An archaeological expedition in Siam uncovers the statue of a golden scorpion that has immense power. The members share out the lenses that make it work to prevent this great power ‘falling into the wrong hands’.
However, one of them styles himself as super villain ‘The Scorpion’ and plans to take them all. Luckily, a strange old man has bestowed super powers on the youngest member of the expedition, Billy Batson. All he needs to do is speak the magic word and he becomes Captain Marvel, who has super strength, can fly a bit and give the bad guys a damn good seeing to.
Rattling good movie serial that was a popular success on its original release. Rather brilliantly, the filmmakers had stumbled on to a winning formula that was a precursor to so many other projects that it’s now become a bit of a cliché. It’s probably found its most popular incarnations in Spider-man or Harry Potter: the ordinary kid who is really a superhero.
Billy Batson (in the person of Frank Coghlan Jr.) may be plucky and smart, but he’s only the expedition’s eager little gopher; so he’s already an easy point of identification for the youngsters in the audience. And when he transforms into Captain Marvel, he can really take on the bad guys! The only problem was how to present Coghlan as a viable superhero, given his slight stature. But the producers sidestepped that difficulty with simplicity and elegance: they employed a different actor to play Captain Marvel.
Tom Tyler was a champion bodybuilder and star of many a B-movie western, who had also appeared in the title role of ‘The Mummy’s Hand’ (1940). Playing Captain Marvel gave Tyler’s career a shot in the arm as his impressive physique and handsome looks were perfect for the role. He was highly credible throwing The Scorpion’s minions around (although they often looked more like dummies than real people!) Sadly, the career renaissance was not to last as he was reduced to supporting roles after being crippled with rheumatoid arthritis in the mid-1940s. I have read that his strange, shuffling performance as the monster in ‘The Mummy’s Hand’ (1940) was down to this condition, but that hardly seems likely given how athletic he looks here.
Being only a 12-chapter serial, events move at a cracking pace, even if they quite often defy simple logic. For instance, how did The Scorpion burst on the scene immediately as a fully fledged super villain with a secret identity, natty costume and a criminal gang when five minutes earlier, he was just one of the expedition? But let’s not worry about that!
The Scorpion gets his own credit in the cast list in each episode and he’s pleasingly single-minded – no ‘McGuffin of the week’ for him – he’s after those lenses! So who is he? Well, everyone acts so suspiciously that they’re only out of the running once they’ve been knocked off!
It’s all gloriously silly but rather enjoyable because of it! And, for a change, Marvel really gets stuck in; throwing villains from the tops of buildings and cliffs. No pussyfooting around for him. The natives in Siam aren’t portrayed in too sympathetic a light, but guess you have to make allowances for the times.
Captain Marvel surfaced again in the 1970s in the kids TV show ‘Shazam!’, which ran for 3 years and a new film version is in the works with Dwayne Johnson attached. So it seems that the good old Captain still has work to do. Shazam!