Looking Back at 1990’s Captain America

Marvel adaptations didn’t always have quite the same investment of finance and artistry, as Matt explains in his reluctant look back at 1990’s Captain America movie...

“Italian dialogue that I didn’t understand” says the pretty Italian woman, leaning out of her window in response to Captain America knocking on her door

“Do you speak English?” asks Captain America.

Confused, the woman shakes her head.

“I was wondering…” no, Cap’, she just indicated that she doesn’t speak English. 

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Superhero movie fans – you are being utterly spoiled.

This summer, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man have seen or will see major cinema releases. The three films have a combined production cost of somewhere around half a billion dollars. They all appear to have been made by enthusiastic, capable people. Whether you enjoy these films or not, it’s hard to argue that comic book superhero films have ever been treated with more respect.

Last year, a Captain America film was produced. A lush, expensive production with a great central performance resulted in a very fun film. A film, it should be noted, that proved a sizeable hit at the box office, bringing in more than $350m around the world.

Back in 1990, apparently the potential for such a successful Captain America film was either overlooked or didn’t exist.

Still, budget and box office gross are not clear indicators of a great movie. Just because the guys signing the cheques were less liberal with the zeroes doesn’t mean that the Albert Pyun-directed Captain America, starring Matt Salinger, wouldn’t be a great movie. That’s what I told myself as I popped the DVD into my player on a lazy Sunday morning. Armed with a notebook, a box of doughnuts and what seemed like enough coffee at the time, I dug into the film with what turned out to be a misplaced sense of optimism.

Captain America tells the story of Steve Rogers, a muscle-bound regular American who has been unable to enlist for service during World War II due to a dramatic limp. Steve is selected by the army to be turned into a super-solider by a disgruntled Italian scientist, who is killed immediately after the procedure and who didn’t keep notes. Dubbed Captain America, he thwarts super-villain Red Skull’s attempt to explode the White House, gets frozen, and then wakes up in 1990.

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Finding himself alone in an unfamiliar time, Cap’ is overwhelmed by the world he has woken up in. He pulls himself together, takes on former squeeze Bernie’s daughter as a sidekick and sets about stopping Red Skull once again, who, this time, is trying to assume control of the President’s brain.

The problems with Captain America are many, and they’re scattered across every element of the film. Here’s a baffling one to kick us off – where’s Captain America? The character is hardly featured. Surely at some point of the production someone made the suggestion “Shouldn’t we put more Captain America in this Captain America film?” We get a great deal of mopey Steve Rogers, who is about as much fun to spend time around as the guy whose job it is to cremate dead pets, but he rarely dons the costume to become the ass-kicking Cap’. Even when he is wearing it, you can never be sure he won’t take the mask off, throw an overcoat on top of it and start draining the life off the screen again.

Matt Salinger’s performance as Captain America is impossible to assess as he’s tasked with saying and doing a thousand ridiculous things. No actor should have to dive from a plane while shouting “I love you Bernnniieeeeeee!” For some reason, he’s always driving off and abandoning his friends in the middle of nowhere. How is it possible to play that as an act of heroism?

Just because they were busy ruining the hero of the movie, doesn’t mean that the team here didn’t take the time to poorly interpret the villain, too. Red Skull, with his proper Red Skull face make up, actually looks pretty great, budget considered. Of course, we only get to see him in it twice. Otherwise, he has a fake ’human’ face on top of it, leading me to question why they bothered in the first place.

Red Skull decides to give his own super-powers a break, instead sending his normal-powered daughter to deal with the more physical acts of villainy for the most part of the film. Er, Captain America is a super-soldier, Red, and your daughter weighs a hundred pounds maximum and is armed with a tiny pistol. You’re a super-villain and you failed to kill Cap’ with a goddamned rocket. What kind of plan is this?

As if having him give all of the actual work to his daughter wasn’t enough, Red Skull is hampered with an elaborate island base that proves to be shoddily constructed. The President of the United States (a character who probably had a name, but who I referred to throughout as ‘Dick Jones from RoboCop’) is about 60, but is still able to escape from the cell they lock him up in by becoming so bored that he summons the strength to kick the door open. This is the only relatable part of the whole film.

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The women of Captain America are easy to categorise. If they’re from the past, they’re in a constant state of tearful hysteria. If they’re from the present (1990), they’re assassins. In the past, there was the odd brilliant scientist and in the present there are one or two feisty sidekicks, but otherwise, that’s it.

Still, as far as feisty sidekicks go, Sharon (the daughter of Steve Roger’s girlfriend) is pretty cool. Take that in: in a Captain America film, the best character is his sassy sidekick. She’s more heroic than Cap’, too. The film should be called Sharon, or possibly Sharon America.

Special effects are difficult to do on a limited budget, and it would be mean spirited to spend the next paragraph making fun of them. However, if you’re pressed for money for special effects, it’s definitely worth making sure they’re not stupid before committing to them. On that note, I’ll take this opportunity to question how Captain America’s shield is able to blow things up. I will also mention that, even if the scene where the rocket flew just inches over the eight year-old boy’s head had looked convincing, it would still be the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen not on a reality TV show.

Non-budgetary issues include embarrassing dialogue, not getting on with the main ‘adventure’ part of the story for more than an hour, and fight scenes that are less convincing than my apology for this review will be if I ever meet Albert Pyun and he’s bigger than me.

It’s less fun than you might think writing a review of a film that you didn’t like anything about. You want to find something positive to say. Here, all I have is that I quite liked the sidekick and I thought some of the sets were quite good. Not all of them, and this recent DVD release features an image quality so poor that, combined with how grey most of the film is, you’re not able to see all of them anyway.

Of course, I’m sure there are some of you who feel nostalgia for this take on Captain America, and you may feel I’ve been harsh on the film, but I just had no fun with it at all. I would strongly suggest that those curious about the film or wondering how it holds up from their childhood give it a miss.

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A good adaptation, particularly in the world of comics, makes you want to dig into the source material. This film has had the opposite effect on me, discouraging me from investigating Captain America’s illustrated adventures. Because what if this films turns out to have captured the spirit of them perfectly?

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