With Shazam! opening in theaters everywhere in less than two weeks, the upcoming DC Extended Universe film isn't actually the character's live-action debut on the big screen. Thursday, Mar. 28 marks not only the anniversary of the comic book character's first cinematic adaptation, but also the anniversary of the first superhero to be adapted for movie theaters, both in terms of live-action and animation.
Released in 1941, the same month as the creation of Captain America by Timely Comics, Adventures of Captain Marvel starred Tom Tyler as the eponymous superhero, with Frank Coghlan, Jr. appearing as his childhood alter ego, Billy Batson.
The adaptation, by Republic Pictures, ran as a 12-part black and white movie serial, a multi-part series of short films that would run ahead of feature films along with a cartoon and newsreel. Using the character's original name before subsequent legal troubles led to a division of the name and the character between different publishers, Adventures of Captain Marvel predates the Fleischer Studios produced Superman cartoons by six months, yet owes its big screen origins to the Man of Steel.
For some time, Republic had attempted to obtain the cinematic licensing to Superman, only to be outbid by Paramount. As part of National Comics' (DC Comics' precursor) licensing agreement with Paramount, the deal excluded other studios from adapting Superman in live-action, as Fleischer Studios was tasked by Paramount to produce the cartoons. Undeterred, Republic reworked its script for a planned Superman serial to instead star an original superhero known as the Copperhead before entering a licensing agreement with Fawcett Comics to adapt its flagship property Captain Marvel.
In an effort to stop the adaptation of the comic book, which rivaled Superman's own comic sales at the time, National Comics attempted to file a legal injunction preventing Adventures of Captain Marvel from entering production, citing Republic's previous efforts to adapt Superman, only to have its motion denied. However, National's legal efforts to prove Captain Marvel as derivative of Superman would continue throughout the following decade, ultimately leading Fawcett to stop publishing Captain Marvel comics with the trademark obtained by Marvel and the rights to the character obtained by DC.