Comics to Screen: A Look at Captain America – The First Avenger

by Matthew Turner

Our reviewer denies being paid by Marvel

Warning: This post contains SPOILERS for Captain America: The First Avenger and is intended to be read after you’ve seen the film.

Having written comics-to-screen pieces for this blog on both Thor and X-Men: First Class, it seemed only fair to give Captain America the same treatment. I talked at length in the Thor piece about the challenges faced by filmmakers in transferring a lesser-known superhero to the big screen for the first time and, in my opinion, Captain America director Joe Johnston (who made The Rocketeer, which is very close to my heart) has done the best possible job, both in terms of introducing the character to a new audience and in giving pre-existing fans everything they could possibly want from a Captain America movie.

Nerd credentials first: my comics knowledge of Captain America falls somewhere between my knowledge of classic era X-Men (fairly high) and my knowledge of Thor (fairly low). I definitely remember reading several American Captain America comics in the 1980s (specifically this one, with Dragon Man) and I’m pretty sure Captain America stories were serialised in black and white British reprints, which gives me a fairly solid grounding in the character’s history. So, while I’m not the world’s biggest Cap super-fan, I was better placed to spot the various references than I was with Thor.

I won’t go into Cap’s history and background too deeply (after all, that’s what Wikipedia is for), but suffice it to say that the character was created as a deliberately patriotic character by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for Timely Comics, the forerunner of Marvel. Captain America Comics #1 appeared in December 1940 – though the issue is cover-dated March 1941 – with an iconic cover image of Cap punching Hitler in the face. This cover is brilliantly worked into the film, but the thing to note is that Cap first appeared almost a year before America entered the war.


I read the original 1940s origin story recently (it’s been reprinted in one of those Definitive Captain America movie cash-in collections) and I was struck by how incredibly closely the film sticks to the 1940s version, right down to the fake shop-front. Behind that fake shop-front is the secret laboratory where puny army reject Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is transformed into a faster, stronger (and taller) super-soldier by Doctor Abraham Erskine’s super-soldier serum. At which point Erskine (Stanley Tucci) is immediately killed by a Nazi spy, thus ensuring that no-one can duplicate the super-serum (because Erskine has conveniently committed the crucial formula to memory). That scene and the subsequent, lengthy chase sequence where Steve suddenly discovers just how powerful he’s become, is probably the film’s best action set-piece.

In terms of giving die-hard Captain America fans what they want from a Captain America movie, I think the list would basically boil down to 1) Cap facing a classic villain; 2) appearances from notable supporting characters; and 3) Cap chucking his shield/using his shield in battle in as many different ways as possible. In the first instance, Cap does indeed face THE classic Cap villain in the shape of the Red Skull, who dates all the way to the very first issue of Captain America, when he was just a Nazi in a red skull mask as opposed to the mutated-by-red-dust figure he became later. As a comics nerd, one of my favourite things about the film was the way they completely nailed the genuinely scary look of the original Red Skull drawings. Compare that with the hideous job the first Spider-Man film did with the Green Goblin and you’ll see exactly how badly that could have gone. (As a film nerd, I also loved Hugo Weaving’s film-long impression of Werner Herzog, but let’s move on.) It is worth noting, however, that the Skull’s origin has been tweaked for the film in order to more closely dovetail with Cap’s – here he is mutated and disfigured by an early version of Erskine’s super-serum rather than by his own Red Dust.

Rupert Murdoch as The Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger

I’m not a big enough Cap fan to be familiar with his entire cast of supporting characters – I could have named Erskine and
Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), but not ass-kicking love interest Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), or grizzled army honcho Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) or Nazi genius Dr Arnim Zola (Toby Jones). Meanwhile, the Dominic Cooper’s Howard-Hughesesque inventor Howard Stark – Tony Stark’s dad – has obviously been shoe-horned in in order to provide some crossover with Iron Man. Peggy doesn’t seem to have been much of a fixture in the comics and her role has been significantly beefed up for the film, but it’s worth noting that the modern-day, unnamed SHIELD agent glimpsed briefly at the end of the film (played by Amanda Righetti) is meant to be Sharon Carter, who is both a major Cap love interest and presumably, here, Peggy’s grand-daughter or grand-niece. At any rate, Righetti is credited as Sharon Carter for the Avengers movie, so I suspect we’ll be seeing more of her.

Not that you couldn’t have guessed anyway (at least, if you’ve ever seen a film before), but the one thing I did know for sure was that Bucky wasn’t going to make it to the final reel, since Bucky’s death is – or used to be; he’s alive again now, apparently – a big part of Cap’s history. Bucky’s been significantly changed for the movie too. In the comics, he’s a Robin-like costumed sidekick; in the movie he’s Steve’s idolised and possibly slightly older best friend. Pleasingly, he meets his death here in more or less the canonical way: taking a heroic plunge off a moving object in order to save Cap’s life. In the comics he was trapped on a runaway missile and died in the same accident that saw Cap plunged into suspended animation. (More interestingly, he was apparently killed off because of Stan Lee’s dislike for the whole teen sidekick thing.)

