INT. OLIVER VIDEO
Sometime in the early 90s, a chubby little boy with a mushroom haircut (10), with a Toy Biz action figure in one hand and a five dollar bill in the other, stands before the video rack. He is Josiah, he is awesome, but as we’ll come to learn, not the brightest.
MOM: (sweet, but firm) Hurry up, please!
Josiah can’t move. Slowly, with a trembling hand, he reaches for a VHS sleeve, itself sheeted in plastic. He doesn’t bother to grab the case, but the laminated tag, noting the movie’s title and shelf number. The title prominently displayed on the glorious VHS sleeve reads, Captain America.
My mind was blown when I discovered the Captain America film. I’d seen the 1970s TV movies, and even I felt disappointed in those, I mean, what’s the deal with that costume? That version does have a special place in my heart, dude, a van with a motorcycle in the back! As an adult I’m impressed, imagine me as a kid!
Enough of my personal, albeit fictionalized experience, here’s a bit of real background. The film was developed by the infamous Canon films and was erroneously promoted by saying Captain America was created by Stan Lee. Lee will take a whole lot of credit for creating a whole bunch of characters, but even he can’t take credit for a Jack Kirby & Joe Simon creation that occurred before he was even in the business. The script was called “bloody awful” by then President of Marvel Entertainment Jim Galton and included a draft co-written by Michael Winner the director of Death Wish (just looking for a connection to The Punisher). The rights were dragged through the mud along with Spider-Man (look up the insane history of the rights to that film) and was eventually made by Canon 2, aka 21st Century (which is totally supposed to make you think you’re watching some better version of 20th Century Fox, you’re not.)
The film opens in Italy, because why would a Captain America movie start anywhere else? We even get the Captain America logo over some Italian kids. These Italian kids are a useless transition device to show us a boy playing the piano. That boy is taken because he’s smart, his family is killed and spoiler alert, he’ll become the Red Skull. Yes, the Red Skull is Italian. Also, there’s a Red Skull rat.
7 years later and 5 minutes into the film, the first words of English are spoken as we learn of “Project Rebirth.” A process the create a super soldier that is specific to someone born with a birth defect and will make them as strong as an athlete. That’s it! Not a super athlete, just an athlete. Oh, well Captain America is about to show up, I’m sure it’ll get better.
Spoiler alert, it gets much worse.
Cut to, Redondo Beach, California where Steve Rogers is on vacation from New York. Only the first half of that sentence is true. Steve is from Redondo Beach. It bothers me because it’s clearly a choice made out of cheapness, filming in New York is expensive. Steve talks to his Mom, who is younger than him (I swear I thought was Kate Capshaw, but according to IMDB it’s not) and then goes to find his girl Bernie. They all seem pretty confident that Steve will die.
In one more super weird thing about this movie, Steve Rogers is played by Matt Salinger. The actual son of Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger. He has no talent, no charisma, isn’t in particularly good shape, certainly not “top-level athlete shape,” but I guess his family legacy will help sell this movie. And he smokes, Captain California smokes in this movie! Now, I get it, it’s 1943, different times, everybody smoked, but the movie was made in the late 80s.
In a lab hidden under a diner, actually, a cool scene when the kid from Lost in Space goes in and through the secret door (now, the Lost in Space kid, that’ll sell this movie!). Captain America is made Captain America by a female Italian doctor, another unnecessary change, but this one I actually like for some reason. After shots of muscles not getting any bigger and flashing lights, a Nazi that Lost in Space kid brought kills the doc and shoots Cap. Cap will get shot a lot in this movie. Cap kills the guy by knocking him down basically.
Before the first mission there’s a nice joke about the costume. Made by the doc, it’s fireproof and while she didn’t make it with camouflage in mind she sure did love the red, white, and blue. Cap attempts to sneak up on the super death rocket and is instantly discovered. Cap fights Red Skull, loses handily, and is strapped to the rocket. The rocket launches and Cap grabs Red Skull’s arm. Red Skull, who could have easily stabbed or cut off Cap’s hand, cuts off his own. As a kid, I thought it was awesome. I was a stupid kid.
