Captain America: The First Avenger recently opened to the biggest box office numbers a superhero film has received all summer. Perhaps even more impressively, the film managed to dethrone the juggernaut that is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 in only its second weekend.
The First Avenger is, for the most part, a fairly faithful adaptation of the classic Captain America mythos – distilled, of course, and with bits and pieces from other versions thrown in for good measure (The Ultimates, the 1970s Captain America TV show, and so forth), but faithful nonetheless.
The following feature article is a comprehensive guide that examines the major – and sometimes not so major – differences between Captain America: The First Avenger and the comic books that it was derived from – including the classic Marvel universe (616 universe) and the more modern “Ultimate” universe. Before you read on, be sure to check out our Captain America: The First Avenger review to know where we stand in regards to the movie.
NOTE: We did a similar comic book/movie comparison for Green Lantern about a month ago. Because the more sarcastic aspects of that piece overshadowed the “guide” side of things, we’ve decided to be more objective (read: less sarcastic) for the Captain America edition.
MAJOR SPOILERS FROM CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER AHEAD!
DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T YET SEEN THE FILM!
Captain America (Comic Books/Film)
Of all the elements in Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America himself (portrayed by Chris Evans) is probably most like his original comic book counterpart.
Both versions of Steve Rogers begin as small, skinny, weak, and sickly; both versions are artists; both versions are determined to join the war, and, after numerous attempts, accomplish this goal by way of Project Rebirth (created by Dr. Abraham Erskine). Both, despite initially being propagandist tools in the form of Captain America, are incredibly wholesome, compassionate, and concerned with doing the right thing, no matter what. And of course, both utilize a massive circular shield made of Vibranium, an extremely rare element typically found in the highly advanced African kingdom of Wakanda.
Both Super Soldier transformation processes involve an injection of the Super Soldier Serum before being doused by “Vita-Rays.” Both processes are totally unique and never perfectly replicated after Rogers, as the creator, Erskine, is killed by a Nazi saboteur.
However, one major difference from comic to film is that, in the film, Captain America was a performer in a USO show for nearly a year before he saw any actual combat.
Captain America’s Costumes (Comic Books/Film)
The above costume and shield were the very first to be used by Captain America. By issue #2, Jack Kirby had designed the legendary circular shield for him to use instead. The film pays homage to the original costume/shield by having Steve Rogers use them during his USO days.
Captain America’s second costume — and his first in action costume — appears to be heavily inspired by the costume worn by Ultimate Cap during World War II (as seen in The Ultimates).
And last, but not least, Captain America’s final costume seems to be an amalgamation of the Ultimate Cap’s World War II costume as well as his Ultimates costume — more the latter than the former.
Margaret “Peggy” Carter (Comic Books)
Peggy Carter from the comics was an American intelligence agent – more specifically, a liaison to the French Resistance – and sort of Captain America’s girlfriend during the war, though sexy occurrences between the two were few and far in between. Remember, people, comics were for children back then!
After being unfrozen, Cap would go on to date Peggy’s little sister, Sharon Carter, as Peggy had aged far beyond him in the years between WWII and his discovery. Then, due to Marvel’s shifting timeline, Sharon was retconned to be Peggy’s niece instead. Either way, it’s kind of creepy.
Peggy Carter (Film)
The Peggy Carter of the film (played by Hayley Atwell) is pretty much identical to her comic book counterpart, except for a few caveats. First of all, she’s British instead of American. Secondly, unlike comic book Peggy, film Peggy meets Steve Rogers – and perhaps even grows fond of him – prior to his participation in Project Rebirth, and acts as Steve’s chaperone during the experiment. In this way only, she’s more like Cynthia Glass from the comics, a Nazi double agent (A.K.A. Agent X) who fell for Steve despite her allegiances, and sacrificed her life to save his.
James “Bucky” Barnes (Comic Books)
In the 1940s, comics changed rather drastically. No longer could Batman, for example, brandish pistols and outright murder criminals by punching them into vats of acid; rather, he had to be lighthearted, kid-tested, and mother approved – because obviously comics are for children, right? (A misconception that persists to this day, though to a considerably lesser degree.)
As a result of sidekicks being deemed mandatory, Robin the Boy Wonder was introduced with all his bright colors and hilarious wisecracks at the expense of The Joker. And in response to the success of the Boy Wonder, Captain America was given James “Bucky” Barnes, a child soldier who also made hilarious jokes at the expense of arch-nemeses (namely Red Skull).
Near the end of the war, Cap and Bucky went up against the dastardly scientist and evil Hitler lackey known as Baron Zemo – a guy whose major claim to fame was accidentally gluing his own purple hood to his face. On the orders of the Red Skull, Zemo was going to use an experimental drone airplane to … do bad things, so Cap and Bucky leapt aboard to stop said things from occurring. While Cap was thrown clear of the resulting explosion and into the icy waters below, Bucky seemingly sacrificed his life.