Aside from the inevitable appearance of Samuel L Jackson as Colonel Nick Fury at the end, Captain America also features a handful of other fan-pleasing cameos, notably the Howling Commandos and the original Human Torch, whom Cap passes briefly in the Future Fair scene. The Human Torch is another 40s superhero who had his own comic, but he was also part of a super-group called The Invaders, and fought alongside Cap and Bucky in a series of 40s-set flashback tales that were written in the 1960s. It’s also a neat little in-joke, because Chris Evans played the second, unrelated- to-the-original version of The Human Torch in the two Fantastic Four movies. As for the Howling Commandos, they’re barely even named in the movie, although Neal McDonough’s ginger, cigar-chomping, bowler-hat-wearing Dum Dum Dugan stands out for obvious reasons. It’s odd seeing them without their comic-book leader Nick Fury and it’s a shame the film couldn’t have somehow worked in Jackson playing his own grandfather or something, but never mind. It’s also worth noting that JJ Feild’s character is James Montgomery Falsworth, who later becomes British superhero Union Jack, another member of The Invaders.

Nerdy character-spotting aside, my favourite part of the film was the terrific musical number-slash-montage sequence. The Man With The Flag would have been perfectly enjoyable as a musical number on its own but the genius of the sequence is that it both serves an important plot function and gets the film-makers out of two potentially awkward scenes. Before I saw the film, I had joked on Twitter about looking forward to seeing how they’d pull off the “Hey, you know what you need? A red, white and blue costume” moment (to say nothing of the little white wings on the helmet) and also how they’d come up with the name “Captain America” while keeping a straight face. In the event, that sequence takes care of both those decisions and makes them entirely believable – after Erskine’s death, Steve is given a gaudily patriotic costume, quickly named Captain America and adopted as a propaganda tool by the army, whereupon he’s required to punch Hitler in the face on stage every night as the climax to a musical number. Brilliantly, this allows the film-makers to use the original 1940s costume (one of the biggest fan-pleasing moments), complete with the original shield-shaped shield. This also cunningly demonstrates how awful the comics version of the costume would look and entirely justifies the film’s tweaking of the costume into the version we see later on. I also loved that the script showed Steve as a gifted artist – reflecting Steve Rogers’ career as a commercial artist while also allowing him to redesign his own costume as Captain America.

Arguably, the only thing missing from Captain America is a clear shot of Cap encased in ice at the end. For my money, that’s where the need to lead into the upcoming Avengers movie has slightly cheapened the film. Personally, I would have dropped the arctic discovery sequence at the beginning and ended it with an image of Cap frozen in ice, Han Solo-style, and the words “Somebody call Nick Fury…” or something.

Speaking of The Avengers, I would like the record to show that I totally called the fact that the Cosmic Cube would play a big part in the Captain America movie. Given the Cube’s prominence here (and its ties to Asgard, which is something specific to the films, even though the Cube made frequent comics appearances), I think it’s safe to assume that a) the Cosmic Cube will also form a part of the Avengers plot and b) the Red Skull will make an appearance in the Avengers movie, even if only briefly. (Hugo Weaving is not yet listed on the Avengers cast list.)

There are two more things I want to add. Firstly, that amongst many lovely little touches and film references, I especially loved the Indiana Jones reference, where the Red Skull makes a quip about Hitler “chasing trinkets in the desert”. And secondly, no piece about Captain America can ever be complete without referring to this classic shield-throwing moment. Other than that, I am officially excited for the Avengers movie, so hurry up and Assemble already.

This blog post would not have been possible without invaluable assistance from Kim Newman and James Moar.

Matthew Turner (@FilmFan1971 on Twitter) is the film reviewer for ViewLondon and has been known to read a Marvel comic or two in his time.

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About Matthew Turner

Matthew Turner (@FilmFan1971 on Twitter) is a freelance film journalist. His favourite film is Vertigo and he hasn't missed an episode of EastEnders since 1998.

4 thoughts on “Comics to Screen: A Look at Captain America – The First Avenger

  1. Every time you write one of these I follow a Wikipedia link (this time to Union Jack) and am once again astonished at just how utterly bastard mental the whole affair is.

  2. >[Bucky]’s alive again now, apparently

    Actually, they’ve just (i.e. within the last month or so) killed him off again ;-)

    (long story short: it turned out that he hadn’t died when they thought he had, but had ALSO been preserved in ice. He was found by the Russians, missing an arm and most of his memory, and turned into an agent of theirs called the Winter Soldier. A few years back he encountered Steve again, and through convoluted circumstances got his memory back. He then took over as Cap for the brief time that *Steve* was dead, and when Steve came back he carried on (Steve instead took over as head of SHIELD with a new costume) – only to be killed in the last-but-one issue of the current FEAR ITSELF event)

  3. Personally speaking, I could have lived with a little less of the obvious shilling for the Avengers movie, but, as that pesky subtitle indicates, that was inevitable from the get-go. (That subtitle’s actually a lie, by the way – Cap was NOT the first Avenger and was in fact discovered frozen in ice by the Avengers -Thor, Iron Man and others – in the fourth issue of The Avengers in 1964. Hashtag comicsnerdery.

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