As I write, it looks like in about a week The Avengers will take over Titanic as the second-highest-grossing movie in North American history (measured in unadjusted dollars). It’s already left The Dark Knight far behind as its nearest box-office rival among superhero movies. What’s somewhat surprising to me are the raves Avengers has received from critics and comics fans alike. It’s not entirely surprising; the film was directed and written by Joss Whedon, a comics fan and former X-Men scripter. But there’s a consensus emerging that Avengers may be the best comics movie ever made—not necessarily that it’s a great or groundbreaking film, but because it captures the essence of the sheer glee a good superhero comic can give you.
I can think of only one film (or series of films) that comes close to Avengers in that respect. It’s not necessarily one you’d expect, though it was once named by Wizard as the best superhero movie of all time. I think it’s worth looking at, to see where the similarities lie, and whether there’s something these films do, something about the nature of the superhero experience that they get and others don’t.
I’m talking about the 1941 serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel. It’s radically different from Avengers in a number of ways. It’s black-and-white; was done on the cheap, and features one character, not a team. The running times are very different (143 minutes for Avengers, 216 minutes over 12 episodes for Captain Marvel). But you could argue that Avengers is the end product of a modern day serial, capping off a run of movies starting with Iron Man that introduced most of its main characters.
Captain Marvel was, like most traditional serials, meant as one ingredient in a full moviegoing experience. You’d go to a see a movie, and get a cartoon, a newsreel, a 20-minute serial chapter, and maybe a b-feature before the main attraction. Captain Marvel was designed to be seen a bit at a time, over the course of weeks; and it wasn’t necessarily meant to be taken as a whole. The filmmakers didn’t assume people would be coming back to the theater week after week to see each episode in sequence. They were trying to create episodes that would entertain a viewer who hadn’t necessarily seen the part before, and might not see the part afterward. It holds together remarkably well.
Young Billy Batson’s a kid reporter accompanying a scientific expedition to Siam that stumbles on an ancient super weapon. A mysterious hooded master criminal called the Scorpion plots to get his hands on the weapon—which, luckily for the plot, divides up into a number of different pieces—but Billy has the power to stop him, a power given to him by an ancient wizard called Shazam. By invoking the wizard’s name, Billy can turn into the powerful costumed hero called Captain Marvel.
Marvel and the Scorpion proceed to battle each other over the course of 12 chapters, involving gangsters, multiple exploding volcanoes, a shipwreck, a plane crash, and almost every other kind of dramatic event 1941 had to offer. It’s one of the greatest examples of pulp fiction in any medium. The masked villain has a secret identity, which is a genuine surprise. The hero has a love interest, constantly threatened by the forces of evil. And there are death traps by the bushel; one, early on, features an electric shock and a conveyor belt that carried the victim to a guillotine. Which means it’s a trap that both electrocutes and beheads you.
Crucially, the structure of the movie works. As a whole the plot is loose and baggy, but it’s not meant to be watched straight through. It’s designed to be episodic, to end each chapter on a (perhaps literal) cliffhanger, with the hero in deadly danger. Each episode resolves the previous episode’s cliffhanger, then neatly moves the plot forward, has a moment or two of humor, gives Captain Marvel something to do (beat up thugs, fly, generally act like a superhero), and ends on another deadly danger. There’s no thematic depth, but there’s a lot of honest, effective craftsmanship. There’s a reason it is often considered the best movie serial ever made.
(It’s worth pointing out as well that the filmmakers were also savvy about what they could and couldn’t do with their budget. The special effects are simple, but remarkably effective. Captain Marvel’s flying scenes are some of the best I’ve seen, accomplished simply by attaching a dummy to a zip-wire and letting it slide along, then cutting to the actor playing Captain Marvel jumping to earth, pretending to find his balance as though he had a lot of momentum behind him. Unsophisticated, but it works.)
So what, beyond craftsmanship, does it get right that Avengers also gets?
It’s necessary to point out that adapting a superhero comic’s an odd proposition. Start with the fact that superheroes have evolved to work in comics; costumes that work fine on the page don’t always translate to film, and masks are a problem for actors used to emoting through visible faces. But more than that, superhero adaptations rarely actually adapt a specific superhero story. You might get an origin on screen much the way you remember reading it, and then perhaps an image or two, or another character, or a situation. But rarely a cohesive adaptation of a specific story or stories, told with the same beats and structure. Mostly a superhero movie is a new adventure of a character fairly close to the one you can read about in comics.
So, we’re talking about a remarkably free adaptation in almost all aspects. Even films like The Crow or Spawn, which kept the same basic situations of the main characters, developed them in different direction. If a typical adaptation uses the text of an original work in such a way as to recapture something of the experience of that work, and provide insight into the text along the way, can that kind of free adaptation do the same? And what is there in the experience of the typical superhero comic that’s worth recapturing?
I mentioned the glee of superhero comics. I think that’s at the heart of what makes superheroes work. It’s a glee that you naturally feel more at age 12 than at 22 or 52 or 82. It’s partly to do with the power-fantasy aspect of comics: the audience-identification figure of the secret identity turns into the godlike hero when danger looms. But a lot more, I think, has to do with the imaginative weirdness of the best superhero stories.
