Oh Captain, Why Captain?
No super soldier serum, no World War II, no wings on his cowl, no military experience, no Steve Rogers – NO SHIELD! Is this even Captain America?
In this 1944 15-part serial for Republic Pictures, the titular American superhero battles a villain called The Scarab, who dabbles in mind-control, and wants to get his hands on Weapons of Mass Destruction like the Dynamic Vibrator (very popular with nuns) and the Electric Firebolt (also the name of the first gay superhero?). The serial is called CAPTAIN AMERICA.
But this Captain America is not the same red, white and blue Avenger from Marvel Comics who socked Hitler on the jaw.
The character premiered in Captain America Comics No.1 in March 1941, when Marvel Comics was still called Timely Comics. That first issue featured the iconic cover of Captain America giving Hitler a Sweet American Right Hook. That Captain was Steve Rogers, WWII soldier. The Captain in this serial is a doughy District Attorney named Grant Gardner. That Captain was injected with super-soldier serum. This Captain is pretty much a normal guy who doesn’t work out. That Captain had his inscrutable shield, the physical strength of many men and an abiding love of country; this Captain uses a gun, has the strength of a doughy guy, and an abiding ill-fitting mask.
There are many reasons why Republic Pictures portrays Captain America so poorly: the serial was apparently written for another hero, and when Republic replaced that hero with Captain America, they didn’t bother to rewrite the story; when Timely Comics protested that the film Captain differed so greatly from their comics character, Republic responded that the press kit Timely provided for Captain America (created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon) did not specify details like his civilian name, the war, the serum, etc. Steve Rogers was created specifically as a wartime icon, but Grant Gardner’s adventures make no mention of the war which was going on even as they filmed – the Big One, WWII…
In this modern age of superhero movies, CAPTAIN AMERICA is unwatchable. As a curiosity, the first few episodes are intriguing (to see the way early filmmakers treated supers; to marvel at the schoolyard punching regarded as interesting action, while a horn section goes nuts; to be intrigued at the clinical interactions between men and dames, and their roles as actioners and objects), until it becomes mind-numbingly repetitive.
In the very first episode (The Purple Death), after a brief introduction of the Scarab using his mind powers (Lionel Atwill, with the most British accent, therefore the most evil), the first action scene finds “crooks” in hats and suits stealing something from a safe. Suddenly – Captain America (Dick Purcell in clownish costume and ill-fitting mask)! In this first inauspicious appearance of the hero, he holds a gun on the crooks (in the prescribed L-shaped elbow that all men used in black and white films), then pulls a Boba Fett by getting so close that the crooks lay into him. The gun goes off. Dead crook.
Cap then calls the cops, telling them he just killed one of the Purple Death crooks! Not as a confession – but to let them know where to collect the dead guy! Could the circumstances BE any more favorable for sending Cap up the river for manslaughter or murder? No witnesses, Cap’s gun, Cap’s bullet, crooks unarmed… But hold on a minute! Something is so screwy here it doesn’t even make sense within this movie’s own universe…
When we find out that Captain America’s secret identity is the D.A. Grant Gardner, well – why fight crime as a masked punching dickwad when you are already the top cop with unlimited crime-fighting manpower and resources?! The character of Captain America has nothing extraordinary to offer the law agencies that they do not have themselves – he’s just a regular guy, no super powers, no super lab, no super car, no super shield, no super deductive reasoning, no super speed, no super ANYTHING that distinguishes what he’s doing from the regular cops – hell, even as Gardner he gets into fisticuffs with crooks and does exactly the same amount of damage as Captain America would, which is next to nothing. So what’s the point in adding that clown costume to your crime-fighting arsenal when it adds ZERO VALUE to fighting crime?
Being the D.A., Gardner can actually walk into a crime scene and say, “Okay boys, I’ll take it from here.” And he does! So why waste the time pulling on that idiotic mask and underpants, as if that gay costume is helping him do a better job than the D.A. in any way? Sleuthing as the D.A. or actioning as Cap, the crooks hate him equally and punch him exactly the same way. As D.A. or Cap, his results are exactly the same because – say it with me – HE’S JUST A REGULAR GUY!
Proof? The professor who created the Dynamic Vibrator (lucky wife!) is accosted by Scarab’s henchmen, who turn it up really high. Captain America scares off the henchmen, but the professor stresses, “If the vibrator is not shut off, the building will collapse!” And Cap shouts back, “Get out! I’ll try and stop it!”– Hang on, doofus! Why not get THE PROFESSOR to shut it off?! Unlike you, untrained in anything besides light filing, he knows how to operate the gizmo! But the professor runs off, as instructed by Cap, only to have Cap fail at his task – no surprise! – resulting in the whole building collapsing. What was Cap thinking?! That somehow he’d convince the Vibrator to shut down with the power of his average biceps?
It is taken for granted the character of Cap is known from the comics, otherwise, how bizarre is this costumed creep turning up everywhere just to get sensually beaten? There is no origin story of why the D.A. decided to add cosplay to his obviously busy schedule of hunting bad guys. At one point, the D.A. sees a man tied up by two crooks posing as mechanics – and he wastes the time to change into the Cap costume so he can go punch the mechanics! Wouldn’t his presence as the D.A. carry more authority, and maybe even avoid a fistfight? Even if he got into a fight as the D.A. his skills would be exactly the same, but the crooks would be up on greater charges, i.e. for assaulting the D.A. (!) rather than just bitchbeating some perve in a cossie.
Lorna Gray plays Gail Richards, Gardner’s secretary /love interest /dame in distress. Basically, Gardner’s Lois Lane.
Cap punches a guy, who goes tumbling out a skyscraper window, falling to his death. Is Cap perturbed in any way? Nope. Add another murder to Captain America’s growing list of felonies. Now, both those murders may be lawyered down to manslaughter, but there is another scene where Cap, who uses his gun quite a lot, threatens a crook for information by playing Russian Roulette on him! Cap really doesn’t know how many bullets are left in his gun, so that means he must be prepared to commit outright Murder in the First Degree! This costumed vigilante is outa control!
For context, Columbia and Republic were the two studios producing, among other genres, superhero serials in the 1940s. The first recognizable superhero title was ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL by Republic in 1941; THE BATMAN was produced by Columbia in 1943; CAPTAIN AMERICA (Republic), 1944; and SUPERMAN (Columbia), 1948. All these early black-and-white superhero serials have dated egregiously, none more so than CAPTAIN AMERICA, mainly because we can’t see any roots of the modern character we know. Written as blandly as he was, completely ignoring canon, this character was a dead-end; a one-off, thereby not holding any interest whatsoever.
In a grand irony, Dick Purcell, who played the Captain, would die a few weeks after filming wrapped (of his 72 film credits, CAPTAIN AMERICA would be his last). They say the stress of filming CAPTAIN AMERICA was too much for his weak heart!…