Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The Watcher Retrospective - Captain America

If you’re reading this, you know the score. Harry Knowles is gushing, SFX have rated it 4½ stars, and we’re mere hours away from our first glimpse of the First Avenger, as ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ storms onto our screens on Friday 29th July 2011. As the last member of the big screen Avengers steps up to the plate, Marvel Studios seem almost unstoppable.

But Cap has certainly paid his dues on the road to big screen glory. Arriving in 1940, the first issue of Timely Comics ‘Captain America’ was a bold statement of intent to the pre-war USA, featuring the star spangled hero punching out none other than Adolf Hitler. Creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby wanted to show the world how an average Joe, empowered by nothing more than an unwavering moral compass (and some performance enhancing drugs) could, and should, fight evil.

And lo, a pop culture icon was born. The true blue Yin to the dark and powerful Yang of DC’s Batman and Superman, Captain America has become one of the world's most enduring superheroes, blazing a path for others to follow for seventy years. And as with any true pop culture icon, TV and movie execs have long sought a slice of Cap’s sweet, sweet American pie.

Like most self respecting heroes of the 1940s, Captain America was first the subject of a black and white movie serial. In the age where audiences thrilled to the likes of Flash Gordon and Zorro, the character seems almost tailor made for a weekly adventure serial. Nazi hordes! Astonishing feats of daring-do! Death-defying cliffhangers! Last minute rescues! Its no wonder this age of filmmaking inspired the likes of Indiana Jones and Star Wars. Its just a shame all the filmmakers had to go on at the time was barely a single page of the comic, let alone a whole issue. And so the titular Republic Serial features not U.S. Army private Steve Rogers battling the very real Nazi menace, but a slightly overweight District Attorney named Grant Gardner fighting the domestic threat of the terrifying Scarab, who seeks to wreak ‘purple death’ on middle America. More of a "What if... Ray Charles made a Captain America Movie?".

But while the ‘real’ Captain America fled the critics and took a little Arctic snooze through the 1950s, he was reborn proper as a member of the Avengers in the 1960s, and pretty soon, cartoon glory beckoned. And why not? It worked for Spider-Man right? All he needed was a catchy tune. And based on the sample below, I’m quite frankly astounded that this enterprise didn’t propel him into the pop-culture stratosphere like a Hydra Rocket.

Slowly, ever so slowly, though, Marvel were starting to get their act together, licensing their properties for TV and starting to exercise some quality control. So while the Seventies brought pretty faithful TV adaptations of Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk, we were also treated to two Captain America TV movies. Okay, so the producers took one or two tiny liberties. Steve Rogers? Check. Super Soldier Serum? Check. Gnarly biker dude, intent on fighting wrong doers because they used to take the mick out of his dad? Er... check. Like almost all TV from the Seventies however, this version does have an irresistible kitsch charm when taken in small doses. Plus, with the second movie guest starring none other than Sir Christopher Lee as the dastardly ‘Miguel’, its got to be quality right? See for yourself!

Luckily, by the late 80s, the likes of Richard Donner ('Superman' (1978)) and Tim Burton ('Batman' (1989)) had finally cracked the secret formula of how superhero movies should be made. And so finally, we got ‘Captain America’ (1990), the adaptation True Believers had been waiting for. All the elements are there. The World War II origin is present and correct, Steve Rogers is the working class boy made good, frozen in the Arctic for fifty years, battling the Red Skull through the ages. Based on a little known Captain America story from the 1970s, ‘Captain America’ (1990) is an even more faithful adaptation of the source material than Zack Snyder’s ‘Watchmen’ (2009). In the absence of a decent clip, however, I’ve reproduced the original story below. Lovely artwork, good lettering.

Of course, Friday is the day, and we will finally get to see ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ in all its red white and blue glory, safe in the knowledge the character is in safe hands. As I mentioned above, Marvel Studios are currently in unbeatable form at the box office. With director Joe Johnston, no stranger to rip roaring adventure with ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark’ (1981) and ‘Rocketeer’ (1991), a strong cast headed up by Chris Evans ('Fantastic Four', 'Sunshine'), all lovingly presented in that patented Marvel Studios Shiney-Vision, it looks like Captain America can finally stand up and be counted. Welcome to the 21st Century Steve, you’re gonna love it.

Robert Barton-Ancliffe is looking forward to Matt Puddy’s review of the all new Captain America #1.

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