By Adam B. Vary
Updated May 01, 2012 at 02:50 PM EDT
Credit: Marvel Entertainment
  • Movie

Unsure who Black Widow is? Having trouble deciphering the Hulk’s roar? Can’t tell the difference between Iron Man and the Iron Giant? In anticipation of the release of The Avengers on May 4, EW’s team of super geeks is here to help guide you through the mythos with our seven-part series of superhero primers, the recently declassified “Avengers Files.” It doesn’t matter if you’re a comic book connoisseur or a Nick Fury newbie — follow along this week as we deconstruct Earth’s mightiest heroes and pose the question: Which Avenger is the mightiest?

Name: Captain America

First comic appearance: Captain America Comics #1 (March 10, 1941), written by Ed Herron, edited by Joe Simon, and drawn by Jack Kirby

First movie appearance: It depends on how you define “first” and “movie.” The first film to bear the name Captain America was a 1944 black-and-white movie serial that bore little resemblance to the comic books. (For one thing, Cap’s secret identity was a D.A. named Grant Gardner, not a wannabe soldier named Steve Rogers; for another, he didn’t fight Nazis.) A 1979 TV movie version of Captain America also altered a great deal of the character’s WWII backstory to update the character for a contemporary setting. A 1990 Captain America, starring Revenge of the Nerds‘ Matt Salinger, was a far more faithful adaptation, but, ironically, while it opened in theaters overseas, the film went straight to video in the U.S. Then there was the totally unauthorized 1973 Turkish film 3 Dev Adam (i.e. Three Giant Men) that featured Captain America and the real-life Mexican wrestler Santo battling an evil Spider-Man on the streets of Istanbul — which sounds like a fever dream I once had but the Internet assures me is an actual thing people actually made using actual actors and cameras and everything. (I implore you not to click that final link. Please. Don’t do it. It involves Spider-Man, guinea pigs, and a torture tube. It’s the worst. Do. Not. Click. It.)

So that leaves last year’s Captain America: The First Avenger, which grossed $176.7 million domestically, and $368.6 million worldwide. Yeah, we’ll go with that one.

Portrayed by: Let’s not fall down the same rabbit hole we just crawled out of. It’s just Chris Evans. Period.

Origin story: Born a frail beanpole in New York, N.Y., Steve Rogers was an orphan by the time he was a teenager. When WWII broke out in Europe, he repeatedly tried to enlist, and was repeatedly turned away for that whole frail beanpole thing. Finally, Rogers caught the attention of a special military program Project: Rebirth. The plan was to use a special serum created by Dr. Abraham Erskine, combined with exposure to “Vita Rays” (obviously), to create an army of super soldiers. Rogers, with his steadfast desire to serve his country and protect the weak, was chosen to be the program’s first test case. He was also its last: Immediately after the procedure, Erskine was killed by a Nazi spy, and all attempts at recreating the serum have failed.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

But the test was a success: Rogers was transformed into a perfect physical specimen. (More on that in a bit.) He was give a code name, Captain America, and tasked with hunting the Nazi agent and aptly named Red Skull, a similarly enhanced villain obsessed with possessing a mythical object (called the Cosmic Cube, or Tesseract in the Marvel Studios movies), and commanding a technologically advanced army called HYDRA.

Captain America’s true “origin,” though, is far more prosaic (and patriotic): As an unabashedly political character, created by comic book legends Joe Simon and Jack Kirby before the U.S. had entered WWII as an attempt to rally national opinion around joining the fight to defeat Nazi Germany. And it wasn’t a soft sell, either. The very first cover of Captain America Comics (pictured, right) shows our red-white-and-blue hero socking it to Adolf Hitler.

After the war was over, however, interest in Cap wained — an attempt to make him into a Commie fighter never gained traction, and Cap comics fell out of print for roughly a decade. In 1964, Marvel Comics resurrected Cap as it launched The Avengers, with the conceit that he had been preserved in ice for decades, and thawed out into a brave new world unfamiliar to him. That same conceit was adopted for Marvel Studios’ Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers — just, instead of 1964, Cap wakes up, like, now.

Power and weapon: Cap is a mortal man, just the very best version of one: Strength, agility, endurance, healing — all his physical abilities are at absolute peak performance. And thanks to a lightning fast metabolism, Cap cannot get drunk, or sick, and his body ages much more slowly. (It also explains how his body survived all that time on ice.)

Cap’s main, iconic weapon is his shield, made out of an alloy of “vibranium,” a virtually (and conveniently) indestructible metal. He can also throw it, and it will eventually boomerang back into his hands.

Outfit: Designed by Rogers himself, Cap sports a skin-tight red-white-and blue costume with a giant white star across his chest and red vertical stripes down his lower torso; cuffed red boots and red gloves; and a blue helmet that covers his eyes and nose, with an “A” on his forehead and white wings above his ears.

Secret identity: In the comics, Rogers maintains the cover that he’s still a bumbling private to keep his identity separate from Captain America. In the movie, however, it’s barely an issue at all.

Sidekicks: Cap’s main sidekick is James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, a teenage orphan quasi-adopted as the mascot of Steve Rogers’ home army base in Virginia. Bucky eventually discovers that Rogers is Captain America, and says he’ll keep Cap’s secret if Cap lets the 15-year-old Barnes become his right-hand man. Amazingly, Cap agrees. They have a grand old time fighting Nazis, but the same accident that plunged Cap into an icy slumber seemingly kills Bucky. (It doesn’t; Communists are involved; let’s just move on.) In the 2011 movie, Bucky is Rogers’ contemporary and best friend before Rogers becomes Captain America, but they do eventually fight side-by-side — and Bucky still seemingly dies. Wah wah.

Love life: There was Elizabeth “Betty” Ross, a member of the U.S. Army’s Women’s Auxillary Corp, who would serve for a time as another Captain America’s sidekick named Golden Girl; Peggy Carter, a WWII French resistance fighter (in the movie, she’s a British military agent); and Peggy’s niece Sharon Carter, a modern-day S.H.I.E.L.D. agent.

Sample tweet: What is this again? Is it what’s called an “email,” or a “texting message”? So, anyway, kids, buy war bonds! Why does that number keep count

Captain America, with no country? Over the years, Captain America has reflected the culture’s conflicted attitudes about its national institutions. One example: During the Watergate scandal, Rogers became so disenchanted with the U.S. government that he briefly renounced his Captain American identity, and took on the identity of “Nomad” instead.

Why he might be the best Avenger: Because Cap is a born leader who knows the value of teamwork, resourcefulness, and self-sacrifice. All that time on WWII battlefields taught him how to strategize quickly in the thick of combat, and to put the goals of the mission above his own ego and ambition. There’s a reason the comics have so often placed him as the official leader of the Avengers.

Why he might NOT be the best Avenger: His abilities are certainly impressive, but he’s simply outclassed by Iron Man’s hardware, Hulk’s bulk, and Thor’s indestructibility. As a man out of time, he’s facing a steep learning curve, and all that rah-rah solemn patriotism can occasionally make the dude a bit of a sanctimonious bore.

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Captain America

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 97 minutes
  • Albert Pyun