Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that long-time readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…
Until they end up here.
The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). First up on the Rack: the 1991 direct-to-video release, Captain America!
In 1990, Marvel was struggling mightily to break into the mainstream. Warner Bros. and DC had just redefined the Hollywood blockbuster with the 1989 release of Batman, a merchandising and marketing juggernaut that broke box office records and pushed comic books back into the national spotlight. After years of mostly sub-par TV shows, stalled film projects, and a failed swing at a Punisher movie, Marvel wanted to compete. Enter Menahem Golan—formerly of the Cannon Film Group and currently with the 21st Century Film Corporation—who saw the Dark Knight’s big-screen success as a golden opportunity to capitalize on the film rights to Captain America, which he’d purchased in 1984. He was gonna make HIS Batman movie, and Marvel couldn’t be happier.
… If you’ve ever seen a Cannon film, you can probably imagine how that went.
Released in 1991 as a direct-to-video feature, Captain America shares some DNA with its bigger-budget inspiration: a comic-accurate rubber costume with fake abs, a heavily made-up villain, a story revolving around dark opposites, a superfluous blonde love interest, and a teaser poster with the hero’s shining metallic logo on it. But that’s about it.
Shot mostly in Yugoslavia with a cast largely made up of unknowns and D-listers (plus Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty, to give the film SOME legitimacy), Captain America gives us the Reader’s Digest origin of Steve Rogers, polio-stricken Everyman from 1943, who undergoes a radical experimental procedure that gives him superhuman strength, agility, and reflexes. Dubbed “Captain America”, he’s sent out on a mission to stop the Nazis’ own super-soldier, the Red Skull, from launching a missile at the White House. He deflects the missile to Alaska, where he’s buried under the ice… and wakes up forty-seven years later to find a world very different from the one he knew.
From there, he gets knocked down by a bleach-blonde Cali girl wielding a six-pack of Diet Coke, storms a women’s restroom in a ’50s nostalgia diner, carjacks and strands two innocent people on the side of the road, and ends up accepting his role as Captain America just in time to save… Southern Europe.
IN THIS ISSUE: I’m just gonna throw this out there: the screenplay for Captain America is one of the smartest comic book movie adaptations of the 20th century… in places.
If you look at the film solely from a plot-structure point of view, the screenwriters have basically cracked the code on how to do a self-contained, “man-out-of-time” Captain America movie. Act one is the origin, in which good-hearted Steve Rogers becomes a super soldier and is thrust (ready or not) into the role of Captain America… but he loses dramatically in his first battle against the Red Skull, and ends up frozen in the Arctic. Act two is his revival in a world that has passed him by, corrupted by a Red Skull who survived the war and now operates in the shadows. As the Skull enacts a new plot to push the world further into chaos, Steve has to find the Skull’s lair and come to grips with his responsibility to this new world. The third act is a final showdown between hero and villain as Steve fully embraces his role as a hero and bests the Skull once and for all.
The film also has strong—if saccharine and simplistic—thematic underpinnings. Americana and American history are leaned on heavily, connecting Cap with the U.S. in a way that the Marvel Studios efforts have staunchly tried to avoid; Steve at one point watches video of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedy funeral, giving us a feel for the sheer weight of history that has passed Rogers by. On top of that, we see the Red Skull, a hideous and overt force for fascism, has decades later camouflaged himself as a slick businessman in order to subtly and quietly subjugate the world by rotting it away from within… a turn that seems strangely prescient in the political wastelands of 2018. It manages a degree of post-Cold War topicality by pivoting its plot on growing environmental concerns (a ridiculous set-up in 1990 that’s starting to look a bit more plausible today), and this film actually has the brass cajones to claim that the Red Skull orchestrated the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Dr. King himself… making Cap’s failure to stop him in 1943 all the more crushing a blow!
In a self-contained, two-hour movie with no guaranteed sequels or spin-offs, this is probably the closest thing to the ideal Captain America story. He even gets to save the President of the United States (Ronny Cox) from the Skull’s machinations… and then they team up to take on the Skull and his cronies!
In execution, Captain America is possessed of a late ‘80s/early ‘90s, cheesy low-budget action vibe that can be charming. The film is directed by Albert Pyun, whose other credits include Kickboxer 2 and Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor (sadly not featuring former Kickboxer star Jean-Claude Van Damme) and action-schlock classic Cyborg (DEFINITELY featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme). The man brings decent practical stuntwork to the action scenes (watch Captain America do some Gymkata-style flips as he evades his pursuers!), and the fights themselves are well-choreographed and even exciting… when we can see them.
