Review: Captain America (1990)


After not one trip, but two through Captain America’s motion picture memory insane, there’s one last live-action blotch on the property before Joe Johnston brings his to the big screen tomorrow. I’m writing, of course, of the 1990 Captain America that, to its credit, is closer to an actual movie than the sort of birthday entertainment curiously budgeted in the 70’s. However, just as those films debuted a year after Superman, this Captain America was released one year after Batman. With The Avengers right around the corner, I can only say “My, how the tables have turned.”

As the story goes, Menahem Golan (two Hebrew letters shy of “Comforting Robot”) was to lose his option on the Captain America motion picture unless he actually made a Captain America motion picture. Today all you have to do is give an interview while wearing the costume, but that legal loophole hadn’t been discovered yet, on account of Warren Beatty having better things to do with his time.

Albert Pyun and the son of Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger put together the 1990 Captain America with no turning back. As if this were some sort of masterpiece marred by time constraints, a half-hour longer director’s cut was released last week, more than two decades removed. I have no intention of buying something that is only sold by entering the correct amount into Albert Pyun’s Paypal account. He’s selling his director’s commentary, which comes with the movie as a “bonus feature” to avoid legal trouble, but I’d rather dust off an old VHS.

A number of things in this film are pretty close to the proper Cap stories. The Red Skull is Italian, that’s definitely not right, but people with knowledge of the books will be thankful for what makes the cut, especially given that the 1979 movies and 1940’s serial never even made the attempt.

Importantly, the super soldier project is a response to the serum that created the Red Skull and I’m always thankful for that piece of lore even when you get the identity of the Skull completely wrong. Why is that important? Because when treated as a metaphor it points out, intentionally or not, that America’s moral superiority is almost entirely built upon one moment in time when we shut down the biggest hate vomit propaganda nation in all of human history. If 1930’s Germany had nipped its economic downturn in the bud earlier we might have been globally defined, instead, by our next big war (sorry, “conflict”).

A fully grown man with polio (shameless reference to Franklin Roosevelt) surpasses six hundred volunteers and becomes our symbol for hope. Rather than send normal troops in to stop the Red Skull from launching a rocket at the White House, the U.S. sends their severely injured super soldier, who was shot in the same scenario depicted in the comics, by a Nazi spy who curiously decides to wait until after he’s turned into Captain America to begin the attack.

Cap charges in and is able to redirect the missile to icy Alaska, where he’s frozen for decades on account of his being then strapped to it. Before this is a well shot, well choreographed showdown with Red Skull, who will spend the rest of the movie with strange facial reconstruction but for this scene has a phenomenal makeup job. This is kind of like The Thing in Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four. It does more service for the box art than the movie, since everything else is hurt by a something that sets the bar too high.

Once unfrozen, Steve goes on sort of a European travel adventure with the daughter of his former flame. It has more in common with Gotcha! than Marvel Comics, with most of it spent running from 80’s fashion and displaying no more aptitude than any trained soldier.

The girl’s name is Sharon, which is a nice nod to the comics. As mentioned she’s a daughter rather than a younger sister of “Bernie,” who was also one of Steve’s girlfriends but not the one depicted here. They team up to save the President of the United States, played well by Ronny Cox (Robocop, Total Recall) as a well-accomplished fanboy who never grew out of his childhood hero. He might even have powers too, seeing as he calls Sharon “Karen” despite never having met her. That’s closer than anything John Edwards ever drummed up (the psychic, not the presidential candidate).

The film indicates that its creative team knew the source material but chose to mess with it. Steve’s must-fight attitude is drawn from his brother’s death at Pearl Harbor, the Red Skull has a daughter killing for attention, and a primary dynamic is Captain America’s difficulty viewing the changed world through uninitiated eyes. It even brings this on with a passable emotional center. We get to see his goodbye to his mother, his misplaced sense of guilt, and it’s done to well selected tunes and a barely audible soundtrack similar to the Final Fantasy games, or the well known pieces they tweaked. The Director’s Cut reinserts half an hour of character building, which the studio carved out of their own accord, so I do hope to watch it someday.

It’s still broken. Matt Salinger’s Rogers is a pretty nasally, unendearing type. It’s so difficult for him to sell that Steve Rogers persona that I miss Red Brown’s natural fit from 1979, even though it was wrapped in a worse pair of movies. Further, and just as important, nothing in this movie makes a lick of sense. Pyun cut together some decent work, but that doesn’t change the fact that characters know things they couldn’t possibly, including names, appearances, and locations of people they’ve never met. Some turn up in places they couldn’t be and do things in direct conflict with their goals. The President makes a phone call without a phone and uses disinfectant as corrosive acid. He also runs IN FRONT of Captain America, who’s in possession of a BULLETPROOF SHIELD.

Put this one back on ice. Even as a kid, the professional drawing of comicbook Cap under the end credits was more interesting to watch than the hour and a half before it. I remember that clearly. I guess the modern equivalent would be the Silent Hill music at the end of its own live action adaptation. It only serves as a reminder of squandered potential.

BONUS: On the off chance that somebody followed me to the end of this week’s three part journey through the history of deplorable Captain America flicks, that person deserves a 40’s vintage screencap of the very first live action Captain America from a 1944 serial. Thanks for reading!