Before Marvel and DC Comics were the most trusted revenue generators in franchise filmmaking, superheroes had a long and storied history on the silver screen.
Here are some highlights of heroes who all made their first big screen appearances as the subjects of their own serials, a popular cinematic form of the late '30s and early '40s in which a story was told in weekly segments, typically over the course of 12 episodes or so.
Most of these heroes shortly found their way from the serial format into feature-length films and then eventually into television series. These icons have a way of growing with the times, which is why we still know them today and can still catch them on big screens across the nation.
Flash Gordon (1936-55)
As some of the most technically proficient and visually captivating live-action serials of this period, it is easy to imagine a young George Lucas' enthrallment with this series. Flash Gordon ran serials from 1936 to 1940 and a television series in the 1950s. While the television series was airing, the original serials were also being syndicated on T.V. That's a lot of Flash Gordon for a young George Lucas to take in. The original serials were all renamed so as to not cause too much confusion (Space Soldiers (1936), Space Soldiers' Trip to Mars (1938), and Space Soldiers Conquer the Universe (1940)).
Star Wars fans will likely recognize quite a few similarities when watching the old Flash Gordon shows, beyond the blonde, athletic space crusader premise: the look and movement of the opening narration scrolls; the old-fashioned wipes used to cut between scenes; the braids of Queen Fria, which bear a striking resemblance to Princess Leia's earmuffs. Flash Gordon was an obvious early inspiration for George Lucas; he even tried to buy the rights to Alex Raymond's books, the original tales of the space hero. Fortunately for all those who cannot imagine a world without a Star Wars universe exactly how it is, Italian auteur Federico Fellini beat Lucas to the rights of Raymond's books, and Lucas had to concoct a intergalactic saga all his own.
Delve into a universe that could've been! Explore the world of Flash Gordon and his retro sci-fi galactic squad!
Dick Tracy (1937-47)
From comic strip to filmstrip, this hard-boiled detective was on the case in back-to-back serials, Dick Tracy (1937) and then Dick Tracy Returns (1938). Two more serials followed and then a bevy of features beginning in 1945. In quick succession came Dick Tracy, Detective (1945), Dick Tracy V.S. Cueball (1946), Dick Tracy's Dilemma (1947), and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947).
Co-starring the inimitable Boris Karloff, Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome is the most respected of the franchise. All the Tracy films have a film noir aesthetic, but with Karloff in the picture, the shadows deepen and urban crime takes on a weirder, more monstrous aspect. This film is the closest in tone and tenor to the exceptional 1990 revamp, starring Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, and pop icon Madonna.
No, Antonio Banderas did not create Zorro. The man with the "Z" calling card was swash-buckling long before Banderas made it to Hollywood.
Between 1937 and 1949, five serials were made of the masked avenger and one feature-length film. The Mask of Zorro feature (1940), starring Tyrone Powers and Basil Rathbone, is a remake of the 1920's Douglas Fairbanks picture of the same name, but Fairbanks has nothing on Powers' fencing prowess. His climactic duel with Rathbone in the Mask of Zorro remake is not to be missed!
This feature-length treatment of America's favorite swordsmen was bookended by several serial adaptations, as well. Beginning with Zorro Rides Again (1937), the serials follow tangential adventures of the mysterious crusader, including an eventful trip down to Mexico in Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939).
Some of the other serials simply borrow the name Zorro to capitalize on the character's popularity and instead tell of a different hero, similarly dressed and fighting similar battles, like Zorro's Black Whip (1944), which stars Linda Stirling as the protagonist. Rather than a sword, she subdues evildoers with a black whip—hence the name, the Black Whip. Apart from the title, Zorro never receives a single mention in the series, but you can feel the presence of his very marketable influence in each and every episode nonetheless.
The Lone Ranger (1938-57)
The Lone Ranger (1938) and The Lone Ranger Rides Again (1939) serials are considered Republic's best westerns out of the twenty-some the studio produced. Soon to follow was a television series, running from 1949 to 1957, the highest-rated program on ABC at the time, and then a feature length film in 1956.
Few heroes have had such an indelible impact on the American cultural imagination. Even if you've never seen the show, you'll surely recognize the finale of Rossini's William Tell Overture as "The Lone Ranger Theme Song". The same is true of the Lone Ranger's famous declaration, "Hi-yo, Silver," as he spurs his trusty stead into action. Whether or not you've ever seen the show, you certainly know its hallmarks.
The Green Archer (1940)
Not to be confused with the similarly woodsy, leotard-clad, Green Arrow of DC Comics origin, the Green Archer was born from Edgar Wallace's 1923 novel and was the subject of the one of the best-remembered serials of the 1940s.
More folklore than superhero, the Green Archer is the protector of the Bellamy family's good name and estate. When a wayward brother offs the more noble son and begins using the family estate as the headquarters for his jewelry-theft ring, the Green Archer springs into action to set the wrongs right. The Green Archer serials have all the trappings of a Victorian gothic, complete with trapdoors, secret passageways, and dumbfounded detectives.
Watch cops and robbers tangle with the supernatural in The Green Archer!
The Green Hornet (1940-41)
Newspapermen know how to get down and dirty. Just ask Clark Kent, or better yet, ask Britt Reid, managing editor of The Sentinel by profession, masked vigilante the Green Hornet by calling. With the help of his tricked out cruiser, Black Beauty, his Korean manservant, Kato, and all sorts of gadgets Kato devises, the Green Hornet dedicates himself to busting up racketeers and taking down crime syndicates.
The serial ran for two straight years with The Green Hornet (1940) and The Green Hornet Strikes Again! (1941), and created a legacy that carries on to this day. In 1966, The Green Hornet television show premiered. It only lasted a season but is remarkable for co-starring Bruce Lee as Kato, who decidedly upstages the Bitt character played by Van Williams.
Superman Cartoons (1941-43)
1941 marked Superman's first animated appearance. The Fleischer Studios, owned by Paramount, released nine short episodes of Superman, considered some of the greatest achievements of the American Golden Age of Animation. The first episode was even nominated for an Oscar in the Best Short Subject: Cartoons category. The Fleischer Superman cartoons stayed true to Superman's extra-terrestrial origins. These episodes maintain a science fiction theme, with Superman stepping in where regular men are outmatched by robots, dinosaurs, and various other threats from outer space.
In 1942, Famous Studios took over the Superman shorts and made eight more episodes in the series. The look stayed the same, but the storylines became much more topical. Superman went from an alien of Krypton to a full-blooded America, in spirit at least, if not in birth. He started going toe-to-toe with the Japanese and Germans in match-ups thick with propaganda. Even a beaten and exasperated Hitler makes a cameo in the latter half of the series.
Catch a glimpse of the American evolution of America's greatest hero in these Superman serials!