Monday, February 07, 2011

Tis' the Season to Flog Shield Slingers.

That knocking sound outside your window isn't the winter wind a'howling. It's the constant thud generated by Hollywood already slapping the average man in the street around the chops with its upcoming content...

Barely into 2011, and you can't help but be bombarded with bloated blockbusters. This year we're facing another onslaught of Comic Book heroes as Marvel Studios continues pumping it's heavy hitters out like so much sausage meat into the gullets of multiplexes around globe.

We'll soon be witness to a brand spanking new version of that shield slinging embodiment of Red, White & Blue - Captain America, not to mention some serious hammer tossing from the Mighty Thor, both prepping up for the merry Marvel melee that next year's Avengers promises to be.

The first blow of an almighty media blitz hit during the annual four hour onslaught of sports and salesmanship that is the Super Bowl - where advertisers traditionally clamber all over each other in an overwhelming effort to pick the pockets of around a 100 million captive coach potatoes.

Much speculation has already taken place as to how Cap will play in these days of somewhat ambiguous American feelings world wide, so it's certainly a wise move to kick start his cinematic adventures back where he truly belongs - in the dark days of WW2 when everyone except Hitler & Hirohito thought the Yanks were a decent bunch of fellows.

Created in 1941 by two titans of the funny-papers - Jack Kirby and Joe Simon - Captain America was an early addition to, and without doubt the most popular of, the flag-waving Axis slapper-downers that populated comics during the war years, such as the Shield and The Fighting Yank.

Frankly, if you wanted to shift a comic book to wartime kids, not to mention their big brothers, dads or uncles who were in the thick of it, what better method than splashing a patriotic super hero kicking a Kraut in the pants on your cover?

Far from 2011 being his big-screen bow, Captain America has been living it up in live-action since 1944, making him one of Marvel's most frequent flyers on the big and little screen. Since you clearly have nothing better to do, let's take a whistle-stop tour of ol' Winghead's motion picture highs and lows.

I'll be honest - mostly lows...

Captain America - 1944.
Released by Republic Pictures.

Two-fisted comic-book adaptions were pretty big business for the cliffhanger crowd back in the 40s, especially since a great number of heroes held onto the genre's pulpy roots and spent the majority of their time simply thumping felons instead of zipping through the stratosphere via costly special effects.

Cap was the only character owned by Marvel Comics (then publishing as Timely) deemed boffo enough to front a film, although he didn't make it with his shield or secret identity intact. Due to the radical changes Republic made to the character, it's always been suggested he wasn't their first choice. Supposedly the script was prepared for another Kirby creation - Mr Scarlet - whose secret identity as a crusading district attorney matched the switcheroo given to Steve Rogers - Cap's off-duty Army Private alias.

Mr Scarlet was published by Fawcett comics, from whom Republic had already adapted Captain Marvel and The Spy Smasher, but by the time the serial was ready to roll the little-known crimson crime-fighter had already been designated dustbin status, requiring a scramble for a more substantial super-hero lead.

I'll be honest and say that despite having had copy of the serial for yonks I've never seen it - a fact that's unlikely to change despite the villainous presence of on-the-skids Horror stalwart Lionel Atwill, whose career as an A-grade thesp had rapidly headed towards the Z-grade dumper after hosting one too many drug-fueled orgies round his gaff.

The problem with serials : they come from a very different age of movie going, designed almost specifically for kids to aim popcorn at whilst awaiting another weekly punch up - no doubt onscreen and off. Despite being highly regarded as one of the very best of it's type, the idea of committing myself to 15 chapters of repetitive square-jawed daring-do fills me with inertia.

Sad to say, the strain of whole enterprise seemed to take it's toll on poor old dual-role playing Dick Purcell. After slogging away during the 1930s in a succession of thankless supporting rolls he nabbed the rough and tumble role of both Captain America and his on-screen alter ego Grant Gardener, but a few weeks after the series wrapped keeled over with a fatal heart attack.

Once the war was over comic book heroes took a noticeable dive. Perhaps many of them too heavily resonated back to the war, which the audience understandably wanted to leave behind. Although a handful survived to tell the tale, Cap was relegated to the history books, apart from a blink-and-you'll-miss-it revival in the 1950s for a soiree as an official "Commie Smasher".

Marvel Super Heroes - 1966. Grantray-Lawrence Animation.

In the early 60s Marvel Comics looked close to kicking the proverbial, until it snapped by into the Super-Hero game, and super-success via the publication of the Fantastic Four in 1963. It wasn't long before editor Stan Lee pulled the Star-Spangled soon-to-be Avenger out of mothballs and straight into the Marvel Age, courtesy once again of his co-creator, Jack Kirby.

By the second half of the decade the company had enough clout once again to offer up their characters to the wider media world, this time to the content craving Saturday morning TV crowd. The very definition of "limited animation", the 1966 Marvel Super Hero show starred five of Marvel's heroes - each served up on a different day of the week, with a direct adaption of their comic book crusades sliced into three segments.

Much derided for their overwhelming cheapness, I've always had an affection for these somewhat decrepit creations, primarily due to the bombastic voice work which deftly adapted Lee's hyperbolic prose, the recycled artwork ripped direct from the comic books themselves and, naturally, a love of things slightly crappy.

