In 1941, Captain America was introduced to the world. Steve Rogers was a kid of the Great Depression who struggled to make money as an artist and decided to enlist in the military during World War II. Initially told he was physically incapable of being accepted, Rogers participated in Operation: Rebirth and was made into a super-soldier thanks to a special formula and a treatment of "vita-rays." As Captain America, he and his partner Bucky Barnes, along with other superheroes of the era, fought Axis forces and protected innocent lives from a variety of threats. Circumstances led to Steve being frozen alive soon before the war ended and he spent decades in suspended animation. Eventually, he was discovered by the modern day superhero team known as the Avengers and revived, joining their ranks immediately afterward.
Armed with an indestructible shield made of a vibranium-steel alloy, Cap continues acting as a hero both on his own, with the Avengers, and aiding government agencies. He's been the subject of a feature film this year and will be one of several superheroes to star in next year's Avengers movie. A few days ago, Marvel Studios announced the DVD and blu-ray of Captain America: The First Avenger will hit stores October 25, 2011. So let's take a look at the many ways the sentinel of liberty has been adapted for live-action media.
THE REPUBLIC SERIALS
Republic pictures had done superhero projects before, such as Captain Marvel (the kid who calls the lightning bolt by saying "Shazam", obviously, not the later Marvel Comics characters). In 1944, the Captain America movie serial would be their final superhero project, as well as the most expensive project they'd ever worked on. It featured the star-spangled sentinel as a masked hero fighting a villain called the Scarab.
But beyond the fact that the character wore a mask and called himself Captain America, this was a really different character. Rather than a soldier named Steve Rogers, our hero here was District Attorney Grant Gardner. His origin involved no government projects or super-soldier serums, he was apparently just ticked off one day and decided to beat up criminals while wearing the US flag. There were no Nazis, no Bucky Barnes, and he used a gun rather than a shield. When Timely Comics (the company that eventually became Marvel) complained about the changes, Republic basically said they weren't under any obligation to be accurate to the comic and they were quite happy with their serialized adventure where Captain America had to defeat fearsome sci-fi weapons with names such as the Electric Firebolt, the Purple Death and, perhaps most sinister of all, the Dynamic Vibrator.
Being filmed in black and white, one might not be sure if this costume is red, white and blue or red, white and black. This outfit has the basics down, but misses a few elements. The gloves and boots blend in with the bodysuit and the lack of white panels on the sleeves makes the design seem a little plainer than his comic book counterpart. Same with the lack of wings. Still, it's not a bad costume and strangely it fits the fact that this guy isn't quite Captain America anyway, with his different name and origin.
Republic made 15 serials of Captain America, starring Dick Purcell. Purcell was a bit overweight and out of shape, but Republic figured he'd be good enough for the role of the patriotic superhero. This turned out to be a bad move. Purcell died just weeks after filming was completed from a heart attack apparently brought on by the strain of having to play the athletic character.
1970s MOTORCYCLE HERO
In January 1979, CBS premiered a made-for-TV film Captain America starring Reb Brown. In this film, Steve Rogers was a modern-day guy living in the 1970s whose father had been a government agent during the 1940s. Steve was a former Marine who now worked as an artist and he so patriotic that folks nicknamed him "Captain America." Circumstances led to him being seriously injured and then given an experimental formula that healed him and made him an enhanced human being. This chemical, called F.L.A.G. (Full Latent Ability Gain (holy crap, that's lame)), was referred to as a "super-steroid" rather than a super-soldier formula.
With this now making him a formidable force, Steve became started a career as a superhero, wearing a costume based on a sketch he'd drawn of just such a character, and traveled around in a tricked out van that could launch him out on a motorcycle. The motorcycle's windshield was a big round sucker made of a "jet-age plastic" that was very strong, so Steve later detached it and used it as an actual shield.
