In Chris Evans, Marvel Studios found the perfect Captain America for its shared cinematic universe; that perfect combination of all-American good looks, restrained heroism, strength and dignity. For eight decades, Cap has stood as a shining example of what is best about America, inspiring fans through his heroic exploits. From his Nazi-smashing days of the 1940s to his espionage-laden thrillers of the modern era, comic book readers have long known what’s so special about the star-spangled Avenger but aside from a few unsuccessful attempts, it wasn’t until 2012 that Cap made it to the big screen in all his red, white and blue glory.
But, what if…? Had Cap become a big screen sensation in the past, he could have blazed a trail of glory over the battle fields of World War II in the ’40s, fought the Red Menace of the ’50s, been a man out of time in the ’60s or questioned his patriotic identity in the ’70s! And while we’re pondering those possible alternate reality blockbuster films, we have to wonder who would have been the perfect nemesis to face off against each era’s hero? Join CBR as we run down our choices for a Captain America — and Red Skull — through the decades.
1940s: Gary Cooper and Boris Karloff
Yes, Captain America was immortalized in a Republic movie serial starring Dick Purcell, but imagine a World War II-era feature telling the story of the patriotic hero featuring all the elements that made comic fans all over the world fall in love with the character. Nobody embodied his on-screen characters with a patriotic spirit better than the iconic Gary Cooper. Cooper solidified his heroic credentials in “The Westerner” (1940) and the mind-blowingly beautiful “North West Mounted Police” (1940), before starring in “Sergeant York” (1942), a role for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. But nowhere is it more evident that Cooper had the quiet dignity needed to play Steve Rogers than in “High Noon” (1952). Just picture a black and white shot of Cap and Bucky blazing across a battlefield, shield swinging, inspiring America to endure the dark days of the Second Great War. Cooper’s Cap could have been a cultural touchstone, but alas, the world and the studios were not ready for a superhero feature until decades later.
As for the Red Skull, it’s a no brainer that the great Boris Karloff, no stranger to terrifying make-up, would have been the only man to play the Red Skull. Well, sure — Lon Chaney, Jr. would have been pretty good too, but Karloff gets the edge for his history of playing an exotic foreign menace in the first “Mummy.” Cooper, standing shield to luger with the Skull, would have been a sight that could have redefined genre film history. It gives us goosebumps just thinking about it.
1950s: Charlton Heston and Basil Rathbone
With the release of “The Ten Commandments” in 1956 and “Touch of Evil” in 1958, Charlton Heston, the bastion of American pride, was at the peak of his career, a peak that would not end for a long time to come. Heston nailed every acting challenge he come across, convincing audiences worldwide that he was Moses, Ben-Hur, President Andrew Jackson and Michelangelo. His rugged good looks and heroic stature combined with his ability to bring on-screen action to life would have made him a perfect Cold War era Captain America. Other than a brief Atlas Comics revival, there weren’t that many “Captain America” comics in the ’50s, but that might have been a different story if an actor with the gravitas of Heston had brought the character to life. With the Cold War in full swing, a ’50s Cap film might have been more spy drama than an unvarnished display of patriotic pride, perhaps finding Captain America behind enemy lines in Russia or Red China, a complex storyline only an actor of Heston’s caliber could have pulled off.
And who better to portray a Communist era Red Skull tan the great Basil Rathbone, who did such an amazing job playing Errol Flynn’s foil in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938). It would have been a treat to see Heston’s piercing eyes beneath Cap’s signature cowl while he busted up the Red menace in the name of America. And yes, this Captain America would have carried a sidearm.
1960s: Steve McQueen and Gert Frobe
It’s difficult to imagine which actor would have been a better ’60s-era Captain America than Steve McQueen. Coinciding with Cap’s revival in the pages of “The Avengers” and “Tales of Suspense,” a ’60s Cap film could have brought into play the stranger in a strange land elements that made the Marvel Age Cap so great. Mourning Bucky and experiencing the modern world for the first time, McQueen would have had the perfect combination of strength and vulnerability to bring Cap to life. This film would have had to be more political than our proposed ’40s and ’50s films, as America was experiencing a time of great upheaval, but what better era to have Cap, played by McQueen, remind the nation of America’s endurance and willingness of spirit? The reason Cap worked so well in his ’60s revival was because the fractured nation needed the hero’s honor and strength, and McQueen could have embodied all those aspects of Cap. McQueen could have captured the true spirit and quiet dignity of the character but also the innate sadness of a man who had to find his way in a complex America while mourning his best friend.
