In Our Opinion

CAPTAIN AMERICA’S FIGHT FOR STARDOM: THE FILMS THAT ALMOST KILLED HIM FOR GOOD

By • Jul 18th, 2011 •

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“I solemnly pledge to up hold the principles of the sentinels of liberty and assist Captain America in his war against spies in the U.S.A” was all you had to agree to in order to join forces with this newly conceived superhero. An official Sentinel of Liberty badge and a membership card were also granted, having sent 10 cents to Timely Publications, which was later established as Marvel Comics. The aforementioned signed oath appeared at the end of the very first issue, dated March 1941.

This emerging savior was once feeble U.S Army private, Steve Rogers. He was injected with a serum to increase his stature and intelligence as part of a plan to create super-agents who will crush spies and other saboteurs. Thrilled by the successful transformation, the operating doctor proclaimed: “We shall call you Captain America, son! Because, like you, America shall gain the strength and the will to safeguard our shores!”

Unlike popular horror or sci-fi comics of the day, Captain America was especially commissioned to the then-present times of the Second World War, facing immediate threats and familiar personas such as Adolf Hitler. The Cap’s patriotic assignments offered the young readers a steady reminder of the self-proclaimed American values at stake, Freedom and Democracy. The danger involved, enhanced by the real-life challenges posed to U.S military and the country’s foreign policy, made it impossible to remain indifferent towards the character and his missions.

Captain America could use all the help available. Bucky, a fellow soldier, who discovered Rogers’ secret identity, was named his loyal sidekick. But they were not all alone on the U.S front. Other superheroes were recruited as moral boosters and Nazi bashers as well. For instance, in 1940, Superman appeared in a story called How Superman Would End the War .His simple plan was to capture both Hitler and Stalin and surrender them to the League of Nations. Yet, Captain America became the most dominant contributor in the comics’ war effort, fighting home and abroad with an inspiring conviction. He was also easily recognizable due to the bold American-flag like colors, stars and stripes of his costume and shield.

Despite being quickly regarded as an icon, Captain America soon met hard times and was in and out of the public eye due to an ongoing mismanagement of its brand. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, which opens on July 22nd, is already considered to be the most high-profiled and anticipated adaptation of the character. Its potential success could easily eclipse years of lesser attempts to exploit and expand Captain America’s impact and would promptly salute one of American pop culture’s greatest figures.

In 1944, Captain America became the first of any Marvel character to be adapted into another medium. Republic Pictures produced a serial film under his name, starring Dick Purcell. It was one of Purcell’s last roles and undoubtedly a career highlight, after receiving only minor parts while working for Warner Brothers throughout its gangster-film craze of the previous decade. As the first big screen Captain America, Purcell seemed to enjoy himself more during the brief moments that didn’t call for a costume change, as if his time as a legitimate leading man had finally come.

These 15 black and white episodes had little to do with the comics. The secret identity of Captain America was changed to that of a district attorney named Grant Gardner, rather than that of a U.S soldier, and gone was the sidekick, Bucky. Further establishing an urban setting, Republic Pictures armed Captain America with a handgun, much like a rugged private detective. The only vague similarity between the 1944 serial and the comics were the devious art collectors and cruel scientists whom the superhero tried to stop from fulfilling their evil plans.

Purcell as Captain America

The serial proved indeed, almost 70 years ago, that expecting a comic book film to be a faithful adaptation was as useless as hoping for a proper Hollywood treatment of any other kind of literary work. However, this tradition of mishandling origins is somewhat in favor of the Captain America legacy. The original comics included many ethnic stereotypes, mocking German accents being the least severe of them. Captain America and the Ageless Orientals Who Wouldn’t Die and Captain America and Ivan the Terrible are 1940s story plots that may still interest collectors and scholars but are obviously deemed as unacceptable by today’s politically-correct society, and unimaginable as the American film industry is so crucially dependent on foreign markets.

During its first run, Captain America comics did not even spare jokes at the expense of the allied nations. In Trapped in the Nazi Stronghold, one of his earliest adventures, he and Bucky travel to Europe, starting with a visit to occupied France and Germany. They try to blend in by an unnecessary wardrobe change; disguised as a grandmother and her grandson while dressed in ridiculing local attire. When learning the mission requires an additional stop in England, Bucky quips: “Oh, gosh! That means I’ll have to wear this darn sissy suit!”

After the Second World War had ended, new fads within the comic book medium such as romance comics, and other forms of entertainment, grew popular. No one was more devastatingly affected by it than the best-known veteran, Captain America. He was first killed off during the late 1940’s, growing outdated even for his own original creators, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, who by then were working on other groundbreaking titles. As a response to Captain America’s brewing resurrection by Marvel in 1954, they presented Fighting American, a new superhero destined to keep the U.S.A’s dominance during the Cold War. In a recent introduction to the collected stories of Fighting American, Simon recalled its birth:

“They’re bringing back Captain America, Jack,” I said.
“Yeah, but it won’t last,” Jack replied. “It won’t be like when we did it”.
“You know,” I said, “There’s no reason we can’t do our own character again. They can’t corner the market on patriotism, after all”.

After feeling bored and looking for a gimmick, Simon and Kirby turned Fighting American into a parody of the entire superhero genre they once helped define. Their new character dealt with Soviet villains like Super Khakalovitch, who raised hell by dancing to the famous Russian song Kalinka. Captain America became a laughing stock as Fighting American wore a decisively similar costume and his sidekick, Speed Boy, was just an over-exhilarated Bucky. Eventually, Fighting American outdid his prototype, lasting for seven issues while Marvel’s new comic book adventures of Captain America lasted only four before being shelved again.

