I’ve been meaning to tackle this topic for some time, but it always seemed to be a little daunting. It still does, but I think if I keep it to the basics (more or less) it might be workable. Considering the plethora of comic book movies that keep festooning our theaters, I certainly feel that some understanding of how this all started is of some interest, particularly with Iron Man 2 on the horizon as one of most anticipated films of the year—or so the endless promotion of it assures us.
It may be hard to believe, but there was a time when the comic book movie was neither anticipated, nor was it hyped. (Let’s be clear—when I use the term “comic book movie” I’m specifically referring to the superheroes-in-tights variety. Adaptations of less fanciful graphic novels are a separate proposition of more recent origin.) As recently as 1966 when Leslie H. Martinson’s Batman brought the Adam West TV series to the big screen, it was hardly an event. It was a relatively cheap attempt to cash in on the popularity of the show—and it looked even cheesier when blown up to the big screen. (If you thought the greasepaint over Cesar Romero’s mustache looked lame on TV, just imagine what his Joker looked like when his face was 15 feet wide.) At best, it was moderately successful at the box office, primarily as Saturday matinee kiddie fare. Ironically, it jumped right in doing the very thing that fans tend to decry about comic franchises today—stuffed itself with multiple villains like one of those late-in-the-day Universal “monster rallies” in the 1940s.
The first time that a comic book movie made a splash of significant import was with the 1978 Richard Donner Superman and Richard Lester’s Superman II (1980), but even these—large and popular as they were—were not entirely serious-minded affairs. The tone was often campy and the villains were very broadly conceived and played. It really wasn’t until Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 that a reasonably serious and dark comic book movie came out .And that owed much to the tone of the modern comics, which, in themselves, had more in common with the earliest adventures of Batman in Detective Comics in 1939.
But what started all this in the movies is something else again. Technically, the first comic book movies weren’t comic book movies at all—they were comic strip movies. And they started life as that most ghettoized of movie creations, the serial. In the very early days of movies—and even into the 1920s—the serial, or chapter play, was not aimed at a specific demographic. Things like The Perils of Pauline (1914) and The Exploits of Elaine (1914) were enjoyed by relatively undemanding audiences of all ages. The first Charlie Chan movie (now lost) The House Without a Key (1925) was a serial. As time passed, however, the serial became more and more the staple of the kiddie matinee idea. When Sherman Krellberg’s infamous (and jaw-droppingly racist) The Lost City came out in 1935, its horror content was so strong that it was pulled from many theaters because it scared children.
In 1936 Universal Pictures made a largely successful effort to create a serial that had adult appeal—and they dumped a fair sum to bring Alex Raymond’s comic strip (“cartoon strip” is how the credits refer to it) Flash Gordon to the screen. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $350,000 went into the making of the serial—an unheard of amount for a serial and pretty substantial for any Universal offering of the era. (Though it ended up costing more, their big production of Bride of Frankenstein the previous year was budgeted at less.) It all looked somewhat more elaborate than it was thanks to recycled sets and props from the studio’s horror films and even footage borrowed from other movies. (There’s an “erotic” dance involving a giant idol that looks suspiciously like it was taken from the 1930 Fox film Just Imagine, and it’s obviously just inserted since none of the characters in Flash Gordon are ever in the frame with this footage.) The impressive musical score is also pilferred from Universal’s library—again mostly from horror movies. But it all made an impression in 1936 and paved the way for two sequel serials.
For better or worse, Flash Gordon is the first comic book—or strip—movie. At the time, it definitely made its mark, its popularity insured to some degree by being a reasonably faithful adaptation of the first storyline from the Alex Raymond comic. Peculiarly, Universal handed the directing chores to writer Frederick Stephani, who previously and subsequently never directed a theatrical film. You might have thought they would have insisted on an experienced director, but to this end they did bring in serial veteran Ray Taylor (uncredited) to punch things up.
Seen today, it’s hard to imagine adults taking Flash Gordon very seriously. Its science is laughable. Its special effects aren’t much better. Its exotic monsters—including iguanas with things glued to them and a man-in-a-rubber-suit dragon with limp-wristed lobster claws—are amusingly hokey. The acting might best be called preposterously stoic with flashes of ham. The action is simplistic and most of it wouldn’t hold up against that seen in a B western barroom brawl. And its storyline is somewhere in the borderland of serviceable and silly. None of which keeps the film from exerting a strange fascination. In fact, its quaintness is part of that fascination.
Where the proceedings fall down on a technical level, they more than make up for it unbridled—possibly unhinged—imagination that often feels like surrealism crossed with a Wagner opera. Depending on where you look—and with 13 chapters, you have a little over four hours of places to look—you encounter cheesy dinosaurs, dubious rocketships of various designs, hawk men (with preposterously cumbersome molded resin wings), tiger men, shark men, an ape with a cow horn stuck in the middle of his head, a bear with stripes painted on him, a city that floats in the sky on atomic rays, etc. The film’s design is marvelously eclectic. Costuming ranges from comic strip basic to ancient Roman to knights-of-the-roundtable chic, to harem girl fantasy to opera epic. The sets comingle Metropolis (1927) with art deco, Egyptian and gothic horror.
The whole dynamic of the evil Ming the Merciless (Charles B. Middleton) and his not so evil, but libido-charged, daughter, Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson), is ripped off from that of Dr. Fu Manchu and his daughter, Fah Lo Suee. Ming’s also vaguely Asian, extending the racist notion of the “Yellow Peril” into outer space. This ,of course, means he’s all a-dither over Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) when he first gets a look at her blonde tresses. Aura has similar responses to the equally blonde Flash (Buster Crabbe), but even though she’s all hot-and-bothered over his large-and-sinewy muscles, she turns out not to be so bad. Still, she’s obviously not a good girl, because she’s bustier than Dale and isn’t reticient about showing this off.
