In the late 1970s, Universal Television optioned the rights to make TV shows based on characters from the Marvel Comics library, and created a number of pilots based on heroes such as the Hulk, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. In retrospect, The Incredible Hulk was by far the most successful of these – it’s arguably still the definitive version of the character on screen, outside of last year’s Avengers Assemble.
Even though it never led to a series, 1978’s two Captain America TV movies came second-closest to success, by the virtue of even getting as far as a second movie. The first, known as Sentinel Of Liberty, establishes a different origin story for Steve Rogers, while the second, Death Too Soon, is more of a villain-of-the-week affair.
In this version, Rogers, played by 80s B-movie action star Reb Brown, is the son of a patriotic scientist who created FLAG, (Full Latent Ability Gain) a serum that enhances strength and agility. Unfortunately, the design of the serum is based on the late Rogers’ cells, so Steve is now the only one for whom the serum will work properly.
With the help of government personnel Dr Simon Mills and Dr Wendy Day, Steve takes up the mantle that was piss-takingly bestowed upon his father: “Captain America”. It’s the kind of reinvention of the character that’s being done in modern “new-seriousness” superhero movies, with all of the over-explanation but with none of the panache.
Marvel generalissimo Stan Lee called his experience of working on the Captain America movies “a bit of a disappointment”, and fans of the comics might have been let down by the portrayal of the hero at the time. Still, as this got closer to a series than any of the other projects outside of The Incredible Hulk, it’s intriguing to examine the TV movies and wonder how it might have panned out.
Sentinel Of Liberty opens with a title sequence that takes place over Steve Rogers, driving his panel van down the California coastline. Unfortunately, for a film about Captain America, this immediately sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
As far as plot goes, industrialist Lou Brackett is out to grab a neutron bomb and blow up Phoenix, Arizona, but the film is far more concerned with following Steve as he refuses the call to action. Like many superhero origin stories, it’s more interested in setting up the hero than in giving him a big battle to face. But unlike most, it’s also slow, dull and bizarrely self-conscious.
In context, it hadn’t been too long since the Vietnam War and Watergate, and perhaps Steve Rogers’ patriotism would’ve seemed a little too anachronistic for a faithful adaptation. It’s a shame if that was the case, because Superman: The Movie had wowed cinema audiences the previous year, and that was a film chock-full of optimism.
But this version of Steve is an artist and biking enthusiast, who’s very happy to refuse the call of Dr Mills. He’s not a weakling, pre-FLAG serum, as other versions of the character have been. While they obviously didn’t have the budget or the technology to skinny him up with CGI, as 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger did so brilliantly, Reb Brown isn’t necessarily the best casting for the lead role.
This was his first lead role, and while he’s blond and muscle-bound, he’s not ideal as the artist who drives up and down the coast. His passive attitude is a source of constant annoyance throughout the first movie; even after his strength, agility and senses are improved, he seems to actively retreat from responsibility until the end of the film.
At the beginning of the movie, villains conspire to run Steve off the road by slicking it with oil. He crashes his van down the side of a mountain, but neither he nor the van seems to suffer much damage. His polo shirt is ripped, and his neck is a bit sore, but the van is back within a couple of scenes.
It’s a biking accident that does the trick, and puts him in such a bad state that Mills administers the FLAG serum without Rogers’ consent. It’s almost an hour in before he dons a costume, and when he does, it’s an Evel Knievel-inspired outfit, with a motorcycling helmet standing in for the cowl. Worse, his shield looks like a plastic frisbee, featuring those most American colours: the red, transparent and blue.
There’s also a pretty amazing super-bike, which seems to be as indestructible over the course of the two movies as Steve’s trusty panel van. At one point, during a high-stakes chase, Steve even makes a point of radioing in to let Mills know where his bike has been abandoned. “Never mind the neutron bomb and the industrialist!” the audience would cry, “Is the super-bike OK?!”
In the very last shot of the movie, he dons a more recognisable version of the costume from the comics, but we spend more time watching Steve fight crime in a polo shirt and far too much time watching him not fighting at all.
The fight scenes that we do see are fairly pedestrian: he doesn’t throw a punch, but he does throw stuff around quite a lot. After one exciting showdown in a meat-packing plant, Steve merely apprehends the baddies and calls the cops before adjourning to do some drawing on the beach.
Sentinel Of Liberty is very much a TV movie of the week, but its less enjoyable adaptations aren’t related to the production value as much as a failure to take the character seriously. Death Too Soon opens with a little more assurance, and generally goes on to exceed the first film.
Although the first action scene involves Steve using an old lady as bait to stop a gang of muggers who have been targeting pensioners, at least it’s opening with Steve in action rather than mulling over his previous care-free lifestyle.
