Most people probably don’t realize that Captain America has nearly as long a history as a live-action film and television character as he does as a two-dimensional comic book superhero. Chris Evans may be the most buff Captain America to hit the screen, but he’s not the first. Although they could hardly be called an inspiration for his movie, Captain America: The First Avenger, three previous efforts certainly provide some suggestions toward what not to aspire.

Appearing less than three years after the comic book debut of Captain America, the 15–part Republic serial, Captain America (1944), takes many liberties with the character and story. For example, instead of fighting Nazis, Cap (Dick Purcell) tries to thwart the plans of “The Scarab” (Dr. Cyrus Maldor, played by Lionel Atwill) to acquire two devices that could be used as super-weapons. Also:

  • Cap is really District Attorney Grant Gardner, not U.S. Army Private Steve Rogers
  • The “Super-Soldier Serum” origin is not used
  • Instead of a shield, Captain America carries a gun
  • Sidekick Bucky does not appear

Although the serial is filmed in black and white, his costume appears in stark contrast to Cap’s normal red, white and blue. In reality, it was grey, white and dark blue.

This version of Captain America is actually quite enjoyable, even though the character could easily have been replaced by any number of 1940s serial adventurers or superheroes. Apparently, it is highly acclaimed among cliffhanger enthusiasts for the story and action, not necessarily the character.

Thirty-five years later, Cap was the subject of two live-action TV movies airing on CBS, Captain America (1-19-1979) and Captain America II: Death Too Soon (11-23-1979). Again, many liberties are taken with the character and story. For example, although his father was a government agent in the 1940’s, Cap (Reb Brown) exists in modern times as a former Marine who makes his living as an artist. After a potentially fatal accident, he is given an experimental formula (FLAG, Full Latent Ability Gain) that not only saves his life, but also gives him heightened strength and reflexes. His costume is based on a drawing of a superhero inspired by his father’s story.

In these movies, Cap’s shield is a detachable windshield from his motorcycle and is made of “Jet-Age plastics”. The motorcycle itself can be launched from the rear of a modified van. The body of his costume (at the end of the first movie and into the second) is reminiscent of the comic books; however, he wears a weird helmet with painted wings on it.

These movies are silly and true curiosities from the late-70s. If anything, they remind me of The Six Million Dollar Man (1974-1978) complete with a musical metallic sound as Captain America performs his feats. I guess the first one was received well enough to make the second, but they are horribly dated when watching today.

Note: The best thing about Captain America II: Death Too Soon is that the villain (terrorist General Miguel) is played by Christopher Lee! Even though he spends most of his time behind either a desk or the steering wheel of the station wagon he’s using as a getaway car, his stunt double does have a tussle with Cap in the climax.

In 1990, a movie finally attempted to adapt Cap’s comic book history. Captain America was directed by Albert Pyun (Van Damme’s Cyborg), but never released theatrically in the United States. In this version, Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger) cannot go to war because he has polo. Injected with the supersoldier formula, he becomes Captain America and goes to Italy to fight Nazi villain, Red Skull. Losing the fight, though, Cap is strapped to a missile that crash-lands in Alaska where he will remain frozen until thawed out as a modern crime fighter.

Sounds exciting and action-packed, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s boring and poorly-made. This is largely due to two subplots which, on paper, are intriguing ideas for beefing up the plot, but in reality are badly-executed attempts to add drama. First, Cap’s struggle in accepting that he now lives in 1990 causes him to act in a decidedly un-superheroic manner, fooling people so that he can drive off in their cars… not once, but twice. Second, a child in 1943 snaps a photo of Cap as he flies above him on the missle. This child will grow up to be President of the United States, an only-in-the-movies twist that fails to add depth to the fact that Cap must rescue him 47 years later… especially when the President (Ronny Cox) throws more punches than Cap.

This movie has the full uniform; however, it seems to be made of rubber and is not very form-fitting. The shield is used as depicted in the comics, but special effects of the time did not seem to be up to the task, even though many other movies before had done many greater things. That may be the key to Captain America’s big screen failure: it’s budget. Or lack thereof.

In 2011, filmmakers seem to have figured out all the problems in adapting Captain America. Somehow, in just over two hours, they squeeze in the complete lore of his origin plus a full-fledged adventure plus a multi-generational subplot that connects it all to next year’s The Avengers. This is only Captain America: The First Avenger, but it certainly gets us excited for the other ones to join him.

The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is not only structured perfectly, but adds depth to a familiar story while remaining remarkably loyal to it. Character development exceeds that of most superhero movies, not only providing ample reason for Steve Rogers to be chosen for the super soldier experiment, but also justifying his decisions and behavior as Captain America.

A good story must still be supported by good actors, and Captain America: The First Avenger has them in abundance: Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones all support the less heavy-hitting lead, Chris Evans. However, Evans does a great job turning his usual cockiness into patriotic earnestness. Also, Hayley Atwell is a fun addition as Peggy Carter, a woman who can see action on the battlefield, facilitate secret Army experiments and still find time to fall in love.

I fell in love with the action sequences in Captain America: The First Avenger. Although he doesn’t often throw his shield for the boomerang effect, he wields it as an incredibly effective weapon. His battles are fun to watch; they’re like the fights that are stereotypically presented in slow motion, but the fact that they’re happening in regular speed now makes them seem fresh.

This is not a perfect movie, mind you, but it is an extremely competent one that masterfully translates the fantastic world of comic books into a realistic cinematic war adventure. (For a perfect example of this, watch how they modify his costume, while paying homage to the “old” one.) I didn’t like it quite as much as Thor because it’s missing the innocence that I found so charming in this summer’s first Marvel comic book superhero movie. However, I enjoyed it much more than X-Men: First Class, to which this movie compares as a masterpiece.

The only failure in Captain America: The First Avenger is its score. As much as it pains me to say about Alan Silvestri, composer for my favorite movie of all time, Back to the Future, the music is awful. No theme for Cap?!? I realize that not every big budget adventure needs to be full of bombastic melodies, but whatever happened to the John Williams school of soundtrack composing? Pay attention when you watch the movie. Then imagine what a difference a more dynamic score might have made. For me, it could have elicited an emotional reaction which is ultimately missing.

Why did it take so long for Hollywood to get Captain America right? Perhaps it’s because Cap has always been more a symbol than a real person, especially in the years preceding the Modern Age of Comics.  Lo and behold, when you get good writers to beef up the story, both in comics and in movies, you can take a good character and make him great… a 70-year old concept and make it relevant.