'Captain America' 101: The Comics Behind The Movie

by Matt Adler

"Captain America: The First Avenger" made its star-spangled debut in theaters this past weekend, completing the introduction of the characters who will form the core of next year’s "Avengers." Like Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor before him, Captain America hails from a long comic tradition, but in his case, that history stretches back a full seven decades to the early years of the Second World War, giving those working on the film an even deeper well of stories to draw upon.


As a service to you, our readers, we’re delving into that rich history to show you just where the movie folks came up with the elements that went into this latest Marvel blockbuster. If you haven't seen the film yet, consider this your SPOILER WARNING!

Captain America (Chris Evans) begins life as the scrawny Steve Rogers, the proverbial 98-pound weakling who is so frail that, despite his great spirit and desire to join his country’s fight for freedom against the Axis powers, he’s rejected out of hand as physically unfit for service. This is in keeping with Cap’s debut in 1941’s "Captain America Comics" #1, as told by creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

Fortunately for Steve, he is noticed by Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German émigré scientist who is working for the U.S. government to develop a new breed of super-soldier. Steve is chosen by Erskine because Erskine can see past the frail body into the spirit within, making him Erskine’s ideal candidate for the transformative process. In the original comics, Erskine started out as “Dr. Reinstein,” an on-the-nose pastiche of real-life scientific genius Albert Einstein who helped the U.S. win World War II. His name was updated to Erskine when Cap’s origin was retold in 1965’s Tales of Suspense #63, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

In virtually every telling of the story, Erskine is murdered by Nazi agent Heinz Kruger (Richard Armitage) upon completion of Steve’s transformation into Captain America, and given that only Erskine knew the formula for the super-soldier serum, Steve is destined to be both the first and the last of these super-soldiers. The movie uses that as a reason for the U.S. government to withhold Steve from combat, and turn him into a mascot and propaganda tool, a role which he eventually rebels against, craving real action. This contrasts with the comics, which actually began prior to the direct involvement of the U.S. in World War II. In that context, Captain America mainly went on undercover missions to combat Nazi plans, and also worked against saboteurs and criminals on the home front.

Accompanying him on those missions was his teenage sidekick, Bucky Barnes. Bucky also debuted in "Captain America Comics" #1, as an underage kid who was permitted to hang around the army camp where Steve Rogers, in his civilian identity, was stationed. After he walked in on Steve changing into his Captain America costume, Steve decided to take Bucky on as his sidekick in order to ensure that he would keep his secret.

The movie takes a very different route, portraying Bucky (Sebastian Stan) as a close friend of Steve’s growing up, and similar in age. Bucky is able to qualify for the service where Steve is not, but they are reunited after Steve becomes Captain America. This iteration of Bucky is no kid sidekick, but a formidable soldier in his own right, with sniper skills being among his chief assets. This draws upon writer Ed Brubaker’s 2005 reinterpretation of the character as the Winter Soldier, revealing to us that Bucky’s image as the innocent kid sidekick was merely a cover to disguise his true abilities as a highly-trained killing machine who proved invaluable on covert missions.

In Cap’s first appearance, he was outfitted with a triangular shield, but quickly switched to the classic discus-shaped weapon, as of "Captain America Comics" #2, which he hurls at enemies with ease. The film echoes this by also starting him off with a triangular shield, until he realizes the need for more practical gear, and turns to industrialist Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), father of Tony Stark, the future Iron Man.

Stark provides him with a new costume and a circular shield made of an indestructible alloy composed in part of the rare metal known as vibranium. In the comics, the origin of the circular shield was not explained until many years after its debut, when in 1985's "Captain America" #303, it was revealed that the indestructible disc had been created by the scientist Myron MacLain by accident, with no knowledge of how to replicate it, much like Cap himself. And the shield was presented to Cap by none other than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as portrayed in 1981's "Captain America" #255.

Captain America soon finds the evil he was created to fight embodied in the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a lieutenant of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. The Red Skull has somewhat of a convoluted background in the comics; the first Red Skull was actually an American Nazi sympathizer by the name of George Maxon, who was taken down by Cap and Bucky in their debut issue. The Red Skull that most readers have come to know, and whom the movie version is modeled on, is Johann Schmidt, who appeared several issues later in "Captain America Comics" #7.

