Backed into a Corner by Smoking Lava: The Adventures of Captain Marvel, Chapter Five: The Scorpion Strikes

Backed into a Corner by Smoking Lava: The Adventures of Captain Marvel, Chapter Five: The Scorpion Strikes

Adventures of Captain Marvel Scorpion Strikes lobby card-smallNow that the ushers have gathered all of the popcorn boxes left from the last show and have safely withdrawn, settle back in your seats. Let the lights go dim and the fun begin; it’s time for this week’s edge-of-your seat episode in The Adventures of Captain Marvel. Today’s chapter: “The Scorpion Strikes.”

Four title cards will enlighten those who were napping last week. “The Scorpion — Traps Billy Batson in Chan Lal’s curio shop.” “Betty — Is held prisoner at the N Street Garage by the Scorpion’s men.” “Barnett — Is forced to tell Captain Marvel where Betty is being held.” “Captain Marvel — Races to her rescue.”

Now, let the arcane arts of the Wizard Shazam transport you to realms of action and adventure undreamed of by those who chose to stay home and play stickball or have a tea party in the backyard with their dolls. Say the name!

A flashback to last week’s nail-biting conclusion shows Betty, unconscious in her car, hurtling down the garage ramps as Captain Marvel speeds to the scene. The life-size flying model is used to show his approach, its cape rippling in the wind as it moves diagonally downward across the front of the garage building. The landing is very nicely done, with stuntman Davy Sharpe alighting on the ground after a drop of at least ten feet; the film is slowed very slightly as is usual in these shots, and the result is quite effective — we’re convinced that Captain Marvel has just flown in. As with all of the flying effects in the serial, this sequence is a top-notch combination of stunts and model work.

Captain Marvel comes to earth by the garage entrance just as Betty’s car barrels out of it and speeds toward what would certainly be a fatal crash into the building opposite. An instant before that happens, our hero leaps on the running board and grabs the wheel, steering the vehicle away from danger and bringing it to a stop by the curb. (This is the first real “cliffhanger cheat” in the serial, by the way, because at the end of the previous chapter, a definite crash was heard as the screen went black.)

Adventures of Captain Marvel  roof thugsBetty opens her eyes and says, “The Scorpion’s men — they’re up there on the top floor!” Captain Marvel needs no more prompting than that; he flies up to the roof of the garage (again using the flying model, this time angling up instead of down) to have a word with these obstreperous and antisocial individuals.

Up on the roof are Carter the corrupt garage man, Scorpion henchman Owens (Stanley Price) and one other off-the-rack thug. They spot Captain Marvel and become unaccountably agitated. The nameless thug pulls his gun, but Owens, showing rare acumen for a man wearing a pinstripe suit with lapels as wide as Ethel Merman, snaps, “That won’t do any good — we’ve got to get out of here!”

The three run for the elevator, but stop when they pass an engine block hanging from a support frame. Owens can’t be content with one good idea — tossing away three of a kind, he tries for a straight flush. “This’ll fix Captain Marvel,” he says, nodding at the block. “Untie it.” The three grab a rope and hoist the huge hunk of metal as high as they can and crouch behind some crates as Captain Marvel lands on the roof. Apparently he doesn’t have super hearing — if he did, he might hear the Scorpionites giggling from their hiding place. This is more fun than the old “tie the string to the dollar bill” gag!

As Captain Marvel walks under the supporting frame, the baddies release the rope and the engine block plummets towards him. He looks up at the last minute and catches the metal missile before it hits him. Seeing that things are not turning out quite as they had planned, the Scorpion minions beat a hasty retreat, but not before Captain Marvel hurls the engine block at the third thug, braining him.

Carter and Owens are in full flight now, but the Big Red Cheese is just getting started. In another nifty display of athletic derring-do from stuntman Davy Sharpe, Captain Marvel leaps completely over a Chrysler (you try that sometime) and tackles the terrified pair. They have good reason to be worried — they ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Adventures of Captain Marvel off you go-smallOnce the two villains are down, Captain Marvel leaps up, grabs Carter, hoists him over his head, and unhesitatingly tosses the shrieking miscreant off the roof to his death, nine stories below. The World’s Mightiest Mortal seemingly has the the world’s most mixed-up morals… or maybe he just has anger issues. Either way, Owens folds his hand; he has seen enough and resumes his run to the elevator, this time with a little extra incentive.

He gets there before Captain Marvel and heads down, grinning with relief at his escape. Captain Marvel, on the other hand, is not content just to zoom downstairs and wait for Owens on the ground floor; what’s so superheroic about that? Having used the strength of Hercules to play catch and toss with an engine block, he’d like to keep that streak going. How about… ah ha! Pulling open the elevator door, Captain Marvel grabs the cables and pulls the car back up, hand over hand, with Owens in it. (Owens’s change of expression once he realizes what’s happening is priceless.)

