Patriotic Potential: The Failed History of Captain America on Film
With The Avengers on everyone's mind (crossed the billion dollar mark worldwide over the
mid-May weekend), rather than fight it I decided to go with it and reprint a no longer available, yet
related article. A few weeks before the release of Captain America: The First Avenger,
the following piece originally appeared at the now defunct Moving Pictures Magazine website.
Arriving in theaters on July 22, Captain America: The First Avenger chronicles the initial
adventures of a character that first premiered over seven decades ago. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
introduced Captain America in December 1940, one year before Pearl Harbor.
In 1940, war raged throughout Europe but most Americans saw Nazi Germany and the accompanying
atrocities as a strictly European problem. Though sympathetic to the plight, polls showed that
a vast majority of Americans stood against entering the war. The virulent anti-war movement,
spearheaded by the "America First" organization and their some 850,000 members, hampered
Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts to aid his British allies, the lone European force against the Nazi tide.
Amidst this public sentiment, Timely Comics, a precursor to today's Marvel, published
Captain America Comics #1. Not the first patriotic hero -- that distinction
belongs to The Shield, which premiered in Pep Comics #1, October 1939 -- Captain
America succeeded largely thanks to the dynamic, innovative Kirby art, the overt politic
tenor of the series, and FDR's inspiring "Great arsenal of democracy" speech that just two
weeks later informed Americans of the need to prepare for the eventual war with Germany.
The cover of Captain America's initial appearance featured the hero punching Hitler, a first
for comics. The issue also became the first to showcase the German leader as a villain.
That same issue related the Captain's origin. Considered unfit for service, scrawny volunteer
Steve Rogers receives a mysterious injection that increases "his stature and intelligence to
an amazing degree." Professor Reinstein, a thinly-veiled reference to Albert Einstein, declares
the procedure a success and announces plans to create a corps of super-agents. A Nazi spy,
hidden amongst the watching dignitaries, kills the Professor. The enraged, now-musclebound
Rogers punches the assassin, who in a panicked attempt to escape, trips into bank of coils
and is electrocuted. Dressed in an America flag-inspired suit, wielding a shield and partnered
with the teen Bucky, Captain America defends America from fifth columnists, Nazis, and saboteurs.
Captain America proved very popular with sales that rivaled Superman. Though
not everyone loved the comic. Numerous threatening phone calls and anti-Semitic hate mail
attacked publisher Martin Goodman and the creative tandem, all three Jewish. After reporting the
incidents, police responded surprisingly quick. A few days following the first threats, a stunned
Simon received a call from New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. He declared his love for the book
and promised that the city will protect the creators and publisher.
In 1944, Captain America, a 15-chapter Republic serial, delivered the first film
version of the star spangled hero. Beyond the costume, the series bore little resemblance to the
comic book. District Attorney Grant Gardner (Dick Purcell) in his secret identity, Captain America,
challenges the evil forces of The Scarab. This Captain uses a gun rather than a shield and even
though filmed during the height of World War II, fights thugs rather than Nazis. Beyond the
suit, this could have been nearly any serial character.
Upon the war's conclusion, Captain America, like most of his super hero brethren, experienced
declining sales and ultimately cancellation. He languished, largely forgotten until 1964 when
Stan Lee and Kirby inducted him into the modern Marvel Universe.
Near the end of the war, Captain America and Bucky apparently die attempting to stop a plane
loaded with explosives near Newfoundland. In Avengers #4 (December 1963), the
team rescues Cap, who had laid frozen in suspended animation for 20 years.
For his second big screen incarnation in the 1973 Turkish film 3 Dev Adam (Three Mighty
Men), a shieldless Captain America (Aytekin Akkaya), wearing the hero's traditional garb,
joins forces with Santos (of Mexican wrestling fame) to confront the villainous Spider-Man. Set
in Istanbul, the story reveals little of this version's origin, powers or identity.
While never quite regaining his previous glory, the Marvel Cap proved popular and in 1979
garnered two live action television movies: Captain America and Captain America
II: Death Too Soon. Both films, set in 1979, starred Reb Brown as Steve Rogers, a former
Marine now working artist, who after a potentially fatal accident receives the experimental
FLAG (Full Latent Ability Gain) serum. The mixture not only saves his life but enhances his body
with heightened strength and reflexes. Wearing an outfit of his own design and given a souped-up van
and motorcycle, Rogers uses a transparent shield made of "jet-age plastics" as Captain America. The
second movie wastes the talents of Christopher Lee as a madman who seeks a formula that
accelerates aging. He threatens Portland with the chemicals and is eventually defeated by Captain America.
The next and most recent live action effort proved equally disappointing. The Albert Pyun
directed movie actually stays remarkably true to the comic book vision, Captain America (1990)
begins in World War II, traps Cap (Matt Salinger) in ice, and concludes in the present. It's the only
film to portray Captain America's arch-nemesis the über-Nazi Red Skull (Scott Paulin),
though halfway through the Skull's trademark red skull suddenly and inexplicably lacks the
proper pigmentation. As with Pyun's other trash flicks such as Cyborg, The Sword
and the Sorcerer, and Dollman, inferior production values, poor writing, and despite
the presence of reliable veterans Darren McGavin and Ned Beatty, terrible acting doom the
film. Captain America received a brief theatrical stint in Europe and in the US went straight to video.
Given the recent success of Marvel films, Captain America: The First Avenger offers greater
promise. The inclusion of Rocketeer and Hidalgo director Joe Johnston, top tier
actors (Hugo Weaving, Stanley Tucci, Tommy Lee Jones, Richard Armitage and Chris Evans as the hero), the
use of the Red Skull, and most importantly the World War II setting, point to a film of great
potential. The jury remains out until July 22.
[Note on comic book publication dates: Until the 1990s, comic books routinely premiered three
months before the date printed on the publication. In order to more accurately reflect the
socio-political realities, I use the actual date of appearance on the newsstand rather than
the date printed on the publication.]
Captain America: The First Avenger exceeded all expectations, ranking just below
Iron Man as the best of the movies leading up to The Avengers.
Professional reviewer, geek maven, and optimistic curmudgeon, Rick Klaw has supplied
countless reviews, essays, and fiction for a variety of publications including
The Austin Chronicle, The San Antonio Current,
The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy,
Moving Pictures, RevolutionSF,
Conversations With Texas Writers, Electric Velocipede, Cross Plains Universe,
Steampunk, and The Steampunk Bible.
Coming in March 2013 from Tachyon, he is editing The Apes of Wrath, a survey of apes in literature
with contributions from Edgar Allan Poe, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Franz Kafka, Gustave Flaubert,
Joe R. Lansdale, Pat Murphy, Leigh Kennedy, James P. Blaylock, Clark Ashton Smith, Karen Joy Fowler,
Philip José Farmer, Robert E. Howard and others.
Klaw can often be found pontificating on Twitter
and over at The Geek Curmudgeon.