his gag and transforms into Captain Marvel. Snapping his bonds and kicking down the vault door he proceeds upstairs, where he over hears Barnett on the phone tell Owens to get rid of Betty permanently. Captain Marvel bursts into the room, beats the crap out of everyone in it, and holds Barnett over a bed of nails. Either Barnett tells him where Betty is, or he gets thrown onto the nails. Barnett talks and Captain Marvel tosses him aside, then leaps out the window.
Owens plans to knock Betty out with some paint thinner, put her in a car, and send it down the ramp at the top of the parking garage to crash into traffic. Betty makes a break for it while he is getting the ether and jumps into a car. As she is speeding off a thrown wrench hits her in the head and knocks her unconscious. The car runs down the ramp and into traffic, but the just arriving Captain Marvel lands on the car’s running board and steers it to safety.
Owens and two thugs, seeing Captain Marvel, from their position on the roof, know that he will be coming after them. Thinking quickly, the bad guys decide to drop a suspended engine block on the superhero when he flies up to the roof after them. Captain Marvel lands on the roof and advances menacingly towards the three thugs. The engine block is dropped on him, but he easily catches it, then bounces it off one of the thug’s heads. Grabbing another thug, Captain Marvel simply tosses him off the roof to his death.
Scared spitless, Owens tries to get away in an elevator, but Captain Marvel grabs the elevator’s cables and hauls it back up. Grabbing Owens, Captain Marvel starts to strangle the man while demanding he talk. Owens admits he’s never seen who the Scorpion is, but has talked to him. Deciding the man can be of use to identify the Scorpion by the man’s voice, Captain Marvel takes Owens with him.
At the next meeting, Billy shows up with Owens held at gunpoint. Billy explains that he has become suspicious of how the Scorpion always knows their plans and now believes that the Scorpion is one of the scientists. All of the scientists speak in angry protest and Owens hears them. He says he can’t identify the villain. All of the accused men leave in a huff, the Scorpion slipping a note to Owens on his way out. The note tells Owens to take Billy to a trap set up for him and Captain Marvel.
Billy gets ready to turn Owens over to the police, when the thug says he may have been unable to identify his boss, but he can take Billy to where they meet. Billy eagerly agrees. Owens takes Billy to a series of caves outside of town. Walking down a tunnel they see the Scorpion sitting at a table. Moving forward the two men step onto a trap door and fall through. Owens drops down to his death on the spike filled floor, but Billy manages to hold onto the edge long enough to change into Captain Marvel.
Captain Marvel leaps out of the pit and confronts the Scorpion, who taunts the super hero that he has walked into a trap. Pulling the mask from the Scorpion, Captain Marvel discovers that it is just a dummy with a two way microphone attached to the head. He starts to trace the line back to the Scorpion, but the villain is way ahead of him and is using the two lenses he has to melt the rock walls of the cave entrance.
Captain Marvel finds himself trapped in the cave with a huge wave of hot liquid magma rushing toward him. Unsure if he can survive such a danger, Captain Marvel frantically searches for another way out of the cave. Spotting a hole into another tunnel overhead, he leaps to safety just in the nick of time.
Considered one of the greatest serials ever made (the greatest bar none to some fans), this production found Republic firing on all cylinders. Few could argue that The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) contained the best special effects, stunt work, pacing, plot, and acting.
The serial rises and falls on it ability to show Captain Marvel doing all of the things he can in the comic book; changing from Billy to Captain Marvel, super strength, invulnerability, and especially flying. The Lydecker brothers came up with some great visuals for these effects. Changing from Billy to Captain Marvel was a simple effect of having one actor saying the magic word, a puff of smoke and the other actor is found standing in his place. All that was needed was some flash powder and turning the camera on and off. The super strength was even easier to do with light props that look heavy. Actor Tyler really sold some of them, like the engine block, by looking as if he had some trouble lifting it at first.
Invulnerability was also an easy effect to achieve by having him hit with balsa wood constructed collapsible chairs that simply break apart on impact. Having bullets bounce off his chest was shown by having squids, minus any blood pacts, set off so that it appeared that the bullets shattered against his skin. The flying was the most difficult to achieve in these pre-CGI days. The Lydeckers took a paper mache dummy and attached it a line of string strung up between two points at a slight downward angle. Then they pushed the dummy and let it slide down the string.
The flying was enhanced by shots of stunt ace David Sharp doing many energetic take offs and landings from a trampoline. As well as his diving off a tall cliff side to drop onto other stunt men during a fight. Some of his other stunt work includes doing back flips to knock out attackers with his feet, and jumping over hoods to land in front of them.
This serial doesn’t contain a lot of fights due to having an engine of destruction like Captain Marvel as the hero. But some do work their way into an occasional episode, usually involving Billy and Whitey with some thugs. These are a little more exciting than usual due to their not becoming repetitious by popping up all of the time as would become the standard in later serials.
The lack of fights has another advantage for the serial. More time is given to the main characters of Billy, Betty, and Whitey, and how they interact with each other. They come across as real friends instead of just some people thrown together by a situation. There is also some humor in their relationship, as Billy will occasionally pull a small prank on Whitey.
An interesting aspect of the plot is that Billy does not totally depend on Captain Marvel to do everything. He always tries to be self reliant by trying to accomplish what needs to be done on his own. It is only when no other course is open that he then turns into Captain Marvel. This makes the character much more interesting than if he just immediately turned in Captain Marvel for every situation. Captain Marvel is also shown to be more interesting super hero by not being totally invulnerable. He is knocked out several times with electricity, and is seen looking worried when faced with a river of lava pouring toward him. This adds some needed suspense to the proceedings, by making the audience wonder if he might not survive.
The mystery is also well handled. Usually when given a group of suspects you always have one who is way too nice, while there is one who is nothing but antagonistic to everyone. When the grumpy one is killed someone else in the group immediately starts acting the same way until he gets offed. Things continue until only the nice guy and one last nasty guy are left and the nice guy is revealed to be the villain. Here it is different. You still have antagonistic people among the suspects, but no one is shown to be a nice guy, and they all constantly glance at each other suspiciously throughout.
The acting is some of the best ever done in a serial, with the stand outs being Frank Coghlan, Jr. and Tom Tyler as the leads. Coghlan, though twenty-six at the time, looks a good ten years younger. This is helped by his talking in a slight falsetto to give himself a more naïve and inexperienced image while still appearing intelligent. It is a good multilayered performance.
Tyler is awesome as Captain Marvel! A muscular actor with piercing, steely eyes, he was the right person to show that you can wear tights and not look silly. He uses his size to good advantage by stalking many of his opponents while glowering at them. His nonchalant attitude about killing the people he fights is a far cry from the cheerful heroics performed in the comic book, but seems a fitting view point considering how callously the villains act. This is not a man to mess with, ever.
Tyler’s distinctive voice is not heard very often throughout the serial, which adds to his menace. Most of what you get is a “Talk or I’ll….” spat out while choking someone until they almost pass out. The only misstep he gives in the whole thing is when he gives speech at the end of the serial about making the world a better place to live. It just doesn’t fit with the rest of the film.