Still, the aloofness of the first film seems so ingrained in Steve’s character that his first reaction to a spate of crimes by an international revolutionary criminal goes something like “It sounds like it’s a case for the FBI.” Your hero, ladies and gentlemen!
The criminal in question is General Miguel, a character who is considerably classed up by Christopher Lee, the movie’s special guest star. He’s holed up in a run-down correctional facility, which, for some reason, is furnished with top-class lab facilities. From there, he orchestrates a scheme to use a kidnapped professor’s anti-aging research to create a chemical weapon.
The trouble is, the properties of this formula are never satisfactorily explained- we know that it ages those who are exposed to it at a rate of 38 days per hour, but at the point where Captain America is about to storm the prison, Miguel gives the bizarre order to find the biggest, meanest guard dogs, and give them a triple dose of the formula. Um… why?
It’s not like we’re ever told that the formula increases strength or aggression. That seems to be the intention, because when Miguel gets a whole bottle splashed in his face, he briefly overpowers Cap in a fight before ageing to death. It’s quite vaguely sketched, but in terms of scale, it’s a big step-up from Sentinel Of Liberty.
The whole plan is even a little reminiscent of a Bond villain plot, with Lee’s villain legitimising the homage. We also see Steve doing some undercover work in a small town called Belleville, which served as a test ground for the formula, and is now being held hostage by Miguel. Having decided to maintain a secret identity in the previous film, they at least balance the frustrating lack of in-costume screen-time by having him do some useful investigation as Steve.
As in the first film, the fight scenes aren’t great; the comedy highlight is probably Cap’s assault on a shipyard where the bad guys are hanging out. He powers his super-bike into some crates and knocks out some of the henchmen, a la Angry Birds. The rest of the henchmen are then thrown around the yard, often crashing their own heads into obstacles as they land.
Captain America II: Death Too Soon marks an improvement, after a shaky start. It fills its running time much better than its predecessor, even if there’s still a lot of flab hanging around the middle of the story, and suggests more of a format.
There’s more than enough evidence in the two films to suggest that it wasn’t best suited to the feature-length TV movie of the week running time, but perhaps, once it found its feet, it could have made for some solid 40 minute weekly episodes, in the format that proved successful for The Incredible Hulk.
On that topic, there are some interesting things to be gleaned from the two TV movies that suggest the direction they could have taken in a series. Reb Brown’s stand-out moment in the first movie is a monologue about how he’ll have to spend the rest of his life being careful in case he doesn’t know his own strength and hurts someone.
This seems far more in line with the poignant, hermit-like existence of David Banner than any recognisable version of Steve Rogers, but it’s not to say that it couldn’t have developed into some interesting stories in future episodes.
Furthermore, by setting the action in the 1970s, it’s implied that this Steve Rogers is the son of the original World War II hero; we’re told that Steve is a former Marine and alumnus of three military schools, so it’s even possible that he could have served in Vietnam, explaining his reluctance to fight the good fight in the first movie.
Admittedly, this is conjecture rather than anything that is made clear in the movies themselves, but it could have been interesting to see how this version of the character would develop. The regular cast of characters would have included Drs Mills and Day, with Len Birman lending gravitas to the former role in both films, and the latter proving rather more replaceable, with Connie Sellecca replacing Heather Menzies in Death Too Soon.
It’s not to say that Wendy Day would be recast every single week, as amusing an idea as that may seem, but Connie Sellecca did go on to star in the more fondly remembered superhero sitcom, The Greatest American Hero, from 1981 to 1983. While Wendy was the love interest for Steve in the first movie, his infatuation with a single mother in Death Too Soon suggests more of a love-interest-of-the-week format, as Steve travels from place to place, righting wrongs and ripping his polo shirt at strategic romantic moments.
They would never have got someone as awesome as Christopher Lee to play the villain every week, but General Miguel is also more indicative of where Universal might have liked to take the series. It’s tough to imagine this series ever introducing famous Cap adversaries like Red Skull: it’s much too grounded for that.
Having said that, if The Incredible Hulk got people tuning in to see David Banner Hulk out once or twice an hour, it might have been the super-bike that became the weekly attraction for this series. Aside from being sort of indestructible, Death Too Soon reveals that it also has the capability to turn into a hang-glider and then back into a motorcycle during a chase. We are poorer for not seeing an episode where it turned into an underwater vehicle or went into space.
Cap fans would probably argue that Captain America: The First Avenger finally gave us a live-action version of Steve Rogers that we deserved, but Sentinel Of Liberty and Death Too Soon still stand as cult curiosities, which could have led to something far more interesting than the sum of its parts.
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