The entertainment world has always drawn from a variety of sources, adapting and refashioning them to appeal to new audiences. This is true of the cinema’s early use of comic strips and comic books as inspiration.
Although comic strips were initially adapted for animation in the early 20th century, their live-action counterparts would take a bit longer, particularly when it came to adventure tales that provided an iconic hero. And not all qualify today as a true comic adaptation.
Take, for instance, the sci-fi hero Buck Rogers. A 10-minute live-action film of his adventures was screened at the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair, but the character originated in a 1928 novella before being adapted to a comic strip. Flash Gordon, on the other hand, began life in a 1934 King Features strip before being cast in three Universal Pictures movie serials, each divided into chapters with enough cliffhanger endings to keep audiences returning to the movie theater week after week.
“The seminal superhero characters,” Roger Sabin reports in the Sight and Sound article “The Perils of Strip Mining,” were born in the 1930s-1960s, and their fate was to be adapted into cheap serials, B-movies and low budget television series…” And, no, the first of these comic icons to reach the screen was not Superman.
The first comic book superhero of the cinema was Captain Marvel, the original male version of the character more directly related to this year’s Shazam! film than the female Marvel Cinematic Universe rendition, who also arrived in theaters in 2019. The character was the second choice of Republic Pictures, which had initially attempted to obtain the rights to Superman from National Periodical Publications, today’s DC Comics.
National was very particular about how its characters were rendered on screen and made it clear that it would oversee any script Republic produced for a serial adaptation of Superman. But National’s deal with Paramount Studios for an animated series of the character prevented Republic from obtaining the rights to Superman, so the studio instead approached Fawcett Comics about licensing Captain Marvel. The deal produced the 12-chapter serial Adventures of Captain Marvel.
Because of the Paramount deal, National had to be patient about a Superman serial throughout much of the 1940s. However, Columbia Pictures was able to release another of the publisher’s premiere superheroes, Batman, in an eponymous 15-chapter serial in 1943 that worked as a marketing tool for National’s print version of the character. But the serial also made several additions that would soon become part of the comic book—the Bat Cave and the familiar trim Alfred with a moustache. A sequel, Batman and Robin, was produced six years later.
Two months after the Batman release, Timely Comics, which would become Marvel Comics in the 1960s, signed a deal with Republic Pictures for a Captain America serial, practically giving the studio the licensing rights, according to various sources. Timely also provided copies of its Captain America comics to guide the character’s big-screen debut but didn’t demand control over the script as National had with Superman.
According to Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, in their book The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury, Republic “was notorious…for making arbitrary changes in the characters they adapted from other media. Few, if any, of the changes made in these characters were for the better.”
When the 13-part black-and-white serial Captain America was released in 1944 at a reported cost of $222,906, Steve Rogers, the World War II super soldier who became the agile, shield-wielding superhero, had been transformed into middle-aged Grant Gardner, district attorney and masked crimefighter who favored a gun over a shield, sorely lacked the acrobatics seen in the panels of comic books and had no connection to the Second World War. In the words of Geoff Mayer, in the Encyclopedia of American Film Serials, Republic “basically ignored the comic book…
Superman’s eventual entry into the world of the big screen occurred in 1949 when Columbia turned his origin story into a 15-chapter serial. Superman might have been a latecomer to screen adaptations but, by the early 1950s, he had the most success of all his fellow comics characters with the television series The Adventures of Superman.