Superman, 1948, was a major success, and is one of the few serials you will find available in video rental stores. A sequel called Atom Man vs. Superman came out in 1952.
— But more important than the live-action serial was a series of animated short films done by Max and Dave Fleischer starting in 1941. It was actually these cartoons that first gave Superman the power to fly, instead of just leaping over tall buildings in a single bound. (Inspired by this, for the next ten years or so DC Comics kept piling on new powers until he became virtually a god, rather than just “the Man of Tomorrow”. DC has since rediscovered discipline in keeping his powers consistent, but movie makers are always tempted to add just one more.) Actually, some of the Fleischer toons seem to go back and forth on whether he can fly, or just leap over tall etc. Speaking of that famous “leap over” line, it and “Faster than a speeding bullet” apparently originated here, though “more powerful than a locomotive” dates back to the radio series that began in 1940. Oh, and John Williams’ famous theme for Superman: The Movie is roughly based on the theme used in these cartoons.
And speaking of things originating here, one 1942 episode called The Arctic Giant features a monster amazingly similar in shape and size to Godzilla — much more so than the “Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” who is usually cited as the inspiration for the big G. (Frankly, ol' 20K looks more like the TriStar Iguanazilla.) The Arctic Giant smashes dams and bridges in what is probably the first “stomp Tokyo” scene to see the light of a film projector.
The Batman came out in 1943, in which Batman and Robin fought against agents of Japan. The sequel Batman and Robin appeared in 1949.
Captain America had a serial in 1944.
Blackhawk and his band of air aces got one in 1952, but from what I hear they apparently spend almost no time up in their planes.
Hop Harrigan was another aviational adventure character who originated in comix, migrated to radio, and got a serial in 1946.
A character called Spy Smasher, who no one has heard of nowadays, got a serial in 1942. He doesn’t have any super powers, but he does have a cowl and cape.
The Phantom came out in 1943.
Mandrake the Magician, who like The Phantom was a creation of Lee Falk, came out in 1939.
The Shadow played in 1940, and I think had at least one sequel. The Shadow’s famous radio show had already been on the air for about nine years, and would continue for fourteen more. There are said to have been several feature films, all flops, but I haven’t managed to identify them.
Dick Tracy had a series of about half a dozen serials and short feature films from 1937 (which saw both a serial and a feature, presumably being different edits of the same footage) through 1947, starring Ralph Byrd. They would do things like have him battle Boris Karloff in something called Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (which I have seen the feature version of). An apparently separate and independent series of two films starring Morgan Conway started in 1945, and as far as I can gather, the public hated Conway so they brought Byrd out of retirement to replace him.
Ralph Byrd also played a comic book cowboy called simply The Vigilante in 1947. I vaguely remember buying this character’s comics once or twice as a kid.
Congo Bill, a 1948 jungle adventure about a hero whom they rather boldly tried to appellatize as “King of the Jungle”, was based on a DC comics series that I’d never heard of. Apparently its name was later changed to Congorilla, because Bill was given the power to turn into a giant ape. That part isn’t in the serial.
Flash Gordon had three serials, in 1936, 1938 (Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars), and 1940 (Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe). Of all the old serials mentioned here, the Flash Gordons are the only ones I’ve seen at full length. They contain a great deal that is laughable, but I kept right on watching. The first serial was remixed into a movie. (Buster Crabbe on filming these serials: “People keep asking me if it was fun to do Flash Gordon. No, it wasn’t fun, it was hard work!”)
Buck Rogers had a serial in 1939. It failed to generate sequels. The serial was remixed into a feature-length movie almost 40 years later, in anticipation of the forthcoming TV series.
Captain Marvel came out in 1941. The serial has just been released on DVD, with packaging claiming that it was the greatest serial ever.
Huh. It turns out there was actually a series of silent movies based on a comic strip. It was called Prehistoric Peeps, starting around 1905. I wonder if it’s even possible to see them...