Matt Salinger as Captain America
After the 1989 Batman movie by Tim Burton and Sam Hamm, wheels began to turn in the heads of Hollywood. Whereas before it was regarded as a fool’s errand, studio execs started to see that there was money to be had in adapting these funny books into big budget films. Rumors began to circulate about an adaptation of X-Men, then James Cameron was rumored to be hard at work on Spider-Man… and of course Captain America. The Punisher had already been released only to crush the dreams of many a Marvel Zombie with its lackluster adaptation of the street vigilante Frank Castle. Comic fans were rabid for many things but a feature film version of Captain America was not amongst them. As the release date neared there was hauntingly little information for anyone to get excited about.
I recall attending a comic con where Kevin Maguire (who was the artist of the celebratory 50th Anniversary Captain America comic yet to be released at the time) admitted to having seen the movie and was less than impressed. Keep in mind that while nothing much had been said about the movie, there were posters all over Boston telling me that the Captain America movie was on the way. Maguire begrudgingly stated that if they treated it as a tongue-in-cheek affair, it just might work… but then felt he had said too much and clammed up. I was not happy.
This should have been a big deal on the level of Spider-Man still many years away, yet it was shrouded in mystery and eventually released straight to video after several release dates failed to culminate in any appearance from the star-spangled starlet.
So, what was the deal?
After finally seeing it, I can now safely fill in the blanks. The script actually has its heart in the right place, but suffers mainly from a lack of faith in the comic book super hero medium. Starting in World War II era Italy, we see a young boy torn from his home by fascists and transformed into a monster called the Red Skull, a kind of twisted and disfigured super soldier of evil. After escaping Italy in horror of her actions, Dr. Maria Vaselli somehow escapes to America where she tries to atone for her sins by making an opposite to the monster she had a hand in forming. The Super Soldier program results in producing a single soldier before is killed by a Nazi assassin and dies along with her secrets and formula.
The film painstakingly tells the origin story of Steve Rogers, a ‘weak polio-ridden boy’ transformed into a powerful super soldier, determined to win the war against the Nazis. The level of detail that the filmmakers go to is rather admirable in the first thirty minutes, then I found myself checking my wristwatch. This was all back story, where was the Captain America movie? When we finally get Captain America in all his glory, he is the secret weapon dropped behind enemy lines to stop the launching of an ICBM aimed at the White House. Rogers debuts as the brilliantly colored Captain America and is humbled by the Red Skull in their first encounter. After declaring them ‘brothers,’ the Red Skull defeats Cap and straps him to the very rocket that will destroy the seat of Western power. Captain America manages to take the Red Skull’s hand with him and somehow divert the path of the rocket so that it misses the White House and instead crashes in the arctic. During his brief journey he is glimpses by a young boy who captures an image on his camera. He shares it with his good buddy Sam who is obsessed with comic books and they agree that they have come close to something fantastic and wonderful that no one else would ever believe.
Years later, the young boy has become President of the US and his buddy a conspiracy obsesses reporter. As the leader of the free world, President Kimball (played by the evil Ronnie Cox of Robocop fame) is perhaps the most violently left-leaning politician to ever achieve such a position. He has made enemies of big business and the military alike. In particular, General Fleming sees him as a problem that must be dealt with permanently, so he meets with the Red Skull with whom he and several other world leaders have sculpted the modern political world into what it is. We learn that the assassinations of Robert and John Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were all the work of the Red Skull, collaborating with a shadowy and sinister cabal of evil leaders of men. Rather than kill the President, the Red Skull instead abducts him with plans to turn him to their plans. After all, the previous assassinations resulted in creating martyrs rather than stifling the troublesome voices of progress.
While the bad guys plot, Captain America is discovered frozen in a block of ice. Defrosted, he finds his way to Canada. Making the papers thanks to yet another quickly taken photograph, the President discovers that the mystery man he caught on film is actually real. Discovering that his old foe has returned, the Red Skull becomes obsessed with Captain America’s destruction and sends his best young hot killers to get the job done. President Kimball calls Sam (played by actor Ned Beatty of Superman and Deliverance) who rushes to intercept Rogers who comes under attack from a pair of sexy Italian motorcycling assassins.
