Captain America [1990]

It seems the Americans have made a poor choice for their champion.

The first cycle of comic book movies died ignobly with the whimper that was Superman IV: The Quest For Peace. However, two massively successful Batman comics - The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke - and the obvious talent and early success of attached director Tim Burton kept Batman on the rails. Burton's film was diametrically opposed to the earlier comic book films; brooding, intense, and often grotesquely violent. But previous films also made a real effort to have their superheroes in the "real" world. Burton had no such interest, and instead created a sensational depiction of Gotham, as though German Expressionism and Film Noir had infused themselves into the very soul of the city. The film was overstuffed with state-of-the-art special effects, but also a deep nostalgia for the 1940s.

While Burton's Batman practically defined style over substance, that style was endlessly cool, and the movie was a blast. It was an even bigger cultural phenomenon than Superman; no movie since Star Wars had so utterly swept the public consciousness. Or, importantly, sold as much merchandise. With that, comic book movies were on, and they never went away; 1988 was the last year in which no studio released a comic-book adaptation.

This second cycle, from Batman's explosive rise to Batman and Robin's equally spectacular fall, took Burton's film very much as inspiration. Movies like Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer, and The Shadow fused Golden Age Hollywood nostalgia with 1990s special effects and action to varying degrees of success. Most were dark in the sense of shadowy visuals, brooding heroes, and intense violence, if not in terms of dramatic complexity. Only a handful managed any sort of thematic or emotional core, but the surface-level fun and spectacle, at least, was more reliable than in the first cycle. 

Obviously, this second cycle should be dubbed the Bat Cycle.

Strangely, Marvel superheroes were almost entirely left out of the equation. A variety of reasons exist for this. One major issue was probably the lack of a template for what a comic-book superhero movie even was; Batman wasn't much of a story, while Superman had so much story it had to be chopped in half. Lacking a clear formula left producers stumbling around for years or decades trying to figure out how to make this work. But probably the biggest reason there weren't any major Marvel films was that the rights were not only split all over the place, but, in many cases, were owned by low-grade schlock merchants like Golan and Globus. Captain America, along with Spider-Man, had actually been snatched by Golan and Globus themselves in 1984 for an absolute steal - $225,000 for 5 years. 

For a while, the director assigned to Cap was Michael Winner, well known for the compelling if mildly misogynistic and racist revenge picture Death Wish; the abysmal, highly misogynistic and racist Death Wish II; and the hilariously abysmal, spectacularly misogynistic and racist Death Wish III. However, lack of funds became a problem; those rights had real value, but they were also difficult to exploit if you didn't like spending actual money. Golan's and Globus's Cannon Films had a slight debt problem, slight being defined as "$600,000,000".

After the collapse of Cannon Films (partly due to the twin disasters of Superman IV and Masters of the Universe), Menahem Golan split from Globus to run 21st Century Film Corporation; he took with him the rights to Captain America and Spider-Man, handing the reins for both to Albert Pyun. Pyun is infamous amongst bad movie fans, but he has always had an unquestionable talent for finishing movies on budget and on schedule, no matter how insane said budgets and schedules are. He never got to make that Spider-Man film, but he did get $6 million for Captain America. By the standards of the day, that was low for a comic book movies - Batman, The Rocketeer, and Dick Tracy had all cost over $40 million, a standard big-budget figure by now. Still, it was a fortune compared to the $500,000 Pyun had had for the previous year's Cyborg. Unfortunately, Golan ran into cash flow problems shortly after filming commenced, and Pyun suddenly had to make do with basically nothing. Somehow, miraculously, he finished the movie anyway.

This extensive intro may strike those who have seen this as more prologue than the movie deserves, but sweet heavens this sucker is boring. Had to pass the time somehow.

Captain America opens effectively enough with the origin of the villain, Red Skull. In Fascist Italy, a young boy is taken from his family while practicing the piano. He's forced to watch their murders as the hands of Mussolini's goons, then being forced through experimental treatments to make him superhumanly strong and intelligent. However, Dr. Maria Vaselli, who created the process, is horrified by the torturous execution and narrowly escapes with her life. It's a gripping, grim sequence, and effectively contrasts with Cap's origins. 

Steve Rogers is an adult when he volunteers several years later, and has plenty of time to say goodbye to his family and girlfriend, Bernice. Matt Salinger (the son of elusive author JD Salinger, known for Catcher in the Rye and even better for completely disappearing after writing Catcher in the Rye.) is effectively cast, exuding the pure sincerity of the character while lining it with the sad tragedy of a soldier who has left his family behind to serve his country. He may not exude the charisma of Chris Evans, but he's not bad, given the material. Pyun pushes the sentiment a bit hard, but it works.

