Chris Evans‘s portrayal of Steve Rogers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe will go down as a landmark in the character’s history. No one will ever forget him. However, other filmed version of Cap have lapsed in our culture’s memory. Today, we take a look at the Captain America movies that paved the way for one of the MCU’s most indelible on-screen heroes.
The 1944 Serial
Captain America (1944) has an incredibly interesting history and legacy that most people don’t consider. It’s the very first filmed version of a Marvel hero — back when Marvel was known as Timely Comics — and was the most expensive serial in the history of prolific company Republic Pictures. The movie is typical of the hard-nosed masked vigilante series of the era, so Steve Rogers is now District Attorney Grant Gardner. There’s no Super-Soldier serum, no Bucky, and he doesn’t even have his shield! The plot puts Cap against a mysterious baddie called The Scarab, who at one point is attempting to create a super-weapon called the “Dynamic Vibrator.” *giggles*
As an adaptation it’s crummy, but as a ’40s serial it’s a great bit of fun. Sadly, it’s believed that leading man Dick Purcell died from complications brought on by how strenuous it was making Captain America. It was his last film role — and the one he’s most remembered for — and it helped cement Captain America as a part of pop culture history.
The 1979 TV Movies
Cap’s next foray into film would be in the form of two CBS television movies released in 1979. Steve Rogers is played by lovable lunkhead Reb Brown — star of the schlock classic Yor: Hunter from the Future — but he still doesn’t have the comic origin we know and love. Instead, he’s a former Marine who gets in an accident and is given the FLAG (“Full Latent Ability Gain”) formula to save his life. FLAG enhances Steve’s reflexes and strength, so he dons a costume to fight crime as Captain America.
The big draw here is Cap’s motorcycle; a tricked-out toy of a vehicle that launches out of the back of a van. Cheesy perfection. The movie is obviously riffing on the era’s love of celebrity stuntman Evel Knievel, so the motorcycle is more the star of the film than Cap himself. If you only watch one, go for the sequel Captain America II: Death Too Soon.. Both of the films are pretty grating and leaden, but at least you get Christopher Lee as the villain in the sequel.
The 1990 Direct-To-Video Film
This is the big one. Captain America (1990) is the first real attempt at doing a faithful adaptation of Steve Rogers’s comic origins, and for the first act or so, it doesn’t do a bad job! Steve (Matt Salinger) is a polio-afflicted patriot who is given the Super-Soldier serum in order to stop the villainous Red Skull. Sounds good, right?
Well, yes and no. The first part of the movie is where all the good stuff is; Captain America and the Red Skull fight while a missile is about to be launched, and it’s as comic book-y as it possibly could be. Sure, the production is a B-movie at best, but there’s something dumbly charming about it all. It’s when Cap reawakens in the early ’90s where the movie becomes a ponderous bore. There’s some unintentional comedy to be mined — especially from Salinger’s goofy performance — but it’s too bland to defend. The film is bookended with low budget action that will appeal to fans of Cannon Films, but this is still for die-hards only.
Cap’s costume is worth highlighting. Though it’s ridiculously rubbery, they do a good job of going for comic accuracy. His shield is by far the best part of him and his outfit, but the costume is infamous for its rubber ears. It’s one of the silliest parts of the whole movie but that makes me love it even more.
Marvel wasn’t always the cinematic titan it is today, and it’s good to look back at their history to see how far they have come. While these films didn’t make the biggest impact on the character, they are a vital part of Steve Rogers’s legacy and deserve to be remembered.