Once the car is back up, our hero yanks the thug out and grabs him by the throat. “Who is the Scorpion? Talk or I’ll…” What? Shoot him in the back? Throw him on a bed of nails? Crush him with an engine? Hurl him off a roof? So many choices — it’s like a vengeance smorgasbord!

Owens seems to be thinking the same thing and needs no more persuading — he’s ready to talk. Captain Marvel considerately repeats the question for him, just like in a spelling bee. “Who is the Scorpion?” The henchman admits that he takes his orders from the mastermind but can’t identify him, because the Scorpion always wears a mask, but with the aid of a little more intimidation, Owens admits that he could probably recognize the Scorpion’s voice. “All right, I can use you,” Marvel barks. “Come on!”

At Malcolm’s house, the group is busy with their usual occupation — sitting around a table staring at each other. (Betty seems to be the only one in the group who actually works for a living.) Billy walks in, pushing Owens ahead of him, all the while covering the thug with a revolver he has secreted in his coat pocket. He’s greeted with nothing but dirty looks; maybe his friends are worried that an extra person means that there won’t be enough cookies and punch for everyone.

Billy gets right to the crux of the matter. “Every time we have a meeting the Scorpion and his men know all our plans.” Malcolm replies, “It does seem that way,” as if this had never occured to him. Billy points out that after the group had agreed to send him to Chan Lal’s, he was ambushed there and would have been killed if not for Captain Marvel. “All this is very disturbing, but do you think you should discuss it in the presence of an outsider?” Malcolm asks, referring to Owens.

“This man happens to be one of the Scorpion’s men,” Billy answers. “One of you should know him.” As the implication of this statement sinks in, each member of the group takes turns trying to outdo the others in spluttering indignation.

Tal Chotali incredulously intones, “Do you mean to imply that the Scorpion is here?” The very idea! Butter wouldn’t melt in his turban. Billy says yes, that that’s just what he means, and tells the men that Owens will be able to identify their enemy by his voice. Eyebrows go into overdrive and shifty looks carrom around the room like mishit ping-pong balls as everyone piles on the unfortunate Billy.

“Young man, are you serious?” Bentley asks. “This is outrageous!” Lang growls. “It’s utterly ridiculous!” Fisher snarls. “I’m shocked — shocked to find that gambling is going on…” Oh, wait a minute. Sorry — wrong movie.

Everyone has spoken (except Betty…hmmm…), so Billy puts the question to Owens. “You’ve heard them all speak — is one of them the Scorpion?” Owens promptly throws Billy under the bus and says he doesn’t recognize any of the voices. “I can’t — I thought I could but… I can’t.” As Billy deflates, the ever compassionate Professor Fisher sums up the situation for the minutes of the meeting. “You’ve only succeeded in insulting us all, Billy, and making a fool of yourself!” Some professor; this guy probably allows no extra credit and grades on a curve.

Tal Chotali, Bentley, Lang, and Fisher all storm out, and as they do, one of them drops a note in Owens’s hat; the shot is set up so we can’t tell who did it. “It was all a clumsy bluff!” Tal Chotali declares as he leaves, which is quite a statement coming from a man who refuses to show anyone his hair.

Billy apologies as Malcolm reassures him. “Don’t let it bother you, Billy — only don’t be so impulsive next time. I’ll see that the whole thing is smoothed over before the next meeting.” He doesn’t say how he’s going to do this — he’ll probably have Billy take over chairmanship of the refreshment committee from Fisher and let Fisher take the entertainment committee, which is the one he wanted in the first place.

Adventures of Captain Marvel scorpion radio-smallBilly and Betty march Owens into the next room and Betty asks what they’re going to do with him. “Since he won’t tell us who the Scorpion is, there’s only one thing left to do,” Billy answers in a menacing voice, and, his hand still on the pistol in his coat pocket, he seems to point the weapon at Owens. There’s a pregnant pause, and then…”I’m going to phone the police,” Billy says. The actual relationship between Billy and Captain Marvel is a deep metaphysical question, but the ruthless superhero is having some sort of effect on his alter-ego; Billy has clearly started to enjoy putting the fear into people.

As Billy prepares to phone the police and let them know he has a henchman for pickup, Owens surreptitiously looks at the note. It reads: “Tell Batson I’m at the Harrison Mine and bring him there.” If Owens isn’t sure who wrote the note, any doubt is removed by the signature: a hand-drawn scorpion. Like Hitler, the Scorpion apparently didn’t have the chops to get into art school — his drawing looks like the sort of thing a moderately talented seventh-grader would doodle on his Pee Chee.

Jumping at this chance to avoid jail, Owens yelps, “Wait a minute — don’t call the cops! I’ll tell you where I saw the Scorpion!” And where would that be? Why, the old Harrison Mine, of course. “I’ll tell you where it is.” Finally learning the value of suspicion, Billy snaps, “Tell me where it is? You’re gonna show me where it is!” As he leaves with Owens, Billy tells Betty he’ll call when he has more information.

