O Captains! My Captains!


He first appeared on newsstands in December of 1940, a full year before the country he was named for entered World War II. Leaping across the magazine cover to deliver a roundhouse right to the jaw of Adolf Hitler while deflecting Nazi bullets with his red-white-and-blue shield, Captain America–the brainchild of legendary comic book creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby–was an instant sensation. Over the next seven decades the Star-Spangled Avenger would battle the Axis Powers, Communism, terrorists, racism, White House corruption and his own disillusionment with the government, even as his name became synonymous with right-wing, law-and-order politics (a point Easy Rider co-creators Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper made by naming Fonda’s scruffy anti-hero after him). Through it all, however, Cap has consistently been one of the best-known and most popular of costumed do-gooders…on the printed page, that is. When it comes to the big (and small) screen, his track record is a bit more spotty. As Paramount’s Captain America: The First Avenger opens, let’s look back on Ol’ Winghead’s movie and TV history.

Captain America (1944) — This Republic serial may have been the crimefighter’s movie debut, but any resemblance to his comic book incarnation was purely coincidental. Instead of scrawny Army reject-turned-super soldier Steve Rogers, Captain America’s secret identity here was the non-powered, crusading district attorney Grant Gardner (Dick Purcell). This Cap’s uniform was missing the trademark “ear wings” on the cowl, along with other minor changes. And what’s more, he didn’t even have a shield, but instead carried a gun that he didn’t hesitate to train on the bad guys (Gardner obviously was a strong Second Amendment proponent). In a final change…one that the movie Cap probably considered a plus, in lieu of teen sidekick “Bucky” Barnes, Gardner had a pretty secretary/assistant named Gail Richards (Lorna Gray) who knew his dual persona.

Gardner and his gal Friday must track down the mysterious Scarab, a villain who is eliminating the members of an archaeological expedition so he can get his hands on a map indicating where an ancient Mayan treasure was hidden. Along with a deadly poison dubbed “The Purple Death,” the Scarab’s other weapons of choice include a powerful new invention, a “thermodynamic vibrator” (insert your own joke here). I don’t want to give too much away as to the bad guy’s identity, but those familiar with the genre and 1940s actors won’t have too much trouble deducing who’s the Scarab from the opening credits.

Republic’s Captain America, which unfortunately has yet to be officially released on DVD, was a fairly well-done– if low-budget–chapterplay, packed with plenty of the cliffhanger action that the studio, which also made 1941’s The Adventures of Captain Marvel, was known for.Youngsters going to see this Cap at their local Saturday matinee, however, must have been a little disappointed that the hero up on the screen didn’t have a shield with which to knock out German and Japanese soldiers (were the filmmakers afraid the war was going to be over soon?). On a sad sidenote, veteran actor Purcell died of a heart attack just two months after the serial’s debut, at the age of 35.

The Animated Captain America: A Cartoon Aside — In the comic book world, Captain America spent the post-WWII years frozen in suspended animation inside a block of Arctic ice, until Marvel Comics guru Stan Lee teamed with artist Kirby to thaw him out in 1964 as a member of the Avengers (a brief 1950s revival as a Cold War Red-buster was later explained away as being an impostor). Cap took his place alongside such new characters as the Hulk, Iron Man and Thor–plus fellow ’40s refugee the Sub-Mariner–in a syndicated series of 1966 animated (by which I mean the studio copied Kirby’s artwork and zoomed back and forth to simulate movement) adventures. They weren’t much to look at, but at least the theme song did explain to us what happens “when Captain America throws his mighty shield.” Since then, the Sentinel of Liberty has guest starred in other Marvel-based toons, from Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends to X-Men Evolution, and currently is on the roster of both The Super Hero Squad Show and Disney’s The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Now, back to the live-action Captains…

Captain America/Captain America II: Death Too Soon (both 1979) — A decade after “Batmania” swept across the country’s TV screens, and in the wake of the success of ABC’s The Six Million Dollar Man and its own Wonder Woman program, CBS turned to Marvel’s roster of do-gooders for new show ideas. Some (The Amazing Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk) were successful enough to become regular series. Others, specifically 1978’s Dr. Strange and this pair of ham-handed reworkings, were not.