Taking on the revived Captain America, we would opt to cast Goldfinger himself, German-born actor, Gert Frobe. The physically imposing thespian is remembered more for his vllainous turns than his comedic performances, and as the Red Skull he could have added another colorful nemesis to his legacy while giving McQueen a run for his money.
1970s: Robert Redford and Peter Cushing
As our list brings us closer to the first true superhero film — otherwise known as 1978’s “Superman” — we enter an era where budgets and special effects can truly capture the spirit of the comics. A “Star Wars”-era “Captain America” film could have been the grandest of adventures, a sweeping tale opening in World War II and bringing Cap to the post-Watergate era of America. Robert Redford, who plays S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Alexander Pierce in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” could have defined the role. Redford is the spitting image of Steve Rogers, and had the leading man screen presence necessary to truly bring the complex role to life. Just off his career defining performances in “The Sting” (1973) and “Three Days of the Condor” (1975), Redford was at the heights of his great career, and all film fans of the day knew that the man could command a war film.
Going up against Redford’s Cap, we’d have hoped for Peter Cushing as the Red Skull. A “Star Wars”-era, super-gaunt Cushing would have looked plenty frightening commanding a regimen of Sleeper robots against Redford’s Cap. All animated by Ray Harryhausen, of course.
1980s: Kevin Costner and Alan Rickman
In the 1980s, nobody was a more inspiring leading man than Kevin Costner. Imagine Costner delivering inspirational Cap speeches in the same vein as he did in “Robin Hood: Price of Thieves,” or hitting the drama beats a la “Dances with Wolves.” Yeah, Costner’s best films didn’t hit until the very early ’90s, but he was still enough of a presence to have carried a “Captain America” film to glory. By the ’80s, Hollywood had an inkling of what a superhero film should look like. Imagine “Captain America” joining the ’80s action renaissance with Costner slinging the iconic shield. At this point in history, there were plenty of great Cap stories and villains to choose from, with great runs by Stan Lee, Steve Englehart, J.M Dematteis and Roger Stern all ripe for adaptation. There were enough supporting characters and villains to fill out a franchise, and Costner could have been an amazing lead. Heck, this film would have been right in Steven Spielberg’s wheel house to direct!
As for his perfect foil, why not reunite Costner with his “Robin Hood” antagonist Alan Rickman? “Die Hard’s” Han Gruber would have been the perfect Red Skull! Add a John Williams soundtrack and roll film, true believers!
1990s-2000s: Brad Pitt and Ralph Fiennes
The world got to know Brad Pitt in “Thelma and Louise” (1991), “Legends of the Fall” (1994), and “Se7en” (1995), and in his own “Cap” film, the then-developing leading man could have kicked off the superhero film era by bringing the comics legend to life. Starting with “Blade” (1998), the late ’90s were the coming out of the superhero film as a form of viable and bankable big screen entertainment. His future roles in “Troy” (2004) and “Inglorious Basterds” (2009) proved that Pitt has the action chops, while his likability factor and effortless sincerity would make him a ideal Steve Rogers for any era. Yes, Chris Evans is note perfect in the role, and fans are lucky to have him, but Brad Pitt’s Cap could have kicked off an earlier, very different Marvel Studios dynamic with an A-lister jumpstarting the Marvel cycle of films. (And while 1990 did see the release of a “Captain America” film starring Matt Salinger, we’ll stick with the fantasy version instead.)
Of course, the only Red Skull worthy of taking on Pitt’s Cap in the present era (other than Hugo Weaving) is Lord Voldermort himself, Ralph Fiennes. Pitt could, without a doubt, fill out Cap’s uniform, and his all-American looks and ability to turn the intensity up would have made him the right leading man to wield the shield, but Fiennes ability to turn on the evil would have been the perfect other half of the formula for a successful Cap flick.