A Look Back At The 1990 ‘Captain America’ Movie

It was really strange watching the 1990 version of Captain America: The Movie after many years have went by since the first time I gave it a shot. With my anticipation for the upcoming big-budget Captain America: The First Avenger growing by the day (especially after just listening to the amazing orchestral score CD), I thought I would revisit the film that has taken a relentless beating by critics and fans of the legendary Marvel Comics character alike since its aborted release more than two decades ago.

First a little background about the film. In the late 1980’s, Israeli wannabe movie moguls Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus purchased the rights to make a feature film based on the character of Captain America, created in 1940 by the writer-artist team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, for their prolific film company Cannon Films. Cannon also had the rights to make a film based on Marvel’s Spider-Man and had just bought an option to bankroll a fourth Superman film from that franchise’s producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind. Clearly the Cannon boys were aching to break out of the low-budget B-movie ghetto they had built their company’s reputation on. But when Superman IV: The Quest for Peace went into production, the film’s budget had been cut drastically at the 11th hour from nearly $40 million to $17 million, resulting in a cheaply-produced product that swapped out the groundbreaking visual effects from the first Superman feature for cut-rate effects that would sadly be out of place even in a SyFy Channel original movie.

The box office failure of Superman IV and Masters of the Universe, a big-screen adaptation of the popular cartoon series and mega-successful toy line, squashed Cannon’s grander plans for the future and soon they lost the rights to make the Spider-Man movie. When Cannon Films finally folded towards the end of that turbulent decade, Golan and Globus ended their longtime partnership to form competing production companies. Golan formed 21st Century Film Corporation and set about to make the Captain America movie a reality. Albert Pyun, the enterprising young filmmaker who had made several films for Cannon, including Alien from L.A. and the early Jean-Claude Van Damme feature Cyborg (filmed on sets originally constructed for the unmade Spider-Man movie and a canceled Masters of the Universe sequel, both which were to have been filmed back-to-back by Pyun), got the job directing Captain America as it was he who convinced Golan to hold onto the property after the fall of Cannon. Since making his directorial debut with 1982’s The Sword and the Sorcerer, an entertaining B-fantasy flick, former Akira Kurosawa protege Pyun has made over 40 feature films, most of them going straight to video (usually on purpose). With a limited amount of funds to make the Captain America movie Golan clearly needed someone who could work with a low budget and see to it that every dollar made its way to the screen. For that purpose alone he could have done worse than Pyun. At one point during the last days of Cannon, Pyun’s name had been bandied about as director when Golan and Globus discussed the possibility of making a fifth Superman movie using the nearly 45 minutes of footage that had been left on the cutting room floor during the editing of The Quest for Peace.

Initially the production of Captain America had been budgeted at $6 million, according to Pyun, but the budget soon found itself in flux and the film would have to be filmed for even less money than originally projected. The production was primarily based in the former Yugoslavia with some brief scenes filmed in Los Angeles. Val Kilmer, Dolph Lundgren, and Arnold Schwarzenegger were all mentioned as possible Captains, but Pyun instead cast little-known actor Matt Salinger, son of Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger, in the title role of Steve Rogers and his alter ego Captain America.

The supporting cast included Ronny Cox (Deliverance), Ned Beatty (Network, and also Deliverance), Melinda Dillon (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Darren McGavin (Kolchak: The Night Stalker), Michael Nouri (The Hidden), Bill Mumy (Lost in Space), Francesca Neri (Hannibal), and Scott Paulin (The Right Stuff) as the film’s lead villain the Red Skull. This was not exactly a cast to sniff at; the original Superman from 1978 had set the standard for how films based upon superhero comics could be adapted for celluloid and its cast was incredible for the time. Even today it amazes me that director Richard Donner was able to score great actors like Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Terence Stamp, and Glenn Ford back then. There were big paydays involved I’m sure, but the quality of the script had to be a major factor as well.

Chosen for the assignment of adapting Captain America for the screen was Stephen Tolkin, a writer and producer who had done extensive work in television most notably on shows like Summerland, Brothers and Sisters, and the syndicated Legend of the Seeker. Tolkin had based his screenplay on a story he concocted with best-selling crime writer Lawrence Block, creator of the Matthew Scudder series among others, that stuck closely to the Captain America’s origin, his first confrontation with the Red Skull, and the sacrifice he makes to save his country that results in his being trapped in ice for decades. However, there were some controversial deviations from the established Marvel dogma, some of them doubtlessly brought about for budgetary reasons.

