Archive for the ‘Superheroes’ Category

When saving the world was simpler

adventures-of-captain-marvelRecently I watched my first ever bona fide serial, Adventures Of Captain Marvel, which is actually the first time a comic book super hero was shown on screen. 12 chapters full of hair-raising adventures and ridiculous plot, and this serial, considered one of the finest ever made, sure gave me appetite for more.

Serials were short programs which ran in American cinemas during the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s before the main feature, just to wet the audience’s appetite. They usually had between 12 to 15 chapters and each chapter ended with what came to be known as a “cliffhanger”, a situation which left our heroes in some nasty trouble, and if you wanted to know how they escaped it you had to watch the next chapter.  A synonym for a serial is a “chapterplay”.
Indiana Jones and Star Was were hugely influenced by the old serials, and those movies in turn gave rise to a host of imitators and countless other pop culture phenomenon like the Lara Croft game series, for example.

The Sylvester Stallone film Cliffhanger has nothing to do with serials, though.

I sit and ponder (as I am fond of doing) the naivety of the old serials. Just like a child, the art of film was in its infancy back in those days. Today, especially following films like The Dark Knight and Iron Man, it’s hard to imagine a superhero story which concentrates solely on action and doesn’t bother at all with inner conflict of any kind or different shades of gray. AOCM tells the story of Billy Batson who, after a meeting with an old Siamese wizard (don’t ask) gets the power to turn into Captain Marvel in times of distress and danger. All he needs to do is say the word Shazam aloud and puff! Captain Marvel appears to save the day.
If this story would’ve been done today, surely the writers would have explored the way Billy Batson handles life with an alter ego about three feet taller than him and wearing tights. What does this do to his ego, to his social life? Does he see the world differently as Captain Marvel? What are the psychological ramifications of this new change in his life?

But do we really want to know all this? Let me quote Lt. Bookman from the classic Seinfeld episode “The Library”: “I remember when the librarian was a much older woman: Kindly, discreet, unattractive. We didn’t know anything about her private life. We didn’t want to know anything about her private life. She didn’t have a private life.”

This serial’s aim is to deliver escapism. In some ways, it makes it endearing and most importantly, fun. After being used to complex storytelling in film and especially TV, there’s something refreshing about it in a dated sort of way. Nothing is too complicated. There are one dimensional bad guys and one dimensional good guys and they all beat the crap out of each other. And the bad guys are great. Fantastic villain and superb evil henchmen. And when you’re doing a superhero adventure, it’s only as good as your villains. Some great stunts and effects in this one – this serial, done in 1941, preceded the famous Superman serial by eleven years – and Captain Marvel is no Superman, and I mean it in a good way. There’s a scene in which he grabs a machine gun from a couple of Bad Guys. When they turn to flee he… are you ready? Shoots them in the back! Yeah, he’s not superman. He’s mean and violent, he cracks their heads and throws them through windows. He’s almost like Superman would’ve been if he was Batman.

So I miss it sometimes. I miss simplicity. Really, being an adult is so complicated these days. Everything is so fucking complicated. One of the reasons I love old adventure films so much is because many of them were so straightforward.  In this day and age that wouldn’t fly (pun intended). We have become much more cynical, jaded and sophisticated viewers, just like the world we inhabit.

True, many of the old serials have retained their nostalgic value and not much else, but still, AOCM has a place in film history just for the reasons mentioned above. Its influence, and serials’ influence in general, can still be felt in current Hollywood popcorn movies.