"We Are Both Tragedies: Captain America (1990)"

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Paul Brian McCoy

Captain America was the first of Marvel's characters to get a second chance with what is, essentially, a hard reboot that completely ignores both of the television movies that came before.

As we've seen in previous columns, Marvel's live-action properties weren't fairing very well, with their greatest successes coming from television productions of The Incredible Hulk, but even those were now TV movies of questionable caliber which were serving as backdoor pilots for TV series that never materialized. Their last two film outings ended up as critical and financial failures with the embarrassment of Howard the Duck, and The Punisher going straight to video in the US after failing worldwide.

In 1989, Batman broke box office records and Marvel attempted to ride that popularity with the release of their next film venture, Captain America, but to no avail. While the film was promoted during the build-up to Batman, it never made it to the screen, instead going straight-to-video in 1992, two years after it was completed.

Looking back, it's really no surprise. The film had a minuscule budget, a largely untested cast (in the lead roles), and a script that, while it had good bones, was amateurish and weak. There's no way that this film could compete in the mainstream.

In fact, just a simple list of the bad decisions and quality problems is enough for most people to simply dismiss this film as one of the worst superhero films ever made.

Which is sad, and a mistake.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't a very good film. But it's not a complete failure and actually has a very strong core that is only let down by the quality of the script and the acting. In the hands of a better director, with a decent budget and lead actors with charisma and experience, this would be a very different film.

I know, that could be said of every bad movie, but this one had promise. And for a while, the first thirty minutes or so, it lives up to that promise for the most part.

The film was written by Stephen Tolkin, based on a story idea developed by him and Lawrence Block. If Tolkin's name sounds familiar, it's because his brother, Michael Tolkin was responsible for The Player and one of my personal favorite films, The Rapture. The director, Albert Pyun, has yet to direct anything that a mainstream audience might recognize, but wrote and directed one of my childhood favorites, The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982), along with directing Cyborg (1989) and Dollman (1991) back in the day. That might not mean a lot to some people, but in the circles I travel, there's a fair amount of dubious cred connected to these early films.

So, what I'm saying is that the film has a certain low level of interest in its pedigree. Not a lot, I admit, but there's something there.

As for the casting, the main roles of Captain America and Sharon, went to the largely untried talents of Matt Salinger (J.D. Salinger's son) and Kim Gillingham. Neither actor had really done a lot of feature work in film, and Gillingham does the stronger work of the two, playing both Cap's 1940s sweetheart, Bernie, and her modern day daughter, Sharon (not to mention the modern Bernie under a pound of old-age make-up).

Salinger's performance isn't amazing, and is a completely different approach to the character than the previous Captain America, Reb Brown. But to be honest, a large part of this distinction lies with the script, or at least with the plotting choices. The previous version of Cap was, after all, an ex-soldier/beach bum traveling around in his van with his cat.

Where the previous incarnation of Cap was a modern-day updating of the concept and made specifically for TV, this 1990 version attempted to stay true to the comic, making Cap a WWII hero who is frozen in ice and reawakens in the modern world. As such, Salinger has more to work with character-wise is able to create a more layered character. The layers are so thin as to be practically non-existent, but they're there.

In fact, there's a strange absence in his performance that forces strange and interesting relationships with the other characters, if not with the actors portraying the characters.

In addition to our leads, we have a pretty solid supporting cast. Darren McGavin (The Night Stalker) plays General Fleming, while Billy Mumy (Lost in Space, Babylon 5) plays the younger Lt. Fleming in the early parts of the film. Ned Beatty (Deliverance, Superman) is cast as Sam Kolawetz, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, and Ronny Cox (Deliverance, Robocop) plays President Tom Kimball.

The plot, as I mentioned, isn't bad. The execution leaves something to be desired, but it's nothing that more money and a few touch-ups by a script doctor couldn't have fixed. The film actually opens in 1936 as Italian soldiers bust into a home and kidnap a young boy. He's being taken for his "superior intelligence" and, in a particularly nasty moment, he's forced to watch as soldiers gun down his entire family.

He is then taken to Fortress Lorenzo, where he is used as a guinea pig in an Italian Super Soldier experiment. We get a nice piece of stop motion animation here, as the Mussolini stand-in shows the effects of the treatment on a lab rat. It has turned into a monstrous thing with leathery red skin and skull-like features, but has doubled its strength and intelligence.