It takes a lot of visual imagination to compose a comics page; to design a cityscape, or alien world, or flying helicarrier, and then depict a scene set there with all your characters visually consistent and placed for the best drama. It takes a lot of narrative imagination to come up with new spins on a superhero character—not just imagining a costume and powers and backstory, but even taking an established character and giving him or her new things to do, new ways to demonstrate what they can do. And it takes a lot of imagination to string a coherent story together when your protagonists have vast powers that by nature can overcome all kinds of plot obstacles.
That imagination, that weirdness, is easy to take too lightly. It’s plagued most superhero adaptations before Marvel opened its own studio: a lot of them had the feel of adults consciously trying to tell a children’s story, and specifically telling a children’s story to other adults. Or the feel of adults not grasping the sensibility of the comics, and merely playing with the surface oddity of the character. Or, more rarely, refusing to admit to any weirdness at all, and determinedly trying to write superheroes with no humor, with every bit of potential imagination firmly grounded in (what the filmmakers believed to be) the real world.
The Adventures of Captain Marvel got around that because it was made at the right time, only three years after the debut of Superman. Just by making a good pulp serial the filmmakers—directors John English and William Witney, and a crew of five writers—put out a story that got to the heart of the superhero. Escapism, if you’re not charitable; or transcendence, if you are. They were working in the idiom natural to the times, and the serial: a quick, low-prestige kind of film story that fit perfectly with the disposable comic book. It’s not a direct adaptation, it takes a few liberties with the origin, but it handles the costume without a second thought, and successfully captures the wonder and joy of early superhero funnybooks.
Times change. Ideas change with them, or else get discarded and forgotten about. A genre changes as new artists work in it. At least one great artist, Jack Kirby, re-defined what superheroes could be. Captain Marvel looks like what it is now, a relic from another age. In some ways that gives it power; it doesn’t do all the things that movies nowadays have to do, doesn’t follow the same narrative structure. Captain Marvel and the Scorpion don’t share a backstory, meaning the movie feels big—who knows how many other death traps and ancient super-weapons might be out there somewhere? And the serial structure means that the story doesn’t fit the bog-standard three-act structure; as the serial ages, it feels fresher and fresher.
Avengers follows the typical modern movie structures, but in odd ways. It doesn’t really waste time with origin stories; the characters have all been set up in other films. And it doesn’t really bother with too-cute plot structures. It gets its characters together, has them fight, puts them in close proximity to build tension, has another series of one-on-one fights against each other and external enemies, then ends with the biggest fight of them all with the team unified against a common threat. It’s simple, but fascinating, and because it doesn’t bother with extended exposition, taking for granted that it’s set in a world of gods and monsters, you don’t know what’ll pop up next and where the limits are—just like the best, weirdest, comics.
I grew up reading Avengers comic books. When I saw the first post-credits teaser on the Internet a few days before the movie was released, promising a future villain, I was walking around happy for hours, unable to say why—except that I knew the character, and knew what kind of stories he implied. I knew the filmmakers had clued in to exactly the right kind of weirdness. After actually seeing the movie, I came out exhausted and stunned. I’d seen things I’d never believed I’d see on a movie screen. Thor and the Hulk in a slugfest. Captain America confronting Nick Fury about SHIELD misappropriating HYDRA weapons. Loki and the Black Widow trying to out-manipulate each other. None of these were necessarily referring to any specific famous scene in any specific issue of the comic book. But all of them felt like the sort of thing you’d expect to see in a really good Avengers story. They had the essence of Avengers-ness.
Many fans are impatient with the early parts of superhero movies—with the origin stories. Nobody wants to see characters learning to be who they already are in the comics. Most superhero origins aren’t great stories; Spider-Man’s an exception, and so is Iron Man, but both Batman and Superman had origins and motivation bolted on to them after the fact, in short pieces written after their debut. For a lot of superheroes, the origin’s effectively a sketch, trivia you can dispense with in a page or so. Deciding not to bother with Batman’s origin was probably the smartest thing in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film. Fans want to see those characters, the ones they know, in their best and biggest adventure ever, in real life, on the silver screen. That’s what Avengers gives you. At the time the Captain Marvel serial was released, that’s what it gave you as well.
It may not be coincidence that after the serial came out, the Captain Marvel comics changed their tone, becoming droller, more whimsical, more like a children’s storybook. And bigger in scope; in an era when comics rarely continued issue to issue, Captain Marvel soon featured a years-long serial in which Captain Marvel fought The Monster Society of Evil. In part the tonal shift may have been a function of the creators’ interests; in part it may have been to differentiate the character from Superman. But it’s interesting to think that in a way it may have been a reaction to the serial. You’d seen Captain Marvel in a straight-ahead superhero story. You’d seen it done really well. Why repeat it? All you can do is take advantage of what comics give you—an effectively unlimited budget, a different publication schedule, a distinct medium—and push those things as far as you can.
There’s something in a good superhero comic worth getting at. But you have to know what you’re doing in order to pull it off. Superhero stories aren’t the most complicated things in the world; in many ways they’re pretty simple. But like a lot of simple things, they can be tricky to get right. Between 1941 and 2012, it’s happened twice. Get that sense of wonder right, put the joy of a comic up on screen, and not only can you make a receptive audience feel like they’re 12 again, you can transcend craft: just by telling the story right you make the story have a meaning. There’s value in that, but it’s not surprising it happens rarely.