As the rocket, which was shot from Germany is nearing the White House, Cap finally decides to redirect it. And he knew exactly where it was going, why he didn’t try to crash it right away? Because he’s from California. It then lands in Alaska and Cap freezes to death. Well, not to death, he’s a top-level athlete after all.
All told, that was about 25 minutes and as much as I was picking it apart. It works well. You get character and some action or attempts at action, the costume isn’t bad, at least it’s comic accurate (granted the plastic ears are awful, but really I didn’t notice them), and Red Skull looks cool by 1990 C-movie standards. However, there is still over an hour left, and that hour is a slog, so I’ll go through things way faster from here on out.
We meet two super annoying kids, one will become Ned Beatty and one President Ronny Cox. The adult versions of these fellas are the best things about this movie. We get some classic meta-Marvel references to the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch and then transition to the 90s through spinning newspapers as we learn the bullet points of American history. Cap thaws out and is constantly chased through the movie.
He eventually gets to Redondo Beach and Bernie’s moved on and is now wearing bad old-age makeup. Good news though, she’s murdered and has a hot young blonde 90s daughter who looks identical to Bernie from the 1940s. Her name is Sharon, which maybe I assume is a reference to Sharon Carter? Anyway, it’s not at all weird when they develop a thing for each other, granted the movie doesn’t really go into it beyond a hug at the end.
In LA, where some punks ask Cap for a cigarette (dude was smoking when he left!) Cap laments his lost years as the words to a song that’s a bit on the nose plays.
Cap and Sharon return to the dinner and in my favorite background detail, it’s next to a Del Taco. Earlier everyone says how she only had the info in her head, yet they go to the lab, open her top desk drawer and immediately find it. While Cap is killing Italians in the shadowy smokey lab saying, “that was for Bernie,” the president is kidnapped. The news tells us that 30 people stormed his hotel. Now that sounds awesome, oh, they couldn’t do that, didn’t have the budget? Also, only 6 extras/stuntmen that are constantly rescued?
In Italy, Cap pretends to be sick to get Sharon to pull over. She does, he steals the car. Now, I didn’t mention it the first time, but this is the SECOND time he’s done this. Earlier, in Alaska or Canada, he did just that to Ned Beatty.
Despite the fact that Cap had the car, Sharon immediately shows up. They get a tape of the Red Skulls origin, it comes up later, but it’s really kind of stupid because it doesn’t really impact the Red Skull in any significant way.
Oh, I failed to mention that the Red Skull is now just a normal creepy Italian dude.
Sharon is captured, Cap is chased some more, the president uses acid to escape and eventually the movie drags you to a climax. When cornered the president decides to kill himself, it’s an awesome moment actually, as they want to brainwash him to control him. Cap catches him and they fight their way through the only cool set in this movie, the overused Italian castle.
Also, it just occurred to me this is really more a Red Skull movie than it is a Captain America movie, as terrible as this take is, he’s by far the more interesting character. Anyway, Red Skull has some unexplained Doomsday device and Cap uses his shield to knock a dummy off the side of the castle.
To end Cap jams his face at you. Really.
To end we get another image of Cap, different from the face jam one, and it transitions to a comic book cap over the credits. It’s there to taunt you as another on those nose songs plays.
This one was tough. I really did enjoy the first 25 minutes, but after that, I found it awful. I struggled to become a kid again and just enjoy it. As I said, I watched it as a kid and really liked it, but man oh man, I was a stupid kid.
Come back next time for a terrible movie I have still never seen (I attempted to watch it an fell asleep 3 times), the unreleased Fantastic Four from 1994.
Josiah Golojuh is a writer who battled Captain America as Daredevil in an early 90s home movie (find his collection of short stories here), he’s also a YouTube commentator (where, among other things, he does things similar to these Retro Reviews).