The scientist responsible for this is Doctor Maria Vaselli (Carla Cassola) and when the boy is brought out, she protests and is almost murdered, but escapes.

Seven years later, in America, she is the head of Project Rebirth and has ironed out the kinks that caused all that horrible physical mutation. Young, polio-stricken Steve Rogers is the first volunteer for the Super Soldier experiment and in a fairly horrifying and nicely done transformation sequence involving lots of screaming and showers of sparks, goes from skinny kid to super hero. There are slight changes from the comic source material, but nothing that fundamentally alters anything.

As expected, a Nazi spy assassinates Dr. Vaselli just after the experiment is completed, and she takes the secrets of Project Rebirth with her to the grave. Steve takes a couple of bullets as he kills the assassin, but is back on his feet shortly thereafter to go on his first mission: stopping the Red Skull from launching an experimental rocket at Washington D.C.

The Red Skull is, of course, the little boy Dr. Vaselli left behind seven years earlier.

It was an interesting thematic choice to open with the origin of the Red Skull and to tie his and Captain America's origins together so closely. This relationship is just the first in the film where Captain America is essentially the sounding board for the character development and expression of the supporting cast.

With his fire-proof (but not bullet or knife proof) costume and special shield (both designed by Vaselli), Captain America is dropped behind enemy lines and fights his way to a confrontation with the Red Skull. He promptly finds himself outclassed and beaten down, only to wake up strapped to the very rocket he was sent to stop. The Skull's dialogue during this sequence is mocking and condescending, and he immediately sees Cap as a kindred spirit, of sorts. A decidedly inferior and doomed one, but he acknowledges their shared origins.

As the rocket is about to launch, Cap is able to grab the wrist of the Red Skull in a desperate bid to force him to stop the countdown. However, it's the Skull who responds with desperation, and cuts HIS OWN HAND OFF!!! He doesn't cut Captain America's hand or arm, or even stab him in his vulnerable belly. He cuts his own hand off.

And scenes like this are part of the problem with the film. The external logic is off, but there's an interesting psychological element that I'm not sure is really there or if I'm just reading into it. There's not a lot of thought put into the execution of the scenes beyond either trying to be "cool" or just trying to move the pieces around on the board. The loss of his hand doesn't overtly add anything to the character and is just there for the, admittedly, nice moment of a handless Red Skull raging as the rocket launches.

However, if we look a little deeper, I have to wonder if Scott Paulin was playing to the deeper levels of the character. His entire family was murdered before his eyes and he has been turned into a monster. He's just been confronted by his "little brother", a more successful, if less experienced, version of himself. The choice to cut his own hand off instead of Cap's could be seen as an expression of familial bonding, however suppressed.

Or I could be reading into it. More on this later, though.

Anyway, as I said, the rocket is launched and it is only with some last minute kicking that Cap is able to divert it from destroying the White House and a young child named Tom Kimball, who is out taking pictures when he should be in bed (in a HORRIBLE special effects sequence). I'm assuming that since this is an experimental rocket, there's an unmentioned explanation for why it is able to cross the Atlantic Ocean and then continue on its way across two countries to Alaska, where it finally crashes (without exploding).

Tom has already expressed to his mother that he wants to be President someday, which is why he's out in Washington D.C. in the middle of the night taking pictures. But in those moments, as he snaps a blurry picture of Captain America strapped to the rocket, his life is changed. Both he and his best friend, Sam, use this experience to motivate and guide them in the rest of their lives, which we'll see later.

Captain America then finds himself freezing into a block of ice.

This is, by far, the most obviously satisfying part of the film.

Granted, the budget limitations keep it from being something special, but it has a lot of heart and hits the right emotional chords leading up to the transition to the modern-day storyline. They do as much as they can with their little money, creating a believable 1943 and fairly impressive science fiction tech.

I don't know why they decided to make The Red Skull Italian, but it's not a sticking point. At least it wouldn't be if Scott Paulin's accent could settle down. Sometimes he sounds Italian, sometimes Russian, sometimes Transylvanian.

And yes, Captain America has rubber ears.

The rubber Captain America suit originally had holes cut for his ears, just like in the comics, but in actual daily use, they were uncomfortable and caused chaffing. So they went with fake ears.

And once you know that, it's hard not to keep looking at them. But to be honest, they aren't badly done. If you can forget about the fact that they're rubber, you can hardly notice them most of the time. I have to say that I come down firmly in the "The Rubber Ears Didn't Bother Me" camp on this one.

