The intention of this column was to find the merits hidden within the most reviled comic book films ever made. Already my ever-so noble intentions are being put to the test. With the upcoming release of the latest iteration of Captain America on the big screen, I ventured to revisit the 1990 version of Captain America. Hoo-boy, what a doozy. This is a film with moments of competency but they’re merely fleeting. What makes this film especially painful is the total lack of unintentional humor.
In the mid-‘80s, Menahem Golan and his production company, Cannon, prolific purveyors ‘80s action schlock, acquired the film rights to Captain America and Spider-Man. After a string of flops Golan was ousted at Cannon and as part of his severance package was given the film rights to both properties. In the rush to cash in on these properties following the success of Tim Burton’s Batman, Golan rushed Captain America into production for his new company, 21st Century Film Corporation. Schlock-meister Albert Pyun, whose most famous works are the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Cyborg and Alien from L.A. starring Kathy Ireland, later to be riffed on MST3K, was tapped to direct. Posters appeared in theater lobbies promising that Captain America would be in theaters everywhere in the spring of 1990. Of course, 1990 came and went without Captain America appearing on the big screen. The producers ran out of money and never actually finished the film as intended. Using what footage was shot they crudely edited together and released the film on home video in 1992 – the film did receive a limited international release. Nothing is quite as shocking as reading that budget was approximately $10 million, little of which appears on screen.
Matt Salinger, son of the famous author and legendary recluse, J.D. Salinger, was handed the role of Steve Rogers/Captain America. To say he lacks in acting talent would be putting it kindly. Salinger’s acting deficiency is clearly presented in one scene with Ned Beatty. Beatty, a true pro, sells the hackneyed dialogue but he’s talking to a brick wall in Salinger. In what was likely a budgetary decision, Salinger plays the pre-serum Rogers with only a slight limp and clothes a size or two too big. Neither entirely scrawny nor crippled, Rogers is rather fleet of foot, one could say he skips in one extended sequence where he searches for his love.
As the film progress there’s none of the characteristics or idealism of classic Cap. He’s really kind of a dick. When Cap is thawed he’s chased by a group of The Red Skull’s henchmen with machine guns on motorcycles through a forest. In imminent danger he gets into the car of a reporter who also happens to be best friends with the president (Beatty). How does he pay back this Good Samaritan? He steals his car and leaves him stranded in the middle of nowhere. Of course, Cap repeats this successful sick-then-steal fake-out later on. Nice guy. After running out of gas and ditching the reporter’s stolen car on the side of the road, Cap breaks into the back of an 18-wheeler full of beer and dozes off all the way to California. When he’s reached his destination, instead of waiting for the truck to stop, he bails and leaves the doors swinging open on PCH, cases of Molson primed for the pavement. At another point, searching for the laboratory he was created in, he walks into a ladies restroom, destroys it, and then engages in a shootout underneath a crowded restaurant. As we all know personal property and public safety have long been the scourges of Captain America.
Dickish qualities aside, this version of Captain America is tragically incompetent. After his first foray into grand theft auto, assuming he’s entirely out of danger, Cap goes off to watch the History Channel with his lost love’s daughter. While the two are munching on popcorn and watching stock footage of Nazis, the Red Skull’s henchmen shoot the father of Cap’s movie date, kill the best friend of the president, who is also a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, and slaughter Cap’s lost love. Earlier, when Cap first trades fisticuffs with The Red Skull, he’s so quickly defeated one questions exactly how super this super solider is. But, in Cap’s defense, he was able to completely redirect a rocket he was strapped to by kicking it a few times – that’s pretty fucking super. During the film’s, for lack of a better term, climax, Cap often relies on the aid of the sexagenarian president (Ronny Cox) to dispatch baddies en route to his final showdown with the Not-So-Red Skull. And how does Cap defeat the treacherous Red Skull? He plays a tape.
For reasons unknown the filmmakers decided to make Captain America’s arch-nemesis, The Red Skull (Scott Paulin), Italian, not German, and, with the exception of one early scene, not red. Sometimes people get upset about changes to an established character in the adaptation to the screen. I’m not one. If it makes the film work so be it. However, the changes to The Red Skull are just baffling. Yes, there was fascism in Italy, but Mussolini’s regime isn’t as instantly recognizable as pure evil as Hitler’s. By making The Red Skull kidnapped as a child and forced to become an agent of evil make him somewhat sympathetic. Sure he’s evil, but it’s the fault of the fascists.
Between the Red Skull being the head of an Illuminati-like cabal responsible for the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the president’s goal to pass a vague environmental legislation that irks the Military Industrial Complex, one can assume that this was scripted by burned-out ‘60s liberals. The script by Steven Tolkin and Lawrence Block maintains a balance between the worst kind of conspiracy thinking and pie-in-the-sky idealism, all while being exceptionally bland. This new idealistic president’s plan involves forcing millions of people out of work to achieve his environmentalist goals. If everything else in this film wasn’t so stupid you’d almost think he was written as a kind of villainous government agent straight out of the work of Ayn Rand.
Of all the areas the film spectacularly fails none is more glaring than the editing. Early on, the camera, in its fleeting moment of competence, floats around the Rogers’ household – it’s not a good shot, only competent – and gently moves to a newspaper with a seven-word headline and then lingers long enough to provide the audience with a nice look at the silverware on display. Towards the end of the film the misconception that faster editing somehow makes the action better take precedent. Spatial relationships and continuity are thrown out the window as cuts last about a single frame. It’s disorienting. Michael Bay must love this movie.
I don’t think it’s possible to make a worse Captain America film. Running through the names of filmmakers whose work I despise, I doubt they could match this film’s blandness. Whether it’d be Adam Sandler or Tommy Wiseau as Captain America, at the very least, it would still be interesting. There are none of the backward charms of Roger Corman’s infamous Fantastic Four, no what-the-fuck moments followed with a burst of laughter. I can only recall one other instance of Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty appearing together and that film was Deliverance. That can’t be a coincidence. It’s an omen.
Up next: Steel (1997)