Some forty-plus years later, Bucky’s “demise” was retconned by Ed Brubaker in the storyline “Winter Soldier.” Here, Bucky didn’t actually die; in fact, much like his good buddy Captain America (and Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender), he, too, was frozen in the icy waters of the North Pole. However, unlike Cap, Bucky was found much sooner by the villainous Soviet Union. As his arm had been blown off in the drone explosion, Bucky was given a new bionic arm and brainwashed to be a brutal, Soviet assassin with long, lady-like hair. His new name? Winter Soldier.
Eventually, Captain America found out about Bucky’s survival and managed to bring him back to the good side of the superhero force. Later, when it was believed that Cap had died – shot to death by his brainwashed girlfriend, Sharon Carter – Bucky took up the mantle of Captain America. Until recently, that is, when he was “killed” again (but, you know, probably not really killed) by Sin in the major Marvel crossover event “Fear Itself.”
The James “Bucky” Barnes of the Ultimate Universe, developed by Mark Millar, wasn’t just the same age as Steve Rogers – he was also his childhood friend. Additionally, Bucky was less a superhero sidekick to the Captain and more a war photographer documenting his death-defying exploits (Jimmy Olsen, anyone?).
After Captain America was once again frozen in icy waters and presumed dead, Bucky went back home, married Steve Rogers’ sweetheart, Gail Richards, and they had a family together. When Steve was unfrozen some years later, he reestablished his friendship with Bucky and his once sweetheart, Gail, both of whom were at that point quite elderly.
James “Bucky” Barnes (Film)
The Bucky Barnes from the film is a combination of 616 Bucky – the slightly older, retconned version courtesy of Ed Brubaker – and Ultimate Bucky. Like Mark Millar’s Ultimate Bucky, the film version (Sebastian Stan of Gossip Girl fame) is the lifelong, childhood friend of Steve Rogers.
After being rescued from Hydra’s headquarters/prison facility, Stan’s Bucky is basically Captain America’s adult sidekick for the duration of (1) montage and (1) train assault scene. This is one of those crazy trains that’s always steering recklessly around steep turns on massive, snowy mountain sides, so a Hydra laser blast results in Bucky falling to his “death” (but probably not, if sequel rumors are anything to go by) into an icy river far below.
Before he “dies,” we see foreshadowing glimpses of Bucky’s eventual Winter Soldier ways: A dark blue uniform that resembles the Winter Soldier outfit more so than the original Bucky outfit, a somewhat hidden aggressiveness, and a scene where he’s sniping enemy soldiers (indeed, the sniper rifle is the Winter Soldier’s weapon of choice).
Red Skull (Comics)
616 Red Skull
The Red Skull of the comic books – whose real name is Johann Schmidt – was originally just a really creepy bellhop who happened to be on the job when Adolph Hitler came to his place of employment. After dressing down a nearby officer, Hitler claimed that he could make a better Nazi out of a bellhop – basically, the Trading Places scenario – and promptly took Schmidt (whose innate sinister nature was readily apparent) under his wing.
After turning Schmidt into the perfect right-hand Nazi, Hitler gave him a red skull mask for propagandist purposes and appointed him the head of terrorist activities. The propaganda was so successful in terrorizing Europe that it prompted the United States to enact Project Rebirth, which resulted in the creation of Captain America.
The Red Skull of the comic books initially had no superpowers to speak of, and, again, his red skull was simply a mask. Eventually he was defeated by Cap, who left him buried under a pile of rubble, presumed dead. However, thanks to some leaked experimental gas, Skull remained alive and in suspended animation for decades – not unlike his arch nemeses, Captain America and Bucky! Coincidences all around. As these things tend to go, Skull inevitably was rescued out from under the rubble, at which point he continued his war against Cap and company.
Skull died some years later, due to his own body shutting down, and had Arnim Zola transfered his mind into the evil cloned body of Captain America. Skull took the name John Smith – Johann Schmidt by way of English – before deforming Steve Rogers’ cloned face to resemble that of an actual red skull. This new version of Red Skull had Captain America’s powers, thanks to the clone’s super serum-enhanced DNA, which made him a formidable physical opponent, as well as a mental opponent.
The Red Skull has been transported from body to body ever since and is, at this point in time, back to his old ways of wearing a Red Skull mask.
Ultimate Red Skull
In the Ultimate Universe, Steve Rogers returned home to Brooklyn on leave and, unbeknownst to him, knocked up his sweetheart Gail Richards. His illegitimate son, upon being born, was taken from Richards by the U.S. Government in an attempt recreate Captain America – after all, Rogers’ bastard was the only remaining person to be successfully enhanced by the serum.