Cap's adventures were lifted directly from the pages of The Avengers, and his Tales of Suspense solo-series, allowing us fun-packed access to freshly made WW2 adventures against the likes of the Red Skull, his Sleepers, the decidedly daft Batroc the Leaper and the bag-faced Baron Zemo. By nabbing Lee's dialog wholesale, along with the work of Kirby and the other Marvel artists of the era, the show transcends the limited ambitions of the production to make them - for me - some of the best translations of general atmosphere and energy of Marvel's Silver Age.

As a kid I couldn't get enough of these cheap-jack capers from my local video rental shelves, after Guild Home Video bundled out a bunch back in the early 80s, and quite literally shat myself when they started showing them early on Saturdays mornings around the same time.

Captain America - 1979
CBS Television.

By the 70s rolled it seemed that super-heroes here back to stay, even after weathering the Batman boom that seemed sure to scuttle the industry when it quickly fizzled out. After the dust settled, Hollywood was eager for another bite at the comic-book cherry, so during feminism's first flower DC's Wonder Woman burst onto television screens, followed by Marvel's Spider-man and the Hulk.

Things seemed to be ticking along nicely, especially after the blockbusting Superman movie was released in 1978, so CBS were willing to give Cap another crack at the whip with a couple of TV movies designed to spark off a possible series. As was to become a pattern for the next decade, epic comic books didn't translate particularly well to the restrictions of a TV movie budget, and the sight of someone running around in gaudy Stars & Stripes emblazoned Spandex wasn't the most awe inspiring of spectacles.

In his initial TV debut Cap was once again without much of his comic book background, and didn't even don his official costume until the film's final minutes, preferring a funky striped day-glo body suit with matching go-go boots.

The sequel - Captain America II - Death Too Soon - was dead on arrival, with even the great Christopher Lee helpless in bringing it to life.

Once the 80s began booming
the unabashed patriotism of Captain America was starting to look a little bit too silly for most film producers to touch with a barge pole, even in a jingoistic era of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, and the increasing campiness of the Superman movies killed of the comic-book genre on the big screen for awhile...

Captain America - 1990
21st Century Films

Just as talk of the Superman series in the 70s kicked off a collection of copycats, the impending release of Tim Burton's Batman sparked off another bombardment - curiously nearly all of them similarly tinged with a 1930s/40s feel. The Phantom, The Shadow, The Rocketeer and too a lesser extent, original characters such as Sam Raimi's Darkman, all seemed to share Batman's pulpy roots - perhaps in a similar way to the cliffhanger days, these characters lack of difficult-to-replicate super-powers lent themselves to tidier budgets in the tentative early days of CGI. The characters also had the virtue of already being tied up long held development deals at studios, since the days of Christopher Reeve's debut.

Marvel may have matched - and exceeded - DC in terms of comic book sales, but when it came to big-screen adaptions they were still second-stringers. A fresh take on Captain America from the inauspicious 21st Century Film Corporation, advertised for release in the summer of 1990, was conspicuous by it's absence. 21st Century had been attempting to make good on deals with Marvel properties for a few years, including a mooted Spider-man movie, headed as they were by infamous, bandwagon-jumping schlock-producer Menahem Golan. Via his Cannon Films, Golan had previously dredged up the floptastic Superman VI - Quest for Peace, almost single-handedly killing off the super-hero movie until Batman reared his pointy head.

21st Century's Captain America eventually crawled out into DTV hell, a fate wholeheartedly deserved by a wretchedly unfocused production. Ultimately childish, but with a few scenes of random violence thrown in for fun, it began in a relatively acceptable WW2 setting, complete with the Red Skull, before literally rocketing the hero into the 90s for typical fish-out-of-water high jinks.

Try as he might, likable lead Matt Salinger can't help but look like a beefy-Botham douche-bag in a rubber suit. It's hard to believe the film was created with a cinema release in mind, reeking of cheapskate compromise as it does. A suitable bedfellow is Roger Corman's flaccid Fantastic Four movie, produced simply to hold keep the producer's tight on the rights and unreleased to this very day.

What seems amazing, looking back at the various interpretations of Captain America over the last 60 odd years, is how small the scope of nearly all super-hero movies have been until now. Often created with what seems to be complete contempt for for both their source material and their audience, all of these films have been shoved into a cycle of bandwagon-jumping after whatever blockbusters proceeded them. Knocked out kiddie-fare and it's most unfair, it seems difficult to parallel these films with the fortunes that are fed into the current crop of Comic-book adaptions.

The level of respect shown to adaptions of Comic Books seems to be in direct correlation afforded the medium itself. As far as the mainstream is concerned, comics are still about Super-Heroics on the whole, but considering they've essentially become a film genre, comic book movies can only open up the industry to new readers, new talent and new ideas.

Moreover, there's a reason why many characters like Cap have stood the test of time, surviving repeatedly substandard service. Considering Hollywood isn't going to stop spewing out blockbusters anytime soon, it's a good thing these days we're getting them from producers who seem to respect their origins and are willing to chuck in a little a bit of the magic creators like Lee & Kirby gave to generations of childhoods.

Even Cap drinks to that.


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