Retro Marvel: Captain America header

Like many of Marvel’s 70 TV efforts, Captain America didn’t really hit the mark.

If you want a singular reason as to why essentially none of the Marvel Comics characters who were given a shot at live-action TV series worked out other than The Incredible Hulk — and, in case you forgot, that list has thus far included Spider-Man (twice!), Doctor Strange, Thor and Daredevil — it’s probably this: Superheroes (with apologies to fans who’re still having an existential crisis over this fact) are fundamentally characters created for children.

And while stripping the Hulk to his bare essentials worked in terms of turning him into something that could work as an older-skewing series, making costumed do-gooders like Spider-Man fly with grownup audiences just wasn’t going to happen. I mean, sure, a mostly-faithful adaptation had worked for Wonder Woman in the same era, but if we’re being honest the adult popularity of Lynda Carter’s series may have had more to do with what her costume wasn’t (read: modest) than what it was.

It’s not surprising at all, then, that the sole non-failure of the bunch was the Japanese Supaidaaman. Sure, his backstory and rogues gallery were completely reworked, but by the fairly low bar set by every western superhero series of the era (remember: the Adam West Batman had been off the air for over a decade by this point), well… it was Spider-Man beating up a bunch of colorful bad guys for 22 minutes an episode. See, while kiddie TV of the 70s in the U.S. was operating under mutually-agreed guidelines that children’s shows be largely non-violent and focus on prosocial character-building, Japanese kid’s TV was living in the exact space as U.S. comics were: Rigidly-formulaic tales of costumed people punching each other — a match made in heaven.

Ironically, Captain America — apart from his name, obviously — was probably the only guy in the Marvel stable closer to the Japanese model of a children’s TV superhero: Brightly-colored costume whose design informed his theme and attitude, cool signature weapon, looked “right” striking authoritative poses while dispensing lessons and wisdom. Toei (who had the deal with Marvel that resulted in Supaidaaman) thought so, and planned a revival of the then-moribund Sentai franchise that would’ve teamed Captain America with a newly-created Captain Japan and Captains of other nations… a concept they decided was so strong it ultimately didn’t need Cap! The result, Battle Fever J instead featured “Ms. America” (!) on a nation-themed Sentai team who were also the first of their kind to pilot robots (a conceit borrowed from Supaidaaman). The show was a smash, reviving the Sentai franchise and thus becoming the direct progenitor of Power Rangers.

The point of that digression? Japan knew that Captain America would be great as the lead of broad, action-packed kid’s TV superhero show… but America didn’t.

To be fair, the two Captain America TV movies made (once again) to serve as pilots for a series that never materialized are easily the most “comic-booky” of the 70s Marvel cycle (discounting the Thor/Daredevil stuff in the Hulk movies, which came later): He has a costume, he has powers, he’s got gadgets and gear and he battles what more or less qualify as supervillains — he just doesn’t do any of it well. And the tone seems to be there less because someone among the producers had actually figured out how to let superheroes be superheroes than because they’d decided that if “borrowing” the outline of The Fugitive had worked for The Hulk, Captain America could be translated to TV by “borrowing” from The Six Million Dollar Man.

captain america screencap 2

It also tries the hardest to reconcile the more out-there science-fiction ideas of the source with the more mundane expectations of an average prime-time audience, chiefly by swapping “super-soldier frozen since WWII” for a new “legacy hero” backstory: Steve Rogers (Reb Brown) is an ex-Marine traveling the coast in his Cool 70s Guy van working on his art skills (yeah, they kept that) and otherwise just enjoying himself. He’s contacted by government agents who knew his father, a straight-shooter hardass who participated in the development of a “super-steroid” (yeah… that wasn’t as “loaded” a word in ’79) called Full Latent Ability Gain or “FLAG” and was so devoted to his country that he was mockingly nicknamed “Captain America”… shortly before he was supposedly assassinated.

You see where this is going: Steve is mortally wounded in an accident, FLAG is used to save his life and now he’s got superhuman abilities to boot, which his new government-scientist pals would like him to put to use fighting evil — specifically, an oil tycoon running a mad-bomber/Goldfinger scheme in the area. They even whip up a costume for him, based on a sketch he made “inspired” by his dad’s Captain America nickname.

The costume is… pretty awful, stuck somewhere between practicality and trying to look like the genuine article to jointly unsatisfying degrees: He’s basically wearing blue jumpsuit with wide red/white striped suspenders, capped off by a bulgy blue motorcycle helmet and a pair of useless blue-tinted goggles. The shield is present, but it’s transparent and obviously made of plastic (combined with the helmet, it makes him look uncomfortably like a riot cop) to serve dual-purpose as the windshield of his real ultimate weapon, a tricked-out rocket-powered “stealth” motorcycle.

It’s pretty terrible looking, but at least you don’t have to see him actually wearing the damn thing until over an hour into the feature, which is the definition of a mixed blessing in yet another Marvel TV movie where basically nothing happens. Unlike Doctor Strange, though, Captain America drew decent enough ratings to rate a follow-up feature and an added scene inserted toward the end of some rebroadcasts where Steve requests (and gets) a new costume closer in design to the one from the comics (people complained and, miraculously, they listened).

Captain America II: Death Too Soon has slightly more costumed action, a heavy-hitter villain in the form of the great Christopher Lee and a decidedly Marvel-esque plot involving toxic gas that causes premature aging. The big highlight is an expensive-looking (but not exactly “impressive” looking) stunt sequence where Cap deploys a hang-glider from his bike.

The series, of course, never went forward; but the films have enjoyed a healthy (compared to their contemporaries) presence on VHS and DVD over the years and were early staples for internet video-reviewers. In any case, Captain America was the last (new) Marvel franchise to get its own shot on “grownup” TV for almost a decade — a few years later the Reagan Administration’s deregulation of the broadcast industry opened the floodgates the licensed, action-focused kid’s shows and superheroes migrated en-masse to animation Saturday mornings.

It wouldn’t be until Tim Burton’s Batman revitalized the genre that superheroes in live-action were en-vogue again, and by that time Marvel’s sales charts (and thus their TV ambitions) were dominated not by the likes of Peter Parker or sundry Avengers… but by Mutants.

Oh yes. There was a proto-X-Men movie. And if you thought a lot of these movies were bad so far… see ya next week.

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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