The Complete History of Comic-Book Movies, Chapter 2: ‘Spy Smasher’
ScreenCrush editor, comic-book lover, and undiagnosed masochist Matt Singer is systematically watching every single (American) comic-book movie ever made in the order in which they were released. This week in The Complete History of Comic-Book Movies: A look back at the forgotten hero who starred in the genre’s first-ever masterpiece:
‘Spy Smasher’ (1942)
Director: William Witney
Writers: Ronald Davidson, Norman S. Hall, William Lively, Joseph O'Donnell, Joseph Poland
Starring: Kane Richmond, Marguerite Chapman, Sam Flint
Based on: Spy Smasher, created by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck in ‘Whiz Comics’ #2
Onscreen Iteration: First appearance
Best Special Effect: To escape a raging fire, Spy Smasher jumps from the top of a burning tower to the bed of a truck below. This isn’t so much a special effect as it is an incredibly dangerous activity that someone happened to film:
Worst Special Effect: One of the villains’ plans involves the use of a high-tech plane to sabotage America’s efforts in World War II. And by high-tech, I mean it looks like a reasonably affordable children’s toy:
Most Dated Moment: The bad guys also attempt to undermine the American war effort by kidnapping Admiral Corby, a high-ranking Navy intelligence officer. In order to lure Corby into danger, a Nazi calls him at home, claims he’s Spy Smasher, and invites him to lunch at a local restaurant. “Was that really Spy Smasher?” Corby’s daughter asks after he hangs up. “He said so,” the Admiral shrugs. Oh, okay, in that case, I’m sure it was him. (SPOILER ALERT: It was not him. It was the laziest trap in history, and the guy actually fell for it.)
Most Timeless Moment: This crazy, exuberant fight scene in a garage. 70 years later, this thing is still incredibly awesome, particularly the part where Spy Smasher jumps on the mechanic’s creeper, slides under a car, comes out the other side, and tackles a thug as he tries to get away. Never change, Spy Smasher. You are the best:
Further Thoughts: This serial is so much fun. I’ve never read any Golden Age Spy Smasher comics, but his serial captures the manic, exuberant energy of my favorite 1940s comics, like Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s ‘Captain America.’ It kicks off in the middle of an action scene and rarely lets up for the next 210 minutes. It’s the cinematic equivalent of Pop Rocks and Diet Coke: a frenetic explosion bursting off the screen in every possible direction.
The pacing is totally breathless. In the first chapter alone, Spy Smasher (Kane Richmond) travels between two continents via plane, train, and automobile; a few minutes later, there’s a boat chase for good measure. Before any attempt is made to explain who Spy Smasher is or what he’s doing there is one fake death and then a real one, followed by several fight scenes and double-crosses.
This stands in stark contrast to modern comic-book movies, which are pathologically obsessed with exposition and waste lengthy scenes (or even entire movies) explaining the origins of characters we already know extremely well (but by all means, ‘Amazing Spider-Man,’ tell me again how the spider bit Peter Parker). Director William Witney knows his audience is here for spirited excitement not sensitive drama, and that’s exactly what he delivers. “Chapter One - America Beware” opens like a James Bond movie, diving straight into the action and never looking back. Spy Smasher is introduced uncovering a Nazi counterfeiting plot and escaping certain death via firing squad. What more do you need to know than that? The guy’s name says it all. He’s Spy Smasher! He smashes spies and he’s a total badass.
Not surprisingly, the plot is not ‘Spy Smasher’’s strong suit; there’s even less of a narrative drive to this serial than ‘Adventures of Captain Marvel,’ which at least had the ongoing hook of the bad guy attempting to steal and reassemble an atom smasher over the course of the serial. The main bad guy of ‘Spy Smasher,’ a cleverly-named masked villain called The Mask, flits from one scheme to the next: When his plan to counterfeit American currency fails, he launches his new experimental plane. When Spy Smasher foils that plot, he steals American gold in order to bankroll Nazi munitions. Serials were designed so that each individual chapter could be understood without seeing the rest and that’s certainly true here; its hero’s episodic battle against The Mask at times feels more like a television show than a movie.
