The 1944 “Captain America” film serial is a bit of an oddity. Unlike the new Chris Evans feature, or any other incarnation of the hero for that matter, it totally abandons the basics of the comic book character. In place of US Army Private Steve Rogers the striped suit is filled by District Attorney Grant Gardner. There’s no Super-Soldier Serum, no massive patriotic shield, and there aren’t even any Nazis. It's an odd cross between the superhero genre and the noir/crime serials that Republic Studios put out around the same time. Simultaneously entertaining and a little confusing, it poses an odd question about what a superhero film should look like.
It seems that there are two ways to interpret this strange and anomalous set of 15 episodes. One can be pessimistic and view it as the beginning of the end for the Golden Age of Comic Books. This was Republic’s last superhero serial effort, and one of the last by any studio. Interest was still fairly strong in 1944, but things would fade by the end of the decade and it’s easy to read “Captain America” as a bit of an early death knell. However, this fascinating series of short subjects can also be seen as the first “crossover success,” in the manner of Marvel’s most recent hits. It's expensively made, boldly suspenseful and uses genre-mixing to its advantage. A 1940s “Iron Man,” perhaps.
Taking the Super-Serum out of the Captain and dropping him into a District Attorney’s finely pressed suit turns out to be a fantastic decision. Sure, it’s occasionally a little bit odd when a dude in striped spandex suddenly shows up in a classic crime serial style heist, yet somehow that makes it even more compelling. Grant Gardner gets his strength from being a determined, strong guy who knows how to punch and use a gun. The same strategy seems to be working today: science fiction heroes like Green Lantern haven’t played nearly as well as the less magical Batman or Iron Man. These 1944 films, the first ever Marvel (then Timely Comics) experiment with the screen, understood the importance of crossover appeal almost 75 years before America fell in love with cinematic Tony Stark.
It’s also pleasantly escapist, which closer reproduction of the comic books might not have been able to achieve. A year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor “Captain America” sold like mad with a cover image of the hero punching Adolf Hitler right in the jaw. In 1944, with real Americans off in Europe fighting real Nazis and the country three years into its wartime ordeal, sending the Captain after the SS might not have served as light entertainment. Wily mad scientists building a “dynamic vibrator” or an “electronic firebolt” are more fun for the home front audience, and this serial delivered.
Finally, the choreographed action and brashly structured suspense lend a momentous energy to this entertaining serial. It’s not just that they spent a ton of money, which they did. After going 22% over budget, “Captain America” ended up costing Republic around $220,000 and is the most expensive serial they ever made. Yet instead of just tossing around effects left and right, every moment of explosion and destruction is used perfectly. Guillotines, exploding cars, and massive bulldozers come and go across the screen, raising the bar for each successive moment of suspended climax.
It’s a ton of fun, and will hook you surprisingly quickly. Sure, the dialog isn’t that great and the story is a bit hokey, but the rhythm is exactly where it needs to be. All fifteen episodes are available on YouTube. Here’s the first part of chapter one: