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Captain America 101: An Introduction to the Star-Spangled Avenger…

I did a post a little while back that was intended to serve as an introduction to the world of the Green Lantern, what with the movie coming out this year. The post proved so popular that I thought I’d take perhaps put a similar post together on Captain America. The first trailer for Captain America: The First Avenger premiered at the Super Bowl yesterday, so it seems to be the perfect time for a bit of an introduction to the star-spangled superhero. Check out the 30-second spot below.

Q: C’mon, we know who Captain America is…

A: You probably do, unless you live in Russia, South Korea or the Ukraine (or so Marvel claims). The guy is an icon. He brands a chain of restaurants over here in Ireland, for example. I won’t pretend that he’s as unknown as, say, Green Lantern or Thor.

But still, do you really know him?

Q: I know enough, I think. The name pretty much sums him up, right?

A: To an extent, but let’s do this like inside baseball, since we all have a pretty basic understanding of the character.

Can we breach Steve's tough outer shell... or shield?

Q: Okay, so let’s do this thing. Five second origin?

A: Gangly Steve Rogers wants to fight for his country in World War Two. He’s too weak, so the doctors get him to volunteer for an experimental procedure to produce a supersoldier. Low and behold, it works – the dude comes out with enhanced speed, strength and durability. It’s also hinted that the serum made Steve, a kid from the Bronx, a tactical genius – although it’s possible that he just had an innate skill.

Q: That was more than five seconds…

A: You’re a slow reader.

Q: So, he’s a US government experiment? Why don’t they just make more of him?

A: Well, this is a bit of a likely spoiler for the first fifteen minutes or so of the film, so be warned to skip this question if you want to go in spoiler-free. That said, it isn’t rocket science.

The Prof is in the pudding...

The man behind the project, Professor Erskine, created Captain America as a prototype. As most government-employed scientists are instructed upon entering a high-profile and vital research programme, Erskine made sure not to make any useful notes. And then he was killed by a Nazi spy.

Q: That’s a bit convenient…

A: … only if you’re a Nazi!

It’s a superhero origin, and an old one at that. If you can believe that Superman wears his underwear outside his pants, I think you can get on board with this – it’s one of those clichés that you forgive, if only because it dates back so far.

Q: Old, you say?

A: Yep, Captain America was original published by Timely Comics in 1941. He memorably introduced himself by punching Adolf Hitler in the face. Months before America officially entered the Second World War, too.

Sock it to him!

Q: Timely? I thought he was published by Marvel?

A: Timely were the company that would become Marvel. They published characters like Captain America, Namor the Submariner and the original Human Torch. While the bulk of Marvel’s iconic characters (Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, The Hulk) wouldn’t be created until the swingin’ sixties, there have been various attempts to reintroduce those classic forties characters into the publishing line.

Although Namor is popular in geek circles, Captain America is undoubtedly the most iconic of these “classic” characters, and one of the few truly iconic Marvel characters who can claim to be almost as old as Batman or Superman.

Q: And this film, it will be set during the Second World War, you say?

A: Yep, it’s a superhero period piece. It’s being described as a superheroic Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Q: That’s a bit of a lofty description, innit? Like comparing your film to Citizen Kane?

A: Well, if it’s half as good we won’t be complaining, right?

Q: True. So, if he became a soldier in the Second World War, doesn’t that make him like… really old?

A: Well, here’s the thing. Unlike most comic book characters, Captain America’s origin is tied to a particular event in history. Batman and Superman have always been active for approximately a decade, despite the fact they’ve been published for over seventy years. Even Iron Man periodically has his origin updated. He was originally wounded in the Korean War, before it was updated to the Gulf War and (in the film) Afghanistan.

Captain America shields his colleagues...

Captain America, on the other hand, has not been update. He always fought between 1941 and 1945.

A slight spoiler lies ahead, and it’s likely the one that will link Captain America: The First Avenger to The Avengers. So consider yourself warned if you want to completely avoid spoilage.

Captain America was frozen in the ice after the Second World War. He was on a mission attempting to foil the evil Baron Zemo – he managed to do it, but ended up in the cold ocean. He was presumed dead, but he was actually just frozen in the ice. He was found floating in the ocean a few years later (don’t ask how he’s still alive, it looks like Erskine knew what he was doing… even if no one else did).

And so he wakes up and resumes his superhero career, as one does. Most people would be happy with a government pension and a quiet retirement, by not Steve Rogers.

Q: Yep, he strikes me as a bit of an old “superpatriot”. You know, this sort of flag-waving jingoist “America, %$&# Yeah!” sort of guy.

A: Well, there are two differing schools of thought on the character. The first can be pretty much summed up as “so what?” If Iron Man can be an alcoholic, surely Captain America can be excessively patriotic. Particularly when the world has changed so much while he’s been away – he’s out of touch, despite the fact he’s a very decent guy by the standards of the forties. The flag hasn’t changed so he sticks to that. This is the approach of the “ultimate” Captain America in books like The Ultimates or The Ultimate Galactus Trilogy.

The other argument is that Steve Rogers isn’t loyal to a particular American government or institution. He’s loyal to “the American Way”, so much as it represents things that we can all agree on – like “democracy and human rights are good” and “tyranny is bad”, those sorts of statements.

Q: Yeah, right! The dude wears an American flag, for cryin’ out loud! His name is Captain America! You’re telling me he isn’t a government stooge?

A: Well, in fairness, Captain America has actually given up his mantle and gone rogue in the comics, at least twice.

That's a very Tricky Dick...

The first was during the Secret Empire plot, which was quite similar to the Watergate Scandal. Captain America traced a government conspiracy back to a Nixon-esque figure, who promptly committed suicide when confronted. Steve Rogers was so shattered by the events that he renounced his title and took to riding around the country on a motorbike, calling himself “Nomad”.

Q: The seventies were a fun time, weren’t they? I never had him pegged as an Easy Rider fan.

A: Hey, at least he didn’t end up in a disco strutting to Stayin’ Alive.

Q: Now I kinda want to see that.

A: So do I.

Q: And the second time?

A: In the eighties, the US government gave him his backdated pay and insisted that he come back to working fulltime for them. Steve, just having discovered even more corruption in the government, is understandably ticked off. So he gives up being Captain America and just calls himself “The Captain”.

This is what darker and edgier Captain America looks like...

Meanwhile, the US government hires John Walker as the “new” Captain America, who is all about being darker and edgier (as was the style at the time). When Steve Rogers reclaimed his title, Walker went on to adopt the codename “USAgent”, and a costume which looked quite… familiar. He has appeared in the years since, but is frequently portrayed as that guy at parties who has one good story about how he filled in for a legend one time, but just keeps telling it.

Q: So, Steve Rogers isn’t the only Captain America?

A: Not by a long shot. In fact, he isn’t even the title character in Captain America right now. But we’ll come to that.

Remember I told you that Captain America was frozen near the end of the Second World War? And that he was only thawed out in recent years? That’s the current version of the character’s history (and has been since the sixties), but it’s not how it always was.

See, Captain America was published long after the Second World War, into the fifties. Seen as there weren’t too many Nazis left to clobber, his preferred targets became communists and communist sympathisers. Now, it isn’t politically correct to clobber communists (especially those who are American citizens) in the same way that it’s okay to beat up Nazis, but the fifties version of Captain America took it one step further.

He even adopted the subtitle “Commie Smasher”.

And he just seems so happy about it...

So, yeah…

At the time these stories were published, it was intended that Steve Rogers was the man engaging in the sort of behaviour that would make Joe McCarthy blush. However, when the sixties dawned, it was realised that perhaps it would be better to forget the whole enterprise.

So, his history was rewritten. He was frozen at the end of the war and unfrozen in the present day. However, later stories would confirm that there was a Captain America active in the fifties – a nutjob who had plastic surgery to look like his idol was just a little “on edge” due to imperfect super serum. This history would be explained in the seventies, which introduced the insane doppelgänger – first, directly challenging Steve; and then attempting to incite a race war.

Better red than dead?

This character has become an important supporting character in Ed Brubaker’s on-going Captain America run, serving as a potential heir to Steve Rogers – and also as the leader of a conservative political group, aiming to return to “old-fashioned” values.

Q: You said “heir”… Why does Steve need an heir?

A: Well, a few years ago in the comics, Steve was killed.

Death of a dream...

Q: Yeah, I read about that. All over the papers.

A: Yeah, it it was everywhere. Around about the same time they killed Batman.

Q: So how did he die?

A: It’s complicated, but basically there was a big comic book event called Civil War. In it, a horrible tragedy led to a Superhero Registration Act, which demanded that all superpowered heroes come forward and declare their identities to the government.

Iron Man supports the move as a necessary step in restoring public faith in superheroes, while Captain America is disgusted at the invasion of civil liberties. The two create a schism which divides the heroes of Marvel and leads to a conflict, which ultimately costs more lives. Eventually, Captain America comes to his senses and surrenders.

While being led to the courthouse, he spots a laser sight targeting the guard escorting him. Steve pushes the guard to the ground and takes the bullet. It is a bit more complicated than that (time travel is involved, as is mind control and a magic bullet) but those are the cliff notes.

Q: Is he still dead?

A: No.

Q: So he’s Captain America then?

A: No. He’s just Steve Rogers.

