Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Billy Batson...Agent of Death (A review of "The Adventures of Captain Marvel")

Throughout the forties, it was quite popular for movie studios to show serialised chapters of an adventure story to entice the kiddies before the main movie began. They usually worked by showing one 15 or 20-minute chapter a week with a story that carried on from week to week (so you'd have to come back the following week to find out what happened).

Superhero serials became very popular throughout this decade and worked as a prototype for the superhero movie and television industry (which I occasionally like to write about, around these parts). The very first of these was made by serial powerhouse, Republic Pictures (who first immortalised Flash Gordon), based on The Adventures of Captain Marvel.

For those of you who don't know, Captain Marvel is probably the most successful direct rip-off of Superman and a lot of people credit this serial as being the reason why. Republic originally asked DC Comics (then called National Periodical Publications) if they could use The Man of Steel and when they refused, Republic instead went to smaller comics company Fawcett Publications and asked if they would license out "The Big Red Cheese" instead. The resulting success of the serial led to Captain Marvel frequently outselling Superman until eventually DC gradually started to buy out the character, securing absolutely all rights to the character by 1994 (which is a pretty good outcome, considering how much justice they've done the character in their stories and it means that Superman and Captain Marvel can have TEH AWESUM FIGHTZ with each other).

The best way to explain the story of Captain Marvel is "What if Jimmy Olsen could magically turn into Superman at will?". In the story, Billy Batson is an ambiguously aged, snappy young radio broadcaster (although given that in the serial version, he can drive a car and hold his own in a fight with professional killers, I'm guessing he's supposed to be at least 18-20). Various do-hickeys and plots lead to him discovering an ancient wizard who endows him with "all the powers" (pretty much just varying levels of super strength, super speed and flight) of the Greek Gods when he calls out the magic word "SHAZAM!" (which as we all know, stands for 'Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury').

In the serial, Billy Batson is part of an expedition of a fictitious faraway land. Out of a group of men, Billy is the only one who chooses not to invade the tomb of the Scorpion and thus is rewarded with the power of Shazam by Santa Claus himself.

(Okay, in case you didn't get it, he's not actually called 'Santa Claus', he's just called 'The Wizard of Shazam').

The rest of the group raid the tomb of its powerful weapon "The Golden Scorpion", which when fully powered, is capable of turning solid rock into "powerful explosives" (I'm guessing it's some kind of laser). The weapon works by harnessing the suns' rays through a series of lenses, which are distributed equally among the men

The only problem is, one of the men has taken up the masked identity of the appropriately named "Scorpion" and slowly begins picking off the men one by one and confiscating their plot-devices lenses so that he can (gasp!) take over the world!! It's up to Billy and his magical powers to stop them.

So is it any good?

I've been hearing for years about how this Captain Marvel serial is one of the best serials ever and that the special effects still stand up today. Honestly, that last part is pretty much true.

The flying effects in this were achieved by a combination of blue-screen (the actor lying flat in front of a projection so that it looks like he's flying through the sky; nothing new there, they do it in pretty much everything that involves someone flying) and an ingenious method of using a lightweight papier mache dummy and sending it down a fine wire, to simulate the appearance of a man flying through the air. In every single one of these "dummy-shots" you never DON'T believe that there's a man gracefully gliding through the air. It's pretty terrific and depressingly superior to anything they did with Superman up until 1978. I'm honestly going to have trouble enjoying the George Reeves' show from now on, knowing what could have been if they'd used some of the effects from this serial.

As for the overall serial itself, I don't know if I'd even consider it the best one I've seen. It's certainly got high production values in terms of set design and special effects, but the acting from most of the characters is pretty dead. In these kinds of things, I would prefer over-acting to under-acting and sadly every actor (save for the guy who plays Billy) under-acts into oblivion. Another fault I have is that there just doesn't really seem to be a whole lot of people in it. The plot basically revolves around the group of men (one of whom is the Scorpion, who has a gang of anonymous thugs) and then Billy and his two friends. Unlike other superhero serials, there's no blustering, incompetent police chief, or nosy reporters or shifty private detectives. To be fair, the serial is bookended with rather full-scale shootouts that take place in the middle-east, involving the Scorpion tribe, but not only do these feel out of sync with the atmosphere of the rest of the serial, they also just feel out of place in what is supposed to be a superhero story. The whole story feels quite enclosed, and even though we're told that the stakes are really high, it's quite hard to believe when the plot only really shows us such a small contingent of people (I have this same problem with Smallville, almost seventy years later).

