My first exposure to Captain America was in the form of those wonderfully limited animated cartoons from 1966. The cartoons, which were actually photocopied images taken directly from the comics, were terrible animation, but they were my first exposure to the Mighty Marvel Superheroes: Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, The Invincible Iron Man, The Mighty Thor and Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner. In 1967, Spiderman and the Fantastic Four would get their own Saturday morning cartoons and that would eventually lead me to buying my first issues of Spiderman and The Fantastic Four. It would be a few years before I could afford to buy more Marvel comics with my limited allowance money, but I definitely bought the characters that I remembered from those early cartoons: The Incredible Hulk, The Invincible Iron Man, The Mighty Thor and of course Captain America!Captain America has had a rough time of it in cinema. Cap’s first cinematic incarnation was the 1944 Republic serial and dealt with Captain America trying to thwart the plans of The Scarab in his attempts to acquire the "Dynamic Vibrator" and "Electronic Firebolt" which were devices that could be used as super-weapons. Other than the previously mentioned cartoons, Captain America wouldn’t appear on-screen again until he emerged in two TV movies on CBS: Captain America, which aired January 19, 1979, and Captain America II: Death Too Soon, which aired November 23, 1979. Both starred Reb Brown in the title role and placed Steve Rogers in then contemporary times with a completely different origin and modus operandi.
Captain America was to make his feature film debut in 1990 starring Matt Salinger as Captain America and Scott Paulin as The Red Skull with direction by Albert Pyun. This film featured Steve Rogers becoming Captain America during World War II to battle the Red Skull and being frozen in ice, to be subsequently revived in 1990 to save the President of the United States from a crime family that dislikes his environmentalist polices. The film was planned for release in the summer of 1990, but after several release dates were announced between fall 1990 and winter 1991 the film still went unreleased for two years before debuting direct to video and on cable television in the United States in the summer of 1992. Of all the screen versions of Captain America, this was the most loyal to the source material, but its limited budget didn’t make it look much better than the 1970’s TV movies.
Finally, this summer saw the release of two of Marvel’s superheroes Thor and Captain America. Marvel Studios has been building up to the upcoming release of The Avengers next year since the first Iron Man film was released in 2008. The Avengers will feature not only Captain America and Thor, but Iron Man and the Hulk as well. I loved the two Iron Man films and enjoyed Thor as well, so my expectations for Captain America: The First Avenger were fairly high. I was not disappointed.
Captain America: The First Avenger is set in 1942, just as America is entering World War II. Steve Rogers is a skinny kid who is determined to enlist in the military. Unfortunately, he is listed as 4F until a mysterious Dr. Erksine sees the kid and ensures that Steve passes his exam, so that he can enter his Project Rebirth program. Proving his intelligence, guts and sheer determination, Dr. Erksine chooses Steve to be subjected to the massive injections of the super soldier serum he created. Steve is transformed into a perfect physical specimen, but just as he is emerging from the lab, Dr. Erksine is murdered by a HYDRA agent and Steve becomes the only super soldier. The government doesn’t want to risk Steve in combat, so he is relegated to performing as “Captain America” in USO shows stateside to sell war bonds. While on a tour overseas, Steve finds out that his old friend James “Bucky” Barnes has been captured by HDYRA during a secret mission to find the headquarters of the Red Skull. The leader of HYDRA, the Red Skull had worked for Hitler as a scientific research division, but on gaining enough military strength on his own, decides to use the war as a means to establishing himself as the absolute ruler of the world! Donning an altered version of his Captain America costume, Steve Rogers races off to face the Red Skull and stop him before it too late!
Joe Johnson was the perfect director for Captain America, as he had also directed one of my favorite comic book film adaptations: The Rocketeer. Captain America takes its time to establish the wartime setting, getting all the visual details of New York circa 1942 just right. Chris Evans as the spindly Steve Rogers (done with some fine digital trickery) is just as convincing as when he eventually becomes Captain America. I think because so much effort is put into the pre super-heroic Steve Rogers, that when he eventually dons the Red-white-and-blue uniform, we are really pulling for him on several levels. Hugo Weaving does a fine job of playing the Red Skull with just enough panache that his evil plans seem almost justified. The whole supporting cast, from Haley Atwell as Peggy Carter, Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Chester Philips, to Sebastian Stan as ‘Bucky’ Barnes, get the most out of their minimal screen time. There are also some cool moments in the film that only a Marvel Comics fan or a comic book historian would notice. When Captain America is doing his USO tour, he is given a badge-shaped shield, instead of the circular shield that the character is most identified with. The "badge" shield is the shield that Captain America only used for the very first issue of the Captain America comic that was published in March of 1941. Among a group of soldiers that Captain America attacks the Red Skull's fortress with are Timothy "Dum Dum" Dugan and Gabe Jones. These are two of the soldiers that appeared in the WWII comic first published by Marvel in 1963 entitled Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos.
Once the battle between Captain America and the Red Skull starts, the action is almost nonstop! I particularly liked the retro-high tech weapons used by the Red Skull and his HYDRA minions. From ray-cannon tanks to underwater jets, there is enough gadgetry to keep any super-science geek happy. Captain America, despite his super strength and agility, is still quite believable on screen, as it seems most of the stunts were done live action whenever possible. As good as modern CGI is it is no substitute to for real actors and stunt people doing their thing.
As with all the other recent Marvel films, if you stay to the end of the credits you are treated to a sneak peek of The Avengers film that is being released next summer. This is being directed by Joss Whedon, who also wrote the script and I for one can’t wait for it!
Any fan of the superhero genre, or period action films, should enjoy Captain America: The First Avenger. As a first adventure of Captain America it is indeed first rate!