Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) Blu-ray Review: For Loads of Fun, Just Say “Shazam!”

Although the format went extinct long before I was born, I’ve always been fascinated by serials. They’re short-formatted adventures that leave you wanting to come back for more. In the age of Netflix and binge-watching, we don’t really get the same thrill of heading to the local multiplex and seeing the latest chapter that shows us what happened to the hero(es) after the previous week’s cliffhanger.

It’s easy to take for granted that we have full seasons available to watch at home and on demand. Back when something like Adventures of Captain Marvel was released, that wasn’t the case. It was something that people would have to rush out to see each week or they would miss it. They couldn’t watch it at home, and they couldn’t watch it whenever they wanted.

A character like Captain Marvel may not be as well known today as Batman or Superman, but back in the golden years of comic books, he excelled in popularity over those two. He also gets credit for being the first superhero to appear on the big screen, as the serials for both Batman and Superman wouldn’t hit theaters until 1943 and 1948, respectively.

As I was watching the new Blu-ray restoration of Adventures of Captain Marvel, I had to imagine myself as someone from that era experiencing it for the first time. Nowadays, superhero movies are so common that it has somewhat become exhausting to keep up with each one being released. What’s worse is how they’re all connected to each other in a way, and a lot of them follow the basic steps of making a superhero movie that it seems very little effort was actually put into the characters and plot.

Adventures of Captain Marvel is straight to the point. Twelve chapters, culminating to 216 minutes, and the story is complete. There is no sequel setup, no introduction of another character for a spinoff, or anything of that nature. It’s something that I wish could be done again, especially if it’s as exciting as this.

Prior to this, I wasn’t too familiar with the Captain Marvel character, since his popularity diminished from the public view by the time I got into comic books and superheroes. But, in a sense, he’s like Superman in that he can fly and he’s invincible to bullets. Again, Captain Marvel came first in both comic books and serial formatting. His alter ego is Billy Batson, played here by Frank Coghlan, Jr. While Billy and others are out on an expedition, the archaeology team comes across a weapon known as the Golden Scorpion. Its power is enacted when its lenses are aligned, thus creating a powerful beam that can destroy anything in its path.

The main villain in the serial is a masked and robed figure known only as the Scorpion. Even in the credits, in which each actor is captioned with the name of the character he or she plays, the Scorpion plays “himself.” It’s a clever idea that Republic did in order to not reveal the villain’s true identity.

As Billy wanders away from the team, he comes across a wizard known as Shazam. He grants Billy the power to turn into Captain Marvel (Tom Tyler) whenever Billy simply shouts the wizard’s name. As soon as that happens, Billy goes from being a scrawny radio broadcaster to a tall, muscular hero that has to stop the Scorpion and his henchmen before any harm is inflicted.

With the exception of the first chapter running roughly 30 minutes, each episode clocks in at about 16 or 17 minutes apiece. It may seem too short to give the viewer enough in which he or she could get fully invested, but the directors (William Witney and John English) are able to keep the show flowing smoothly with terrific action sequences and enough time to know the characters enough.

With this being the first live action superhero adaptation, I was amazed at how the crew was able to make Tyler fly onscreen, and it didn’t look like something that was in the early stages of adoption. The camera movement and ability to keep Tyler straight as he flies through the air is incredible. It almost rivals a lot of other stunt work that’s being done in today’s superhero films.

The one unfortunate thing with Adventures of Captain Marvel is, for how impressive it looks, especially considering the technology used then is not what it is today, there are some moments in which the serial does come off as dated. Some of the fights have Captain Marvel throwing people around, and it’s pretty obvious to tell that it’s a dummy prop. As Captain Marvel flies, the strings holding him up are easily noticeable.

Despite some drawbacks, Adventures of Captain Marvel is still a thrill to watch. It’s solidly acted, with Tyler being the best part of the whole thing. Admittedly, after each cliffhanger, I was ready to devour another episode. Witney and English knew how to end an episode with having the viewer want more. A lot of it involved Captain Marvel in the face of danger, with death looking right at him. Having seen far too many superhero movies, I knew some things would be played safely. But it’s all crafted well with the choreography of the fight scenes, set to the music composed by Cy Feuer.

The 4K restoration that Kino Lorber has put together looks impressive, but there are some episodes in which it is noticeable that the original film quality was not good, no matter how many times they tried to clean up the image. In some scenes, the dirt and scratches are highly noticeable. There are even some moments where an image will be distorted because of the way the original film was handled.

The special features accompanied on the Blu-ray are commentary tracks by those in the entertainment industry who share their fascination with Captain Marvel, and also dig into the history of the character and the serial. They include Jerry Beck, Chris Eberle, Shane Kelly, Boyd Magers, Leonard Maltin, Adam Murdough, Constantine Nasr, Donnie Waddell, Tom Weaver, and J.D. Witney.

On the inside of the case is a booklet that contains an essay by Matt Singer and images of the serial’s original posters. There is another booklet that explores other Kino Lorber titles, as well as a reversible cover.

Not to be confused with the Marvel character of the same name, who will soon get her own movie with Brie Larson in the title role, Adventures of Captain Marvel is a must for comic book and serial enthusiasts. It may be a little dated by today’s standards, but it is still a blast to watch.

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David Wangberg

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