As I said last week, Captain Marvel was created by CC Beck and Bill Parker at Fawcett Publications, which originally worked in pulp magazines before adding comics in 1939. CM was originally called "Captain Thunder" when Parker thought him up. By the time Whiz Comics hit the newsstands a year later, his name was changed to Captain Marvel. I've mentioned here before how Beck's original rendering of CM resembled actor Fred MacMurray.
The name "Shazam," which Billy Batson says to transform into CM, is taken from historical and mythological figures — Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury — and CM is endowed with each of their powers and abilities.
CM's stories always had a whimsical feel to them. His rogues gallery of villains included your standard mad scientist (Dr. Sivana), evil counterpart (Black Adam), even a talking worm (Mr. Mind), but they rarely came across as "evil" as, say, the Joker or Doctor Doom. They felt more like a nuisance than a genuine threat.
And then there's CM's supporting cast. You might know about his sidekicks Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. You may even know about the talking tiger. Do you know about the racist comedy relief character, or the fat old man comedy character, or the CM "clones," or even (I swear to god I'm not making this up) the giant pink rabbit? They were all part of the canon for many years.
We'll talk more about CM's popularity next week. For now, let's return to the serial:
Billy sees the slashed wires of the radio, fixes them, hears the warning about the bomb, changes to CM and escapes the cockadoody plane before it explodes. This feels like a cheat because Chapter 3 ended with the explosion, but I suppose it's possible, so I'll reluctantly allow it.
Now the Scorpion has Carlyle's lens. (Why didn't CM continue on Billy's mission to recapture it?) His man on the inside of Malcolm's group tries and fails to take out Billy when he's sent to follow a new lead on the Scorpion. Convenient, isn't it, how Billy unquestioningly does all the leg work for his bosses. At what point will they consider bringing in the police or the feds?
The Scorpion's new henchman, "Orientalist" Chan Lal, captures, ties and gags Billy, making him unable to speak his magic word. Meanwhile, Betty pursues a lead of her own and also gets caught.
Billy manages to cut the gag loose, change to CM and free himself. (When CM appears, his hands, too, are tied.) In the ensuing fight — in which he talks more than he has in the first three chapters combined! — he learns Betty is held prisoner and where. Betty gets away, but injures herself in the process, and her out-of-control car heads for a crash despite being able to make sharp turns on its own...?
Detecting some plot holes in this chapter. There's no reason why CM shouldn't have continued after Carlyle's lens after avoiding the exploding plane. The fact he didn't struck me as awfully convenient!
Tom Tyler speaks! Could it be he was chosen as CM for his looks and physical prowess only? Is that why he was give so few lines? That would explain it. CM is no Batman; in the comics, he's an extremely friendly, cheery kind of character, so it's disappointing to not see that here.
Starting to dig Betty as a character: taking chances on her own, able to do for herself in a tight spot — as the only female character in this story so far, that's good. Louise Currie plays Betty.
I think this is the first time the bad guys evoke the name Captain Marvel since Chapter 1. Once again, no one is shocked at the sight of a man impervious to bullets.
Chapter 5: "The Scorpion Strikes"
CM arrives in time to save Betty. He also manages to capture the Scorpion's inside man (after throwing another bad guy off a roof!). As Billy, he takes him before Malcolm and his buddies (but how did he change back to Billy without the bad guy noticing?), stating the Scorpion gets his information from the flunky so the Scorpion must be one of them.
The flunky is unable to finger the Scorpion after hearing all their voices (the Scorpion wears a mask, remember), but the Scorpion, who really is one of Malcolm's people, manages to secretly slip a message to the flunky, telling Billy to lead him to an abandoned mine.
The Scorpion is there, of course, and he uses the power of the lens inside the scorpion idol to transmute the rockface of the mountain into molten lava, trapping CM inside the mine.
More plot holes! If the Scorpion was in the same room, sitting at the same table, as Malcolm and the others, how was he able to write a note (and sign it with a complex-looking scorpion emblem) and slip it to the flunky undetected?
To the filmmakers' credit, they go to considerable lengths to try to conceal his identity (the opening credits lists him as simply "The Scorpion"): at the point of the note passing, the camera closes in on the flunky's hands holding his hat. As the others pass him by, we don't see faces, but we are aware of some kind of surreptitious contact being made.
This sort of shot composing has been done elsewhere in the serial; it's a clever use of the medium to conceal the Scorpion's identity, but here I think it's too clever.
Billy changes to CM in front of who he thinks is the Scorpion. (The flunky dies in a trap meant for CM.) It was only a decoy, but why is Billy so careless with his dual identity?
In the comics, CM is as powerful as Superman, so one would think being trapped in a mine filling up with lava would be no big thing for him. It's easy to forget, though, that neither CM nor Superman were at the wildly exaggerated power levels they're at today. In the early 40s, they still felt more down-to-earth, more human, so I imagine a threat like this seemed much more plausible to audiences of the day.
Chapter 6: "Lens of Death"
By the time CM escapes the lava flow, the Scorpion escapes. He sends a pre-recorded message to Malcolm and his buddies saying he has all the lenses except one, but later, Billy figures out the message was a ruse to draw out the locations of the lenses so the Scorpion could get them for real.
The Scorpion's men invade the home of Bentley, one of Malcolm's group, and steal his lens, but not after a long fight with Bentley's butler! CM finds them and returns the lens.
Billy's friend Whitey (who also works for Malcolm; he's been part of things all along) checks out the home of Fisher, another one of Malcolm's coterie, and catches the Scorpion as he's about to grab Fisher's lens, but the Scorpion takes out both Whitey and Fisher.
Fisher put his lens in a nook behind a wall, rigged with an electric charge to deter would-be thieves. When CM arrives, he sees the lens in its nook, but as he reaches for it, the Scorpion, in hiding, turns on the switch that activates the electric charge. The shock appears to knock CM out.
William Benedict plays Whitey; you could say he's the closest thing CM has to a kid sidekick. He tried to warn Billy about the bomb in the plane. He gets into a shootout with the Scorpion in Fisher's library, but he somehow fails to notice the Scorpion passing him along the length of the room before he sneaks up behind him and knocks him out. Yes, the room was dark, but it wasn't that dark!
That was one tough butler Bentley had! I mean, seriously, his fight with the Scorpion's goons goes on a fair amount of time, long before CM arrives, and he, too, is not surprised at the sight of a man in a funny costume flying through the window. Maybe he should've gotten an adventure serial of his own!
Next week: CM as pop culture figure