Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941, William Witney and John English)

About seventy percent of Adventures of Captain Marvel is narratively useless. Nothing occurring in chapters two through ten has an effect on how the story actually turns out. The serial has a great first chapter involving a tomb robbing archeological expedition in Thailand. Radio journalist Frank Coghlan Jr. is along, presumably to do a story but mostly just to do grunt work. He refuses to participate in the most egregious tomb robbing. Good move as native tribes (on horseback on the great Thailand tundra) attack the expedition.

Turns out only Coghlan can save them; an old wizard has just given him the magic word and now Coghlan can “Shazam” himself into a superhero. Tom Tyler plays the superhero, Captain Marvel. It’s unclear why, if he’s the defender of Thai relics, he’s a white guy. It’s also unclear why his name is Captain Marvel instead of something Thai.

Adventures of Captain Marvel raises a lot of questions about its superhero, in particular why Coghlan so rarely uses the magic word–is it budget or the screenwriters or some kind of screen time obligation to Coghlan. The five screenwriters have very little interest in the superhero story. It’s essential so Tyler can have big action sequences, but there’s no time spent on Tyler’s “character.”

It turns out to be the right move, as Tyler’s acting is far more effective when he’s viciously superheroing than when he’s speaking.

Back to the narrative relevancy imbalance. If every chapter of Captain Marvel were great, it wouldn’t matter. Then the narrative moves back to the United States in the second chapter and drags things down so much, the only way for Captain Marvel to end is to take the action back to Thailand. Sure, the cast is smaller–because Captain Marvel has become a “masked villain you work with” thriller and has been shedding suspects–but no one’s bringing anything new on the return. It’s not like Coghlan’s a better superhero now. Or they have any idea how the masked villain, The Scorpion, operates. Everyone’s the same, there are just less everyones.

If Adventures of Captain Marvel had a good finish, maybe the time it wasted getting to that finish wouldn’t matter so much. But it doesn’t have a good finish. While the serial doesn’t get cheap in the middle portion, it does get a lot less grandiose. Especially considering the big scale of the first and final chapters. Most of the action in the middle section takes place in expedition leader Robert Strange’s house. There he meets with the expedition as the unknown Scorpion kills them off, one-by-one. Coghlan is just hanging around, saving the day (either himself or Tyler), and getting crap about it from Strange and company. The only people concerned about the safety of the expedition members are Coghlan, Louise Currie, and William ‘Billy’ Benedict. Currie is Strange’s secretary, Benedict is some kind of gopher for the expedition. Coghlan, Currie, and Benedict are pals. It’s this odd win for Captain Marvel how well the trio works together.

Shame Coghlan doesn’t tell Currie or Benedict about his superhero side. It leads to some really strange scenes with Tyler interacting with Currie or Benedict. Well, usually Tyler’s saving Currie. The serial will occasionally–and literally–tell Currie to sit out the action, but otherwise she’s just ending up in trouble. Sometimes it’s Coghlan who saves her, sometimes it’s Tyler. If it’s Tyler and he has time, he’ll turn back to Coghlan so… Coghlan can take the credit for the superheroics. The reasoning behind when and why Coghlan says the magic word–and how he doesn’t seem to realize it’d be better to fly as Captain Marvel than to take your plane–it perplexes to say the least.

Or it would perplex, if it didn’t just seem like disinterest from the screenwriters. It doesn’t matter though, because Adventures of Captain Marvel is all about its special effects and action sequences and they usually deliver. The special effects always deliver, the stunt work always delivers, the action delivers just so long as it isn’t too close to the cliffhanger edge. Adventures of Captain Marvel has got some weak cliffhangers. Especially since they often involve Tyler doing something stupid and being in danger for it.

Tyler does a lot of stupid things. Coghlan does them too but those are more grand gestures. Coghlan full of daring do and lets it cloud his rational judgement. Tyler will just do something completely idiotic, usually something where his superpowers could easily resolve it, and then get slapped down. He’s not slapped down as character development, just to end of the chapter. Tyler is–and not in a bad way–a golem in Captain Marvel. None of Coghlan’s exuberance or personality “carries” to Tyler after the magic word. When Tyler finally does get to say something, it’s a shock. It’s a few chapters in and, until then, it wasn’t even clear Tyler would talk other than to say the magic word.

Tyler’s likable though. The bad guys are bad in Adventures of Captain Marvel and there’s a visceral thrill to bulletproof Tyler tossing a bad guy in the air. William Nobles’s photography is good enough it only looks like a dummy every throw. Everyone works hard to integrate the special effects (including superhero stunts). The serial showcases them, careful never to let the “reality” come through too much. Flying Captain Marvel is a dummy on wires himself, which both is and isn’t obvious when watching. Empirically it’s obvious, but during one of the Adventures? Empirical doesn’t matter so much. Raw technical expertise wins out.

There’s some good acting throughout. George Pembroke as one of the suspects. Kenne Duncan is the Scorpion’s top henchmen stateside and he’s a good bad guy. Not a great part, but Duncan brings presence. Currie is fine. She has very little to do and the occasional bad scene, but she’s fine. Benedict has less to do than Currie but gets to be more active in those scenes. He’s fun.

And Coghlan’s a solid lead. He’s not great, but he’s solid.

If Captain Marvel were just Coghlan carrying it until Tyler shows up and then the special effects take over, it might be able to work up enough momentum to get through. Even with the closed loop narrative. But it’s not just Coghlan. It’s the scheming Scorpion and the petty expedition members and so on. Somehow–regardless not just of billing, but also screen time–it feels like Coghlan and Tyler have the least to do in Captain Marvel. Once the action beat is over, Tyler says the magic word and disappears into Coghlan and Coghlan disappears into the background.

It’s unfortunate Captain Marvel doesn’t work out. It’s not disappointing as its clear a few chapters in the serial isn’t coming together.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by John English and William Witney; screenplay by Ronald Davidson, Norman S. Hall, Arch Heath, Joseph F. Poland, and Sol Shor, based on the Fawcett comic book by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker; director of photography, William Nobles; edited by William P. Thompson and Edward Todd; music by Cy Feuer; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Frank Coghlan Jr. (Billy Batson), Tom Tyler (Captain Marvel), William ‘Billy’ Benedict (Whitey Murphy), Louise Currie (Betty Wallace), Robert Strange (John Malcolm), Harry Worth (Prof. Luther Bentley), Bryant Washburn (Henry Carlyle), John Davidson (Tal Chotali), George Pembroke (Dr. Stephen Lang), George Lynn (Prof. Dwight Fisher), Reed Hadley (Rahman Bar), Jack Mulhall (James Howell), and Nigel De Brulier (Shazam).


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