Pyun's films often drag, and Captain America suffers dramatically from his pacing. Pyun's approach to far too many scenes seems to be to find the least relevant and interesting character and tell the scene from their point of view. He did this in the opening scene, when we followed some kids running down to street, who look in the window at Red Skull's house, and are then immediately forgotten, which is somewhat jarring when the soldiers blow down the wall where they were standing a minute earlier. A stronger example comes when we enter the lab where Steve is being turned into Cap. Instead of seeing this from Steve's POV (who would be an outsider the first time he got there, and thus could be introduced to everything with us), or even Dr. Vaselli, or Col. Louis, who at least have some part to play, we're shown the scene from the view of a soldier who hasn't been to the lab before and is otherwise forgotten. Doing this means we lose the momentum and inherent empathy we could have built with Steve by following him, and are instead distanced; it also means we have characters we don't care about and who serve no importance dropping exposition and sucking up screen time. It's a baffling way to approach the scene, and it's a technique Pyun often repeats. In this particular scene, the intention seems to have been to do it from the point of view of the man who turns out to be a double agent; while not the most advantageous choice, there's a logic to that. The shift may well have happened unintentionally, simply because the scene cut better that way. But it's such a systemic problem in this film and Pyun's work in general that it can't be too easily dismissed.

Still, once the scene really gets going, it's good stuff - sparks flying everywhere, the lights going in and out, subtly grotesque shots of Steve's muscles growing, all very appropriately Frankenstein. But as soon as it appears to be a success, one of the soldiers turns out to be a double agent, and assassinates Vaselli. Rogers, however, shrugs off the bullets that get pumped into him and takes down the assassin before he can finish off the rest of the soldiers.

The death of Vaselli means Steve is the only one of the planned super-soldiers, but since Red Skull is the only one the Axis have, he might just do. (Col. Louis neglects to tell him this until he asks literally right before he jumps out of the plane, which seems a touch late to drop that bombshell.) He's sent on a mission to take out the Red Skull's base. He quickly dispatches the (few) guards outside before facing Red Skull himself. His first use of his shield is a little weirdly staged - he seems almost surprised to see he has one, and perturbed by it before realizing he can frisbee it - but whatever, he gets into the swing pretty easily.

Red Skull seems to already know exactly who Cap is, presumably from that double agent from earlier. Cap runs toward Red Skull, while RS just casually walks toward him in a nice touch. And Red Skull just beats the tar out of Cap. Dude doesn't stand a chance. Red Skull ties him to the rocket he's about to launch at the White House. Cap manages a minor victory, grabbing Red Skull's hand, forcing him to cut off his own hand to not get dragged into the stratosphere toward an fiery grave.

Then, with the rocket soaring toward DC, we cut to a little kid in a bedroom. We know the kid is in Washington DC because we get a helpful graphic over the freaking White House that we're in Washington DC. And just in case that was a touch too ambiguous, the dialogue is very helpful:

MOTHER: Why are you still up?
KID: Because we're in Washington DC! How can I sleep!

The film spends a long time setting up this kid sneaking out of his house and such. There's no intercutting to the missile or anything; Pyun's minor character POV change defuses the tension rather than ratcheting it up. The missile does eventually come screaming toward the White House, which only this kid sees - and snaps a picture of. At the last moment, Cap manages to kick the missile so it veers off-course. So far off-course, in fact, that it makes it all the way to Alaska, which it apparently had enough fuel for. That's... a lot of delta-v. Weird neither NASA or the Soviets managed to recruit this Red Skull guy after the war.

The film is less than half an hour in and it feels like it's already gone on for an hour. Pacing aside, it's not a bad first act; clumsy, B-rate, and slow for something with this much action, but watchable enough. It is noticeable that Cap hasn't been much of a hero so far, though; he took out that assassin, sure, and the handful of guards outside Red Skull's HQ, but he's basically had one mission, and only managed a minor victory inside of an overall mission failure. But hey, saving the President ain't nothing, and who cares if no one really knows about it?

We now get a scene of this kid (named Tom Kimball) convincing his friend back in Ohio that he actually saw some guy in a blue suit with a winged helmet flying a rocket, and has a photo to prove it. This kid, it turns out, grows up to be President of the United States, as the passage of time montage that follows parallels his career with the historical highlights of the following decades. The film is so focused on him that for a while, it feels like the movie switched protagonists; as president, played by Ronny Cox, his policies are hardcore environmentalist. A cabal of Illuminati-like businessmen lead by Red Skull prepare to stop him by kidnapping him and installing a mind-controlling chip in his brain. Red Skull has, in the intervening decades, assassinated JFK, RFK, and MLK, before deciding to avoid creating martyrs by using subtle approaches. Like kidnapping the president and installing a mind-controlling chip in his head. He's also used plastic surgery to hide his Red Skulliness.

Fortunately, it's right about this time that Captain America is stumbled upon and awakens, and he immediately charges into action to... walk from Alaska back to his home in California. Red Skull sends his daughter to stop him, but Cap is rescued by Ned Beatty, because Cap is the sort of hero who needs rescuing by Ned Beatty.

