ComicsAlliance Reviews the ‘Captain America’ Movie… From 1990
Yesterday, the trailer for Captain America: The First Avenger hit the Internet, but along with it came another piece of Cap movie news that I don’t think anyone ever expected. Before The First Avenger hits theaters this summer, Disney’s going to release a Director’s Cut Blu-Ray edition of the Captain America movie from 1990.
Considering that this is the same company that decided not to re-release the original Tron during the promotion for its 2010 sequel, this seems like nothing so much as a bewildering attempt to guarantee that grandchildren everywhere have yet another disappointing Christmas. What’s interesting, though, is that while there’s certainly never been a Director’s Cut — and as far as I know, there’s never actually been a desire for one — 1990’s Captain America is already widely available. You can buy it on iTunes for ten bucks.
And as part of ComicsAlliance’s dedication to bringing you the most thorough coverage of comics culture, that’s exactly what we’ve done. And of course, I was the one who had to actually watch it.All right, first things first: Despite the fact that they’re often lumped in together on the same bootleg DVD at shadier comic book conventions everywhere, 1990’s Captain America is not to be confused with the 1979 TV movie of the same name that starred Reb Brown and a dirtbike picked up at Evel Knievel’s yard sale:
The 1990 version was directed by Albert Pyun and stars Matt Salinger, who I am contractually obligated as a reviewer of Captain America to point out is the son of Catcher In the Rye novelist J.D. Salinger. While we’re on the subject of irrelevant personal history for Salinger, though, I’d like to point out that he also has a son named Gannon, which means that there’s a good chance that he’s a big fan of The Legend of Zelda, Dragnet or both.
What I’m getting at here is that I like this dude already.
As for the movie itself, it was originally planned for release in 1990 to coincide with the character’s 50th anniversary, but was pushed back for two years, finally coming out straight to VHS. There was also a limited international release that, according to the IMDB, took in slightly over $10,000, which means that if they sell five copies, the Blu-Ray’s going to be considered a success pretty much by default.
Instead of the familiar story of sickly young Steve Rogers, the movie opens on Italy in 1936 so that we can get the origin of The Red Skull, who for our purposes is now Italian because hell, why not?
In the first five minutes of a movie that’s ostensibly made for children, a gang of stormtroopers kick in the front door of an unnamed child, to explain that they’re taking him due to his “superior intelligence,” gun down his entire family, then drag him off to a castle so that they can melt the skin off of his face to make Hitler a super-soldier. Now, far be it from me to criticize the Nazis’ master plan here, but THIS IS A TERRIBLE IDEA. Killing a kid’s parents in front of them and then subjecting them to a painful procedure that makes them super-strong and super-smart? Gentlemen, you have just created SUPER-BATMAN. There is no way that doesn’t come back to bite you in the ass later.
Unless, of course, you’re living in the completely illogical world of Captain America, in which case the only consequence is that the scientist running the project suddenly has a change of heart. Apparently she did not realize that her procedure for making super-soldiers was going to be used on people (or at least kids), and so she protests before being dragged out of the room by a couple of literal jackbooted thugs.
It’s never really explained why they don’t, you know, shoot her, nor is it explained why they only make one Red Skull instead of an army, since there are a ton of other scientists involved in the operation that seem to be getting along just fine without her. Maybe they couldn’t find someone with the necessary piano skills. Either way, the scientist manages to defect pretty easily to the United States where she succeeds in improving her formula so that it doesn’t melt your skin off, and we’re introduced to Our Hero: Steve Rogers.
That’s a picture from later in the movie, but trust me on this one: It doesn’t really matter. Special effects circa 1990 certainly weren’t as cheap as they are now, and it’s doubtful that the movie’s shoestring budget — Pyun mentioned in interviews that there were days where they filmed despite not having any money at all in bank — could’ve afforded something on the level of, say, Terminator 2 (1991) even if they were. But that said, there is almost no attempt whatsoever to make Steve Rogers look any different before the Super Soldier treatment than he does after. There’s one mention in passing that he has polio, but other than that, Salinger just sort of limps around. This does not stop him from running.
It’s called acting, folks. And unfortunately, it’s not this movie’s strong point.
