Marvel At The Movies returns with our resident expert on the Marvel universe, Andy Ross, taking an extensive look at the films featuring Captain America.
A comic-book legend who made his auspicious début in Issue One of Captain America Comics (March, 1941), Captain America relates the tale of Steve Rogers, a down-to-earth kid from the Big Apple whose repeated attempts to join the US military are turned down on medical grounds. Dejected but desperate to do his bit for the war effort, Rogers is taken under the wing of scientist Josef Reinstein (latterly re-named Abraham Erskine) and enrolled into the ‘super-soldier’ project. As the first candidate to receive the super-soldier serum, the subsequent assassination of Reinstein also makes Rogers the last. Imbued with enhanced strength, endurance and athletic prowess, Rogers joins the fight against Axis oppression under the guise of Captain America. As a character that encapsulates the defiant stance of the allied nations, Captain America proved an immediate hit with his predominantly male pre-teen audience.
No stranger to the realms of live-action, Captain America – or at least a thinly veiled version of him – first came to the theatre in 1944. An episodic adventure, Captain America stars Dick Purcell as the masked crime-fighter. A cliff-hanger, very much in the style of Flash Gordon, the ’44 Captain America is something of an erroneous entry in the hero’s on-screen catalogue. With Purcell appearing not as Steve Rogers but as District Attorney Grant Gardner and, when in costume, devoid of his trademark shield, to all intents and purposes the production is a name-only adaptation of the Timely Comics character. In it, our hero is determined to foil the destructive machinations of Scarab, played by Lionel Atwill – an actor familiar to horror fans as Inspector Krogh from Son of Frankenstein (1939). It features some unusually prolonged fist fights, but generally the serial is a decidedly routine affair.
Retrieved from the Arctic wastes by the newly formed Avengers (#4, December, 1963) and awarded founder member status in the absence of the Hulk, by the 1970’s Captain America was the figure-head of one of Marvel’s most popular comic-book titles. With The Amazing Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk and Doctor Strange all receiving television coverage in the 1970’s, the first of two feature films featuring Captain America aired on the CBS network in 1979. Starring Reb Brown (again in a very loose adaptation of the comic-book character) the film portrays the Cap as an Evel Kenevel-inspired motorcycle stunt-man.
Followed later the same year by Captain America II: Death Too Soon, both films are, at best, terrible. Accompanied by a funky 70’s soundtrack, the sight of a lycra-clad Cap knocking down purse-snatching punks with an over-sized frisbee makes even William Dozier’s Batman (1966-1968) appear classy.
Next up, and sadly still not much better, Captain America (1990) was a direct-to-video feature starring Matt Salinger. More than a little inspired by Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), the hero’s muscled suit is aesthetically authentic but the Captain’s use of his trusty shield is still very poorly realised. Co-starring Ronny Cox and Darren (Kolchack – The Night Stalker) McGavin, the film is a bit of a damp squib although it at least has the decency to feature the Cap’s arch-nemesis, the Red Skull.
With Marvels’ Avenger’s Assemble scheduled to flesh out phase one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and with the characters of Iron Man, the Hulk, and Thor already established, the last piece of the puzzle, Captain America – The First Avenger, was finally put into place in 2011. With the notable exception of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011) which exercised a great deal of artistic license, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and director Joe Johnston adhered stringently to original source work. Wonderfully capturing its 1940’s milieu (with parts of Manchester standing in for New York) and kindling fond recollections of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Captain America – The First Avenger finally honours the Captain with the big-screen treatment he deserves. Chris Evans is cast as Steve Rogers while Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, and Hugo Weaving provide praise-worthy support. The film charts Rogers transformation from affable New Yorker to flag-waving super-hero.
