Chris Evans’ tenure as Captain America redefined the character for a generation, taking him to heights never seen before. However, prior to the MCU, Captain America had been the subject of several live-action appearances, having starred in two TV movies and a theatrical film. Released in 1990, Captain America saw the titular character take on his nemesis, the Red Skull. More interesting, however, was the comic book adaptation of the film which came out two years after its premiere.
Captain America The Movie Special (by Stan Lee, Bob Hall, Tom Morgan, Joe Rosen and Bob Sharen), begins in Italy in 1936, where child prodigy Tadzio De Santis is kidnapped by fascist soldiers, who kill his parents before his eyes. He is then taken to an experimental facility where they intend to turn him into a super soldier, using a formula invented by Dr. Maria Vasari. However, after seeing that his test subject was a young boy, the doctor objects and escapes with his work, but not before the Nazis use an incomplete version of the formula on Santis. Horrified by what happened to her creation, Vasari flees to the United States.
Seven years later, Steve Rogers’ family throws a farewell party for him, as he leaves to join the war, after volunteering to be part of an unknown experiment. Before leaving, he bids farewell to his girlfriend Bernie, promising to come back for her. The next day, he is taken to a secret facility to undergo a procedure led by Dr. Vasari. Steve learns that a Nazi known as Red Skull has developed a nuclear missile and plans to use it against the United States, with Steve being the only one who can stop him.
He is then given the full version of the formula, which transforms him, giving him superhuman abilities. Dr. Vasari celebrates his achievement, saying he will be the first of many super soldiers to end Nazi rule. However, before that can happen, she is murdered by a spy who was working on the project. With his dying breath, Dr. Vasari warns Steve that the Red Skull is the only person who can match his newfound powers.
He then receives his signature shield and costume and is sent to stop the missile launch, encountering French soldiers to storm the facility. Before they can start, they are ambushed by the Nazis. Steve makes his way through the compound to the missile launch site, where he is encountered by the now-adult Tadzio De Santis, the Red Skull. He quickly beats Steve, straps him to the missile, and launches him. Steve breaks free from his restraints and redirects the missile towards Alaska, burying himself and the missile in the ice.
In 1992, Steve is awakened by a team of researchers, thinking it’s still the 1940s. He is picked up by a reporter and learns that the Red Skull is still alive and the war is over, before returning home. . Displaced by his time and not knowing who to trust, he goes to his old neighborhood to find Bernie. However, he is shocked to find that she has aged and now has a grown daughter, Sharon. She helps Steve adjust to the new world by inviting him to stay with her. After a few days together, the two head to Bernie’s house for dinner, but when they arrive, they find that the Red Skull men have broken in, killing Bernie in pursuit of Steve.
Soon after, they learn that the President of the United States, Kimball, has been captured in an attempt to bait Steve. He and Sharon return to the facility where Steve received the formula, finding Dr. Vasari’s Red Skull files, which include an audio recorder. They then travel to Italy, where they are chased by the Red Skull Girl. Steve and Sharon escape their pursuer, who had dropped her purse during the chaos. Taking advantage of this, they retrieve the bag and find Red Skull’s address on his daughter’s driver’s license, and head to the fortress.
Steve runs through the wall, finding Kimball, and they make their way through the fortress, only to be met by Red Skull (who had since undergone surgery to repair his face), holding Sharon hostage. Captain America attacks his nemesis, who threatens to launch a nuclear missile at Europe. Steve then plays the audio from the recorder, which had captured the night Santis’ parents died. In shock, the Red Skull leaps from his fortress, ending his reign of terror. Steve returns home and is seen as a hero, beginning a relationship with Sharon.
Released at a time when superhero movies were in their infancy, Captain America took many artistic liberties, only incorporating general elements from the comics it was based on. Parts of Steve’s origin were changed, as he was born in California rather than New York, and his mother was alive at the time of his enlistment. In this iteration, he also suffers from anemia, which was cured when he received the serum. The origin of the Red Skull has also changed significantly, with its name and entire story being different.
Interestingly, the comic adaptation also has some minor differences from the movie. In the film, Dr. Vasari is referred to as Dr. Vaselli and Steve has polio rather than anemia. However, despite all the changes mentioned, story elements such as Steve’s sacrifice and his falling in love with the daughter of a former love (also named Sharon) remain consistent with the comics. Overall, the adaptation’s deviation from the source material was unnecessary. Upon release, the film was not well received, being criticized for its low budget and general lack of direction compared to other superhero films of the time. Fortunately, the MCU Captain America will see the light of day almost 20 years later, giving way to the success of the character in modern cinema.