Comic books first started to appear in 1933 and were generally reprinted newspaper strips. It wasn’t until 1938 with the first appearance of Superman did superheroes start to dominate the format. After Superman appeared and became a hit, the industry changed. From that gave birth to Batman, Wonder Woman and many more but the heroes didn’t make the leap off the page and into film until 1941.
The first superhero movie was 1941’s Adventures of Captain Marvel. DC Comics may have had Superman but with his appearance came the imitators, knock-offs and wannabes. At rival Fawcett Comics Captain Marvel quickly became a best selling comic. In fact it outsold Superman sometimes. Republic Pictures thrived at making serials for theatres and they approached Fawcett to make a Captain Marvel movie after DC turned them down when they wanted to make a Superman serial. The film features the origin of Captain Marvel and has the good Captain flying around fighting bad guys.
DC tried to stop production but failed. The serial was a huge success and Fawcett even made a sequel to it in book form. Superman would also grace the screen later in 1941 but in animated form. Fleischer Studios was asked by Paramount Studios to create a series of animated shorts for theatres. The Fleischer were swamped with work at the time and wanted to pass on the project so they quoted a higher budget hoping that Paramount would decline. Paramount negotiated with them and halved the budget but it still made it on the most expensive animated shorts ever. The shorts were around 10 minutes long and started with the classic “Faster than a speeding bullet.” speech. There was 17 shorts made in total but they would influence generations of filmmakers for years to come.
While other DC characters like Spy Smasher would also make the big screen serials in the 1940’s. Batman would beat Superman to live action status. In 1943 Columbia Pictures would make a Batman serial starring Lewis Wilson as Batman. The film was made during WWII so it has Batman as an agent of the government fighting the evil Japanese. It can get pretty racist. The main villain Dr. Taka (played by J. Carrol Naish) is in the yellow menace/Fu Manchu vein. There is Robin and the Batcave but no Batmobile, just a standard black car driven by Alfred (played by William Austin) whose appearance as a slim butler changed the comic version who was always drawn as overweight into a slim butler. The success of the film spawned a sequel in 1949, Batman and Robin.
Marvel didn’t really exist in the 1940’s, at the time it was a publishing company called Timely. They did have Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s hero Captain America and in 1944 Cap was made into a serial by Republic. Timely wasn’t too happy with all the changes that Republic made to the character. His origin was changed, he was no longer Steve Rogers, he didn’t use his shield just a gun, he had no affiliation with the army and despite being in the midst of WWII and the comic character’s prominent fight against them, no Nazis were used as bad guys in the film.
The decade would end with Superman finally making the big live action screen leap. In 1948 Columbia pictures would make an action serial starring Kirk Alyn as Superman. Most of Superman’s origin was kept intact and he fought the villainess Spider Lady. Superman’s flying scenes were achieved with hand drawn animation. The film was a hit and would set the stage for more Superman in the 1950s.