Saturday, 27 February 2016

Captain America: Live Action Star of the Small Screen

IT'S PROBABLY hard for younger fans to understand just how slim the pickings were for those of us who followed comic book superheroes back in the 1960s. As early as 1966, Marvel publisher Martin Goodman had licensed the rights to his Marvel characters to television.

The Marvel Superheroes cartoon show was made in colour, though no one had colour televisions back in 1966. And, yes, we really did sit that close to the tv set back then. The screens were so small you couldn't see anything unless you were no more than three feet away. Pretty sure all those cathode rays fried my brain ...
Even Goodman didn't realise what he had, and seemed content to let the producers of the Marvel Superheroes cartoon show do pretty much what they wanted in return for almost no money. The big return would come, reasoned Marty, when the cartoons propelled the sales of his comic books into the stratosphere, just the way the Batman tv show had done for DC's Batman and Detective Comics. But it didn't work out that way ...

In comic books, there is a point to sound effects. However, in an animated cartoon, you have a sound track. The viewers can hear the sound effects. So why in the world would you draw them onto the animation art as well? Unless, of course, you were copying the Batman television show ...
The cartoons, produced by Grantray-Lawrence were pretty poor, even by 1966 standards. Essentially, the production company took stats of the comic book artwork, then enlarged panels, to which they'd add limited - very limited - animation. Viewers would see Captain America standing rigidly still (even during fight scenes) while his animated mouth delivered lengthy monologues.

But that's not to say these cartoon don't retain a certain nostalgic charm ... not much, but some. And the latter half of the thirteen episode series did use more contemporary Marvel Comics as their source material.

The Enchantress' original modus operandi was to beguile and charm others into doing her bidding. This works pretty well for her in the case of Erik Josten, who she seduces (off-camera) and then easily persuades to undergo the Power Man treatment in order to battle The Avengers.
Episode 9 took the plot and art of Avengers 21 and 22 as its starting point, in which The Enchantress finds a human stooge, Erik Josten, and uses Baron Zemo's "Power Man" machine (from Avengers 9) to turn him into ... Power Man.

The Commissar first appeared in Avengers 18, luring the team to south east asia so he can defeat them before the world to demonstrate how communism is superior to "the freedom-loving western democracies". You'd think there's be an easier way ...
The tenth episode jumped back a few issues and presented the Avengers tale from issue 18, where the quartet of Cap, Hawkeye, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch take on an evil commie foe, The Commissar, in a propaganda version of the Cold War. One by one they're beaten until Wanda is the last Avenger standing ...

This one has Captain America battle the Red Skull's doomsday machines, The Sleepers. It's a pretty good yarn and has the first instance on the current Marvel continuity of Cap jumping out of a plane without a parachute.
Episode 11 takes us back to Captain America solo stories from Tales of Suspense, adapting the Sleeper saga that ran across ToS 72-74. This story acted as a bridge between the World War II exploits of Cap and his contemporary adventures set in the 1960s. Within the context of the comic books it made sense, but here, out of sequence, the viewer is left uncertain as to when this story is taking place.

Okay, this is where it all gets a bit weird. You see, Cap's in love with a feisty World War II resistance fighter called Peggy Carter, aka Agent 13. Then, twenty years later, he runs into her younger sister, Sharon, also designated Agent 13. And falls in love with her. Marvel later tried to make it less creepy by ret-conning Sharon to be Peggy's niece but that, if anything, was worse ...
Episode 12 retells the story from Tales of Suspense 75-77, where Cap battles the ridiculously accented Batroc ("Zee Leapair") master of le Savate. He also runs into a new Agent 13, Sharon Carter, who turns out to be the younger sister of the original Agent 13, Peggy (currently enjoying a pretty good tv series of her own).

The Red Skull gets hold of The Cosmic Cube, a device that can convert his every thought into a reality. Not the sort of ability you want to see conferred on the most evil character in history. There's no way Cap can win this one, is there?
The final episode the the Captain America cartoon series adapts one of my favourite stories from the original Suspense run, in which the Red Skull turns out to be still alive in 1966 and manages to wrest possession of The Cosmic Cube from the hands of A.I.M. It doesn't really capture the doom-laden atmosphere of the original tale, but then the cartoon production people would probably have thought that aspect of the tale a bit dark for younger viewers. Shame, really ... I remember being quite unsettled by the original comic tale when I first read in back in 1966.

Admittedly, viewed today, these cartoons do seem a bit ... well, dire. But if I had seen them at the time, in 1966, I think I would have preferred them to the Batman tv show, my opinions of which can be found elsewhere on this blog. As bad as the animation was, at least the producers treated the characters with respect. The only real lapse - a kind of sop to the "camp" brigade - was the odd hand-lettered sound effects superimposed on top of the picture. And the actual sound effects were a bit over-comical, appearing to have been lifted from old episodes of Huckleberry Hound. Maybe cartoon studios all just used the same sound effects record.

What was more unforgivable was the contempt with which publisher Marty Goodman treated his own intellectual properties. OK, I know there is quite a legal and moral dispute around whether Goodman actually did own Captain America and the other more modern properties, but my point is he at least believed he owned them at this point. And for him to allow others free rein to do a less-than-brilliant job of exploiting the characters in another medium is definitely what I'd categorise as contempt.

But sadly, things would get worse before they got better. Eleven years later, Captain America would return to tv screens in live-action form.


