MOVIES ABOUT ONE OF SUPERMAN’S EARLIEST RIVALS — BUT FIRST…
I haven’t said much about Apple in recent months. Mostly it’s because they haven’t put out anything completely new, and political issues about monopolistic restrictions on third parties are still works in progress. The watchword is modest or less when it comes to new Apple gear and operating systems. It’s almost as if Apple has setup up a Keynote presentation with bullet points, where minor updates to products are listed. Each year, they go through the last and add the ones that developers can perfect, or at least make workable, within the appropriate timeframe.
So the iPhone 15 Pro may be the bee’s knees for some people, particularly if you haven’t upgraded in a few years. If you have an iPhone 14 Pro, you’ll probably prefer to sustain a yawn and get on with your business.
But let’s look at the main topic of this column, about things super or marvelous:
Superman — perhaps the world’s most popular super hero, had basically sci-fi origins. While the source of his powers has changed somewhat over the years, these days it’s about living on a planet orbiting a yellow sun. If he were to visit a planet orbiting a red sun, such as the now-destroyed Krypton, he’d be nothing more than another human with all its attendant limitations.
Over the years, the comic book versions of the character have changed in various ways. He was even killed and brought back to life.
Superman has also been featured in radio shows, TV and, with mixed results, the movies.
Even you younger readers may still be familiar with the iconic portrayal of the Man of Steel by George Reeves in the 1950s series “Adventures of Superman.” While Reeves wasn’t the best actor taking on the role, his friendly demeanor and that distinctive twinkle in his eyes when Clark Kent spoke about his alter ego captured a huge audience.
As most of you know, Reeves’ life was mired in controversy because of his death in 1959. I recall the headlines in one of New York’s tabloid newspapers, “Superman Shoots Self.” But some still maintain to this day that Reeves was murdered. Regardless, there are 104 half hour episodes of the show that are still being watched to this very day despite the sometimes silly plots and cheap, clumsy special effects.
Superman debuted in a comic book, Action Comics, in June 1938. In passing, the creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, sold the rights for a song. As the character became more and more profitable to its owners, Warner Brothers, lawsuits ensued, resulting in a settlement of the claims by the heirs for the creators in 2008.
Then there is the checkered history of his main rival, Captain Marvel. And, no, I’m not talking about the female super hero from Marvel.
The character was created by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker in 1939, and it debuted in Whiz Comics, published by Fawcett, in 1940. While Superman had a sci-fi-based origin, Captain Marvel was a magical hero. So young reporter Billy Batson was granted his powers by an ancient wizard. When he pronounced the wizard’s name, “Shazam,” he metamorphosed into a tall, imposing, costumed super hero with a wide range of amazing powers. Sometimes he was regarded as the “world’s mightiest mortal.”
Over the next decade, Captain Marvel was a huge hit for Fawcett until the boom fell.
Superman’s publisher, then known as National Comics, sued Fawcett because they regarded Captain Marvel as a knockoff. In a settlement, Fawcett agreed to consign the character to a premature retirement.
Rather than go into the Captain’s various existences over the years, particularly the juvenile-oriented TV series broadcast from 1974 ro 1977, I will, instead, mention a 2019 movie, “Shazam,” from Warner Bros. While they cannot use the name Captain Marvel anymore, a variation of the original character is now the property of what was once the biggest rival to the original version.
The basic premise, however, remains essentially the same. When he says “Shazam,” young Billy Batson becomes a superhero. The major change is that, rather than being a broadcast reporter in his late teens, the new version of Batson is a young teen, a resident of a foster home. When he becomes his heroic alternate, he retains the personality of a youngster. In the film, featuring comic actor Zachary Levi as Shazam, he still struggles with teenage angst and has no clue of the extent of his powers until he tries them out.
