Recently all the major players in the comic book world – Marvel, DC/Warner Bros, Sony and Fox – announced the schedule of upcoming films for the next five years. This is incredibly convenient as I can now plan all my nerd-related activity up to 2020.
The one announcement I found more exciting than the others was the third Captain America movie; Captain America: Civil War. Now it is widely known that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the greatest movie ever made (and by “widely known” I mean that I say that often and to as many people as I can) so the prospect of another film starring Cap is cause for celebration.
Well, this got me thinking of some of the other attempts to bring the Sentinel of Liberty to the screen. There have been several … let’s say ‘interesting’ … trys over the years. I would love to give them all an “A” for effort, but sometimes the effort just was not that good.
I want to say this is surprising but it’s actually not – Cap is a tough character to get right. Writers over the years have always struggled to grasp exactly the correct tone to take. Let’s face it, a man who dresses like a flag is going to be problematic. His symbolism is inevitably going to mean different things to different people at different times. For one thing he could not have been created at any time in history other than World War II; that rare time of patriotism and belief that we as a country were united in truth and justice and the American way. There was a comic mini-series the envisioned Captain America as a Revolutionary War hero that, while interesting, ultimately didn’t work because the myth of America hadn’t been created yet. And that is what Cap is – a myth.
Baseball and apple pie and Norman Rockwell paintings, that is what Steve Rogers represents; but in a world where those things aren’t really believed anymore; a world where the myth of America has become tarnished and all but lost. Captain America, as a character, still believes in that myth, embodies it and strives to be an example of it.
I have been a Cap fan since I was a kid and at times that can be a bit hard. In the hands of a poor writer, or maybe I should say a writer who does not understand the character, he becomes a jingoistic slogan. He becomes a simple, pious, self-righteous prude. Or worse, he becomes a joke.
When written well Captain America can be a mirror for our society. In a world where there is darkness and secrets, where those in charge don’t always have our best interests in mind, Cap shows us what we could be. Honest and truthful, always standing up for the “little guy” and those who do not have a voice. He is a man out of time, a mythical time, when a country was a community and everyone looked out for each other. It’s a good story. And Captain America is a good myth.
That is what the recent movies got right. In a gritty, dark world of politics and intrigue Captain America is in the end a really nice guy. He is honorable and fair and he wins because of it. That is the myth of Captain America done right. A superhero done right.
That being said here’s a few examples of Cap done wrong.
The 1944 Serial
This is one of those examples of someone saying, “This is a great idea, let’s change everything about it.”
Instead of Steve Rogers we’ll call him Grant Gardner. Instead of being a soldier he’s a district attorney. Instead of a shield he’ll carry a gun. Instead of fighting in the war he’ll round up petty mobsters in New York. Instead of being a super hero he’ll be just some normal schmuck. Yeah, that’s a great idea. Sigh.
The 1966 Cartoon
A Captain America segment was part of The Marvel Superheroes program and the animation was…primitive. Basically just cut out art from the comic and moved around on screen. But the art was Kirby art so that actually gives it the illusion of dynamic movement. And that theme, classic. It’s not good, but I’m actually quite fond of this.
Made for TV Movies 1979-80
Two made-for-TV movies that were attempts at an ongoing series. Mercifully that never happened. Oh, I remember when these aired. I sat my little self in front of the television all a-buzz with excitement at the prospect of a Captain America TV show! I ended up only a few minutes in thinking, “this sucks.” His mask was a painted motorcycle helmet and his shield, the most iconic part of the character, was a clear piece of plastic that doubled as the motorcycle windshield. The next day at school we all were calling this Craptain America. Just awful.
The 1990 Theatrical Film
It will always be remembered for rubber ears. To be fair this is actually the best of the lot. The costume is right, the shield is right and he fights the Red Skull. All the details are correct but it fails for two reasons. The plot is sort of a mish-mash of ideas that doesn’t know if it wants to be a kid’s film or an action film or a war film or anything in particular. And they chose to put rubber ears on the outside of the cowl. Why? Didn’t someone during filming think to say, “Hey, those rubber ears look like rubber ears, maybe we should not do that.” It does star JD Salinger’s son, so that’s interesting.
Comic book adaptations have come a long way in general and Captain America films in particular are so much better. It’s nice to see a great character get his due.