EXPLANATORY INTRODUCTION PARAGRAPH: I have noticed that some of the movies coming out this summer are based on pre-existing characters or stories. In this off and on series we’ll look at earlier versions.
I don’t know if the young people know about this now, but in 1989 Tim Burton’s BATMAN (do people even watch that anymore?) was a gigantic explosion in pop culture. This was way back when “geek” was considered an insult and “actually some comic books aren’t just for kids they call them graphic novels” was considered interesting trivia. A movie about a super hero hadn’t been popular since SUPERMAN twelve years earlier, and that had seemed like an isolated incident. Now all the sudden the world was captivated by billboards and merchandise of just the bat symbol. It was on cereal boxes and racks of bootleg t-shirts in parking lots. Batman was worn by skateboarders, celebrated in weird Prince videos on MTV, welcomed back nostalgically in reruns of the ’60s comedy series starring Adam West. Intrigued newcomers picked up paperbacks of the groundbreaking ’80s work of dark Batman that were considered sacred texts from publication until the exact moment when musclebound Zack Snyder picked up the ball (the dodge ball?) and ran with it.
It was a once in a lifetime, impossible to duplicate, two lightning bolts in one bottle confluence of cultural and artistic currents, so obviously Hollywood tried to make it the new formula for blockbuster movies. For a few years they tried over and over to find the right combination of reinvented pulpy hero, stylized aesthetic, minimalistic poster logo and ornate Danny Elfman (or Danny Elfman-esque) score to capture that sweet, sweet zeitgeist again. For example the summer of 1990 gave us Warren Beatty’s DICK TRACY.
Meanwhile, Marvel Comics characters were hiding out like J.D. Salinger. Their rights belonged to b-movie producers like Golan and Globus, who had been trying to make a Spider-man movie not with Tobey Maguire, but with Tobe Hooper. They didn’t have the budget, skills, reputation or marketing to create a cultural event like BATMAN. They didn’t have a Michael Keaton, a Jack Nicholson or even a Robert Wuhl. They did have Ned Beatty, though. He was in SUPERMAN, and he was in the low budget Albert Pyun-directed CAPTAIN AMERICA movie they’d had sitting on the shelf for a couple years. Against all odds the world had changed, and created the perfect moment for them to finally release it.
Or not. Nobody cared.
Matt Salinger (whose father was the actual J.D. Salinger, I am not joking) plays Steve Rogers, a handsome, clean cut gentleman during the WWII era who leaves his loving family, his sweetheart Bernie (this was before Bernie Sanders) and his Rockwellian home town to volunteer for a covert government patriotism-enhancing experiment or whatever. In a secret lab (entered through a cleverly hidden passage in the coat room of a diner) he’s strapped to a gurney for a procedure overseen by a German doctor (Carla Cassola, DEMONIA) trying to make up for her past turning a kidnapped Italian piano prodigy into the evil Red Skull (Scott Paulin, the dad from PUMP UP THE VOLUME). But she’s assassinated right there, taking the secret of the seven herbs and spices that create super soldiers to the grave.
Like in THE FIRST AVENGER, this Captain America is flown all over to smash Nazis. He throws his shield around as a boomerang, blowing up a truck full of flammable barrels, for example. He wears a costume with a full head mask (mouth area and ears open) with little white wings on the sides, and BATMAN style rubber muscles, but also sometimes wears his army uniform and helmet over it, which is cool. I bet if he went to a wedding he would also wear a suit and tie over it. It’s similar to how El Santo always wears his mask even with civilian or formal clothes, although he’s not as stringent about it, he does take the mask off.
A major difference in this version is that he’s not a symbol to inspire Americans. Americans don’t know he exists.
He tracks down the Red Skull and tries to fist fight him, but loses, and the villain decides to theatrically tie him to the missile he was about to fire at the White House anyway. Steve somehow heroically steers the missile just above the White House and then into some frozen tundra far away.
So far all this is cheap but effective. The first major cheeseball shit is the dorky little boy (Garette Ratliffe, THE MIGHTY DUCKS, CASPER) who is the only person to witness this missile because everyone else is asleep. (Eyes on the ball, Secret Service. Jeez.) He’s some kind of politics nerd who doesn’t want to go to bed because he’s excited to be on a vacation to Washington DC and “I want to see the president!” He takes a photo of Captain America on the missile, but it’s kind of out of focus and nobody believes him about it except arguably his other nerdy friend (Ned Beatty’s son Thomas) who wants to use it for the school newspaper.