At the Harrison Mine, the Scorpion hurries into the entrance, which is indistinguishable from the cave where Ro-Man hung out in Robot Monster. Inside he meets Barnett and two thugs. They have everything ready. The Scorpion is especially concerned about the trap door that they’re all standing by. “Just tested it — can’t miss,” Barnett proudly boasts, looking down at the spikes placed at the bottom of the drop. “Good,” his cloaked boss says. “Young Batson will never know what hit him.” Barnett has other concerns, though. “But what about Captain Marvel? He seems to appear every time Batson is in trouble.” The Scorpion has an answer for that, too — that’s why he’s the boss. (Though he only has fifth billing in the credits — maybe that’s the source of his grudge against humanity.)

Walking over to a table where the golden scorpion is sitting (it must have been awkward smuggling it out of the house under his robe), the Scorpion says, “With the power of these lenses, I can turn the inside of this mountain into molten rock. No one — not even Captain Marvel — can survive that.” Why he’s convinced of this, I don’t know, seeing that Captain Marvel has already shrugged off as many bullets as killed Bonnie and Clyde, as many guillotine blades as killed Louis XVI (just one, granted, but one was all it took), and as many engine blocks as… well. I guess the analogy stops there. Anyway, it has to be said that the Scorpion is an optimist; in fact, it’s one of his most attractive qualities. He looks each henchman in the eye, establishing the personal connection that’s the hallmark of his leadership style, and says, “Here’s how my plan will be carried out…”

Cut to Billy and Owens speeding their way to the mine. As they pull up in front of the entrance, they are observed by the Scorpion; he quickly ducks into the mine, unseen by the two. Billy and Owens head in, Owens very reluctantly. (Billy is covering him with his gun.) Inside, the Scorpion has slipped into a niche until the pair passes. He’s very concerned that they not see him, probably because of the comical way he has to hold up the hem of his robe if he has to walk fast. No one makes fun of the Scorpion!

Owens balks at going further. “What’s the matter?” Billy growls. The henchman mutters, “I don’t like this.. I… ” Billy motions with the gun. “Go ahead,” he says. Owens has no choice but to comply. The day started out so well, too…

A short way down the passage, they see the Scorpion sitting at a table. They advance towards him and walk directly over the trapdoor, which suddenly opens. (Why they didn’t see the clearly visible outlines of the door is a question on the order of why Billy didn’t say Shazam once in the first chapter and stay Captain Marvel until the end. There are some things you just don’t ask.) Owens plunges to his death on the spikes below; think of it as Scorpion Company¬†downsizing or taking early retirement. Certainly the Scorpion seems unperturbed by the loss — he was probably getting ready to get rid of Owens anyway, and trade him to the Red Skull for two draft choices and a Thug to be Named Later.

Adventures of Captain Marvel in the mine-smallBilly, using the reflexes that made him a legend in the broadcasting business, shouts “Shazam!” before falling, and Captain Marvel leaps out to confront his nemesis. This is the moment he’s been waiting for. “So you’re the Scorpion?” It’s a fair guess, judging by the three large scorpions emblazoned on the figure’s outfit. “I’ve waited a long time for this opportunity and I’m going to find out who you are right now,” Marvel says, reaching for the hood. The Scorpion returns serve: “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but you won’t learn my identity now or ever.” Our hero snatches away the hood, to reveal… a wooden frame holding a microphone!

The Scorpion is in real trouble now; you definitely don’t want to get on the wrong side of the FCC. The villain is actually with his men outside the mine, hunkered down over their own microphone. “You’re fairly trapped, my friend,” the Scorpion gloats. “There are several hundred feet of solid rock all around you. And if you try to escape, you’ll find, not solid rock, but molten rock.”

Captain Marvel starts pulling up the microphone wire and following it out of the mine, and the Scorpion tells his men, “Focus the beam directly into the mouth of the tunnel.” Barnett does as ordered and the entrance to the mine starts to melt. (For this effect, it looks as if some substance — perhaps wax — was heated until it started running, and the image was superimposed over the mine entrance. The effect is definitely a low-budget one, but is fairly effective.)

Before Captain Marvel can make it to the mine entrance, his way is blocked by a flood of molten rock that gushes towards him. He searches for another way out, but there isn’t any. Before long, he’s backed into a corner by the roiling, smoking lava. As it rushes towards him, the face of the World’s Mightiest Mortal seems touched with fear. In a burst of smoke and flame, the deadly river surges forward…

Is the Scorpion finally triumphant? Can Captain Marvel survive this deadly trap? Are the remaining Scorpion henchmen going to get in a big fight over who gets Owens’s room? Will the Scorpion’s smooth radio voice earn him a guest shot on the Jack Benny Show? The answers to (some of) these and other questions will be found in next week’s exciting chapter, “Lens of Death.” See you then!

Thomas Parker is a native Southern Californian and a lifelong science fiction, fantasy, and mystery fan. When not corrupting the next generation as a fourth grade teacher, he collects Roger Corman movies, Silver Age comic books, Ace doubles, and despairing looks from his wife.

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