Marvel Movie Madness! Part 33: Captain America (1990)

The first attempt at a feature film adaptation falls flat.

by | July 22, 2011 | Comments

Enter Marvel Movie Madness, wherein Rotten Tomatoes watches all of the significant Marvel movies ever made. Full Marvel Movie Madness list here. Tune in! We give you our thoughts, and you give us yours.

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Part 33: Captain America (1990, 13% Tomatometer)

Directed by Albert Pyun, starring Matt Salinger, Kim Gillingham, Ronny Cox, Ned Beatty

Tim: Since the late 1990s, Marvel has become increasingly protective of its properties, which has been a good thing for movie audiences. The X-Men, Spider-Man, and Iron Man all got the big-screen treatment they deserved, resulting in an exemplary marriage between art and commerce — these were blockbusters with heart, smarts, thrills, and surprising depth. Aggressively guarding the brand can have its downsides — we’re probably less likely to see bold stylistic experimentation or deviation from formula in future Marvel flicks, especially after the hackles that greeted oddball entries like Ang Lee’s Hulk — but it also means that we can generally expect a certain level of quality control from here on out. If you aren’t minding the store, someone’s bound to make a second-rate hash of one of your most iconic characters, and that’s exactly what happened with 1990’s Captain America. Just about everything here seems cut-rate; this is the kind of movie where the villain (the Red Skull, in this case) can kidnap the president of the United States and plot world domination despite the fact that by all appearances he has about 20 henchmen. Unlike the 1940s serial, Captain America sticks closer to the comic books, but to what end? The action scenes are clunky, the geopolitical stuff is simplistic, and there’s no sense of awe or exhilaration, no sense that anything is at stake.

Once in a while, in spite of itself, Captain America hints at being something more. There are a couple goofy scenes in which Steve Rogers is baffled by the norms of the 1990s, but this stuff was handled with more aplomb in the first Austin Powers. And the movie’s most poignant scene — when Steve returns to the home of his teenage sweetheart, now elderly, but still in love with him — is so fleeting as to blunt any intriguing possibilities. Matt Salinger (fun fact: he’s J.D’s son!) has plenty of aw-shucks charm in the title role, and a couple of old pros (Ronny Cox, Ned Beatty) do their best in limited roles, but ultimately, the actors are overwhelmed by the hokey material. If some recent superhero movies have overdosed on self-seriousness, well, that’s a preferable approach to the cheapness on display here.

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Ryan: You are not wrong, sir; this movie is embarrassing in oh, so many ways, and I cannot recommend it to anyone looking for a semblance of quality filmmaking in a superhero story. That said, Captain America transcended its own putrescence just enough to land in “so bad, it’s good” territory for me. Not everyone is going to agree, but that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

You’ve touched on some of the “big picture” issues, but there are also several very basic things wrong with this movie. For one, there is absolutely no subtlety about anything here. During Steve Rogers’s procedure, an undercover German spy offers a handshake to Dr. Vaselli, only to shift the gesture abruptly and awkwardly into a Nazi salute, yell “Heil Hitler!” and bust a cap (ahem) in her gut instead… I LOLed. Then, there are the Ed Wood-ian mistakes, my favorite of which was when Steve Rogers and Sharon are supposed to be speeding downhill on a bicycle with no brakes, and the scene cuts to the pair literally running alongside the bike, rolling it off the edge of a cliff, and jumping after it.

Furthermore, between the corny dialogue (“God bless you, Captain America!”), the problematic plot elements (Red Skull strapped him to that rocket along with his shield?), and tension-free action (the bad guys fall behind in chases REALLY quickly, so much so that there’s always time for someone to reflect on something in the meantime), there is just no finesse evident in its creation. But I will say this: There is a website called Everything Is Terrible, and they condense bad movies into mere minutes of sheer hilarity; Captain America would be absolute comedy gold in that format.

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Jeff: I don’t want to pile on here, because unlike a lot of the big-budget misfires we’ve seen in this series, Captain America has a heart — even if it’s in the wrong place, upside down, and pumping pure hooey. I’d really love to know the story of how this movie was made, because at one point, it was supposed to come out in theaters here. Did someone put some actual money behind it, only to watch the final product and frantically pull the plug? Usually films this inept are supposed to be a tax write-off, but I kind of think somewhere along the line, the folks involved really wanted Captain America to be great, which I find fascinating. Also: Ned Beatty won an Emmy the year this was filmed and obviously wasn’t hurting for work. Why did he agree to this? Didn’t he read the script?

Anyway, yeah, this Captain has a lot of flaws, including the fact that it’s supposed to be an epic but was filmed with what looks like the budget from a company picnic. Cap’s transformation from regular soldier (who never looks all that frail, by the way) to super soldier is just a bunch of sparks and yelling, and I think Kim Gillingham used the Red Skull’s “reconstructed face” makeup during her scenes as Old Bernie. And the action sequences are brutal — poorly staged, some poorly lit, and tons of tight, whirling shots with corny sound effects. (My favorite part of the whole movie: when one of the villains yells “Get the jet — Captain America is in California,” and the scene immediately cuts to a shot of a plane flying past the camera and making the stock “zoom” noise.)

The main problem is that Captain America desperately wants to be huge — heck, the script makes the Red Skull responsible for the murders of JFK, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King — but it doesn’t have the budget to satisfy its scope, so you’re left with people running around deserted locations in Yugoslavia and a laugh-out-loud climax featuring a standoff on top of an oceanside fortress that has a conveniently located piano on the roof.

On the bright side, though — after this, the new Captain America can’t help but be awesome in comparison.

Editor’s Note: In an interview with Comic Book Resources’ James Gartler at Comic Con, Captain America director Albert Pyun said the film was hamstrung by budget problems and studio tampering. A director’s cut has been released on DVD that Pyun says is closer to his original vision. Check out the full interview here.


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