So later, I started thinking about superhero movies, and wondering how did they get to be such huge, multimillion dollar franchises? How did this start? What are the links between reading classic comic books and watching your favorite characters come to life?
The very first appearance of a superhero comic book character on film is in Adventures of Captain Marvel, released in 1941. Made by Republic Films, it was a twelve chapter serial based on the Captain Marvel comic book. Superman was supposed to be the first, but things just didn't work out. Tom Tyler starred as Captain Marvel, and the films were directed by John English and William Witney.
More recognizable heroes followed Captain Marvel. Batman was made into a fifteen chapter serial by Columbia Pictures in 1943, starring Lewis Wilson as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Douglas Croft as Richard Grayson/Robin. These Batman serials debuted story details that became part of the hero's canon. The serials introduced the Bat Cave with its secret entrance, and also altered Alfred Pennyworth's appearance, taking him from the overweight butler in the comics to the trim, sophisticated Alfred we now know. These changes were so important, they were carried through into the comics themselves. The Batman serials were a success, and they paved the way for another set of serials, Batman and Robin, in 1949, starring Robert Lowery and Johnny Duncan. They were re-released in 1965 as An Evening with Batman and Robin. Their success in the mid-1960s then inspired the campy Batman TV series we all know and love, starring Adam West and Burt Ward.
The first theatrical release of a Marvel superhero is also the most expensively made serial series, Captain America. Released in 1944 by Republic Films, it starred Dick Purcell as Captain America. It really didn't follow the Captain America storyline, as the main hero was not ripped American soldier Steve Rogers, but a pudgy district attorney named Grant Gardner. He also did not have his iconic shield, did not fight Nazis, did not have his revolver, and his sidekick, Bucky, was nowhere to be found. Really, it was pretty much a letdown.
And of course, in 1948, we have the first film appearance of Superman. Made by Columbia Pictures, Superman was a 15 part serial in black and white, with animated fight sequences. Yes, that's right. Animated fight sequences. They just didn't have the budget for anything else. It stars Kirk Alyn as Clark Kent, who, funnily enough, was uncredited for his work, except on the movie posters. A odd bit of trivia is that because of the mix of animated and live-action footage, Superman's take-offs in flight are almost always shown in the foreground, but his landings always end behind things, like cars or rocks. The transition was easier from live-action to animated in the take-off than it was in the landing, coming from animation back to live-action. So because of the need to hide Superman's landings, he often lands too far away from the action, and must run to catch up with the villain.
Alas, after the decline of the serials, we had to wait until the late 1970s for the next wave of comic superhero films. But it's OK. I think we've got enough now to make up for the time gap. Just keep the Iron Man and The Avengers coming. We'll be the first in line.