The Legacy of Superhero Film Serials: Early Adaptations, Crude Licensing Agreements, and the Case of Republic Pictures’ ‘Captain America’ (1944)

Presentation at the Superheroes Beyond Conference, convened by the ARC-supported research group Superheroes & Me and hosted by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne, Australia — 6–8 December, 2018.

In addition to three days of parallel panel sessions organised around various topics, the conference schedule featured several highly insightful and engaging special events, including keynotes by Trina Robbins and Dr Sheena C. Howard and the panels ‘Australian Comics and Their Creators’ and ‘Inside the Minds of Cleverman.’ These sessions were video recorded and are available for viewing on ACMI’s YouTube channel. Live Twitter commentary of the entire conference can also be read at #SuperheroesBeyond and #ACMISuperheroes.

Other highlights of the conference include its affiliation with the VR experience Superheroes: Realities Collide (free at ACMI’s Screen Worlds exhibit until April 2019) and Cleverman: The Exhibition (free entry at ACMI, also until April 2019).

This conference followed the 2016 Superhero Identities Symposium—also convened by Superheroes & Me and held at ACMI—and aimed to extend scholarly enquiry on the superhero genre beyond traditional definitions and common perspectives.

At the Superhero Identities Symposium in 2016, I presented research on Superhero intellectual properties and the industrial relations and collaborations between movie studios and conglomerates, using the Spider-Man property license and the movie Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) as case study. This research is due for forthcoming publication in 2019.

For the recent Superheroes Beyond Conference in 2018, my research considers the legacy of superhero movie serials of 1940s Hollywood, which provide evidence of early superhero movie adaptations and unrefined licensing agreements; considering movie serials can extend our understanding of contemporary entertainment practices beyond seminal historical examples.


Captain America (1944)

The Legacy of Superhero Film Serials: Early Adaptations, Crude Licensing Agreements, and the Case of Republic Pictures’ Captain America (1944)

The adaptation of comic book superheroes into movie franchises is a decidedly dominant feature of current entertainment, but the history of superheroes in Hollywood cinema extends beyond the contemporary blockbuster period. The historical precedent for this current moment of peak superhero cinema is frequently charted back to the beginning of the blockbuster era of the late-1970s with Superman (Richard Donner, 1978), and the conglomerate era of the new millennium with X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000) and Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002); however, these milestones only trace part of the ‘historical narrative’ of the superhero movie adaptation.

Comic book superheroes have been adapted for cinema since the classical Hollywood era in the form of film serials, which were short cliff hanger narratives that screened weekly before Hollywood features typically
as part of a Saturday matinee program. The superhero genre was significant to the film serial form, with The Adventures of Captain Marvel (Republic, 1941) being the first Hollywood production to adapt a costumed superhero property from a comic book; this initiated a decade-long genre cycle until the decline of the film serial form in the 1950s.

Republic Pictures’ 15-chapter film serial Captain America (1944) is noteworthy because it reveals the unrefined licensing arrangements of superhero properties during this early adaptation period. Only loosely based on the superhero character of the comic books, Republic’s adaptation of Captain America is a productive example of what I call ‘crude licensing agreements,’ which are common during this early adaptation period and pay very little attention to a consistency of brand or narrative mythos—indeed, in Republics’ film serial, Captain America wields a gun instead of a shield.

Like the film serial form itself, the cycle of early adaptations of comic book superheroes is significantly under-researched and often marginalised within studies of classical Hollywood cinema and the emergent interest in superhero scholarship. The objective of this paper is to counter this critical deficiency by acknowledge how the history of comic book superhero adaptations in Hollywood cinema extends beyond the contemporary era.

Tara Lomax at Superheroes Beyond Conference, 8 Dec 2019

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