I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Captain America

tn_captainamerica90summer2016originsEXPLANATORY 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.

mp_captainamerica90It 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.”

mp_captainamerica90BThis 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 been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 28th, 2016 at 11:58 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

12 Responses to “Captain America”

  1. I watched this one for the first time since like junior high a few months ago and was also bummed to find out that the Lawrence Block in the credits was not the real one. The movie is okay despite that (and despite its reputation) and the patented Pyun enthusiasm is a big part of that. The movie is not afraid to exuberantly be what it is, and that’s kind of charming.

    I also kind of like the Roger Corman FANTASTIC FOUR, though. I don’t know what to tell you.

  2. I remember seeing that Captain America shield poster in the lobby when my mom took me and my friends to the midnight showing of Burton’s Batman (two notes: 1. That is the first movie I remember doing the whole midnight screening on Thursday night thing… there may have been others, but that’s the first time I remember it. B. How cool was my mom for taking me and my buddies to that?!?). Anyway, I saw the poster and was pumped. Then for years thought maybe I had imagined it (did this even get a theatrical release? If so, it wasn’t much of one). When I finally saw it I was… underwhelmed to say the least. But Salinger really does go for it. And, as you said, exploding outdoor piano.

  3. Vern, I know you’ve made references to (what seems to be) your generally positive opinion of them in a couple of other pieces, but I’d really like to see you do full length reviews of the Burton Batman films. As each year passes and we harvest the new crop of super strong man funny book pictures, those two and their place or non-place in the canon becomes more and more interesting, particularly vis a vis their contradictory status as both the grandfathers of the whole industry and films whose sense of aesthetics and narrative/thematic concerns are so totally at odds with what we’ve got now. There’s a fascinating story to untangle there.

  4. I’m always getting this one confused with the even more forgettable Reb Brown TV movie where Cap’s shield is made out of clear plexiglass or something. Compared to that, Albert Pyun’s production values are down right blockbuster level.

  5. You make a persuasive argument, zero. I’ll try to get to it one of these days.

  6. Oh my god you can get the Reb Brown CAPTAIN AMERICA and its sequel CAPTAIN AMERICA II: DEATH TOO SOON (1979) on one DVD on Amazon right now for $4.

  7. I echo Zero’s sentiments. Batman 1 was/is especially good as portraying an almost mythical supernatural vigilante. It’s an origin story, but the origin story of the Joker, not Batman. Plus, if you really get down to it, Keaton-Batman kills a fair few people in both movies.

    Bastards of Batman 1989

    It’s Batman Month, so we’ve been looking at all the individual Bat-movies over the last 25 years. This series of articles will focus on the Bastards, the bad-guys and the scumbags of ea…

  8. I remember seeing the VHS cover of this film when I was a kid, and despite liking superheroes, I had no desire to rent it. Judging by that cover, even eight year old me could tell that the movie was going to be cheap. Maybe it was because Captain America looks so blase about throwing that shield.

  9. The summer of 89 was pretty magical. BATMAN opened the door to a kind of respectability and acceptance of comic book shit and, by extension, all things geek.

    And to see it embraced by super-cool cat Prince with his soundtrack was just the sexy cherry on the cake.

  10. The Burton/Schumacher Batmans have been on my mind because I rewatched them last year and liked them minus Forever (I’m sorry but I mostly enjoyed & Robin this go-around). I also just last month read the mostly excellent The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture by Glen Weldon and man does he hate the Burton movies. He didn’t seem to care for the Nolan ones either, in fact the only movie he had nice things to say about was Forever(!) (to be fair when talking about Dark Knight he focuses solely on Ledger’s great performance but he makes enough comments throughout the book to signify he didn’t care for it otherwise).

    He says the first Batman is just Charles Bronson ’80s action movie with a Batman skin which is hilarious because he makes it known he is not an action fan so he makes the same blanket/factually wrong statements based on ‘that’s how they all are huh?’ That said a Cannon or Fox-produced Bronson-starring Batman would’ve been great (okay it would have been interesting).

    One more thing about the book. He spends most of the book vilifying the #notmybatman or “Batjihadist” crowd (this came out before BvS btw) but at the very end of the book he makes it known that he is a #notmybatman guy, it’s just that his Batman is the Adam West TV show and thanks to all these other assholes he can’t have his Batman anymore. Kind of deflates the entire book BUT I still think it is a very good read you guy’s should check it out (if you are interested in Nerd/Fan culture that is).

    So yeah he’s wrong and even though the ’89 Batman has ALOT of problems, I still think it holds up as a fun weird movie that despite it inspiring the current wave of superhero movies, they would NEVER make them like this again.

    As for Pyun’s Captain America, like the Corman Fantastic Four, if you are VERY forgiving on the films budget (and talent) short-comings and like superhero stories I think you can find things to like in it. Not as good as Pyun’s Sword and the Sorcerror (but what is) but still higher-tier Pyun. It is WAY better than the two snooze-fest Reb Brown movies which sound like they would be awesome (the second one has Christopher Lee as the villain!).

    Has anyone seen the Director’s Cut or Workprint version of this thing?

  11. Vern, I know it’s just an aside in your review but I suggest a re-watch of Dick Tracy. Can’t be certain you’ll like it more but that movie has a lot going for it. I personally love it for better or worse.

  12. Saw this back in the early 90s and I don’t remember a thing about it except Italian Red Skull. With that said this movie motivated me to get into Mark Gruenwald’s Cap books back then so it had that going for it. Prior to that I only knew him from crossover events and the occassional DARE TO BE DRUG FREE themed comic books that they used to hand out to us in public school.

Leave a Reply





XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <img src=""> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <b> <i> <strike> <em> <strong>