Ladies and gentlemen, 24 Panels Per Second is almost back! When we return, we’ll begin our Made-for-TV Avengers series, starting off with the two 1979 television movies Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon!
Captain America first made his debut in 1941 in the first issue of Captain America Comics, published by Timely Comics, the company which would eventually become Marvel Comics. Created by comic legends Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Captain America is Steve Rogers, an American looking to enlist in the military prior to World War II in order to combat the spread of the Third Reich. Rogers is rejected due to physical weakness, but is given an opportunity to serve his country by becoming the first test subject for Operation: Rebirth, a program designed to create a super solider which possesses the peak levels of human strength, reflexes and agility.
While the process is a success, the secrets to it are lost when the key scientist in developing the procedure is murdered by a Nazi, leaving Rogers the only one of his kind. No longer to be the first of many, Rogers is sent out into the field as Captain America, a propagandistic symbol intended to reflect the very best of America. A smash success during the era of World War II, Captain America would eventually disappear from comics in the mid-1950s due to dwindling sales.
However, by 1963 Marvel Comics was in the full swing of its early success, having launched various successful characters and titles, including the Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor. These characters were brought together as a superhero team in the first issue of The Avengers in late 1963, providing Marvel with yet another successful title.
Having tested the waters for a possible return of Captain America in an issue of Strange Tales, Stan Lee would bring him back in the fourth issue of The Avengers. In this classic tale, the team discovers Captain America frozen in a block of ice in the North Atlantic. It is discovered that during his last mission of the war, Rogers and his young sidekick Bucky attempted to defuse explosives on an experimental plane, only for explosive to go off. Both are assumed dead, but Rogers is saved from freezing to death in the North Atlantic waters by the abilities granted by Project: Rebirth. While stricken with guilt over Bucky’s death and no longer recognizing the country he left behind, Rogers quickly takes back up the mantle of Captain America, becoming a member of the Avengers and soon enough, the team’s leader.
Given the character’s popularity during the Second World War, it is unsurprising that a film serial was adapted from the comic in 1944, and that the serial was a box office hit. What is surprising however is just how little the serial has in common with its source material: Captain America is the story of District Attorney Grant Gardner (the late Dick Purcell, who died prior to the serial’s release), who is tasked with solving the mysterious deaths of local businessmen and scientists. Gardner used to moonlight as a costumed crime fighter named Captain America, an identity he pulls out of retirement as the case progresses further. Here is the re-release trailer for the serial, where it was retitled The Return of Captain America:
As with the rest of Marvel’s stable of superheroes, Captain America would be adapted for The Marvel Super Heroes animated series in 1966. While crudely animated, Captain America did receive a snappy
Captain America would next be adapted into two 1970s TV movies, but seeing as those are the films under discussion this week, I’ll hold off on those till the end. Instead, here is a 1980s PSA featuring the Captain:
The 1990s saw the return of Captain America in live action with the release of the film Captain America, a straight-to-video effort directed by Albert Pyun, the man who nearly directed a Spider-Man film in the 1980s. Starring Matt Salinger (and yes, he is the son of famous author and recluse J.D. Salinger), the film was completed in 1990 but not released until 1992. While fairly awful, the film does feature and oddly solid cast for a DTV effort, and is perhaps the first adaptation which is fairly faithful to its source material:
While the 1990s saw most of the major Marvel characters receive animated series, Captain America was not amongst them, instead making various guest appearances on other characters' series, including X-Men, Spider-Man, and in the early 2000s, X-Men Evolution. Captain America, however, would get a more prominent role in the DTV animated films Ultimate Avengers and Ultimate Avengers II, based loosely on the Mark Millar-penned Ultimates series:
Captain America would finally score a theatrical film again in 2011 with Captain America: The First Avenger, the last of Marvel’s films which lead up to the release of The Avengers. A mostly faithful adaptation of the comics, Captain America: The First Avenger is a World War II set film retelling the origins of the titular hero, this time played by Chris Evans. The film is directed by Rocketeer director Joe Johnston, whose fingerprints can be found all over the finished film:
But of course, that is not the film we are talking about in the next episode. Instead, we are travelling back to 1979 for Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon, two television films which were likely intended as lead in to a weekly television series, and which, like the 1944 serial, the films depart significantly from the source material.
Captain America is the story of Steve Rogers (Reb Brown), a contemporary Marine who has just left the service, looking to travel America and work as a sketch artist. Steve is contacted by Dr. Simon Mills (Len Birman), a mysterious government operator who once worked with Rogers’ father, a scientist who developed the FLAG (Full Latent Ability Gain) serum. Mills reveals that Steve’s father acted as a secret agent defending American interests after using FLAG, a role Mills wants Steve to take up, since FLAG can only be safely used on Steve as he shares the same genes with his father. Steve rejects the offer, but when Steve is fatally injured, Mills saves Steve’s life by injecting him with FLAG. One case involving a murdered friend of Roger’s later, and Steve takes up the mantel of Captain America. Captain America II: Death Too Soon finds Rogers taking on revolutionary General Miguel (Christopher Lee, during his “I take whatever work I can get” period), who has developed an aging chemical which he threatens to release on an American city unless his ransom demands are paid.
Now, I can imagine exactly what the question going through your mind right now is: who the heck is Reb Brown? Brown is an actor who primarily worked between 1973 and 1998, attaining a mild form of stardom which found him starring in various low budget action films throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, including films such as Yor: Hunter From the Future (1983):
And Street Hunter from 1990:
However, Brown is perhaps most famous for starring in the film Space Mutiny, which is itself famous for serving as the basis for one of the funniest episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 ever produced. The episode is easy to track down, but here is a clip from the film sadly missing the commentary from Mike and the Bots, just so you have a full taste of Reb Brown’s acting ability:
Anyways, join us next episode as we dare to revisit the late 1970s with Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon!