This is especially gratifying as Republic Pictures' library generally and its serials specifically heretofore were for years hard to see and backwoods releases from old-time VHS companies like Nostalgia Merchant offered only expensive, fairly blurry renderings that really didn't do these serials justice.
Kino seems to recognize that there is a market out there for these films, and beginning with weaker titles like Flying Disc Man from Mars and The Invisible Monster (1950), has strategically been "building up" to more important serials like Daredevils of the Red Circle (1938), maybe Republic's best-ever chapter play, and Adventures of Captain Marvel. (Correction via Gary Teetzel: Flying Disc Man from Mars and The Invisible Monster were, in fact, Olive Films releases. Thanks for catching that, Gary.)
As Tom Weaver points out in his commentary on Chapter 1, unless you're over 70 you probably never had the chance to experience serials as they were meant to be seen, in 35mm, on a big screen, one of 12-15 chapters per week. For the uninitiated, serials were short subjects presented in movie theaters. Though serials date back to the early silent era, when one speaks of serials today it's usually in reference to the serials produced from the 1930s through the mid-‘50s. The first chapter normally ran three reels (about 30 minutes) while all of those that followed ran two reels (around 17-19 minutes). Virtually all of these sound era serials were produced by one of three companies: Universal, Columbia, and Republic. Serials remembered today tend to be sci-fi/fantasy (Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers) and/or revolve around superheroes (Batman and Robin, Adventures of Captain Marvel), but there were Western serials, jungle adventure serials, crime-fighting serials, wartime intrigue serials, etc. The form peaked in the late 1930s and early-‘40s, and went into sharp decline as television began making such fare obsolete. The best serials are still enormous fun, but absolutely should not be viewed in a single marathon sitting, but rather no more frequently than one chapter per day.
Over the years there were attempts to recut serials into normal-length feature films, resulting in dizzyingly fast-paced and incomprehensible movies; and showings of the entire serial in one marathon sitting, a brain-numbingly repetitive experience. Until Blu-ray came along, serials generally looked pretty terrible on television and home video. Many important serials, including Universal's Flash Gordon (1936-40) trilogy, Buck Rogers (1939) and Gang Busters (1941); Republic's Undersea Kingdom (1936), Jungle Girl, King of the Texas Rangers (both 1941), Perils of Nyoka, Spy Smasher (1942), and Captain America (1944) are among the titles crying out for HD restorations.
By the late-1940s, Republic got lazy and cheap with its serials, but Adventures of Captain Marvel is impressively lavish, varied, and at times impressively clever, including what this reviewer considers to be the most ingenious (and ingeniously simple) resolution to one of its cliffhangers, when a guillotine drops toward Captain Marvel's neck, threatening to decapitate him.* (Spoiler below) Serial cliffhangers were notorious for their wild cheats, but like Daredevils of the Red Circle, Adventures of Captain Marvel's writers came up with some pretty smart resolutions.
When Republic couldn't get the serial rights to Superman, they turned instead to Fawcett Comics' cut-rate Superman clone, Captain Marvel, and as Weaver points out in his commentary, vastly improved upon what was an incredibly silly and juvenile comic book series.
A team of archeologists surveying the Valley of Tombs in Siam discover a sealed crypt bearing the Golden Scorpion, an idol with thick quartz lenses which, when correctly aligned, emits powerful energy beams capable of both destruction and alchemy. (Handy, that.) Along for the ride is young radio broadcaster Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan, Jr.), who stumbles upon the resurrected ancient wizard Shazam (Nigel De Brulier), who empowers Billy with the powers of Captain Marvel. When Batson says the word "Shazam!" he becomes the nearly indestructible superhero (now played by Tom Tyler).
Back in America, the lenses are distributed to the various members of the expedition for security reasons, but among them is a criminal mastermind determined to acquire the golden scorpion and its lenses for nefarious purposes. Calling himself the Scorpion, and his identity hidden under flowing black robes and a black hood, he and his henchmen begin stealing lenses and murdering various archeologists, while Billy Batson/Captain Marvel, with help from Batson's friends, Betty Wallace (Louise Currie) and Whitey Murphy (Dead End Kid/Bowery Boy mainstay William Benedict) try to thwart the Scorpion's efforts and identify the master criminal.
Adventures of Captain Marvel is so good and was so successful, nearly all of Republic's (and other studios') later superhero serials emulated the same basic set-up: mysterious masked villain trying to acquire parts for a super-weapon, one of a party of elder statesmen types; the villain sending henchmen out to do his dirty work, alternately succeeding and failing due to the tenacity of the hero and his pals, etc. Some of these components were already engrained in movie serials, but Captain Marvel locked some others into place until the age of movie serials faded in the 1950s.
Besides the frequent cleverness of the writers getting Batson et. al., out of various jams, many factors set Adventures of Captain Marvel apart from other superhero serials. For starters, Frank Coghlan, Jr. is very appealing as Billy Batson. A former child actor, Coghlan has just the right mix of gee-whiz wide-eyed enthusiasm coupled with an agreeable ordinariness. Unlike the square-jawed hero of so many serials, he's a main character audiences could really identify with, one immensely likeable to boot. As his alter-ego, Tom Tyler lacks the warmth of George Reeves's later TV Superman or the playfulness of Christopher Reeve, but he looks the part and aided by Republic's super stunt team (Dave Sharpe and others), combined with Howard and Theodore Lydecker's outstanding full-scale flying Captain Marvel effects, the illusion is complete and still impressive today.
Video & Audio
Newly mastered in 4K, Adventures of Captain Marvel doesn't look quite as pristine as the previously released Daredevils of the Red Circle, perhaps owing to Captain Marvel's greater popularity and overprinting of the original negative. The opening titles, in part, look terrible, presumably because reissue titles were cut directly into the original negatives and lesser-quality original title material had to be used instead. Generally though, the image looks great, with inky blacks and loads more detail than any previous home video or broadcast version. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono (no subtitle options) is fine and the disc is region "A" encoded.
Audio commentaries duties are spread across the various chapters, with some commentators pairing off. They include Jerry Beck, Chris Eberle, Shane Kelly, Boyd Magers, Leonard Maltin, Adam Murdough, Constantine Nasr, Donnie Waddell, Tom Weaver, and J.D. Whitney (son of co-director William Witney). I haven't yet listened to all the tracks, but those I've listened to thus far have been enormously fun and highly informative. Matt Singer provides the booklet essay, "The Power of Shazam: The Adventures of the Movies' First Comic-Book Hero."
One of the all-time best movie serials, Adventures of Captain Marvel is enormous fun for the whole family, and a DVD Talk Collector Series title.