Selected as the first test subject in the ‘super-soldier’ programme, Rogers finds himself subjected to Professor Erskine’s (Stanley Tucci) top secret formula. With Erskine’s assassination bringing about a premature end to the project, Col Chester Phillips (Jones) is reluctant to field test his latest acquisition. Adorned in the colours of the national flag, Rogers, as the fictional hero Captain America, becomes a poster boy for the continuing war effort. Touring the country promoting war-bonds, Steve is despatched to Italy where the reception he receives from the beleaguered troops is less than congenial. Discovering that a platoon classified as missing in action is that of his best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Rogers enlists the help of Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) to parachute him behind enemy lines. Setting the captives free, Steve is confronted by Johann Schmidt’s Red Skull, (Hugo Weaving), an earlier recipient of the super-soldier serum, but one whose evil affiliations have left him horribly disfigured. The leader of Nazi splinter group Hydra, the Red Skull has been using an ancient power-source known as the ‘tesseract’ to create a lethal new range of weaponry. All too aware of the challenge ahead of him, Rogers heads up a task force consisting of Bucky and Dum Dum Duggan’s (Neal McDonough) ‘Howling Commandos’. Taking the battle to the enemy and hitting Hydra where it really hurts, the Cap eventually confronts the Skull aboard an explosives laden jet bound for the US mainland. Defeating his arch-nemesis, Rogers then selflessly pilots the craft towards the Arctic Circle in an effort to avoid widespread destruction.
As with the MCU’s previous entries, Captain America – The First Avenger is awash with references to its comic-book universe. The tessearct, for example, was more commonly referred to in the comics as the ‘cosmic cube’ and is an ancient power-source first referenced in Thor. The appearance of Bucky Barnes provides a welcome reminder of the Cap’s very first costumed ally. A boy hero along the lines of Batman’s Robin, Bucky is also a member of the war-time super-team, The Invaders. Having featured in Iron Man 2, Howard Stark is the father of Iron Man alter ego Tony Stark and his involvement with the Cap (as his costumer/armourer) provides a taster for the far less amicable alliance between Rogers and Stark Jr in Avengers Assemble. It is all good stuff for the comic-book faithful.
Even the Cap’s costume, a far more practical fatigue take on the suit, receives a thumbs up from its audience.
Given America’s questionable foreign policies over recent years, basing the film in the 1940’s makes it far more palatable for an overseas audience. A Boy’s Own adventure very much in the tradition of Guns of Navarone (1962), Captain America – The First Avenger besides setting up the block-busting antics of Avengers Assemble remains one of the MCU’s most engaging entries.
A radical change in direction for the good Captain came by means of the Russo brothers in Captain America – The Winter Soldier (2014). Assigned to S.H.I.E.L.D in the wake of the battle of New York (Avengers Assemble) the Cap is now part of an elite counter-terrorism squad. Despatched to rescue hostages from a S.H.I.E.L.D tanker, Rogers becomes suspicious of Natasha Romanov’s (Scarlett Johansen) deviation from the plan. Tasked by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to download data from the ship’s computers, whilst Romanov is simply carrying out orders the Cap begins to question S.H.I.E.L.D’s ethics.
Struggling with his conscience, Roger’s chance meeting with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), an ex para-rescueman, proffers a like-minded individual worthy of his trust. When Fury is attacked by a mysterious assassin known as the Winter Soldier and S.H.I.E.L.D becomes compromised, the Cap is forced to into hiding. Shocked to discover that the Winter Soldier is his wartime buddy Bucky Barnes, (last seen falling from a train in Captain America – The First Avenger) Rogers uncovers a much more sinister side to the Hydra organisation. Under the auspices of Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) Hydra intends to use S.H.I.E.L.D’s heli-carriers to orchestrate assassination on a global scale. Enlisting the help of Romanov and Wilson, (now in the guise of the Falcon) the Captain fronts a three pronged attack on Hydra’s forces.
A study in espionage, Captain America – The Winter Soldier is a marvelously taut production very reminiscent of the James Bond series. Here we see Cap, still very much out of place in the 21st Century and becoming increasingly disillusioned with S.H.I.E.L.D’s code of ethics, fighting a very different war to the one he’s familiar with. With Fury removed from the playing field, Rogers becomes the primary focus of Hydra’s attention. Bucky’s re-appearance throws a spanner in the works, and Rogers’ once very clear perceptions of good and evil suddenly come under question. An action-packed entry to the MCU and one that deserves a re-visit, Captain America – The Winter Soldier reinforces Marvel’s dominance in the super-hero genre. As Rogers, Chris Evans delivers by far his best performance in the role. A fantastic piece of comic-book cinema, Captain America – The Winter Soldier is a power-house of a movie, not to mention a fantastic addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Captain America (1944) – 3/10
Captain America (1979) – 2/10
Captain America II-Death Too Soon (1979) – 1/10
Captain America (1990) – 4/10
Captain America – The First Avenger (2011) – 8/10
Captain America – The Winter Soldier (2014) – 9/10