Anyway, Steve bids goodbye to his girlfriend Bernie Stewart — named for the comics’ Bernie Rosenthal — and heads to a secret laboratory underneath a diner so that a bunch of dudes with hilarious Magnum P.I. moustaches can watch him become a super-soldier. It’s during this scene that one of them makes a huge deal about introducing a “Senator Kirby,” and while I’d hoped that this was the setup for a cameo by Cap’s legendary co-creator — which I imagine was the intent when it was scripted — the guy who steps forward to shake Cap’s hand is not Jack Kirby.
However, the IMDB informs me that the King of Comics did appear as a police sketch artist on an episode of The Incredible Hulk, and also made a cameo on, of all things, Starsky & Hutch. And seriously? Forget Captain America, now I just want to see Jack Kirby’s Starsky & Hutch. Dear God, his version of the Gran Torino alone would be the most amazing thing ever put on television.
While I was imagining how amazing Kirby’s Huggy Bear would be, Captain America was having an origin story: He gets Super Soldiered, a Nazi spy assassinates the scientist, and Cap punches him into a machine that makes electrical death. Thus, with the origin story checkboxes successfully ticked off, he heads out to take down the Red Skull’s secret base: Fortress Lorenzo! Will he be able to stop the Red Skull from rollin’ in a Benzo?
Well… no, actually. He can’t.
Cap manages to screw up immediately by wandering into a spotlight while forgetting that he’s carrying a giant reflective piece of plastic metal. Fortunately, he’s able to recover by going with the always-solid plan of beating the living hell out of Nazis and throwing his shield at models of guard towers that then topple over in stop-motion animation.
When he meets the Red Skull, however, things go downhill fast. And I mean that in every way possible.
The Skull is played by Scott Paulin, who is able to use the power of acting to convey that the Skull is Italian by giving him an accent that’s somewhere between Father Guido Sarducci and Ricardo Montalban. And I have to admit, that part’s actually pretty awesome.
The rest of the scene, however, leaves something to be desired. Cap and the Skull play frisbee with the shield for a little bit, and then the Skull beats him up and, in true Red Skullian fashion, ties him to a rocket aimed at the White House.
While delivering his gloating monologue that is almost but not quite about the merits of rich Corinthian leather, the Red Skull falls for the old “come closer, I have something to tell you” trick, and Captain America — who is strapped to the rocket with his arms pinned to his sides — grabs him by the hand and threatens to drag him with him unless the launch is called off. So the Red Skull pulls out a knife, and we get what is probably the most definitive moment of this entire movie.
The Red Skull doesn’t stab Captain America to get him to let go, nor does he even saw through Cap’s wrist to free himself. HE CUTS OFF HIS OWN HAND IN ONE SWIPE.
That’s right, y’all: He straight up KGBeasted it.
I also feel that it’s important to point out that this is never addressed again. There are a couple of shots of the Red Skull’s arm later in the movie that are meant to give the idea that he’s wearing a prosthetic, but he doesn’t seem to have any problem actually using the hand he doesn’t have. Hell, in the final scene, he’s firing a machine gun one-handed with it.
As for Cap, he makes it from Fortress Lorenzo, Italy to Washington DC in the span of about thirty seconds (it is, incidentally, the middle of the night in both places), but manages to kick the rocket hard enough that it winds up in Alaska where he can be frozen for the next 50 years, which… man. that’s a hell of a kick. The only witness to the whole thing is one kid who snaps a blurry picture of Captain America.
That kid grows up to be Hollywood Actor Ronny Cox, who successfully runs for president in what I assume is a campaign based on his success cleaning up crime in Old Detroit as an executive at OCP. His first act as president is to introduce an environmental protection act, which leads him into conflict with Darren McGavin, who was promoted to general after years of intense furnace fighting.
General Darren McGavin doesn’t want to go along with the bill for no other apparent reason than that he’s a total dick, so he decides to get the Red Skull to deal with President Ronny Cox.
Yes, not only has the Red Skull been around for the entire fifty years that Cap’s been frozen, but he’s also in the business of high profile assassinations, and is portrayed in the movie as being behind the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., a string of accomplishments that have allowed him to afford reconstructive surgery to make his head slightly less gross:
With President Ronny Cox, however, the Tan And Lumpy Skull decides that an assassination would only make yet another martyr, so he concocts an even more sinister plan that he doesn’t bother to tell anyone about for another hour of screen time.
Fortunately for the forces of good, it’s about this time that a bunch of scientists find Captain America in the ice and thaw him out, which causes him to sit up, look around, and decide walk the entire length of Canada’s western coastline. There’s also an extended dirtbike chase, and while I think the record will show that I am devoutly pro-dirtbike, maybe don’t put the better half of a forest between your camera and the action. Just a thought.
