Marvel is riding high with the live action movie adaptations of its books. This wasn’t always the case. The first Marvel comic to be adapted for the big screen laid an egg. However, Marvel had a better record on television, with The Incredible Hulk lasting from 1977 to 1982. The success of Hulk brought the character into mainstream attention, with the series having an influence on the character’s movie entry in Marvel’s Avengers Initiative. That same success led to the first authorized Captain America movie*.
Captain America was a 1979 TV movie starring Reb Brown, known for his roles in Yor and Space Mutiny, as Steve Rogers. Steve is an former Marine turned drifter artist, hoping to travel along the California coast line in his van. He receives a telegram from Simon, played by Len Birman, who wants to talk to Steve about his father’s research. The Full Latent Ability Gain, or FLAG, is a serum that can maximize the human body’s potential. FLAG has a drawback; the serum causes cells to degenerate faster, leading to death. Steve declines the offer to test the FLAG serum on himself. and heads out.
Fate, however, brings him back. Steve finds his friend, Jeff Hayden, injured in his own home, attacked by a thug sent by Harley, played by Lance LeGault, on the orders of Brackett, played by Steve Forestt. Brackett wants a filmstrip** of Hayden’s work to use to complete a neutron bomb and wants Steve out of the way. Harley lures Steve with the knowledge of who killed Jeff. Steve shows up at the out of the way location at night, where Harley demands the filmstrip. In the ensuing chase, Steve is forced off the road and over a cliff on his motorcycle.
To save Steve`s life, he is given the FLAG serum while in ER. Unlike the previous test subjects, there is no cell rejection; the serum works. Steve’s healing accelerates under the influence of the serum, but he has no desire to find out what else FLAG has done for him. He doesn’t get to stay ignorant; Harley kidnaps him from the hotel, taking him to a meat plant. Steve breaks away from his captors and plays cat-and-mouse among the sides of beef. His newfound strength lets him take out Harley and his men, including through the use of a thrown slab of beef, the only object thrown in a fight in the movie.
Steve talks with Simon, who mentions the elder Roger’s nickname as a crusading lawyer, Captain America. Simon offers a job as a special agent, which Steve accepts. Simon arranges for extra equipment, updating Steve’s van, adding a new motorcycle with jet assist, and a bulletproof shield that can be thrown as a deadly weapon. While he tests out the new motorcycle, Brackett sends men to chase him down by helicopter. Thanks to the new motorcycle and FLAG-enhanced abilities, Steve manages to turn the tables.
Brackett is busy working on Hayden’s daughter Tina, using her to figure out where the filmstrip was hidden. He pieces together what Hayden meant when mentioning his wife with his final breaths and finds the filmstrip. Brackett takes Tina hostage and the filmstrip to his weapons expert, who can finish the neutron bomb with the information on the strip. The bomb gets loaded on to a truck and shipped out. However, Steve’s enhanced hearing picks up a clue on where Tina could be, leading to an oil refinery owned by Brackett.
Simon provides one last present to Steve, a costume to help hide his identity as Captain America. Cap heads to the refinery to rescue Tina and stop Brackett. He sneaks in but is spotted. The alarm sounds, but Steve’s enhanced abilities are no match for the guards. Tina is rescued, but the neutron bomb plot is revealed. With some research, the target is located. Steve and Simon fly off to stop Brackett.
A second made-for-TV movie, /Captain America II: Death Too Soon/, followed, with Reb Brown back as Cap and Christopher Lee as the terrorist, Miguel. Miguel holds a town in check with a virus that causes rapid aging. Unless paid or unless Cap can stop him, Miguel plans to gas a city and withhold the antidote, letting the city die of old age in hours.
The TV movies take liberties with Cap’s background. Captain America: The First Avenger shows the origins well, with Steve Rogers volunteering for a super soldier program and gaining super abilities as a result, and only being frozen after a fight against the Red Skull. In the comics, Cap is found by Namor, is thawed, and becomes one of the founders of the Avengers. That is a lot of backstory to fit into a two-hour TV movie, so the change to an former Marine makes some sense. Steve became an artist once thawed out, so that part is accurate. In 1972, thanks to the Watergate scandal, Steve gives up the role of Cap out of disgust with the government and becomes Nomad, a wandering hero. That storyline, though, only lasted a year. The change to California is explained by keeping costs down; the studio was based in the state.
In the Seventies, the main names when it comes to live-action superheroes were Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk, The Six Million Dollar Man, and The Bionic Woman, all characters with similar power sets – super strength and endurance, all easily portrayed with practical effects, camera angles, and sound effects. The cost of energy blasts in post could be prohibitive, as seen with the original Battlestar Galactica, but jumping higher than normal uses the simple camera trick of running the film of someone jumping down in reverse. A drifting hero working for the government covers all the TV series mentioned; it’s a concept audiences should be familiar with and works for Captain America.