The Cap’s uneven status was maintained through several brief and unsuccessful T.V adaptations. In 1966, an animated series, The Marvel Superheroes, showcased five of the publishing company’s characters. Captain America’s segments were featured alongside ones starring The Incredible Hulk and The Mighty Thor, among others. The 13 episodes provided a typical animation program of its day with most of the motion done by camera close-ups, and included the entertaining “Zap” and “Clang” sound effects. Aligning Captain America with other superheroes was in accordance with his path in the comic book world. In 1964, he joined The Avengers after being brought back to life yet again. Just a year later, everyone on the team was to be featured in their own titles, except for Captain America. He had to wait until 1968 to have another entire comic book series for himself, a sad testimony to his dwindling star power.

CAPTAIN AMERICA 2: DEATH TOO SOON

A reasonable degree of popularity was difficult to maintain as Captain America’s defense strategies seemed less vital as time went on. Not only did America sustain its own precious values during the Second World War as the Cap originally campaigned for but in reality, the U.S also turned into a leading superpower, influencing and intimidating other nations like never before. Politics aside, the character also lacked a deep emotional tone, one that kept other superheroes so engaging. Steve Rogers wasn’t tormented by his alter-ego as Bruce Banner was by turning into The Incredible Hulk, nor was the Cap a complex outcast like the mutant X-Men force. Leading a double life didn’t take its toll on Rogers as it did on the recluse Bruce Wayne as Batman or Peter Parker as Spiderman. Perhaps since, unlike other mysterious superheroes, Captain America was also never romantically involved, readers weren’t aching to see him start living a more “normal” life via marriage. Instead, he was perceived as nothing more than a mixed bag of old fashioned propaganda and nostalgia.

The loosely binding TV-movie format was almost ideal for a character like Captain America, which held on to an appealing name but with a tiresome substance.The CBS network produced two TV-movie adaptations in 1979, CAPTAIN AMERICA and CAPTAIN AMERICA 2: DEATH TOO SOON. They reflected the current trends in television more than anything. Presenting car chases and commanding scientists made them seem like a crossover between the Dukes of Hazard and Charlie’s Angels, two prominent top 20 shows at the time. Reb Brown was cast in the lead role for both versions. His principal acting experience came from small guest appearances on numerous TV shows.

The 1979 Steve Rogers was a young motor head and an ex-Marine, who wished to pursue his artistic tendencies. He learns that Captain America was a mockery nickname for his late father, a patriotic scientist. As his son, Rogers is lured to protect a classified government weapon and to become an actual superhero. Brown finally slips into the famous costume with almost 80 grueling minutes gone by since the opening credits. His poor acting skills do not make the long wait worthwhile. CAPTAIN AMERICA 2: DEATH TOO SOON offered more of the same dabbling but at least, for a change, the Cap was not the one dying. This second installment stood out slightly since it was much more styled as a proper TV show. All in all, these adaptations basically served as pilots which, understandably, were never picked up.

Prior to this year’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, the most elaborated adaptation was the 1990 feature CAPTAIN AMERICA. It was the brainchild of the former creative force behind the Cannon Group, Menahem Golan. A sharp producer, he wisely foresaw that the future of summer blockbusters belonged to comic book films and was determined to cash in. He owned the rights for a Spiderman movie for seven years but was unable to finance it. The 1990 CAPTAIN AMERICA appeared to be the next best thing for Golan, made during his fresh start at the 21st Century Film Corporation. The film only briefly recreated the original comic book setting of the Second World War, the U.S army experiment which generated Captain America out of a weaker human body, and finally introducing his biggest nemesis since the 1940’s, the Red Skull.

Many potential dramatic features were brutally hashed in this version. Steve Rogers, played by Matt Salinger, was reported to be the most suitable candidate out of hundreds for the project but the lineup and tests were never shown. Salinger was another small-time actor, whose boyish looks could actually have made him a decent “Bucky” if he had a slimmer build. A supervising Colonel did little to excite upon telling his peers: “He may not be Superman but he’ll be a living symbol of what this country stands for.” Salinger was first seen in the Captain America costume just moments before parachuting out of a plane as part of his original mission to invade an enemy facility, dismissing the uniform he was already wearing with a few dry sentences.

Matt Salinger as Captain America

The 1990 CAPTAIN AMERICA was clearly much more action-packed than all of its predecessors but still fell short of delivering a compelling adventure. Largely, it failed due to its embarrassing special effects and editing loopholes that intensified an exhausting storyline with many time travels and relocations. This adaptation was never officially released in American theaters and went straight to video almost everywhere else as well.

Meanwhile, Captain America has continued to battle its longevity as a comic book character. Recent struggles in print included the acclaimed 2007’s The Death of Captain America and 2009’s Captain America: Reborn series. Throughout the years, the Cap has been primarily taken notice of at times of crisis or when reaching a significant milestone. This year marks the character’s 70th anniversary, and hopefully CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER will make the crowds keep their Sentinel of Liberty badges just a little bit longer this time around.

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One Response »

  1. Kudos to the author of this article!
    I have never seen before such deep and nuanced analysis of this genre.
    I will eagerly wait for more.

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