So, The Incredible Hulk tv series (1977) had been a big success for Universal-MCA. By 1978, Hulk fever was everywhere. Marvel in the US responded with a magazine-size comic, Rampaging Hulk, which tried to set the dial back to the early Lee-Kirby style of the early Sixties' Incredible Hulk comics. Marvel UK tackled the other end of the readership demographic and released a weekly title, Hulk Comic (1979) aimed at the younger reader.

Marvel launched two titles to capitalise on the success of the Incredible Hulk tv series - a black and white mag for the US market and a weekly kids' comic for the UK.
Universal, who'd bought a package of characters from Marvel, also made a feature-length pilot for a Dr Strange tv series, which cast Peter Hooten in the lead role. It wasn't bad, by any means, but as it was originally aired against Roots in the US, it didn't get the viewing figures it needed, so the planned tv series went nowhere.

Peter Hooten looked every bit the part as Marvel's Dr Strange (1978). Anne-Marie Martin made a fetching Clea, though in this she wasn't from an alien dimension.
I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that Universal had also licensed the rights to The Sub-Mariner at the same time, though I don't believe any attempt was made to produce a pilot. That Universal claims to this day to be the rights holder to Prince Namor seems to bear this out.

Reb Brown as Captain America. There were a couple of small changes to the uniform between Captain America and Captain America: Death Too Soon.
They gave it a third (and final, as it turned out) roll of the dice with Captain America, which featured Reb Brown as a heavily reconceptualised Steve Rogers.

The first of the two pilots, Captain America (1978), was all over the place. Reb Brown was criminally miscast as Steve Rogers, a slab-of-meat surfer type who's just got out of the army and wants to be an artist. He is on his way to see an old friend of his father's when he's invited to a meeting with a covert government agency, led by Dr Simon Mills (Len Birman). Mills wants him to help with a line of experiments to enhance human capabilities that Rogers' father had been working on. Though attracted to Mills assistant, Dr Wendy Day (Heather Menzies), Rogers doesn't want to be following orders any time soon, and turns down the offer. From there he's embroiled in a plot to detonate a neutron bomb on American soil and is severely wounded by the henchmen of the plotter, industrialist Lou Brackett (Steve Forrest). In a desperate bid to save Rogers' life, Dr Mills injects him with the FLAG serum Dr Rogers had developed, enhancing Steve's strength and senses to about ten times normal human levels. Dr Mills gives Steve Rogers a flash motor cycle and a uniform, and Captain America takes on the baddies and foils the nuclear threat.

The film seems very slow moving ... the sequence with Steve Rogers trying out his new motorcycle, and the subsequent scenes of him trying to outrun a helicopter seems impossibly extended, at over seven minutes. Just pruning this section might have made the film seem less flabby.

Its other liabilities include really bad acting from the lead, a rather flimsy-looking plastic shield and the fact that Captain America isn't shown in uniform until over an hour into the movie. Oddly, the first film also sets up Dr Wendy as a love interest for Steve Rogers (contrary to other reports, the two do share a kiss on the beach), at a time when tv heroes didn't have regular girlfriends. And the tv origin doesn't start with a puny Steve Rogers ... though, in all fairness, this would have been very difficult to pull off with 1978 special effects technology.

It certainly looks from this that the producers intended for Steve Rogers and Dr Wendy Day to be an item. And in the extended motorcycle chase sequence, Rogers (not Captain America at this point in the movie) leaps from a motorcycle to a helicopter.
The second attempt at a pilot seemed marginally better. It's ten minutes shorter, which really helps ... and it seems to veer more towards Incredible Hulk territory, with a wandering Steve Rogers, still working for Dr Simon Mills' clandestine government agency, but out interacting with real people in a small community in danger from the plot of a dangerous international terrorist.

In the second pilot, Dr Wendy is now played by Connie Sellecca, and is no longer romantically tied to Steve Rogers. Just as well, as Rogers gets entangled with a young widow whose town he's trying to save. The terrorist Miguel is played in typical humorless style by Christopher Lee and has the villain running a nearby prison as his base of operations by posing as the warden. The plot has Miguel in possession of an ageing chemical with which he's dosed a couple of nearby towns. Unless Captain America can defeat the baddies and acquire the antidote, hundred of thousands of US citizens will age 38 days every hour.

Christopher Lee makes another bad choice of roles, here as European terrorist Miguel. And Dr Wendy Day has now changed from blonde Heather Menzies to brunette Connie Sellecca and is no longer romantically interested in Steve Rogers.
Both films use the old Six Million Dollar Man trick of slow motion for the super-power scenes, accompanied by that all-too-familiar "zziinnggg!" sound effect. And I think that's indicative of its in-built problems. The producers couldn't make up their minds whether they were trying to follow The Incredible Hulk or the Six Million Dollar Man. Giving Captain America super-strength just seemed wrong. I'd have thought the character would have been far more credible to a tv audience if he was simply a normal human boosted to the absolute peak of physical perfection, as in the comic book. All the twenty foot leaps and bending prison bars with his bare hands just seemed ridiculous on television.

So, unsurprisingly, the almost unprecedented two feature-length pilots didn't lead to a full tv series and Captain America slipped back into the comic book ghetto from whence he'd come. And I think if it had, I wouldn't have watched it. Once again, Hollywood producers seemed completely indifferent to the concepts that had led a comic character to endure for almost forty years and had dispensed with the very Unique Selling Point that had made Captain America great.

Next time I want to get back to silver age comics and look at the original run of six issues to feature The Hulk, back in the early 1960s.

Next: Hulk not smash yet