With CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR only days away, it’s easy to forget that Captain America didn’t always mean cinematic quality.
Cap was in movie theatres as early as 1944, thanks to the 15-episode Republic Saturday-morning serial CAPTAIN AMERICA. Starring Dick Purcell, the serial pitted a shieldless Captain America (who was really crusading D.A. Grant Gardner) against the villainy of the Scarab, who was plotting to destroy the city with a sound-vibration device.
Pretty routine Republic cliffhanger stuff here. Nothing terrible, but certainly not up to the standards of Republic’s earlier effort, the outstanding ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL. The Republic CAPTAIN AMERICA is available on video if you look hard enough, but it’s really only for the hardcore fan.
Captain America first hit the small screen in 1966, in the often-discussed-here MARVEL SUPER HEROES cartoon series from Grantray-Lawrence, which featured barely animated cutouts taken directly from the original Marvel comics.
Of all these cartoons, Cap’s theme song seems to have stuck with viewers the most:
When Captain America throws his mighty shield,
All those who chose to oppose his shield must yield…
And so on.
Following the 1977 television success of THE INCREDIBLE HULK, CBS was hoping to strike gold again, and quickly churned out the pilot TV-movie CAPTAIN AMERICA in 1978. Starring the mannequin-like Reb Brown, the TV-movie was, to say the least, less than satisfying. Cap’s redesigned costume looked absolutely hideous (he was given his traditional outfit in the movie’s closing moments) and his transparent shield, which doubled as the windshield of his motorcycle, was a neat idea that looked awful silly in practice.
The ratings were good enough to warrant a second TV-movie, CAPTAIN AMERICA II: DEATH TOO SOON. The second telefilm involved a plot to infect America with an aging drug, and featured a clearly slumming Christopher Lee as its villain. These movies are memorable mostly for the scenes of Cap on his motorcycle blasting out of the back of his cool 1970s-style Chevy van, and I suspect that’s where most of the budget went.
As bad as those movies were, they were still low-budget TV-movies, so you can’t really expect too much. The 1991 CAPTAIN AMERICA film, however, has no such excuse.
Directed by Albert Pyun from an atrocious script by Stephen Tolkin, the film is awful in every category. I remember reading interviews with Pyun and Tolkin at the time in which they profess their total lack of interest in the history of the character, and boast of having never read a CAPTAIN AMERICA comic. Believe me, fellas, it shows. Their disinterest in the character is apparent: Captain America is in costume for maybe 25 minutes out of the entire excruciating 2-hours-plus running time. Pyun, who had previously directed such gems as THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER and the abysmal Kathy Ireland vehicle ALIEN FROM L.A., can’t even get a good performance out of stalwart character actors Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox. Actor Matt Salinger, J.D.’s son, is stiff and uncharismatic, showing neither Steve Rogers’ all-American charm or Captain America’s gritty determination. I won’t even discuss Scott Paulin’s horrendous performance as the Red Skull; even through what looks like pounds of latex makeup, he’s dull and uninspired.
The real fault in this dog lies with screenwriter Stephen Tolkin. I hate to beat a long-dead horse, but let’s go over some of the most egregious moments in this root canal of a movie. First off, the Red Skull, the Nazi terror? He’s Italian now, for some reason, and given an awful “feel-my-pain” childhood trauma origin story. Always a good idea to make your ultimate bad guy sympathetic. When Captain America (with truly awful-looking rubber ears sticking out of his headpiece, by the way) is sent off on his first mission, to stop a Nazi rocket headed for America, he just throws his shield at things, and they blow up — cars, trucks, buildings, it doesn’t matter –- KA-BOOM!, then right back to his hand. Okay, whatever.
Things get truly stupid once Cap confronts the Red Skull. Cap throws his shield at the Skull with even more velocity than when he was demolishing buildings with it, and the Skull casually catches it in one hand, uttering some sort of sound not unlike one would make getting a deep tissue massage: “Aaaaaaahh.” It’s freaky, I tell you. After Cap gets swiftly beaten in hand-to-hand combat by the Skull and strapped to the rocket, the wily Cap lures Skull close and grips him by the wrist, threatening to take the Skull along for the ride. What does the Skull do? Does he stab Cap or punch him to shake his hand loose? No, no. The Skull cuts off his own hand. Things just get dopier from there, including the worst montage sequence ever to portray Cap’s years in hibernation, a horrific power rock ballad to accompany Steve Rogers’ journey home, and more coincidences than in a whole season of THREE’S COMPANY. Even the Red Skull’s hot Italian daughter and her band of motorcycle assassins can’t make this interesting. This movie should be avoided like the flesh-eating virus.