The filmmakers had seen that motorcycle stuntman Evel Knievel was hugely popular and so they were hoping to grab some of that same audience by making Captain America seem like a similar type of character. And you can definitely see it. This is less a super-soldier and more a motorcycle stunt performer. The stripes around the mid-section worked, but the stripes on this guy's costume go over his shoulders and wind up resembling suspenders. The extra stars on the gloves and the motorcycle helmet all indicate that this outfit is about flashy design elements rather than a solid, clean look.
At the end of the film, Steve designed a new outfit, which set it up to be worn in Captain America II: Death Too Soon, premiering on CBS later that year. This was generally more accurate to the comic book costume. We've got the stripes around the mid-section and the white sleeves. But that damn helmet was still there. And added with the floppy see-through shield, this was not an inspirational figure.
In 1989, a new Captain America feature was filmed in Yugoslavia. It starred Matt Salinger (son of J.D.) and depicted Captain America as a super-soldier in World War II who gets a funky costume and then is frozen alive at the end of his very first mission, placing him in suspended animation until the modern era. The film also made his enemy, the Red Skull, Italian for no apparent reason.
Visually, this is very accurate to the Captain America costume. We've go tall the elements and the shield actually doesn't look half bad. But there are a few things that don't quite work. First, the outfit is obviously rubber. We're told it's protective fabric of a unique design, but even Steve Rogers seems to dismiss it as a ridiculous costume at the beginning of the film. It doesn't seem to imply "body armor" at all.
The other thing that doesn't work? Rubber ears. Putting holes into the mask for the ear apparently caused some chafing. So rubber ears were placed on the outside of the mask. Thus, the costume was able to remain accurate to the comics up until the point where viewers noticed something odd about the ears and began scratching their heads. Then again, this was a movie where the love interest forgot to take off her wedding ring for some camera shots, so what the Hell.
Test audiences were not fans of this film so it was never released in US theaters (though some places in Europe showed it) and went direct-to-VHS in 1990.
THE FIRST AVENGER
Earlier this year, Marvel Studios released Captain America: The First Avenger starring Chris Evans in the title role (making it the fifth time he's starred in a comic book film adaptation). This film had a few Captain America outfits. At first, the hero is put into a costume that is dead-on accurate in terms of design to the comic book uniform. He wears this colorful suit to act as a promotional figure for the U.S. and to help sell war bonds.
Later, during a rescue mission, Cap throws more practical clothing on and the main decorative element is a helmet with the letter A painted on it. This is a nice nod to the Word War II look Cap wore in the Marvel Comics Ultimate line, which takes place in a separate universe than the mainstream Marvel Comics.
Finally, Cap is officially made a super-soldier, now someone who actually fights in the European theater rather than a cartoon figure intended to charm civilians. After showing some of his design sketches to scientist Howard Stark (father of Tony Stark AKA Iron Man), the man made Steve a special outfit made of lightweight layers of body armor. This maintains the design of Captain America as a superhero but is also utilitarian for a guy who's regularly charging into battlefields. His shield looks great too. The marks on it let you know that this thing is really being used in a fight, while the fact that only the paint and not the shield is damaged displays just how powerful an item this is.
In the upcoming Avengers movie directed by Joss Whedon, Captain America will join modern-day superheroes to fight new strange (possibly alien?) menaces. According to Chis Evans, Whedon specifically wanted a more classic comic book style uniform for Cap and so we've got yet another look for the star-spangled Avenger. This outfit definitely stands out as more of a costume rather than a battle outfit and it doesn't imply body armor. But Evans is a good actor and we'll have to wait and see the film before we know for sure if the film can pull this look off.
For more thoughts on this particular look, as well as other outfits that will be seen in Avengers, check out the recent video team-up I did with Grace Randolph of Beyond the Trailer!
And that wraps it up, folks. Until next time, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off!
Alan Kistler is a freelance writer and actor living in New York City. He has been recognized as a superhero historian and a Doctor Who historian by various news outlets and media companies. He has spoken at the Paley Center on the subjects of pop culture, science fiction, Star Trek and vampire fiction. He is the creator/host of the podcast Crazy Sexy Geeks. Twitter: @SizzlerKistler