The one really novel part of ‘Spy Smasher’’s story involves the title character’s sidekick: his twin brother. Spy Smasher is actually Alan Armstrong, a freelance spy working on behalf of the Allies in World War II. His twin Jack is engaged to Eve Corby (Marguerite Chapman), the daughter of Admiral Corby (Sam Flint). Like a lot of pulp heroes of the period, Alan is presumed dead (after a plane crash months earlier), leaving him free to work full-time as a costumed crime-fighter. Returning to America from abroad, he reveals his identity to Jack, who agrees to help him protect Admiral and Eve Corby, and disrupt The Mask’s evil plans in America.
Though Witney doesn’t dwell on the dynamic between the brothers (because Witney doesn’t dwell on anything in ‘Spy Smasher’), the serial does make good use of their identical faces, and the confusion that arises when one attempts to stand in for the other during a battle or a drink at home with the Corbys. And, without spoiling too much, it uses a switch between Alan and Jack to make one of the serial’s cliffhangers genuinely shocking.
Let’s discuss those cliffhangers, and cliffhangers in serials in general. Most of the time, they’re pretty disappointing. An episode might end with, say, Spy Smasher knocked unconscious in a bucket full of gold bricks that gets tossed into an incinerator. But rather than inventing some kind of ingenious escape, a lot of the serials I’ve seen typically just revise what they’ve already shown you to provide the hero an easy, underwhelming getaway. In this particular case, the next episode of ‘Spy Smasher’ shows him waking up and diving out of the bucket before it ever falls into the incinerator. It’s only exciting because they omitted those shots the first time around. If you ask me, that’s flat-out cheating.
There are a few cliffhangers in ‘Spy Smasher,’ though, that are flat-out thrilling, including the one involving Alan and Jack switching places, and another where it appears that Spy Smasher’s been shot and killed, but he’s secretly switched clothes with one of the Nazis. The guy we see gunned down is actually one of the bad guys in Spy Smasher’s cape and mask. Once the other Nazis think he’s dead he sneaks up on them and knocks them out. Now that’s a switcheroo worthy of a superhero.
Kane Richmond does a very solid job of differentiating the two twins’ personalities, and he and his stunt doubles (Carey Loftin and David Sharpe, according to Wikipedia) make Spy Smasher a credible superhero. Although the character doesn’t have any superpowers, he’s wonderfully athletic; leaping, diving, and punching his way through danger. The way he uses his surroundings in fight scenes could have inspired Jackie Chan’s films, and the character so nimbly scales and descends scaffoldings and buildings that he’s basically the world’s first parkour master some forty years before that concept was even invented.
Spy Smasher was a colleague of Captain Marvel in the pages of Fawcett Publications’ ‘Whiz Comics,’ but he never enjoyed the same level of mainstream success (one likely reason characters constantly scream “Spy Smasher!” whenever he enters a room, as if they’re trying to make sure the audience knows who this random dude in an aviator cap and goggles is). Like Captain Marvel, Spy Smasher’s now owned by DC Comics, and he’s made occasional appearances in their pages through the years, but he’s easily one of the most obscure characters to ever headline his own comic-book movie.
Although I’d never read any of his comics, and he’s basically just a Batman-type who fights spies instead of Gotham City lunatics, the ‘Spy Smasher’ serial made me feel like the character deserves a greater legacy. At the very least, he should get credit for producing the comic-book movie’s first true masterpiece. ‘Spy Smasher’ isn’t exactly Shakespeare—it’s not even Alan Moore—but it’s an absolute gem of 1940s stunt work and action. Comic-book movies would grow more sophisticated, but few would match ‘Spy Smasher’’s sheer quantity of thrills.
‘Spy Smasher’ is currently available on YouTube.