Most of the joys to be found in Captain America are of the “so bad it’s good” variety. A basement-set fight scene is shot in near-total darkness, making it impossible to tell what’s happening; at one point, Cap sticks himself to the wall like Spider-Man… I think. The climactic battle with the Red Skull turns into an epileptic nightmare when a machine gun is introduced, the editor cutting to the rhythm of nearly every single bullet fired. Actor Scott Paulin (The Right Stuff) glides through the role of the Red Skull like a slimy mobster Bela Lugosi, easily the highlight of the film. And then, of course, there’s…
Unfortunately, “so bad it’s good” doesn’t actually mean “good”.
Captain America is a cheap film trying to be a blockbuster. It’s plagued by all the usual problems: lame special effects, lots of stock footage, cheap locations, terrible costumes—the Captain America suit famously boasts rubber ears, because the ear-holes they cut into the suit chaffed the actor’s skin. Leading man Matt Salinger (son of late author J.D. Salinger, otherwise completely unremarkable) makes for a believable doofus and a credible anachronism—spouting corny admonitions that “loose lips sink ships” with casual ease—but he never quite manages the gravitas to pass as a hero, staying well within the “square” part of the “square-jawed” equation. (To the man’s credit, though, he did give us the single angriest sip of milk I’ve ever seen committed to film.)
Worse still is the film’s love story subplot. Hewing close to the comics, this Cap has a true love in 1943—a girl named Bernie, whom he leaves stateside—and when he gets back in act two, he finds her living in the same house, now happily married (and sporting some of the worst old-age make-up I’ve seen this side of Star Trek TOS). ALSO like the comics, he finds out that Bernie has a daughter, Sharon, who looks exactly like her (both roles are played by actress Kim Gillingham)… and she ends up becoming his love interest by the end of the film.
As awkward and creepy as it was to hook Steve up with Agent 13 in Captain America: Civil War, that at least had the benefit of being two films separated from the scenes where Steve was canoodling with her grandmother. Here, it all happens over the space of two hours, and while it’s all fairly chaste—Sharon only ever gives Steve a single peck on the cheek—there’s no denying that it adds an extra layer of weirdness to the film.
And did I mention that Sharon is a circa ‘90s Valley Girl? And that she’s in most of the movie?
Aside from the act one climax and the finale, we don’t see Captain America in his costume for most of the film’s runtime (which, given the quality of the outfit, may not have been entirely a bad thing). Worse, the Red Skull—here an Italian boy transformed into the FIRST Super-Soldier by the fascists against his will—only actually has a red skull in one scene; for the rest of the film, Scott Paulin is covered in flesh-colored scar make-up with slicked-back Dracula hair. A lot of this may have been budgetary (them rubber costumes don’t come cheap!), but Pyun has gone on the record saying that he didn’t want to use the Captain America suit at ALL, claiming that he felt it looked ridiculous.
… Which, y’know, no argument here.
IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: Your mileage may vary. If you can appreciate a good low-budget action-schlock experience, Captain America has a lot of cheap thrills and ironic laughs to offer. It’s built on a decent framework, and even has some good ideas in it (I’m pretty sure Joe Johnston lifted the “Red Skull as Super-Soldier” plot point from this film for The First Avenger). But you have to have a high tolerance for cheese, and an honest appreciation for main characters made out of cardboard.
DISCOUNT PRICE: $0.50
- President Ronny Cox’s speech on new environmental protection regulations:
“We’re going to have to find millions of new jobs for the people who make disposable plastics, toxins, household pesticides… It’s bad medicine. And nobody said that the medicine was going to taste any good. But can we afford not to take it? … I don’t think so. If we don’t take this medicine now, we’ll all die. Slowly… but we’ll die. Thank you.”
- That first Red Skull/Captain America fight. Seeing the two of them in full, vibrant color, standing in the middle of a giant Nazi base as the Skull is just wailing on Cap… it’s a fun action beat that sets up the Skull as a formidable threat. And his trolling of Cap as he does it is pretty great: “Good! An American. Just when I am needing help on my English lessons…”
- Scott Paulin Cameo: Red Skull actor Scott Paulin makes one appearance in the film WITHOUT his make-up—as the doctor treating Steve Rogers for his gunshot wounds at the start of the film! The man’s actual face gets one and only one close-up, in which he stands so stock-still he may as well have been played by a cardboard standee.
- The Red Skull’s ocean view piano standoff: The Skull stands on a plateau overlooking the ocean with a machine gun, a grand piano, and a nuclear bomb. Need I say more?
NEXT TIME: Comic fans weather a Shaq attack as we take a look at the OTHER terrible DC movie from 1997—Steel!