This one does the freezing-during-WWII-and-waking-up-in-the-modern-day part half an hour in instead of at the end, and the way they show the passage of time is pretty funny: a series of newspaper front pages declare the end of WWII, the elections and assassination/resignation of Kennedy and Nixon, etc., while the sidebars and beneath-the-fold articles tell us about “local boy” Tom Kimball graduating high school, joining the military, the Peace Corps, etc., then becoming senator and finally president. Amazing that this small town newspaper was prescient enough to put every little thing this kid ever did on the front page! Their copy editing isn’t so great, though. In one headline they spelled “SPRINGFIELD” as “SPRINFIELD.”
This version doesn’t have SPECTRE or COBRA or whatever, but a more straight forward Illuminati of old white men who say they killed JFK and MLK and now they’re planning to kill President Kimball (Ronny Cox, also the president in MARTIANS GO HOME, MURDER AT 1600 and the upcoming NADIA’S PROMISE as well as vice president on Stargate SG-1 and senator on Spawn and Commander in Chief) for announcing environmental legislation. Luckily, some Swedes just discovered a frozen man, who got up and ran off, but they snapped a picture of him and it’s in the paper and the president sees it (I guess the people who give him his intelligence briefings, like the Secret Service years ago, are asleep on the job), so he and The Red Skull both send their guys to try to find the Captain.
This is obviously low budget compared to modern CAPTAIN AMERICA pictures, or compared to BATMAN and the other comic book movies of the era. But it’s directed by our friend Albert Pyun (KICKBOXER 2), and as far as his filmography goes it looks like kind of a bigger one. The script is by Stephen Tolkin, who IMDb says was an uncredited writer on MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, which sounds about right. But he shares his story credit with the one and only Lawrence Block! Actually there’s more than one Lawrence Block, and this is not the one that’s the novelist who created Matthew Scudder. But it is the one who wrote Tobe Hooper’s THE FUNHOUSE. That’s not too shabby. I’ll take it.
I learned from DVD extras that Pyun and the writers and Salinger were very happy with a script that wasn’t entirely reflected in the movie when all was said and done. Whatever they intended, it’s hard to deny that the finished product is on the dumb side. It has that annoying GREEN LANTERN thing where adults grow up still obsessed with the dumb thing they were obsessed with as little kids. And this president is just a regular guy who happens to live in the White House. It seems like he has none of the resources of a real president. His only help is that childhood friend Sam, now a real newspaperman played by Beatty. Even if he has to be secretive, he never met anybody else he could trust in his long military and political career? I find that hard to believe.
I will say this about Red Skull: He has an outdoor piano. With a remote detonator built into it. That would be impressive on MTV Cribs. Now he should sing that Britney Spears song that James Franco sings in SPRING BREAKERS.
The Red Skull’s makeup in the prologue looks shitty, but I like what they did for the 1990 scenes. Now he has skin over the skull, lumpy and horribly scarred, but good enough to pass for not-the-Red-Skull. Captain America finds Bernie, now tragically old and married, and takes her daughter (same actress, Kim Gillingham, whose next credit was the early Paul Thomas Anderson short CIGARETTES & COFFEE) as his WARLOCK-style mismatched-time-periods partner in adventuring. Don’t worry, nothing inappropriate happens. The Captain is a gentleman.
They follow clues to try to find the Red Skull’s real name, which will lead them to his location. Then there will be fisticuffs.
Unfortunately once the Captain catches up with Red Skull all he really can do is punch. Two superhumans made just to fight each other. But Salinger helps. Although he can’t stand up to Chris Evans, he’s pretty good, projecting a bit of the inner turmoil of his situation without losing the handsome cornball surface. And in the interview on the Blu-Ray Salinger seems very proud and invested in the character while also aware of the movie’s low standing in society.
CAPTAIN AMERICA, like America herself, is not perfect. In fact, it is much less perfect than America. You can see why Marvel would want to Make Captain America Great Again. But it’s better than I remembered. There are worse Marvel movies. Sorry to throw you under the bus, MAN-THING, but facts are facts.
HISTORY: Captain America is a comic book character dating back to 1941. He had a cartoon in the ’60s, two Reb-Brown-starring TV movies in the ’70s, and has appeared in numerous Marvel cartoons and video games and shit for a few decades now. This summer’s CAPTAIN AMERICA’S CIVIL WAR is the third in a fiftology of modern Captain America films. A fiftology is like a trilogy only there are fifteen of them or maybe fifty of them depending on how things go.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.