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nb-Cinematic_Evolution_of_Captain_America

His name is Steve Rogers. But you probably know him best as Captain America.

This might come as a surprise (or not, as you’re currently reading a site called “Nerd Bastards”), but Captain America wasn’t simply the “First Avenger”, he was also the initial Avenger to ever appear on the big screen. 2014 is a big year for the ultimate All-American, as it marks a major anniversary for the star-spangled superhero. To celebrate this momentous occasion, we here at NB thought it might be a good idea to trace Steve Rogers’ cinematic lineage all the way back to the beginning, while also taking a look at the few pit stops he made on TV during his silver screen journey. It was a bumpy road, for sure (with some jolts damn near knocking the axle off of his red, white and blue motorcycle-housing van), yet arguably ends with some of the best cinematic output of Marvel’s entire existence. So fire up the Francis Scott Key and let’s take a trip back in time to somewhat simpler days…

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Captain America [1944] (d. Elmer Clifton & John English, w. Royal Cole, Harry Fraser, Joseph Poland, Ronald Davidson, Basil Dickey, Jesse Duffy & Grant Nelson)

The Winter Solider actually marks the 70th Anniversary of a Marvel character’s first appearance on the silver screen. In 1944, Cap became the last superhero to be featured in a B&W Republic serial film, while simultaneously becoming the first Marvel character to appear in cinemas (though, in 1944, publisher Mark Goodman’s funny book arm was known as Timely Comics). Divided into fifteen chapters that ran in-between features (with runtimes that ranged from fifteen to twenty-five minutes), the entirety of Cap’s first story would end up being over four hours long, should the serials ever be spliced together. Telling the tale of masked District Attorney Grant Gardner (Dick Purcell) and his efforts to apprehend the evil Scarab (Lionel Atwill), Captain America was a much different character than the scrawny kid turned super soldier we know and love today. Interestingly enough, Joe Johnston would call back to the ’44 serials in his 2011 film, having Steve Rogers appear in his own superhero short during his earliest days donning the white-winged mask. Only he’d be referencing a completely different character from the one Republic featured, as there’s no super serum, no super shield and, if we’re being totally honest, nothing particularly super about Grant Gardner whatsoever.


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The Marvel Super Heroes [1966] (p. Grantray-Lawrence Animation) 

Taking a brief pit stop from live-action (though still remaining serialized), The Marvel Super Heroes animated television series would allow kids to enjoy their daily dose of heroics from the comfort of their parents’ living rooms. The beauty of this incarnation was contained in its purity, as the televised series strove to deliver the heroes “exactly as they appeared in the comics”. Cap got the Monday slot, kicking off the week as he pursued the infamous Red Skull throughout the course of thirteen episodes. Voiced by bit and character actor Arthur Pierce, these twenty-two minute episodes brought the classic panels of the Marvel books to life, as Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s creation was joined by Thor, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man and the Sub-Mariner, giving kids a different hero to root for, depending on what day of the week it was.


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Captain America [1979] (d. Rod Holcomb, w. Don Ingalls) 

The cynical New Hollywood ’70s weren’t exactly conducive to bringing a man dressed in American flag spandex to the big screen, so Steve Rogers had to settle for fighting crime on CBS twice in the same year. Played by Reb Brown (of Yor: Hunter From the Future infamy), this version of Captain America comes complete with his own disco soundtrack and a winged helmet so ridiculous you won’t care about the poorly staged action or goofy motorbike he rides around on. Purists may take issue with the re-jiggering of Cap’s backstory (he’s administered the “super steroid” FLAG serum — Full Latent Ability Gain — following an accident) and the lack of a compelling nemesis (marking it as lesser than even the Adam West Batman series from the ’60s). However, for those looking for a simple, campy romp, you can do a lot worse (okay…maybe not a lot worse, but you get the idea). If anything, it’ll make you appreciate the fact that you get at least one of these massively budgeted Marvel movies a year that much more.


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Captain America II: Death Too Soon [1979] (d. Ivan Nagy, w. Wilton Schiller & Patricia Payne) 

Released ten months after the first CBS Saturday Night Movie, Death Too Soon is really more of the same, only with a semi-decent bad guy to root against (Christopher Lee, playing his second Spanish villain of the decade after Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun [1974]). General Miguel’s motivations are super vague (he wants to start a war…somewhere), but Lee sneers his way through the role, adding his trademark menace where there really shouldn’t be any (no word on whether he has a superfluous third nipple in this film, though). Death Too Soon is truly only for the die hard Marvel completist in the room, as it offers nothing more than the bragging rights of having seen the worst of the worst when it comes to the cinematic adaptations of the publisher’s work.


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Captain America [1990] (d. Albert Pyun, w. Stephen Tolkin)

Albert Pyun has never been a director whose movies could necessarily be considered “consistent” or even “good”. Even at his very best (Radioactive DreamsMean Guns), his work is a guilty pleasure; schlock that can be enjoyed only in the right company (or under the influence of the correct cocktail of intoxicants). His 1990 take on the star-spangled superhero is rightfully maligned, yet probably done so with the wrong amount of enthusiasm. There’s a cheesy joy to this Menahem Golan co-produced superhero picture that hinges on bad makeup, worse costuming, and production value that feels fit for USA Up All Nite. Yes, Scott Paulin’s Red Skull looks like like a rubber-faced, irradiated Conehead, but once you let go of any kind of preconceived notion of what “quality” actually means, it’s very easy to enjoy this ninety-minute failed attempt at bringing the First Avenger to life. Double-featuring Captain America 1990 with the New World Pictures version of The Punisher (1989) (yes, the one with Dolph Lundgren) not only makes for a very fun night of terrible cinema, it also shows just how undervalued any of these characters were by the low-budget picture houses who took them on. “Comic book filmmaking” was still a dirty word at the end of the Me Decade, sitting alongside slasher movies and Cinemax softcore, and it would take over ten years for the genre to evolve into the marquee name attracting, guaranteed money-machine it became in the aughts. 


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Captain America: The First Avenger [2011] (d. Joe Johnston, w. Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely)

Joe Johnston’s career as a journeyman director has yielded some over-loved pieces of fanboy iconography (The Rocketeer), as well as some wrongfully hated bits of big studio tomfoolery (Jurassic Park III). Yet The First Avenger is not only the best of the Marvel movies to date, it stands on its own as a great film. This is partly due to the inherent period setting, but most of it is due to Johnston understanding Cap’s serialized, swashbuckling roots. There’s a grand sense of fun to The First Avenger that’s impossible to deny, as Johnston completely eschews the “gritty realism” that had come to dominate comic book filmmaking in a post-Dark Knight era. Instead, the director (along with Chris Evans, in a role he makes completely his own) sticks to Steve Rogers’ earnestness, creating a film that almost feels corny and dated because of its adherence to the character’s core values. The First Avenger doesn’t just get Captain America right in the suit, it understands Rogers’ motivations as a human being so clearly that it should almost be named Steve Rogers: Defending the Honor of America instead. Easily the most re-watchable picture in the First Phase of Marvel’s output leading up to Joss Whedon’s AvengersThe First Avenger is everything that comic book movies should be, right down to Rogers’ final act of self-sacrifice in Red Skull’s own personal vessel of death and destruction.

Where will Steve Rogers’ next cinematic adventure take him? See for yourself this weekend, when Captain America: The Winter Solider hits theaters.

Category: Comics, Featured, Film

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