This is the third installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes. For the previous installment click here, for the first installment click here.
After successes with “The Adventures of Captain Marvel” and “Spy Smasher,” both adaptations of Fawcett Comics properties, Republic Pictures decided to branch out their superhero catalog with an adaptation of Timely Comics’ – now Marvel Comics – Captain America. While Republic had a tendency to make changes to the characters, as most filmmakers tend to do with superhero adaptations even today, the changes made to the Captain America character were numerous and fundamental. Captain America in this serial is probably the most different from the source material that any comic book character has ever been, pretty much amounting to being Captain America in name and costume only.
In the serial, Captain America is Grant Gardner, the District Attorney in an unnamed American city. This is a departure from the source material, in which Captain America is Steve Rogers, a frail American young man who was given a serum which transformed him into a super soldier. Captain America is treated much more like Batman in the serial, an ordinary man who has developed his body to peak physical performance without the use of any science fiction or supernatural elements.
The serial centers around the villainous Scarab, played by Lionel Atwill, and his plot to use a potion called the Purple Death to mind control various important figures to do his bidding and then commit suicide. The Scarab’s endgame is to acquire a machine called the Dynamic Vibrator – insert inappropriate sex toy joke here – from the machine’s inventor, Professor Lyman. The weapon was developed as a mining tool, but is capable of causing mass devastation.
Missing from the production was Captain America’s trademark weapon, his shield. Instead, this version of Captain America has him using a regular .38 revolver as his primary weapon. While the costume remained pretty true to the comic books, the wings on Captain America’s mask were conspicuously absent. There was, however, an image of Captain America’s original shield printed on the costume’s belt buckle. The character’s boots were also changed in the serial from pirate style boots to more traditional “high shoe” boots.
In spite of the glaring differences between the serial and the comics, “Captain America” was well received by audiences and has been praised by film historians. Film historian Raymond Stedman has even written of the serial that it was better than “Batman” or “The Masked Marvel,” both popular serials of the time for Columbia Pictures and Republic Pictures respectively.
Unlike “Batman,” which was released a year earlier, “Captain America” had no ties to World War II and didn’t include any of the propaganda or racial slurs used in “Batman.” The serial also didn’t feature a Nazi element, which was an often used foil for the character in the comics.
Most movie serials at the time which featured superheroes were based on characters that are now owned by DC Comics. Captain America was the only Marvel Comics character to receive a serial adaptation. There would not be another Marvel Comics property adapted in live action until Spider-Man was used in “The Incredible Hulk” starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno in 1978, and not another adapted for theatrical release until “Howard the Duck” in 1986.
Captain America would next be seen in live action in 1979 in two made-for-television films starring Reb Brown.
Harmon, Jim; Donald F. Glut (1973). “10. The Long-Underwear Boys “You’ve Met Me, Now Meet My Fist!””. The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury. Routledge. pp. 255, 258–259, 263. ISBN 978-0-7130-0097-9.
Stedman, Raymond William (1971). “5. Shazam and Good-by”. Serials: Suspense and Drama By Installment. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 131. ISBN 978-0-8061-0927-5.