In some ways, Levi behaves in the same goofy fashion as Tom Hanks did in the 1988 movie, “Big.” In that film, a 12-year-old boy, one Josh Baskin (notice he similarity to Billy Batson) becomes a 30-year-old man when he recites his wish to become a grown-up to a fortune telling machine. But mentally he’s still a child. Ditto for Shazam, and also some of the expected silly jokes about a boy in a man’s body. Levi supposedly bulked himself up to better fit the costume, and his comic chops are in evident in its goofiness.
Sometimes the silliness is overdone, especially when the super villain of the film, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, arrives. It takes a while for Shazam to figure out how to properly fight and exploit his super powers. At the end of the film, Batson’s friends also become super heros.
While “Shazam” was a modest success, with a global box office totaling $367.7 million, compared to a budget of less than $100, it’s 2023 squeal, “Shazam! Fury of the Gods,” was a financial disaster. It took in $133.8 million with an estimated budget of $125 million. Roughly speaking, a film has to earn back at least two or three times its original cost to become profitable, so that’s a huge loss.
It also puts the character’s cinematic future in serious doubt, and that’s too bad.
But I still recommend the movie, although it’s not the best iteration of the character.
For that, I’d recommend you check out the 12-chapter Republic Pictures serial, “Adventures of Captain Marvel,” from 1941. Obviously black and white, it featured western star Tom Tyler as the titular hero, with Frank Coghlan, Jr. as Batson.
The casting choice was perfect. Tyler very much resembled the comic book character, and had the appropriately rich baritone voice.
Typical of a movie serial, each chapter ended with a cliffhanger, where someone is put in mortal danger with a car crash or explosion, only to deliver a fast solution in the next. Often it’s a matter of jumping out of a car just in time, or, in one case, Batson shakes off the gag in his mouth to issue the “Shazam” command. Once Captain Marvel appears, he rescues his friend, Betty, and they leave a cabin before its hit by an airborne bombing run.
Its basic plot involves the recovery of the Golden Scorpion, an artifact of great power, by an archaeological team traveling through Siam. When its lenses are oriented in a certain way, it can turn a rock into gold. In another, it can cause destruction.
The villain, also called Scorpion, is revealed at the end of the film to be one of the members of the expedition who manages to kill off his fellow scientists before Captain Marvel saves the day.
Now the Captain may be the world’s most powerful mortal, but he has his limitations. He doesn’t seem to fly very fast, because he’s slow to catch up with a speeding car. And he is vulnerable to electric shock, which knocks him out briefly a couple of times. And here’s the spoiler: He was only brought into existence to protect the artifact, and, in one of the final scenes of the film, he buries the artifact, the voice of the wizard “Shazam” speaks his name, and Captain Marvel disappears, leaving Batson without his super powers.
In other words, there will be no need for an “Adventures of Captain Marvel II.” If you watch it — and it was free on YouTube last I checked — please suspend your disbelief. It has plot holes so large that you can drive trucks through them. The fight scenes, while well staged, never seem to result in any physical injury. Nobody bleeds, and even though some of the characters are knocked unconscious over and over again, they never suffer from such expected injuries as a concussion. Then again, it was meant for children as much as adults, so the controlled violence is understandable.
For a low budget black and white movie, though, the special effects, particularly the flying scenes, are passable.
I only wonder how Captain Marvel might have fared without the lawsuits, and if its original concept had formed the focus of the stories through the decades. Maybe, then, that “Shazam” movie might have better realized the character’s true potential.
In the meantime, we still have Superman, and his next iteration is expected in 2025, in a film to be named “Superman: Legacy.” It will feature David Corenswet (known for the Netflix series, “The Politician”) as the title character, and Rachel Brosnahan, recently off her amazing run in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” in yet another role she was born to play, Lois Lane.
Hopefully the film will stake a middle ground between the comic book excesses of “Superman: The Movie” (1978) with Christopher Reeve, and the grim violence of “Man of Steel” (2013) starring Henry Cavil. For now, my favorite portrayal of the character is the ongoing CW TV series, “Superman and Lois,” featuring magnificent portrayals by Tyler Hoechlin and Bitsie Tulloch.
THE FINAL WORD
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