For years, Rogers’ son seemed like a totally well-adjusted individual – well-mannered, kindhearted, and what not – as the government trained him to be even more formidable than Captain America. Then, on his 17th birthday, he revealed that all the politeness was but a ruse as he killed everyone in the facility – over 200 men – and sliced his own face off with a kitchen knife “to replace the one his father had given him.” Hence: The Red Skull.
In the decades that followed, the Red Skull worked as the most deadly hired assassin in the world (he even killed John F. Kennedy) before being pitted against his now-unfrozen father in his quest for the Cosmic Cube.
Red Skull (Film)
The Red Skull from Captain America: The First Avenger is head of the advanced weapons division and Nazi terrorist organization known as Hydra. Prior to the events of the film, he injects himself with an early, untested version of the Serum created by Dr. Abraham Erskine. Though the serum works – Skull has super strength, super speed, and he’s at his peak (and then some) athletically – it inexplicably results in Johann having a red face that resembles a skull. Thus, the Red Skull is born, and Erskine, who doesn’t wish to assist monsters like Hitler and Skull, defects to America.
It could be argued that the cinematic version of Red Skull (as portrayed by career villain Hugo Weaving) is an amalgamation of both the original 616 Red Skull and the Ultimate Red Skull. Not only is he a grandiose, over-the-top supervillain in the old James Bond-style (like the original Red Skull), but he’s also a Super Soldier-enhanced physical opponent with a gen-u-ine red skull for a face (like Ultimate Red Skull). Additionally, both versions have quested for and obtained their own versions of the Cosmic Cube, not unlike Weaving’s Skull.
That said, the Red Skull of First Avenger is actually more akin to the Red Skull of the hilarious 1990 Captain America film (starring J.D. Salinger’s son as Steve Rogers!) than any of the versions from the comics – Italian ethnicity notwithstanding. That Red Skull of the ’90s movie, kidnapped by Italian fascists as a child, was tested with an early version of Super Soldier Serum created by a Dr. Vaselli Carter – the Italian iteration of Dr. Erskine – who disapproved of experimenting on children and defected to the U.S. shortly thereafter. The serum was successful in transforming the Red Skull into a super soldier, a la Captain America, but it changed his face irrevocably to the one you see above.
Near the end of First Avenger, Red Skull accidentally grabs hold of the Cosmic Cube with his bare hands in a fight to the death with Cap, and the Cube vanishes him with a cosmic blast of lightning. To his death? It’s unclear, which is why it’s more probable that he was zapped to some alternate, possibly Asgard-related dimension. Could Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull feature prominently in the upcoming Avengers film? It’s seems highly possible, as the Cosmic Cube will no doubt play a major role in the story.
The Howling Commandos (Comic Books)
In the comics, the Howling Commandos – also known as the Howlers – were, as the name suggests, an elite group of commandos led by the cigar-chomping Sergeant Nick Fury. Second-in-command was Corporal Timothy Aloysius Cadwallader “Dum Dum” Dugan (or Dum Dum Dugan for short), a hotheaded, handlebar-mustachioed tough guy and Fury’s best friend. Imagine a jollier version of Wolverine but with less Adamantium claws and more mustache/fashion sense.
Filling out the remainder of the ranks were Private Gabriel Jones, the first African-American to serve in an integrated unit (in the Marvel Universe, that is); Private Isadore “Izzy” Cohen, the first Jewish Marvel character; Private Dino Manelli; Private Robert “Rebel” Ralston; Private “Junior” Juniper, who was known at the time for dying soon after introduction; Private Percival “Pinky” Pinkerton, Juniper’s replacement; and private Eric Koenig, a Nazi defector and the last main character to join the crew.
The comic book known as Sergeant Fury and the Howling Commandos was famous for its daring depiction of the hardships of war. Characters of import within the series regularly died, which was practically unheard of in comics at the time. For example, Fury’s girlfriend, introduced in issue #4, was killed some fourteen issues later in an air raid, right before Fury was going to propose to her. (Aww…)
Thanks to a secret concoction known as The Infinity Formula, Nick Fury doesn’t age – which is why he’s still in his late forties/early fifties some seventy years after World War II. After the war, Fury became a C.I.A. agent, then a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, and eventually the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Strangely, his fellow Howlers, Dum Dum Dugan and Gabriel Jones, have also survived through the decades to become officers of S.H.I.E.L.D. (though the latter was killed off by Mark Millar), and no explanation for their eternal youth has ever been given. The “No-Prize” explanation has always been that Fury either secretly shared the Formula with them or there are residual, second-hand Infinity Formula effects, which would explain why the guy has so many friends.