A nationwide theatrical release was planned for the spring of 1990, but no concrete date was ever established, unlike the current filmmaking climate in which major tentpole studio blockbusters have their release dates set in stone before a single frame of film is ever shot to stave off potential competition. 21st Century began to mount an advertising campaign but before the movie could achieve widespread awareness, the campaign was halted and Captain America was shelved for the next two years. Only a pair of theatrical trailers and a teaser poster made it out of the 21st Century offices before the plug was pulled. I remember seeing the poster hanging in the lobby of a local theater during the 1989 holiday season and my 10-year-old mind reeled with the possibilities. The teaser trailer was a simple shot of Captain America’s trademark shield flying against a star field and an announcer breathlessly announcing the coming release date. The Cannon boys sure had a thing for superheroes in action against star fields; when Golan-Globus acquired the rights to Spider-Man they published an announcement ad in a film industry trade publication showing what appeared to be the Wall Crawler spinning webs in space. They must have thought it looked dynamic, and that may be but it still makes no damn sense.

Finally in July 1992, the summer Tim Burton’s Batman Returns ruled the box office (I saw that movie three times on the big screen), the movie was released but by then any plans for a domestic theatrical release had long been forgotten despite playing theaters in several foreign territories including the U.K. Albert Pyun’s Captain America would see the light here in the States but only the light of our television screens; the movie went straight to video. At least now the movie could be judged on its own merits. Yet the initial reaction to the film was not a warm one and the years have not been very kind to this Captain. The movie currently holds a 2.9 rating on the Internet Movie Database and a 20% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. By comparison another low-budget Marvel Comics movie adaptation from around that same period in time, the Roger Corman-produced Fantastic Four, has a 3.8 rating on IMDB, and that movie was never even officially released.

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of Captain America‘s Stateside video release. I think it’s time we pull this much-maligned motion picture out of mothballs and see if the years have been a little better to it than the fans have (it’s coming to Blu-ray this week).

The movie opens in Portovenere, Italy, circa 1936. Fascist troops bust through the doors of a family’s home and drag off their son “for his superior intelligence,” and then they mow down his family with machine gun fire before his haunted eyes. They bring him to a secret facility and conduct scientific experiments on him, resulting in increased strength, agility, and an altered appearance that would earn him a familiar nickname among comic book fans: the Red Skull. Dr. Maria Vaselli (Carla Cassola), the scientist who developed the technology that made this transformation possible, escapes Italy and joins up with the Allies. Seven years later, Project Rebirth is ready and they’ve already found their first subject: Steve Rogers (Salinger). Rogers volunteers for the procedure and must leave his family, including his mother (Dillon) and girlfriend Bernice (Kim Gillingham), behind. The experiment proves to be a success but as Dr. Vaselli is being congratulated, a Nazi spy who infiltrated the base shoots her dead, prompting the newly superpowered Steve to spring into action. The spy is killed and Steve ends up in the hospital with several bullet wounds. The wounds heal in no time and “Captain America” is ready to take the fight to the bad guys!

Captain America, wearing a fireproof uniform and wielding his trust shield, is dropped behind enemy lines to stop the Red Skull from destroying the White House with a missile. During the battle he’s captured and strapped to the missile but as the Skull is gloating and monologuing (which can be a dangerous habit for a comic book villain — see The Incredibles for further proof), Cap reaches out and grabs his arm. The Red Skull is forced to cut his hand off before the missile launches. Before the missile hits the White House, Captain America is able to shift its trajectory (by kicking the wing repeatedly) and they both crash into the frozen tundras of Sarah Palin’s Alaska. A young boy named Tom Kimball witnesses Cap’s heroic deed that night and grows up through the power of spinning newspaper montage to become the President of the United States (Cox). Kimball is traveling to Rome to sign an environment protection treaty that will put a mighty dent in the earnings and influence of the military industrial complex, represented by his traitorous military aide General Fleming (McGavin).

Fleming and other titans of industry turn to the Red Skull for help in taking care of their Kimball problem. The Skull has had plastic surgery since World War II to restore his normal appearance as much as possible and is currently running an international crime syndicate responsible for the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He also has a daughter named Valentina (Neri) who assists her dear ol’ father in the family business. Meanwhile, Captain America is dug out of the Alaskan ice and thawed out. Once he shakes off a nearly five-decade slumber (and probably had one epic pee), Cap sets off on foot to return to civilization. News of his awakening reaches the White House and Kimball contacts his childhood friend Sam Kolawetz, now a Washington D.C.-based reporter, to look into the matter further. As Cap continues his journey home, the Red Skull dispatches his minions to take him off before he can stop whatever evil scheme is in the works. Kolawetz manages to arrive to save Cap just before the Skull’s assassins can get to him and brings him up to speed on what has happened since he went into the deep freeze. In the span of a few days Captain America must reconnect with his sweetheart Bernice and her hottie granddaughter Sharon (also played by Gillingham), save the life of President Kimball, and uncover the origin of and defeat the Red Skull.