One of the scientists snaps a picture that gets back to President Ronny Cox, who recognizes him from the blurry picture he took fifty years before. He sends his childhood friend Ned Beatty — who, having grown tired of playing second fiddle to Lex Luthor, has become a reporter — to verify the story, and it leads to what’s probably the movie’s best moment.
Cap not only refuses to believe that he’s been on ice for five decades, he thinks the whole thing is a setup concocted by Nazi spies, and when he notices that he’s riding in a Volkswagen with a guy using a tape recorder with a massive “Made in Japan” label, he flips out, steals a car, and escapes by nestling in with 40 cases of Canadian beer.
Eventually, he makes his way back to his home in California, and while that’s a relatively minor change from the comics, where Cap’s a native of Brooklyn, the fact that it is so minor makes me wonder why they went with it. Did they think that having Cap hobo his way from Alaska to New York was so unbelievable that they had to cut his trip down?
Regardless, he makes his way to his old neighborhood and finds that while she waited for him for years, his old girlfriend eventually got married and had a daughter. And if this all sounds familiar, it’s because Mark Millar would write essentially this into The Ultimates ten years later. Yeah, that’s right. This is where it comes from.
The twist in the movie, though, is that Bernie has a daughter, Sharon (named for the comics’ Sharon Carter), who is played by the same actress with a different haircut, thus giving Cap a slightly creepy continuity of love interest. Unfortunately, once the newer model has been established as our female lead, there’s no need to keep Bernie around, and she’s promptly murdered by the Red Skull’s goons.
Now, I’m no expert on what makes a movie successful, but I have to think that making a PG-13 super-hero action movie called “Captain America” where an elderly woman is tortured to death — even if it happens offscreen — probably didn’t help.
Bernie leaves her comatose father in the hospital to be healed by the power of Wheel of Fortune (really) and vows to get her revenge by helping Cap track down the Skull, who has just kidnapped Presiden Ronny Cox. And in defiance of all logic, they decide that since they have no idea where he is, they should find out more about his past and his family.
This makes absolutely no sense for a number of reasons, but chief among them is the fact that nobody seems to know where the Skull is. He’s at Fortress Lorenzo, which is where he seems to have been since 1936, and everyone in the entire movie should know this. The United States Government certainly knew that’s where he was when they sent Captain America there in 1943, and while they might’ve forgotten in the intervening years, that was last week as far as Cap’s concerned. At the very least, that would seem to be a good place to start looking for clues rather than just wandering around Italy hoping to run into assassins.
Which of course is exactly what they do.
Eventually, the Tan And Lumpy Skull reveals his sinister master plan in terms so vague and unconnected that I’m only halfway sure I’ve got it right: He’s going to take over President Ronny Cox’s body, thus becoming the fourth most evil president in American history.
Fortunately, Captain America shows up for the rescue, and I have to admit that at this point, it suddenly becomes exactly the kind of Captain America movie I’d like to see, with Captain America and the President teaming up to punch out Nazis. Unfortunately, this is also where things go completely insane, as the Skull threatens to blow up Europe with his nuclear piano.
I’m not kidding.
Even crazier, Cap decides that the best course of action is to play a tape recording of the Skull’s family getting murdered and then shove him off a cliff. Then it freeze frames, because really, how in the hell do you follow that?
Answer: With a slow fade to a piece of John Byrne artwork that advises viewers to support the Environmental Protection Act of 1990.
Just a reminder, it was actually released in 1992.
And believe me, I could go on. The visible boom mics in the Oval Office, the President calling Sharon by her name even though they’ve never met before, the fact that Darren McGavin only remembers to use his hilarious “how we gonna kill that sumbitch?” southern accent about half the time. The thing that really sticks out, though, is how amazingly bad every single person in this movie is at their job. Cap screws up his first mission so badly that he ends up frozen for half a century, the Red Skull keeps nuclear weapons on a piano on a cliff, and even President Ronny Cox seems to spend most of his time lounging around the White House making personal calls to Ned Beatty.
And here’s the craziest part: Having watched this thing twice to write this review, I’m not only genuinely curious about what could possibly changed in a Director’s Cut that could make this thing make any sense at all, but it’s actually made me really skeptical about The First Avenger. I can’t think of any reason for the re-release other than that it would make pretty much anything else look better by comparison.
Unless… they haven’t given Chris Evans rubber ears too, have they?