Q: So, if I go out and buy Captain America as written by this Brubaker fellow, who am I reading about?

A: The current Captain America is “Bucky” Barnes. He was Captain America’s sidekick.

Q: Sidekick?

A: Yep, sidekick. Again, he was created in the forties. He used to be a kid who helped Captain America fight in the Second World War.

A sidekick? Gee willickers!

Q: A kid? In the Second World War? Like, in combat and stuff?

A: Yep. Again, forties.

Q: So kinda like Hitgirl in Kick-Ass, but without the irony?

A: Yep, a regular pint-sized killing machine. Originally Bucky was your stereotypical wide-eyed innocent who had stumbled across Captain America’s “secret” identity, and thus got to be his sidekick and go on adventures.

(Don’t ask. Apparently seeing a hero without their mask used to entitle you to all sorts of crazy stuff. The Silver Age Green Lantern foe Star Sapphire once conspired to see Hal Jordan without his mask, planning to marry him.)

More modern versions of the story age Bucky by a couple of years and make him more of a “scout” who is pretty good with a knife. The “kiddy sidekick” schtick is now dismissed as mere propaganda.

Q: Hardcore. Is he in the film?

A: Yes, but he’s not a kid anymore. I doubt you could do it without going down the “Kick-Ass” sort of approach, and I don’t think Marvel are gutsy enough to put a kid with a triple-figure bodycount in a summer blockbuster. So, instead, in the movie, he’ll be Steve Rogers’ close personal friend rather than his child assassin.

Q: Hmm… okay… So he’s now Captain America?

A: In the comic books, yes. See, he was originally presumed to have been killed during the mission where Steve was frozen solid. It’s was originally the great tragedy of Captain America’s backstory. It was such a fundamental part of comic lore that fans used to joke that only two people stayed dead in comics: Uncle Ben from Spider-Man and Bucky from Captain America.

Q: But that obviously wasn’t the case…

A: Nope. He was revived in comics about five years ago, where it was revealed he’d survived the explosion and had been trapped in ice – but he’d been found by the Russians. Having seen what Captain America could do, the Russians turned him into the Winter Soldier – a deadly assassin who they awoke from stasis periodically to continue their vendettas.

Bucky eventually came into contact with Steve Rogers, regained his old memories and went on the road to find himself. He tried to become a hero to atone in some small way for all the murder and mayhem he had caused…

Q: And so, when Captain America died…

A: … Bucky succeeded him in the role.

Q: Hmm… So, is Bucky going to “die” in this film?

A: I don’t know. It would be gutsy for a superhero film to kill off a hero, even a supporting one. Although I do like the alternate version of Bucky presented by Mark Millar in The Ultimates, where Bucky went on to live a full and rich life – with Steve Rogers returning from the ice to find him old and happy and married, living the life that the original superhero could never have had.

Knowing how manipulative Whedon can be (and that he has heavily revised the script to Captain America: The First Avenger), I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bucky appear as an old man in The Avengers.

Q: So, in the comics, how come Bucky is still Captain America? I thought Steve Rogers came back.

A: Steve pretty much saw how good being Captain America was for his former sidekick (believing that it granted him a sort of inner calm), and so decided to let Bucky remain in the role.

Q: And what about Steve? Is he kickin’ back on some island somewhere?

A: Nope. He’s playing the role of “top cop” in charge of superheroics at Marvel. Pretty much the role that we saw Samuel L. Jackson play in Iron Man and Iron Man 2. He even has his own team of superheroes to do dirty work – The Secret Avengers, as written by Ed Brubaker. Despite the fact that the book is (nominally) a team book, it’s pretty much just “Steve Rogers and friends” – which is fine by me.

Captain America shows his metal...

Q: So, what about that shield, eh?

A: Yep, that’s Captain America’s famous shield you can see in many of those screenshots. It has traditionally been constructed of vibranium (a fictional element particular to Wakanda, a fictional country in the Marvel Universe) although some sources claim the shield is constructed of adamantium (the indestructible metal which lines Wolverine’s bones and claws).

The shield is, as a rule, indestructible. Captain America, at least in the comics, manages to use it as both an offensive and a defensive weapon.

Q: Offensive? It’s a shield!

A: And a heavy one at that. It was originally in a traditional scalloped-shape (see some of the earlier images here), but – ever since it was changed to the iconic circle – Steve has used it as a throwing weapon. He’s very fond of throwing it and having it ricochet back to him after knocking out some mooks. It will be interesting to see if that makes it into the film.

The first action hero?

Q: And you say it’s indestructible?

A: Practically. It has been destroyed about four times, but it just keeps coming back. For a while there, Steve did use an energy-based shield as a temporary replacement (but it never really caught on).