Once again showing no interest in fidelity to the original storylines that fans wanted to see, the makers of these feature-length pilots decided that their Captain America would be the son of the original. USC football player-turned-thespian Reb Brown starred as Steve Rogers (at least they got the name right this time), an artist/motocross racer/ex-Marine content to drive his groovy van along the Pacific coast and “search for America.” That is, until an unknown enemy tries to kill him and wreck his groovy van. A top-secret government group informs Rogers fils the bad guys were out to stop him from using the “ultimate steroid” formula–code-named FLAG, for Full Latent Ability Gain–his dad developed and used to fight crime. An at-first reluctant Steve agrees to be the agency’s first human test subject, and is rewarded, not with “roid rage” and shrunken body parts, but with enhanced strength, speed and senses. The feds give him a souped-up, red-white-and-blue motorcycle launched by rockets (!) from the back of his groovy van (Republic’s ’40s Cap, coincidentally, also rode a motorcycle) and a wobbly shield that looks like it’s made out of Plexiglas (and, of course, is the wrong color scheme from the comics). Oh, and he also gets the worst of all the various Captain America costumes, which Steve designed himself…

See what I mean? So much for his career as an artist. Anyway, Rogers’ mission in the first movie is to capture the criminal mastermind (Steve Forrest) who wanted him dead, and is now planning to detonate a neutron bomb inside Phoenix, Arizona, as part of his scheme to make off with 1.5 billion dollars in gold from the city’s vaults (He should have consulted Auric Goldfinger first to learn how difficult hauling a billion-and-a-half in gold would be). The new Captain America saves the day, and Brown decides to add “costumed government agent” to his artist/motocross racer/ex-Marine resumé.

In the sequel Captain America II: Death Too Soon (which improved slightly on the costuming, if not the shield), Brown’s adversary is none other than Christopher Lee, playing an international terrorist who will release a chemical that rapidly accelerates the aging process over Portland, Oregon, if he isn’t given a billion-dollar extortion payment (apparently Lee can stretch a buck further than Forrest). One would think that Lee would have been a natural choice to play Cap’s WWII arch-enemy, Nazi assassin supreme the Red Skull, but this was a period when movies and TV shows based on comic books tried to avoid anything like costumed supervillains that smacked of  ’60s Batman camp. After all, who needs an interesting antagonist when you can have Brown push a button that turns his super-cycle into a hang glider! Still, Hammer horror icon Lee’s performance is easily the best thing about either Captain America TV movie. Needless to say, Brown’s Winghead did not follow in the series footsteps of Nicholas Hammond’s Web-Slinger and Lou Ferrigno’s Jolly Green Goliath…although he and Ferrigno would team up to play Vietnam War comrades-turned-bar owners in the 1989 action film Cage (Hmmm, Captain America and the Hulk running a bar together…sound like a script idea, Joss Whedon?).

Captain America (1990) — Fans of the big-screen Marvel blockbusters of the last dozen or so years, starting with the X-Men and Spider-Man films, may be unaware that, two decades ago, the publisher’s biggest-profile features to date were the 1986 megadisaster Howard the Duck and Dolph Lundgren’s 1989 title turn as The Punisher. Cannon Films co-founder Menahem Golan, who had already sunk the Superman franchise with 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, was one of the producers behind this on-the-cheap adaptation starring Matt Salinger (yes, he’s J.D.’s son) as Steve Rogers/Captain America, along with Deliverance canoe buddies Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox and Scott Paulin as–finally–the Red Skull.

This time, the filmmakers did manage to give audiences a comparatively faithful 1940s origin sequence, the “WWII-hero-frozen-in-ice-for-decades-and-revived-as-a-man-out-of-time” background, a relatively accurate if rubbery-looking costume (with fake ears attached to the cowl!), and the Skull as the bad guy. Unfortunately, they also presented a Cap who gets captured by the Nazis on his very first mission and strapped to a German rocket aimed at the White House (from Europe? in the ’40s?), and one whose powers appear to be limited to punching through drywall, stealing cars from whoever tries to help him, and–in a novel switch–running away from people on motorcycles. Oh, and the Red Skull, Hitler’s right-hand man in the comics, the malevolent embodiment of Third Reich evil? He’s now an Italian who speaks-a his-a lines in an accent that would make Chico Marx blush! What, were the filmmakers afraid of offending real-life Nazis and hurting the film’s Argentinean box office? Speaking of box office, this much-ballyhooed Captain America film never even made it to U.S theaters, going straight to home video after doing less-than-star-spangled business overseas…which is still better than producer Roger Corman’s ill-fated, unreleased 1994 Fantastic Four project.

Now Chris Evans, already familiar with the Marvel Universe thanks to his turns as the Human Torch in 2005’s Fantastic Four and its ’07 follow-up Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, steps into the tricolor costume with Captain America: The First Avenger, as well as next year’s eagerly anticipated superhero mash-up The Avengers. As a fiftysomething fanboy, I know I’ll be there opening weekend, but will Evans’s performance as Cap be enough to shake off the character’s less-than-heroic screen past and have, to borrow again from Walt Whitman, “the people all exulting”? That is Marvel’s and Paramount’s “American Dream.”