“Adventures of Captain Marvel”: This 12-part superhero comic serial was spoofed on Night Flight’s “J-Men Forever”

By on June 15, 2016

Adventures of Captain Marvel — now streaming on our Night Flight Plus channel — is widely considered one of the finest movie serials ever made as well as the very first film developed for a comic book superhero, and he just might be more super than Superman, but Night Flight fans may recognize Captain Marvel from his being spoofed as “The Caped Madman” on our “J-Men Forever” episodes.

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In fact, this was originally intended to be a Superman film serial, but Republic Pictures were unable to secure the rights to their planned filmed stories about the Man of Steel from National Periodical Publications (now known as DC Comics), so Republic then turned their attention to another of Marvel’s characters, acquiring the rights to Mar-Vell, as he was originally known, a character who would of course become better known as Captain Marvel, then appearing in Fawcett Comics publications such as Whiz Comics and Captain Marvel Adventures.

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There were some similarities between this superhero and Superman, of course: instead of mild-mannered Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent, we have young Billy Batson, the radio operator and general gopher for an archaeological team of scientists, and instead of Superman, aka Kent’s alter-ego in tights and a cape, here we have Batson’s alter-ego, the caped and tight-wearing Captain Marvel, who is given the ability to use his superpowers by a wizard named Shazam (Marvel’s costume, by the way, which is red in comic books, was actually blue/gray here so that it would film better in black and white).

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In these twelve serialized episodes, Billy Batson — played by Frank Coghlan, Jr. — is granted the powers of the gods and the ability to transform into the flying superhero Capt. Marvel — played by Tom Tyler — by simply saying the wizard’s name, “SHAZAM!” (the word is actually an acronym for the names of the gods and taken together represents 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).

We are told that the story being told here begins in a remote section of Siam, near the Burmese border, a desolate, volcanic land called the Valley of Tombs. This land has been unconquered for centuries before its visited by members of the Malcolm Expedition, who are seeking a lost treasure of “the Scorpion Dynasty.”

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Capt. Marvel’s chief task as a superhero is to protect mankind from the evil masked and hooded villain called the Scorpion, who like most of Republic Pictures masked villains is actually a scientist, one of five on the archeological expedition, where they find a mystical artifact, a scorpion-shaped device, which requires five lenses, which are subsequently divided up by the scientists so that none of them have the ability to actually use it without the consent of each of the other four scientists.

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The Scorpion steals this device and the scroll which tells him how to use it, but he will need all five of the device’s lenses in order for it to give him the complete power to destroy, or to turn items into gold, or to disintegrate his foes, and it’s up to Capt. Marvel to swoop in and “protect innocents from its evil use.”

In each of the episodes the Scorpion is seen using his Scorpion death ray to kill off his competitors one by one while he collects all five of the lens pieces.

The Scorpion’s identity is always hidden by a mask and black hooded outfit, and his voice is overdubbed off-screen, creating an entirely sinister appearance each time he appears onscreen, and if you watch every episode and try to figure out who the Scorpion actually is you’re likely to be very surprised when you find out who it is.

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Captain Marvel debuted on theater screens in 1941, in serialized episodes directed by John English and William Witney and adapted from the popular Captain Marvel comic book character created in 1939 by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck over at Fawcett Comics, and was hugely successful.

Audiences not only loved this ground-breaking comic book character who came to life, but particularly loved the special effects, especially how Captain Marvel is shown flying.

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The SFX are still remarkably effective after all these years, thanks to Republic studio’s visual effects wizards Theodore and Howard Lydecker, who built a 7-foot dummy of the flying hero and suspended him on two taut piano wires, and then intercut that footage with aerial shots taken above the San Fernando Valley, and medium and close-up shots of Tom Tyler shown against a process screen backdrop.

Captain Marvel’s takeoffs and landings were performed by stunt man David Sharpe, a former gymnastics champion.

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Each of the twelve chapter episodes were self-contained stories forming one long series, but they must be watched in order, as each episode always ends with a cliffhanger which typically involved leaving Batson tied up and gagged and unable to utter the word “SHAZAM!”

The first episode is about thirty minutes long, and thereafter the episodes run between fifteen and twenty minutes each, and the entire film is 3 hours and 30-minutes long.

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For years, National (DC) Comics battled with Fawcett Comics over the fact that Captain Marvel was a copyright infringement on their Superman character before Fawcett ended the publication of Captain Marvel comics in 1953. A number of years passed befor DC Comics decided to license the character from Marvel in 1972, purchasing him outright in 1991, and today Captain Marvel comics have been published by DC under the title Shazam.

Then, in 2011 they changed Billy’s superhero name to Shazam as well, and we’re reading that a big budget movie based on the character will appear in theaters in a few years.

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Although actor Tom Tyler (1903-1954) also appeared in a lot of B-movie westerns, he was best known for his portrayal of Captain Marvel.

He starred in a lot of B-movie westerns produced in the 1920s and ’30s by both Reliable Pictures and Victory Pictures, and even appeared in supporting roles in classic westerns like John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) before he signed on with Republic Pictures, who would follow their Adventures of Captain Marvel twelve-chapter film serial with another serial, Spy Smasher (1942), which also based on a Fawcett character, and was also spoofed on J-Men Forever.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.