After an awkward action sequence, he is taken in by Sam who tries to bring Cap up to speed and find out what the star-spangled patriot knows about the Red Skull (whom Sam is convinced lies at the center of ALL the worlds problems… and he’s right). Noticing that all of the objects in Sam’s possession are of German or Japanese creation, he rejects anything that he has been told and becomes convinced that Sam is a spy for the Axis Powers. Taking control of Sam’s truck, he tries to find his hometown and get back in touch with his teenage love, Bernie.
After finding Bernie and her daughter, Rogers rents some old videos and finds out that everything Sam had been telling him is true. He has pulled a ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and woken up in his own future. But it’s all too late and Sam and Bernie pay the price at the hands of the Red Skull’s crew. At this point Rogers is feeling rather useless and the only reason that the world is such a mess (although we really don’t see it depicted as all that bad). After unraveling a few clues and taking a long tour of Italy, he and Bernie’s daughter track down where the Red Skull has been keeping the President. A violent confrontation ensues and Captain America subdues the Red Skull then beheads his number one chick assassin with his shield. Ouch.
On the whole, the movie has its heart in the right place. It captures the character of Captain America rather well. However, there are vast portions of film where nothing of note happens aside from incidental ‘all American’ music piping through as we watch Steve Rogers revisit his old haunts or just go site-seeing in Italy with his old girlfriend’s daughter. I have to ask, what was the obsession with Italy in the first place? It almost seems that the film is saying that it was the home of the Nazi empire rather than Germany. It does look very beautiful and it is shot very well, but… it’s just odd is all. Someone, somewhere, made the call that if you are going to film a Captain America movie, it has to showcase Italy.
The lack of any real similarities to the comic book are rather jarring. Aside from the two confrontations with the Red Skull, we don’t really see Steve Rogers in uniform throughout the movie. After actually seeing him in costume, I understand why, but still it is a glaring problem and hints at the underlying flaw in the whole affair, a lack of faith in what it was doing. Also, why was the Red Skull Italian rather than German? If it was to avoid offending Germans it must have been a real knee to the groin for Italians as it is the broadest stereotype of an entire nationality I have ever seen since Mario and Luigi searched for coins in the sewer.
I have to remember that the comic book superhero genre was still very much in its infancy in 1990. Despite the success of the 1989 Batman movie, there was still some confusion as to what made that movie work. It was evident that changes were made to the Batman comic book mythology by Tim Burton, but how far could one go? This was also long before the advent of CGi and the interest of big studios in creating this kind of movie. As such, the filmmakers of Captain America looked to the heart of the character and what made him tick for inspiration, which is admirable. For instance, the world that Steve Rogers came from is depicted very clearly, thus hammering home the ‘man out of time’ angle very well. Today, if pressed, the filmmakers would just turn to more CGi nonsense and bigger explosions in the event that they ran out of ideas of what to do. However, the 1990 movie still misses the forest for the trees as the it becomes so interested in telling the human story of Steve Rogers that it forgets that it is a comic book movie. The plot involving Red Skull as a master supervillain behind nearly every bad thing that has ever happened is rather simplistic. Almost as simplistic as the one guy who came into contact with Captain America as a young boy growing up to be some kind of super-liberal President. The pacing is also dreadfully slow and the incidental music embarrassing at best.
I have refrained from talking about actor Matt Salinger’s performance. While at moments he captures the innocence and dignity of Steve Rogers/Captain America, in other scenes he is just dreadful. It’s very unclear to me if this is more of a problem in direction that acting, to be honest. It may also have a lot to do with the muddled nature of the script. For much of the movie, our hero is just a befuddled mess trying to figure out where he is and what to do, after all.
While it wasn’t as bad as I was thinking it would be, the 1990 Captain America is a necessary artifact that director Joe Johnston should be aware of as he makes his way toward filming his own Captain America film. We must, after all, learn from our mistakes or we are doomed to repeat them.