Reb Brown, while not the best actor around, is earnest as Captain America and, just as important in a superhero series, has the physique needed. The earnestness helps when considering that Cap was often considered a Boy Scout in the comics of the time. The music by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter is very Seventies with brassy horns and doesn’t quite survive the passage of time. The concept, a hero working for a secret organization, is common, from the OSI in The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman to the Foundation for Law and Government in the later series, Knight Rider.
Captain America and its sequel are very much Seventies-era made-for-TV movies, suffering from budget limitations. They take liberties with Cap’s background, but keep close to the characterization of the time. The needs of gaining a television audience forced some changes. The movies are definitely curiosities, and make a valiant effort, but fall short as adaptations.
* The Turkish film 3 Dev Adam, released in 1973, featured Captain America fighting Spider-Man and was not authorized by Marvel.
** A filmstrip is a series of still photos placed on a strip of photographic film as a means of presentation, much like an early version of a PowerPoint presentation, often with an accompanying recording on cassette, vinyl, or reel-to-reel with signals to let the viewer know when to change the slide.
The Avengers Adaptation continues!
Captain America first appeared in Captain America Comics, published in early 1941* by Marvel’s predecessor, Timely Comics. The character and the comic were intentionally patriotic, almost a given considering world events. Marvel brought back Cap in The Avengers #4, thawing him and bringing him to the “modern”** age. Cap started as Steve Rogers, a scrawny young man whose desire to enlist and fight the Nazis in Europe was thwarted by his own ill health. However, his persistence got him noticed and invited to the Super-Soldier project, where Steve was given the Super-Soldier Serum, transforming his body to perfect health and physique. Cap then fought through WWII with his sidekick, “Bucky” Barnes, battling the Third Reich.
Captain America: The First Avenger essentially retells Captain America’s origin. As you might have read last week, I went on for a few paragraphs about superhero origins. However, in Cap’s case, there are two elements to consider. One, Cap’s origins aren’t well known to the general audience. Comic book fans, especially those who follow the Avengers, are aware, but Cap isn’t the household name Superman is. Two, Captain America’s origins alone are an exciting story, especially in the context of modern Marvel stories (as opposed to the Timely comics). How Steve Rogers came to the modern world is well worth spending a movie on, if done well. The other key part to the origin is that Steve already had the right mindset to be a hero, even if his body wouldn’t let him. Falling on a grenade that he thought was live without a thought towards what would happen to him while everyone else dove for cover tends to show people what a hero is.
The First Avenger was done well. Once again, as in Iron Man and Thor, the right cast, the right crew, the right director were all involved. Joe Johnston, the director, had worked on pulp-like projects before, including The Rocketeer and Jumanji. The First Avenger definitely had a pulp feel, from time period to larger-than-life heroes and villains. Casting included bringing in Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull and Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Carter.
If you go back a bit in Lost in Translation, you’ll find my review of Flash Gordon. The two movies work together to show what’s needed to make a good adaptation. Both movies had great casting for supporting roles, excellent music, and a script that acknowledged the comic book feel of the original works. The big difference is that Captain America didn’t have executive meddling. Flash‘s execs interfered with casting, to the point where de Laurentiis’ wife picked out Sam J. Jones from the lead role from a game show. Everyone involved in the making of Captain America had the goal of making the film a success.
Casting wasn’t the only item that got attention. Little details about Cap appeared. The shield he used during the PR tour was based on the original one from Captain America Comics #1, which had to be changed because of a similarity to the one carried by Archie Comics’ The Shield. The First Avenger also had links to the previous movies in the Avengers Initiative, with Yggdrasil, a Norse artifact, and possibly the fate of the Red Skill calling back to Thor and Tony Stark’s grandfather Howard a supporting character. These connections may be the first time a comic book movie acknowledges the rest of the original comic’s universe. Usually, multiple studios have rights for the different characters in a setting. In Marvel’s case, Sony had the rights to Spider-Man while Twentieth Century Fox had the X-Men. With the Avengers Initiative, though, all the movies are being created by Marvel Studios and being released through Paramount. Just as important, many elements of the Marvel Universe were introduced. Hydra, a secret society out for world domination, with the Red Skull and Arnim Zola, could easily be the antagonists of a Captain America sequel set in the modern day.
Was the adaptation accurate? Not completely. Bucky Barnes became Steve’s childhood friend and a sergeant in the US Army instead of being a kid mascot. The Howling Commandos appeared, but without Sgt. Fury. Philips became a colonel instead of a general. Small details. However, the feel of the movie, aided by the direction, by the music, hit the right note.
Next week, on the nature of remakes.
* Prior to the US officially getting involved in World War II.
** As in, the day of publication.