Marvel In The 90's: CAPTAIN AMERICA
In 1989, Batman broke box office records and Marvel attempted to ride that popularity with the release of their next film venture, Captain America, but to no avail. While the film was promoted during the build-up to Batman, it never made it to the screen, instead going straight-to-video in 1992, two years after it was completed.
Looking back, it's really no surprise. The film had a minuscule budget, a largely untested cast in the lead roles, and a script that, while it had good bones, was weak. There's no way that this film could compete in the mainstream. In fact, just a simple list of the bad decisions and quality problems is enough for most people to simply dismiss this film as one of the worst superhero films ever made.
Which is sad, and a mistake.
Don't get me wrong. This isn't a very good film. But it's not a complete failure and actually has a very strong core that is only let down by the quality of the script and the acting (I have yet to see the recent Director's Cut, so perhaps some of these issues were addressed there). I know, that could be said of every bad movie, but this one had promise. And for the first thirty minutes or so, it lives up to that promise for the most part.
The film was written by Stephen Tolkin, based on a story idea developed by him and Lawrence Block. The director, Albert Pyun, wrote and directed one of my childhood favorites, The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982), along with directing Cyborg (1989) and Dollman (1991) back in the day.
As for the casting, the main roles of Captain America and Sharon, went to the largely untried talents of Matt Salinger (J.D. Salinger's son) and Kim Gillingham. Neither actor had really done a lot of feature work in film and Gillingham does the stronger work of the two, playing both Cap's 1940s sweetheart, Bernie, and her modern day daughter, Sharon (not to mention the modern Bernie under a pound of old-age make-up).
Salinger's performance is a completely different approach to the character than the previous Captain America, Reb Brown. But to be honest, a large part of this distinction lies with the script, or at least with the plotting choices. The previous version of Cap was, after all, an ex-soldier/beach bum traveling around in his van with his cat.
Where the previous incarnation of Cap was a modern-day updating of the concept and made specifically for TV, this 1990 version attempted to stay true to the comic, making Cap a WWII hero who was frozen in ice and reawakened in the modern world. As such, Salinger has more to work with character-wise and should be able to create a more layered character.
In actuality, however, all of the supporting characters define themselves against him and use him to inspire development and change. But Captain America himself is played like a blank. He only has a few expressions of emotion throughout the film, and Salinger doesn't really do a great job with any of them.
The plot, as I mentioned, isn't bad. The execution leaves something to be desired, but it's nothing that more money and a few touch-ups by a script doctor couldn't have fixed. The film actually opens in 1936 as Italian soldiers bust into a home and kidnap a young boy. He's being taken for his "superior intelligence" and, in a particularly nasty moment, he's forced to watch as soldiers gun down his entire family.
He is then taken to Fortress Lorenzo, where he is used as a guinea pig in an Italian Super Soldier experiment. The scientist responsible for this is Doctor Maria Vaselli (Carla Cassola) and when the boy is brought out, she protests and is almost murdered, but escapes. Seven years later, in America, she is the head of Project Rebirth and has ironed out the kinks that caused all that horrible physical mutation.
Young, polio-stricken Steve Rogers is the first volunteer for the Super Soldier experiment and in a fairly horrifying and nicely done transformation sequence involving lots of screaming and showers of sparks, goes from skinny kid to super hero. There are slight changes from the comic source material, but nothing that fundamentally alters anything.
As expected, a Nazi spy assassinates Dr. Vaselli just after the experiment is completed, and she takes the secrets of Project Rebirth with her to the grave. Steve takes a couple of bullets as he kills the assassin, but is back on his feet shortly thereafter to go on his first mission: stopping the Red Skull from launching an experimental rocket at Washington D.C.
The Red Skull is, of course, the little boy Dr. Vaselli left behind seven years earlier. It was an interesting thematic choice to open with the origin of the Red Skull and to tie his and Captain America's origins together so closely.
Granted, the budget limitations keep this opening portion of the film from working completely, but it has a lot of heart and hits the right emotional chords leading up to the transition to the modern-day storyline. They do as much as they can with their little money, creating a believable 1943 and fairly impressive science fiction tech.
I don't know why they decided to make The Red Skull Italian, but it's not a sticking point, as Scott Paulin brings a bravura performance to the mix. And while most of the dialogue is weak and awkward, there are moments, particularly with The Red Skull's monologues, where the script rises to the occasion. The Skull's constant referring to Cap as his "Little Brother" rubs Cap the wrong way in exactly the way it should, and Paulin plays this part with a mix of weariness and megalomania that adds a lot to the character. He's not just a raving psychopath. He's evil, for sure, but he's a little more complex than just that.
I feel I must address the most commonly leveled critique of this film: Captain America has rubber ears.
The rubber Captain America suit originally had holes cut for his ears, just like in the comics, but in actual daily use, they were uncomfortable and caused chaffing. So they went with fake ears. And once you know that, it's hard not to keep looking at them. But to be honest, they aren't badly done. If you can forget about the fact that they're rubber, you can hardly notice them most of the time. I have to say that I come down firmly in the "The Rubber Ears Didn't Bother Me" camp on this one.
All in all, it's a film with an enjoyable opening act, a very weak middle, and then an emotionally satisfying conclusion that, while it could be better, works for what it is. It just seems like there wasn't enough money to really bring this to life, instead the whole films looks like another Made-for-TV film. With only a few more passes and a few more bucks, this would be a very different movie. Unfortunately, that lack of investment is a condition that we see again in the next Marvel film that goes into production: The Fantastic Four.