Flashback Fridays: 1990's "Captain America"
With "Avengers: Age Of Ultron" opening this weekend to massive box office figures and comic book films saturating the market, it is difficult to remember that there was a time when comic book films were not taken (or treated) seriously. After having your ears and other points of sense blown out by "Age Of Ultron"'s sound mix through theater speakers, take a moment to revisit an era when Marvel movies were straight to video affairs shot on miniature budgets.
Start with 1990's ill-fated "Captain America." The best this Marvel superhero could muster at the time was a straight to video flick complete with stale synth music that has not aged well in the last two decades. The idea of making major adaptations of comics was so ignored at the time that the movie was co-funded by a company based in Yugoslavia, this was before Communism there collapsed and it shattered into three different countries.
A B-flick trapped in its time and place, "Captain America" was the first attempt to bring the 1940s World War II icon to life in the color age. It "starred" Matt Salinger as Steven Rogers, a soldier during World War II recruited by the military for a super soldier experiment which turns him into a bulky warrior in a blue uniform with a red, white and blue shield ready to be air dropped behind enemy lines.
Of course the Nazis have created their own super soldier, the crimson-faced Red Skull (Scott Paulin). When the Red Skull straps Captain America to a giant missile and sends him flying towards the White House, our hero manages to bend the missile's wings and he instead crashes in Alaska. There he will remain frozen until being thawed out in the 1980s.
There is a special kind of charm to the way "Captain America" takes itself so seriously with a budget that wouldn't even cover the catering for last year's mega-budget "Captain America: Winter Soldier." It plays like a retread of a 1940s, gung-ho war movie and like a small cousin of the action films that were in vogue in the Reagan 80s.
It was a time when films were still firmly set in a purely black and white world. "Rambo" could avenge the Vietnam war, "Top Gun" celebrated the pop music-fueled Spartan image of fighter pilots. In "Captain America" not only is the blue-clad super soldier a hero, but so is the president of the United States, President Kimble (Ronny Kox), who is kidnapped by the Red Skull and soon kicks bad guy butt all over the place with the super hunk.
Yet even those movies look sophisticated, even dark next to this goofy mess. Director Albert Pyun makes no attempt to make any aspect of this story remotely believable. Salinger plays Captain America like a patriotic version of The Tick, as a buffed nice guy who always has to speak with an over-dramatic tone and a blank stare.
Pyun even gives the film a horribly cheesy love story in the form of Captain America's relationship with Bernice (Kim Gillingham), who is left waiting for him when he's taken away by the army to become a super soldier. Of course when he's thawed out Captain America is distressed to find that he hasn't aged, but Bernice has and is now married with a daughter his age (looks-wise anyway) who looks just like her younger self.
The scenes where Captain America makes his way back home from Alaska are even edited to a cheesy 80s love song. It's quite unbearable. This is nothing compared to the design choices of the film (most likely taken due to the low budget). We only see the Red Skull as the actual, crimson flesh-colored villain in one scene early in the movie, for the rest of the film he's an evil-looking caucasian with scars.
The excuse the script devises is that he had plastic surgery performed over the years to hide his identity, especially now that he's a wanted terrorist connected to the assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and every other tragic death in the latter 20th century.
The special effects are of course practically hand-made and are reduced to the standard punching bodies and ducking away from bullets. The only real show of Captain America's strength is when he throws his discus shield like a giant frisbee.
And yet "Captain America" is so bad it's almost gloriously fun to watch just because it exists. It's also fascinating to watch in hindsight as well. Now that Marvel and DC movies are made with massive budgets, meticulous visual structures and once in a while screenplays that feature even real drama and pathos ("The Dark Knight," "X-Men: Days Of Future Past"), "Captain America" is a retread to a time when the industry felt a guy dressed in blue with a giant shield should be treated with a childlike innocence. Adults now flock to super hero movies, in 1990 the genre was still seen largely as something for children.
Thanks to the major success of the new, glossy "Captain America" films, this 1990 ancestor has also been released digitally remastered on DVD so it can be enjoyed fully preserved in all its silly-grinned glory.