Originally, the Skull had no special attributes beyond being a diabolical mastermind and ruthless killer; his skull-like visage was simply a mask, and he couldn’t hope to compete with Captain America on a physical level. But in 1989’s "Captain America" #350, by Mark Gruenwald and Kieron Dwyer, it’s revealed that the Skull has returned in a new incarnation; the Nazi scientist Arnim Zola (portrayed in the film by Toby Jones) has cloned Captain America’s body and transplanted the Skull’s mind into it, finally making him Captain America’s physical equal. The Skull attempts to eliminate Captain America with his “dust of death,” a substance which kills its victims by warping their faces into a twisted imitation of the Skull’s mask. The attempt backfires however, turning the Skull’s own face into a true “Red Skull,” although he survives the disfigurement. The film takes a shortcut to these events, by positing that the Skull has been subjected to an imperfect version of Captain America’s super-soldier serum, which grants him the same enhanced physique, but leaves him with the skull-like deformity, as well as a healthy dose of insanity.

The Skull develops a scheme that involves obtaining an artifact referred to as “The Tesseract,” but which comics readers will recognize as The Cosmic Cube, which we had a brief glimpse of in the post-credits scene of Thor. In the comics, the Cube was created by the terrorist organization known as AIM, and has the terrifying power to warp reality to the wielder’s whim, which the Skull has sought to use against his arch-nemesis on several occasions.

The film’s Skull also leads Hydra, a Nazi special ops unit that is both fanatically loyal and deadly. In the comics, the Skull has been allied with the Hydra terrorist organization, which first appeared in 1965's "Strange Tales" #135, in their continuing goal to bring chaos and destruction to the free world, but they are headed up by another Nazi villain, Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, who frequently tangles with Nick Fury, head of the spy agency SHIELD. Fury in the comics is a contemporary of Captain America’s who is able to continue fighting the threat of Hydra into the present day by imbibing a chemical mixture known as the Infinity Formula, which slows his aging. In the films, Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is a modern day man responsible for assembling the team that will become known as The Avengers, a role which echoes his incarnation from Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s Ultimates series.

Assisting Cap and Bucky in their struggle against the Red Skull and Hydra are the Howling Commandos, an elite force consisting of Dum Dum Dugan, Gabe Jones, Jim Morita, Jacques Dernier, and Montgomery Falsworth. The Commandos first appeared in 1963’s "Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos" #1, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. As the title implies, they were led by Nick Fury during World War II, but with the film removing Fury from that context, the Commandos are instead assembled by Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) who, in the comics, is the officer who first recruits Steve Rogers into the super-soldier program. The line-up of the movie's Commandos has some other differences; in particular, it’s worth noting that Montgomery Falsworth is the civilian name of Union Jack, a British superhero and member of the WW2 superteam The Invaders.

Cap’s love interest in the film is Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Peggy first appears in "Tales of Suspense" #77, in a flashback to Cap’s WW2 days. As in the film, Peggy is a brave young woman who assists Cap in his struggle against the forces of tyranny, and the two eventually fall in love. When Captain America is revived in the modern day, he unwittingly falls in love with Sharon Carter, Peggy’s relative, who winds up playing a similar role in his present day adventures.

As Cap fans know, the reason why this World War II superhero is active in modern times is a key part of the Captain America mythos, with Cap and his partner Bucky being separated in a horrific explosion when an explosives-laden aircraft they are attempting to disarm detonates in midflight, as shown in "Avengers" #4 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Both are believed dead, although they in fact wind up in suspended animation, frozen in time until each are retrieved (under very different circumstances) in the modern era. We won’t spoil how the film plays this scenario out, but suffice it to say, just as in the comics, the circumstances of Cap’s disappearance and revival will lead to him earning his place on the Avengers.

Which classic Cap stories do you think should be adapted for the next Captain America film? Let us know what you think in the comment section or on Twitter!