I think it goes without saying that this version is Captain America is heavily flawed on many levels, but the movie is such unpretentious and goofy fun that I was able to overlook those flaws most of the time. The rather unpleasant reputation the movie has been saddled with since its release is undeserved and it doesn’t rank anywhere near bottom of the barrel garbage like Batman & Robin, The Spirit, and the recent Green Lantern. It has a breakneck energy and a willingness to indulge in some serious wackiness (like the endless pathetic attempts by the Skull and his daughter to kill Cap) in the name of entertaining its audience, oftentimes sacrificing precious character moments and emotional beats to squeeze all of the action into a tight 97-minute running time. While I don’t think Matt Salinger was the right choice to play one of the most iconic superheroes in the history of funny books, he does look properly heroic in the Cap costume and underplays his dramatic scenes, occasionally to the point of seeming disinterested in what’s going on. Fortunately, he toplines a terrific supporting cast, some of the better known names turning in glorified cameos, and they all add immeasurably to the film. Most of the acting is pitched at a level lacking in subtlety and it works great for what is essentially a living comic book. Paulin in particular has a lot of fun as the Red Skull; sporting an atrocious Italian accent he chews into his every scene and line of dialogue like he’s devouring a delicious plate of ravioli.

The only time the movie drags is during the stretch where Steve Rogers is investigating the origin of the Red Skull. The filmmakers also give his character a dickish trait of feigning motion sickness and then stealing the cars of the people trying to help him. But when you consider that the guy hardly got used to being a superhero before getting put on ice for most of the 20th century you might be willing to forgive him the occasional weirdo move. Albert Pyun does a professional job on the direction of the movie and he should be commended for completing the movie and not letting it become a complete pile of shit given the adverse circumstances he was working under. Plus his B-movie origins serve him well in the shooting and cutting of the action scenes. That Kurosawa apprenticeship did him some good, I will say that.

Now there are the obvious complaints that have to be addressed, like why they made the Red Skull, originally envisioned as a Nazi, an Italian villain and only had him in the Skull makeup (designed by Oscar-winner Greg Cannom) during that one scene in the first act. First of all by the time Captain America went into production I think the Nazis had been overused as action movie baddies in the wake of the Indiana Jones, and since Italy was part of the Axis Powers America was fighting during WWII the chance in nationality doesn’t affect the character a bit. It just doesn’t make him seem as much of a threat. Plus the Red Skull makeup made him look like he had a spoiled meatball for a head. The makeup Paulin wears in the contemporary sequences gives him the resemblance of someone wearing a Henry Silva Halloween mask. As for the rubber wing ears on the Captain America head piece, they don’t bother me at all. Costume designer Heidi Kaczenski was trying to make a Cap uniform that strongly resembled the classic comic book look of the character and for the most part she succeeded, right down to the ears.

Given the film’s low budget and tight shooting schedule it’s not difficult to understand why other characters and crucial elements in the Captain America universe were discarded, like Cap’s sidekick Bucky or the evil organization H.Y.D.R.A. that the Red Skull heads up. We don’t get Baron Zemo or the Invaders, and characters like General Chester Phillips and Dr. Abraham Erskine are changed for no reason into Lt. Colonel Louis (Nouri) and Dr. Vaselli. Most of these fan-infuriating changes and omissions could easily be attributed to time constraints, budgetary concerns, and legal issues.

Pyun is currently touring the country with his newly-released director’s cut of Captain America, which extends the film’s running time by 13 minutes and better reflects his intentions for the film before it suffered extensive recutting at the hands of the studio. I for one would really like to see this cut and hopefully I will someday, and I’m glad to see a resurgence of interest in the 1990 Captain America film. It’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination but it is zippy, good-spirited fun that would make your inner child cheer with joy.

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1 Comment »

  1. Through the years, many people have asked “Why set the move in Italy? Why was the Red Skull Italian?” So here, for the record, is the answer:

    When the script process began, Menachem Golan’s only comment to the production team was “Set it in Italy and make the Red Skull Italian.”  A reason for this dictum was never given. There was a theory that it had something to do with getting tax credits or state financing if the movie were shot in Italy, but in the end the movie was shot in Yugoslavia, so it wasn’t that. Only one of the many mysterious moves made by the Masters of Cannon back in the long-ago day.

    Comment by Tomjay5 — July 25, 2011 @ 6:23 pm

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