Side-note: As unlikely as it is, I would very much like to see a cinematic adaptation of the Marvel Godzilla series from the 1970s, which saw the ex-howlers (Dum Dum Dugan, Gabe Jones, and others) as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents hunting down Godzilla, whom they eventually grew to admire in spite of his status as an enormous atomic dinosaur. Go figure.
The Howling Commandos (Film)
The Howling Commandos of the film are a mish-mash of both the comic book versions of the Commandos and The Invaders.
For those unaware, the Invaders were a group of (mostly) superpowered individuals who fought in World War II, including Captain America and his sidekick, Bucky; the original Human Torch (a fire-manipulating android with a heart of gold) and his sidekick, Toro (a totally human teen who just happened to also have fiery superpowers); Namor the Sub-Mariner and his sidekick, Aqualad; and Union Jack (sort of the British Captain America). Additional characters joined the team later on, including Union Jack II and Spitfire – the original Union Jack’s daughter and son – and the Whizzer, someone you can go ahead and refer to as a complete rip-off of The Flash, as he was created only a year after the scarlet speedster.
Some of you may recall that The Invaders were expected to feature prominently in Captain America: The First Avenger. In point of fact, the Howling Commandos were originally going to be called the Invaders in the film, but when Joe Johnston’s son filmed a companion documentary that referred to the characters as the Commandos, producer Kevin Feige was inclined to agree that the name sounded more appropriate. And so it was.
The Howling Commandos of the film include: Captain America, Bucky Barnes, Dum Dum Dugan, Gabriel Jones, Montgomery Falsworth (Union Jack in the comics), Jim Morita, and Jaques Dernier (the last two joined the Commandos much later in the 1960s comic series). They come together as a team after Captain America saves them from a Hydra-controlled prison camp; Cap hand picks the above members to be a part of his own personal unit in the fight to dismantle Hydra.
Nick Fury is obviously not in the film version of the Commandos because he has yet to be born yet.
The HYDRA of the comic books is basically the evil terrorist equivalent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and is totally unrelated to either Red Skull or the Nazi Party, except by occasional association. HYDRA’s name refers to the mythological creature of Greek lore, as does its motto: “Cut one of our heads off and two more will take its place.” The organization is also known for having resurrected a number of dead characters – Elektra, Spider-Woman, Wolverine, Northstar, and so many more – which were then made to be evil.
The HYDRA of the movie, led by Red Skull, is the advanced weapon technologies and terrorist branch of the Nazi Party; about midway through the film, it essentially becomes a separate entity from the Nazis and altogether autonomous. Thanks, in part, to the discovery of the super advanced Cosmic Cube, HYDRA soldiers are decked out in weapons and tech far beyond that of the 1940s – or even 2011.
Dr. Arnim Zola (Comics)
In the comics, Arnim Zola was a biochemist and one of the first human genetic engineers in history. After being taken in by the Nazi Party, he developed a means to transport one’s mental essence into a cloned brain, if need be. In fact, it was with this process that he transferred his own mental essence into a robot body — equipped with a cloned brain, of course — so he could live through the decades and into modern times.
Dr. Arnim Zola (Film)
Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) in First Avenger seems far more reluctant to participate in the evils of the Nazi Party than his comic book counterpart, though he’s obviously no boyscout either. Zola assists Red Skull in harnessing the power of the Cosmic Cube to create new weapons and technologies for Skull’s massive HYDRA armies.
After being apprehended by the Americans, Zola rats out the Red Skull to save his own rear end.
Cosmic Cube (Comics)
In the comics, there are many Cosmic Cubes in existence, all of which have vast reality-warping powers dependent upon the user. Various civilizations and organizations throughout history and the galaxy have developed their own Cosmic Cubes, but all Cubes are embued with the strange, nebulous powers of The Beyonders. Additionally, the Cubes are known to inevitably become sentient beings with certain personality traits passed down from previous users. For example, if the Red Skull were to use a Cosmic Cube — and he has, though not to any grand success — that Cube would eventually develop at least some of Skull’s personality traits once it became sentient.
Basically, The Cosmic Cube is a terrifying god machine that should probably never be handled by any super villains.
Cosmic Cube (Film)
The Cosmic Cube of the film — or the “tesserect,” as it’s referred — seems to be Asgardian in nature, because it came from Odin’s treasure room. However, it’s entirely possible that Odin merely obtained the Cube from some other being, as it’s unlikely that all the things in his treasure room were made by him.
In First Avenger, the Cosmic Cube is used by the Red Skull and Arnim Zola to equip their HYDRA soldiers with technology and weapons decades ahead of their time. For what purpose, you ask? Well, world domination, of course.
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