Actually, that's unfair. Cap's the sort of hero who pretends to be sick so he can steal Ned Beatty's car and strand him in the middle of nowhere, California.

Captain America '90, while far from good, may be largely serviceable for the first act, but it falls flat on its face in its endless midsection. The biggest problem, as the above demonstrates is Cap himself; Salinger is sincere, and Pyun clearly believes in the character, but he spends all his time being morose and brooding. He's not only not much of a superhero, he's significantly less heroic or compelling than several other characters in the story; his old girlfriend sacrifices her life (one might say "fridged") to keep him safe, her daughter Sharon consistently outshines him as they look for Red Skull, and Ned Beatty seems to get back from being stranded in Canada faster than Cap does after Cap steals his car, and is still totally cool with it and on Cap's side. He also steals Sharon's car with the same trick he used on Beatty, but it's a pointless digression anyway, because she shows up in the very next scene, having, apparently, walked to the same place he drove to! He takes far, far too long to accept that it's really 1990 and Beatty wasn't just a Nazi spy trying to mess with his head. The studio cut a substantial amount of the film that supposedly included Cap's character arc of truly becoming a hero, but it would have to have been some tremendous stuff to balance out what remains. I have my doubts as to whether a longer version would have pulled it off rather than just been longer. 

The pace never does pick up. It takes forever for the story to pick up while Steve tries to adjust to the new time. Even once Cap is finally in Italy on Red Skull's trail, he and Sharon go through an extended procedural that serves almost no purpose, since they ultimately find Red Skull by following his daughter after she tries to kill them off. The draggy pace might have been somewhat forgivable with a few really strong action scenes, but they're sparse and unimpressive. This, to be fair, has more to do with the missing budget than the filmmakers. Cap does get a decent fight sequence in the dark remains of the former lab, though he straight murders the guy who starts to give him useful information as soon as he drops a sentence. The car chase that results from the attempt to kills Cap and Sharon is only really memorable for a moment where a car chases them down an alley, at the end of which two kids wait. Presumably, this is supposed to be a moment of suspense - can Cap save them in time?! - but the kids aren't unaware of the car about to run them down; they're just blatantly watching it! 

In the climax, Cap teams up with the President to punch Nazis side-by-side in what should be a gloriously rousing work of jingoism, but instead just makes the Pres as yet another character who would make a better hero in the film than Captain America. (at one point, the President escapes his jail cell by kicking down the door!) Still, the final fight with Red Skull, for all that it's a pretty dull slugfest, at least hints at the poetry Pyun is going for. Red Skull cries out, "Then come, my brother! Let us see if this heart of yours is stronger than my hate!" Red Skull's hate was powerful established in the opening scene, and he's been that sort of melodramatic character all through. Cap, however, has never really shown enough heart for that to hit.

I do like the random piano Red Skull has on one tower of his castle, though - his own personal Rosebud. He has a detonator that will blow up, like, all of Europe (naturally) which he hid in the piano (naturally). He declares, "We are both tragedies, and now I send our tortured souls to rest!" It's the kind of grand moment I want so desperately to love, and where Pyun's vision shines out for just a moment. But then Cap beats him by knocking him off a cliff which... stops the detonator somehow?

Captain America, with its 1940s nostalgia and gee-whiz sensibilities, largely fits in with the Bat Cycle, albeit one whose financial woes kneecap an already shaky story. One obvious difference is the music; following Batman's lead, most featured a rousing Danny Elfman or Elfman-esque theme. Captain America has no heroic anthem, only slow synths. This choice slaughters any chance the fights could have had to thrill or the character to somehow inspire in spite of the general incompetence. 

One of the few things the film does have going for it is Philip Alan Walker's cinematography. Pyun's films have always been visually striking, and this is not exception. At times, it makes Captain America almost feel like a real movie. But mostly, it just more clearly exposes it for what it is: an unfocused, misguided, dirt cheap fiasco. This is clearly not because the filmmakers didn't care. They poured their hearts and souls into making this in spite of a production nightmare, and finished in the face of impossible odds. It's a sincere, impassioned film, where everyone is trying so, so hard to make something special.

I suppose, in a way, they did.


Director: Albert Pyun
Producers: Joseph Calamari, Menahem Golan, Tom Karnowski, Stan Lee
Writers: Stephen Tolkin
Cast: Matt Salinger, Ronny Cox, Scott Paulin, Ned Beatty, Darren McGavin, Francesca Neri, Michael Nouri

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and language.

Budget: Supposedly $6 million (some sources say $10 million), but very little of that actually appeared onscreen.

Box Office: Virtually nil. It was never released in the United States theatrically, only managing a VHS and Laserdisc release in 1992. It had a small, unsuccessful release in Europe.