Q: So, I suppose we’d better get talking about this movie, then…

A: Yep, might as well…

Q: Well, don’t sound too enthusiastic or anything.

A: Okay, maybe I’m being harsh, but… something seems off about this film. The director is Joe Johnston. He cut his teeth directing Rocket Man which – despite sounding like a William Shatner bio-pic – was a period piece superhero film, one that is a cult classic.

Q: Surely that’s cool, because this film is set during the Second World War, isn’t it?

A: It is. But Johnston’s filmography since then is… not good. He directed Jurassic Park III

Q: … the one with the talking velociraptors?

A: … the very same… and The Wolfman

Q: … the one which managed to make a movie which managed to sap the fun out of a corny and ridiculous horror movie?

A: So you see my concern.

Q: I do.

A: Well, anyway, the film has a phenomenal cast. Chris Evans is in the lead role.

Q: Didn’t he play a superhero before?

A: Yep, the Human Torch in those god-awful Fantastic Four films.

Q: Isn’t that against the law? Playing two heroes?

A: Well, Nicolas Cage was in both Ghost Rider and Kick-Ass. And Ryan Reynolds was in Blade: Trinity, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Green Lantern.

Q: Well, that put me in my place…

A: Damn straight. Anyway, the supporting cast is awesome. Stanley Tucci plays Professor Erskine, the guy who gives Captain America his powers. Tommy Lee Jones plays Steve Rogers’ commanding officer. Samuel L. Jackson will return as Nick Fury, or so he has claimed. Neil McDonagh will be in there as well. And then there’s the always superb Toby Jones as the villainous Armin Zola and Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull.

Q: The Red Skull?

A: Yep, Captain America’s evil Nazi bad guy. Been around since the beginning, too.

This is not the worst thing he's done...

Q: Is he still around in the comics?

A: In a manner of speaking. He’s currently “dead”, but he’ll be back. His path to the present is a bit more complicated than Steve’s “trapped in an iceberg” bit, so we won’t go too deeply into it.

Q: Isn’t a Nazi a little… outdated?

A: Yep. In fact, the character renounced the ideology in the eighties. He’s just a fascist and a sadist with aspirations of chaos and murder. He’s just a bad guy, a very bad guy. In fact, he’s pretty much regarded as the most horrible person in the Marvel Universe and most villains (except his usual cronies) generally avoid having too much to do with him. Most memorably, he had his ass handed to him by Holocaust survivor Magneto a few decades back.

The Red Skull brought to heel...

Q: Hmm… didn’t they already release a Captain America movie?

A: “Release” is a very strong word. But a Captain America movie was produced in the nineties. I’ve seen it, it was terrible. Although my six-year-old self did enjoy a bit of it. If you’re a fan of really awful movies, seek it out. It shouldn’t be too hard to find.

They're fighting for the remote to avoid watching the 1990 film...

Q: Alright, so let’s pretend I’m sold on all this. I want to go out and pick up a book about Captain America. What do I buy? What do I buy?

A: The first recommendation is Mark Millar’s The Ultimates. It’s the book that got me into comic books, it’s accessible and not tied down to decades of continuity. It’s also a very smart take on the “man out of time” aspect of the hero, which is probably his most fascinating facet.

Other than that, there’s a rake of stuff out there for the film. Jack Kirby’s run is being collected in an omnibus, but I can’t recommend it. It doesn’t include the really important Secret Empire plot, which is one of the best arcs on the character. The dialogue is also more than a little corny, especially for new readers.

Jason Aaron is doing a miniseries Ultimate Captain America. It should be continuity-light and easy to jump into – and Aaron is a strong writer. It’ll be published for the release of the film in a hardcover.

Other than that, there’s Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America. Note that I enjoyed it, but a lot of other people enjoyed it a lot more. It’s collected in three Omnibus editions, and I believe that the first one is getting reprinted for the release of the film. It’s a decent read, but perhaps a little too heavy on continuity – it took me a while to get past all the references, but it was worth it. Just don’t worry too much about the Civil War tie-ins, where another storyline intrudes on the work Brubaker is doing.

By the way, in a post-modern twist, Captain America used to write and draw his own comic in-universe. So the comic that you read used to be written by the character himself. It’s a gimmick not used too often these days (a little corny), but Steve also used to reprimand the writers for making him too violent and at one point even walked out of an issue. Pretty neat, eh?

So that’s it. It’ll be interesting to see how this movie does, critically and commercially.

2 Responses

  1. I like the liberties Johnston is taking with the Barnes character. Had he been the awshucks character predicted it would have been laughable.

    • You’ll get no argument here. I would love to see a Hit-Girl-esque child assassin, but we ain’t gonna see that outside of Kick-Ass, so this seems the saner way to go with it.

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