Tom Tyler, who plays Captain Marvel himself, is fairly good at what he does. He's not given a whole lot of dialogue, but when he does speak, he's usually stern, authorative and a bit menacing. He's certainly not the friendly, goofy boy scout from the comics. It's pretty obvious that they cast the guy playing Captain Marvel not because of his acting skills, but because he was also a stuntman. Most of the scenes with Captain Marvel see him either flying, performing some kind of landing acrobatic, grabbing bad guys and throwing them at other bad guys or getting shot at (with what seems to be actual blanks; they leave a small stain on the costume everytime and the actor is visually stirred every time it happens). Nonetheless, even if he doesn't do much in the way of actual acting, he has a powerful presence whenever he does appear and for my money, he looks a lot more like what a Superman-ish character is supposed to look like than the guys who actually played Superman over the succeeding twenty years.

As for young Billy Batson, the guy's practically Chuck Norris. It's a wonder they didn't call the serial "The Adventures of Billy Batson" and just not bother giving him magical powers that turn him into a superhero. Throughout the serial, Billy (a character who is still in grade-school in the comics) is seen fighting mobsters with his bare hands, driving cars around and chasing after bad guys, saving people from sinking ships and flat-out murdering fools. The guy actually shoots and kills a bad guy in the first chapter and is regularly seen with a gun. To be fair, Billy only really becomes Captain Marvel when he's caught in some kind of inescapable trap (i.e. being gassed to death, trapped in a plane that's about to explode, etc). He never really chooses to become him to, you know, make life easier.

He really only does it in case of no-win-scenarios. At the beginning of one of the later chapters, to show how Billy rescued someone from a sinking cruise ship in the middle of a lightning storm, he doesn't even become Captain Marvel at all. The guy harnesses his-self out to the sinking ship, saves the girl just as the ship plummets, and then swims back with her in tow, never even bothering to use his magical powers to save the day. Throughout the story, none of the characters really react to Billy as being "just a boy" and in one chapter, The Scorpion actually orders his men not to kill Billy because he wants to "reserve that pleasure" for himself! I'd wager that The Scorpion probably hates Billy more than Captain Marvel in this story. I'm not really sure whether it's a good or a bad thing that the writers chose to make the "secret identity" character (who is for all intents and purposes, supposed to be a little boy the target audience can relate to) a courageous man-of-might as the actual superhero of the tale, but it's hilariously awesome nonetheless and I wouldn't change it for the world. Frank Coghlan Jr, who plays Billy is pretty much the best actor in the whole thing as well and injects some much-needed energy in every scene he's in.

The villain of the piece "The Scorpion" is your generic robed, masked, Golden Age Villain. That is to say, he isn't a physical threat at all and schemes from the background for the whole story, while everyone tries to find out who he really is. There's nothing really wrong with The Scorpion and he at least looks as cool as any of the dozen other villains I've seen who are just like him in other things, but I would have preferred it if he was hammy and over-the-top. The Wizard in the Batman and Robin serial is basically the exact same character, but is far more enjoyable because of how hilariously evil he is ("Splendid! With my newfound power not even BATMAN can stop me!!"). On that subject, I am reviewing that serial so very hard in the near future.

Probably my favourite thing about the whole serial is how unneccessarily violent it is. As I mentioned before, Billy blatantly kills a guy and frequently pulls out a gun throughout the story. But I can at least deal with this, because he's supposed to be just an ordinary guy (not to mention, a fucking child who shouldn't really have a chance against these trained hitmen). What's funny though, is how often Captain Marvel himself (a guy who, because of his sheer strength, could non-lethally dispose of any living creature by tapping them once on the head and knocking them out) is seen murdering bad guys. In the very first chapter, he picks up a machine gun and uses it against three crooks. In subsequent chapters, he purposefully takes the time to throw mobsters off rooftops to their doom. People complained when Superman left three criminals to fend for themselves in the arctic in the TV show (spoiler warning... they died trying to escape) but this is far more questionable. "Captain Marvel" should really be called "Kommander Killzone" or "Sergeant Slaughterhouse". It's important to note that Captain Marvel is nothing like this in the comics. If there's anyone who's even gushier and more opposed to violence and general angriness than Superman, it's Cap.  I don't know whether it detracted from my enjoyment or from the quality of the overall serial, but I will say that it was completely insane.

Altogether, I think I'll go ahead and give "The Adventures of Captain Marvel" a score of 8/10.

It's definitely worth a look, moreso if you're a fan of cheesy old-time serials or superheroes. You don't really need to know anything about the comics (I certainly don't, beyond what I've read in Kingdom Come and what I've seen in a few episodes of Justice League). The hilariously unneccessary violence and death makes for fun for the whole family, and I'm going to have trouble thinking of a more badass "little-boy"-character in any medium than Young Billy Batson; scourge of the underworld. The serial really took the formula of "What if you could turn into a grown-up superhero at will?" and expanded it to "What if you were a badass anyway and you could also turn into a grown-up, ruthless super-vigilante at will?". While the ruthlessness of the two lead characters detracts fairly heavily from the source material, it only serves to make the experience far more enjoyable in a kitschy way. It's certainly not as epic as I would have liked, but it's still immensely enjoyable cliffhanger fun. And the special effects are flat-out astounding.

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