Early Superhero Movies: 1920 to 1948

I’m no expert on superhero films and even less on the comic books that spawned them, but the recent release of The Dark Knight Rises on Blu-ray started me thinking about the historical development of the cinematic superhero. As a result, I’ve come across what appear to be some of the earliest incarnations of cinematic superheroes, ranging from 1920 to 1948. It’s interesting to note that all bar one of these characters still holds cultural currency today.

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Zorro isn’t a superhero you say? A masked crusader with a secret identity who goes around saving people from organised criminals – that’s a superhero (or at least the beginnings of one). This film was a vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks, later to be known for swashbuckling roles like Robin Hood (1922) and The Thief of Baghdad (1924), and he would later go on to star in the sequel, playing the son of the original Zorro.

Much has been made of the influence of Zorro on Batman, a relationship that has been confirmed by Batman’s creator, Bob Kane. Also worth noting, the Zorro character first appeared in an All-Story Weekly serial just a year prior to the film’s production, but the character was based on nineteenth century bandit, Joaquin Carrillo Murrieta, often referred to as the Mexican Robin Hood.

The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)

While this particular hero has been largely forgotten by the general public (my understanding is that this is not entirely the case in the comic book universe), he is the very first cinematic incarnation of the contemporary superhero. He has a cape, powers and he can fly.

Perhaps the most subtle and striking contribution this 1941 serial gave to the world was the word “shazam”. The movie details the adventures of a young boy who, due to a series of superhero-like incidents, gains the power to turn into Captain Marvel by screaming “shazam”. Captain Marvel must take on The Scorpion, a shrouded figure who can probably lay claim to being the first true superhero-nemesis.

Batman (1943)

We all know who this fellow is, but most of us probably haven’t seen this particular version. This WWII era Batman serial casts him as a government agent, dedicated to bringing down the evil Prince Daka, the head of a Japanese espionage syndicate situated in Gotham’s Little Tokyo. There are some rather uncomfortable moments of blatant racism, very much a display of the cultural clime.

Possibly the greatest triumph of the 1943 version was the invention of the bat cave, something that was not originally present in the comic book series. This serial was popular enough to warrant the production of Batman & Robin in 1949 – also worth a look.

The Phantom (1943)

1943 also saw the Phantom hit the big screen for the first time in this classic serial. The narrative has The Phantom killed by a Nazi on the hunt for sacred objects with magical powers of some sort, only to be replaced by his son (as is tradition of the Phantom), who seeks out to save the day and get revenge.

Captain America (1944)

In this serial, Captain America is in fact Grant Gardner, District Attorney, whose arch nemesis is none other than the local museum curator, Dr. Cyrus Maldor, aka The Scarab. One of the plot points amusingly has Captain America attempting to prevent the Scarab getting his hands on the “dynamic vibrator.”

Dick Purcell, who took on the role of Captain America, unfortunately died of a heart attack before the serial was released.

Superman (1948)

Finally, this serial marked the first cinematic outing of the superhero community’s most well-known character, Superman. The story of Superman is fairly close to the one we know today, although here Superman goes up against The Spider Lady rather than Lex Luthar who appears in the 1950 sequel, Atom Man vs. Superman – Atom Man being Lex’s alter-ego.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

25 thoughts on “Early Superhero Movies: 1920 to 1948

  1. The 1948 Superman was only the first live-action cinematic outing of the character. A series of very good animated films from Paramount predated it by several years.

  2. This has nothing to do with the post, but I wanted to ask you a film question, since you seem to have an encyclopaedic knowledge on the subject. I once saw a snippet of an Australian fim in which a small group of teenagers were sheltering in Sydney Opera House as a nuclear war was about to be unleashed. That’s all I know.

    Do you know what film this might be? Thanks.

  3. The 1943 “Batman” serial, which I own on DVD, is just so bad that it is fun, at least for the wardrobe and the over-the-top jingoism. On the other hand, the racial stereotypes (which you noted) cause me to cringe.

  4. This would make for a very interesting addition to my blog. Especially for those who skipped right over Frank Millers use of the movie Zorro in his Batman: The Dark Knight Returns comic, thinking that this was simply a moot piece of information and without realizing that it was Bob Kane’s inspiration for Batman. Hope you don’t mind my re blogging, ill be adding a little of my own commentary to it as a caption shortly 🙂
    Very interesting!

  5. Reblogged this on Citizens of Gotham and commented:
    This would make for a very interesting addition to my blog. Especially for those who skipped right over Frank Millers use of the movie Zorro in his Batman: The Dark Knight Returns comic, thinking that this was simply a moot piece of information and without realizing that it was Bob Kane’s inspiration for Batman.

  6. You might give “Supergods” written by Grant Morrison a shot. He talks about the influence of superheroes and goes into some excellent details on the characters and their movies.

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