Captain America is a fictional superhero created in 1941 for Timely Comics by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, and is currently published under several titles by Marvel Comics. The embodiment of American patriotism just as World War II had begun, Captain America became Timely's best-selling title during the comic industry's "golden age", over time becoming one of the most recognizable and famous characters in the genre.
In Europe, Adolf Hitler was over-running the continent, and American soldiers were getting ready for the eventual conflict. One of the young men making repeated attempts to enlist - and repeatedly rejected - was Steven Rogers, an orphaned, physically-frail fine-arts student and comic book artist who was aware of the atrocities committed by the Nazis and wanted to do something about it. Dr. Josef Reinstein would see the young man's determination and offer him an opportunity as a test subject in a proposed "Super Soldier Project", the idea of which would be to have a unit of specially-enhanced, physically strong soldiers who be potentially dropped behind enemy lines to carry out missions considered too dangerous for lesser men. The effect of the test - a serum combined with "vita-rays" - turns Rogers into a super-soldier, but before it could be replicated Reinstein is killed by a Nazi infiltrator who, it is later discovered, works for the leader of the German terror and espionage apparatus, Johann Schmidt, whose disfigured head gave him the byname "Red Skull".
Captain America's costume is the colors of the American flag: predominately blue, with vertical red-and-white stripes at the midsection, a large white star on the chest, and red "pirate-style" boots. A mask with white winglets and a large letter "A" would hide his identity, and an indestructible shield would give him protection in battle. He would be joined by a nucleus of commandos at Camp Lehigh, forming a team called the Invaders, going into action around the world to thwart the attempts of the Nazis in general, and the Red Skull in particular. Among the group was the camp's young mascot, James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes, who accidentally learned of Cap's identity and used that knowledge to become his sidekick.
Towards the end of the war, and after many successful missions, Cap was involved in a drone experiment which led to tragic results: Bucky was killed and Cap landed in Alaska, to be frozen into suspended animation until his discovery by the Avengers some fifteen years later.
Joe Simon was an artist without a staff at Fox Comics in New York City. "I came in, and we had no staff and I had to do all the covers," he said during a later interview. "I didn’t have a letterer, I didn’t have a writer, I didn’t have an artist. I knew nothing about comics". Also at Fox was a young, prolific illustrator named Jacob Kurtzberg; both soon discovered their abilities complimented one another, and a partnership was born. Also born was a particular style never seen in comics before. Panels became differing sizes and shapes, with the characters breaking the boundaries from one to another; action was forceful, and drawn as if the reader was about to be struck.
Simon and Kurtzberg - who had changed his name to Jack Kirby - were also moonlighting with other comic publishers. The year was 1940; Superman had started the comic superhero craze two years before, with Batman and Captain Marvel becoming stunning successes as well; other comic publishers needed their own hits to compete in the new genre. Timely Comics was one of the companies Simon and Kirby worked for on the side, and they had already scored a respectable - if not spectacular - hit with the Sub-Mariner and Human Torch. Rather than directly-creating a character from thin air, Simon and Kirby decided to select the "villain" first for their story. Conditions in Europe at that time - World War II had begun - caused an immediate selection: Adolf Hitler. "He had everything that Americans hated," Simon said, "and he was a clown with the funny moustache, yet guys were ready to jump out of planes for him. He was the first choice, and his antagonist would have to be our hero..."
What came out in in December, 1940 was the first issue of Captain America, whose shield-bearing character made no bones about which side he was on, leaping into the scene to strike Hitler in the face. This first issue sold over a million copies, with many more to come. The one major change which had to take place within the first few issues was the design of the shield. Originally triangular, they discovered that it bore too close an appearance to an earlier character from a rival magazine, so the shape became round. This proved beneficial to the creators, who now felt that Captain America had a new weapon, one which could be flung at an enemy to great effect, and return like a boomerang.
The character first appeared in Captain America, a fifteen-episode serial released in February, 1944 by Republic Pictures, and starred Dick Purcell, Lorna Gray, and Lionel Atwill. The plot involved the attempts of Dr. Cyrus Maldor and his alter-ego the "Scarab" to steal several devices which could be constructed into weapons that he would use to conquer the world; standing in his way is a district attorney whose secret identity is Captain America.
Although a success on the screen, Timely Comics was extremely unhappy with Captain America. Gone were certain costume elements, such as the head "wings" and the pirate boots; the iconic shield was reduced in size to a mere belt buckle. Most alarming was the change in name and job: Private Steve Rogers was turned into District Attorney Grant Gardner; instead of the Nazis it was an sinister organization with no references either to Naziism or World War II.
Dick Purcell was not a regular exerciser, neither did he train properly for the role; when he reported to the studio he was slightly-overweight. He filmed his scenes between October and November, 1943, and every episode had at least one heavy action sequence, with many more takes ending up on the cutting room floor. On April 10, 1944 at the age of 35 he died after suffering a massive heart attack at a Los Angeles golf course, just two months after the serial's release.
1979 television films
Reb Brown donned the uniform for two films broadcast by the television network CBS. The first, Captain America, was shown on January 19, 1979, and like the serial had substantial changes made to the character. Set in the time period in which it was filmed, this version of Rogers was not frail at all; in fact, the updated version was a former Marine making a living as a minor graphic artist in southern California. Sent to a hospital as a result of a deliberately-set auto accident, he is given a serum called "FLAG" ("Full Latent Ability Gain") by Dr. Simon Mills (Len Birman), a man who had known his father, an intelligence agent who was the original Captain America. A sequel, Captain America II: Death Too Soon was broadcast the following November, pitting Cap against a South American mercenary.
Matt Salinger (son of author J.D. Salinger) put on the uniform for director Albert Pyun in a film which, although somewhat faithful of the character of Captain America, took some liberties with the additional characters and settings. The Nazis have been reduced to minor characters; the chief antagonists in control of the Red Skull are Italian fascists intent on sending a missile to destroy Washington, with much of the film in a contemporary setting, the Red Skull surviving World War II to head an international syndicate involved in political assassinations.
A grandiose intent by producer Menahem Golan to fill 1,500 theaters with his version of Captain America instead led it to languish on a closet shelf soon after completion in 1990; viewings with a test audience revealed the flaws, among them a weak central plot and an enemy that shifts from fascism to concern for the environment. The film was eventually released to DVD in 1992, but not before receiving an ignominious 11% from Rotten Tomatoes
Marvel Cinematic Universe
Captain America: The First Avenger was released to theaters in 2011, and starred Chris Evans as Cap, and Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull. More faithful to the original stories than its predecessors, the film was set primarily in World War II and dealt with the selection of Rogers as part of the Super Soldier Program, the creation of Captain America, and his battles with the Nazi deep science unit known as HYDRA, led by the Skull. Captain America: The First Avenger was the culmination of a five-film project by Marvel Studios beginning with 2008's Iron-Man, all paved the way for the May 2012 release of The Avengers.
In 2014, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, was released. This film sees Captain America on the run from SHIELD, as it is discovered that HYDRA grew on the inside, without most agents knowing about it.