The movie’s not without its beefcake either. Not only is Flash decked out in what appear to be lttle more than tarted-up B.V.D. briefs, but the film is very adept at finding ways to get his shirt off—either through arbitrarily ripping it up in fight scenes, or for the express purpose of the express purpose of showing off Buster Crabbe’s chest. On one occasion, this is even indulged in for what can only be called a sado-masochistic torture scene. In terms of subtext, the sexuality of the serial is the most adult thing about it.
For all its shortcomings—which are many—there is a kind of idiot grandeur to it all. The biggest stumbling block is the length of its serial structure. Anyone sitting down to tackle all 245 minutes in one sitting is going to ultimately find it pretty tough going by the one hour mark. But it was never meant to be seen in a single sitting. Among other things, the filmmakers were counting on the episodes being separated by a week so the viewer might not notice how the next chapter often cheats the cliffhanger ending of its predecessor. At most, these things should be viewed no more than a couple chapters at a time.
Though Flash Gordon qualifies as the first comic-to-screen movie, the influence of its Wagnerian opera tone is in little evidence in its modern counterpart. In fact, its influence is far more noticeable in the George Lucas Star Wars films. In tone and approach, Lucas’s movies are very similar. The special effects may be better, but the rest isn’t all that different—right down to Lucas’ clunky diaogue. The primary difference is that the Star Wars movies are more self-aware. That may or may not be an improvement, depending on your outlook.
The serials that immediately follow—Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938), Buck Rogers (1939) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)—are pretty much more of the same. It’s interesting that it took Universal so long to tackle Buck Rogers since that comic strip first appeared in 1929. Flash Gordon was a direct attempt to copy its success and didn’t come around till 1934.
It wasn’t until 1941 that Republic Pictures brought an actual comic book to the screen Adventures of Captain Marvel, adapted from the character created by artist C.C. Beck and writer Bill Parker. Captain Marvel made his debut in Whiz Comics in 1940. The premise of Captain Marvel is that he’s little more than a kid, Billy Batson, who is given the power to transform into superhero Captain Marvel by invoking the name, “Shazam,” which just happens to be that of the wizard who granted him this power. Of course, as with all such gifts, it has stipulations—mostly that the power only be used in the service of good. Now, Captain Marvel is a bonafide superhero with supernatural strength and the ability to fly—rather like Superman. (In fact, the Superman folks eventually sued.) He’s also supposed to be super smart, though there’s little actual evidence of this in the serial. Also, at least so far as the serial is concerned, he doesn’t appear to be quite indestructible, since in one episode the Captain appears to be in mortal peril from a potentially exploding airplane.
While it would be hard to call the Republic serial an adult work, it does offer less in the way of unintentional laughs as Universal serials. This is partly due to the fact that it’s never as absurdly ambitious as the Flash Gordon serials, but it’s also due to superior effects work by the studio’s resident effects wizards, the Lydecker Brothers, whose model work was always top notch. Most of it even looks pretty darn good today.
The effects, the fights and the production values are all impressive, but the serial suffers a bit from the old gag of making villain—known as the Scorpion (a fact telegraphed by his outfit)—an unknown quantity. The idea is that neither the viewer, nor the characters know the identity of the story’s evil genius. Indeed, he is apparently one of the film’s supposed good guys. That’s fine in one sense as a running plot device, but it plays hell with painting a very persuasive or colorful picture of the evil genius. Long before it’s over, it’s hard not to wish for some of old Ming’s ill-tempered nastiness. All the same, Tom Tyler makes for a pretty good Captain Marvel and the overall cast isn’t bad—though the comic relief of William Benedict is on the tiresome side.
With this successfully made and popular, Batman finally made his way to the serial screen in 1943 with Batman—at least more or less. For reasons of satisfying the production code, Batman (Lewis Wilson) wasn’t a vigilante, but a government agent, making his actions more palatable (even if the police department is unaware of his status). Moreover, the budget prohibited any effort at a Batmobile and Batman and Robin (Douglas Croft) are chauffered around by Alfred (William Austin) in the same limo he drives them around in when they’re Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, which seems a bit shy in the secrecy department. Oh, well. More peculiar is the complete lack of Batman villains, who are instead replaced by Dr. Daka (J. Carroll Naish), head of a Japanese spy ring, who hides behind the facade of a cheesy amusement park ride (in the middle of town) that purports to show Japanese atrocties. It’s very much of its time and just as racist as you can imagine.
At the same time, it’s not a bad serial—especially one from Columbia Pictures, whose serials were usually pretty awful—and its outrageousness is rather fun. Indeed Dr. Daka is one of the very few screen appearances of J. Carroll Naish where I’m not overwhelmed with the desire to slap him around on general principles. Actually, it had its own impact on the comics. The serial’s “bat’s cave” is the origin of the Batcave. William Austin—a reasonably popular supporting comic at the dawn of sound—as Alfred became the model for how Alfred came to be represented in the comics, too, and then there’s the secret entrance through the grandfather clock. It can certainly be argued that the depiction of Bruce Wayne as idle playboy gets old, and much of the film is silly in terms of plotting. (Does the big hulking goon just stand in that one spot in the atrocity ride in case someone happens along who needs bludgeoning? He must get awfully tired.)
In the end, Flash Gordon and its sequels, plus Buck Rogers, Adventures of Captain Marvel and Batman may lack the weightiness of the modern comics-to-film works that have become such a big deal on movie screens. They aren’t weighty at all, if it comes to that. They certainly lack the effects and the production values of their modern counterparts. But they got there first—in all their amazing tomfoolery—and they really do deserve to be remembered.