After a fairly crap "time passing" montage of swirling newspapers highlighting a number of key moments in history since WWII (usually assassinations, new wars, and such) we get to the modern day. And while the montage is poorly produced (at least one same news article appears on just about every newspaper used), it serves a double purpose. It lets us know that Tom has fulfilled his childhood dream and become President of the United States.

Ronny Cox's portrayal of President Kimball is a strong point in the film. He takes a character that honestly isn't very well-written and gives it personality and flair. He's determined to clean up America, and the world, by going Green, even if his own government is against him. And by his own government, I mean Darren McGavin as General Fleming.

This is also an interesting narrative choice. It is never explicitly stated, but we can imply that because General Fleming is willing to work with the Red Skull in the modern part of the story, he may have been responsible for the assassination of Dr. Vaselli in the earlier part of the film. Billy Mumy played young Lt. Fleming, who brought someone he claimed was a government observer to watch Cap's transformation. That observer turned out to be a Nazi spy and Vaselli's death put an end to Project Rebirth.

It's a nice touch of ambiguity that helps to create at least a little interest in Fleming's character and motivations. To be honest, if it weren’t for this development, McGavin’s broad performance would be even harder to take. Luckily, my love for all things McGavin helps to sooth his approach to the role.

The rest of the film takes place in the modern day, and while there are a number of miscues, like having the Red Skull look like a very scarred normal person thanks to a slew of plastic surgeries, or having our villains essentially be horrible cliches of Eurotrash, there are enough good touches to balance it out.

For example, Captain America’s escape from his block of ice pays a subtle tribute to The Thing; the Red Skull’s daughter is a complete psychopath who tortures and murders the elderly Bernie to find information about Cap; and the President is a kick-ass Action President when we reach the film’s climax.

And while most of the dialogue is weak and awkward, there are moments, particularly with The Red Skull’s monologues, where the script rises to the occasion. The Skull’s constant referring to Cap as his “Little Brother” rubs Cap the wrong way in exactly the way it should, and the Skull’s justification for using a mind-control implant instead of simple assassination is a very effective way of providing a reason for keeping the President alive in the plot while also establishing the reach and influence of the Skull over the years since Cap’s disappearance. Interestingly, Paulin plays this part with a sort of weariness that adds a lot to the character. He's not just a raving psychopath. He's evil, for sure, but he's a little more complex.

And now that I think about it, that may be a justification for the absence of the Red Skull look. All the plastic surgeries don't really make him look normal. He's still covered in scars, but he's attempting to pass as human. It's another interesting element to the character that may or may not actually have been intended, but I like it.

Which is odd, because one of the things I hated about this film the most when I first saw it years ago, was the fact that the Red Skull didn't look like a red skull. Hmmm.

Regardless, at the same time, since the Red Skull is responsible for the assassinations of both Kennedys and MLK, Cap is, as he realizes himself, partially responsible since he failed in his first mission. If he had stopped the Skull from launching his rocket, it would be a very different history in this Marvel Universe. This is another moment that ties the two characters together thematically in a way that doesn't really get consciously expressed in the context of the narrative.

It’s the missed opportunities like these that really hurt this film. The Steve Rogers / Bernie Stewart reunion comes very close to working, and Kim Gillingham sells it for all she’s worth, but Salinger’s stiff response and the old-age make-up she has to work with both keep the scene from completely working.

Similarly, Gillingham’s performance as Bernie’s daughter, Sharon (both of whom are clever shout-outs to Cap’s love interests in the comics - although the characters here have nothing to do with their inspirations), almost works. Again, I blame the failure on Salinger. His performance just lacks energy and pushes those acting opposite him to play a little larger than they really should.

That's what I meant when I called his performance "an absence" earlier. All of the characters define themselves against him and use him to inspire development and change. However, Captain America himself is played like a blank. He only has a few expressions of emotion throughout the film, and Salinger doesn't really do a great job with any of them. So the question becomes, is he intentionally allowing the other actors to play off of him, was he directed to approach the character this way, or is it just a weak performance.

We may never know. It both hurts and helps the film, so I don't know whether or not to hold it against him.

Even being filmed on location in Italy doesn’t help the film come to life. The cityscapes and landscapes aren’t utilized to full effect by the director or the cinematographer, which could be part of the problem. Directorial decisions are probably to blame for all of the shortcomings, really. Pyun could have worked with Salinger to bring more life to the part, but there’s a lack of visual innovation that would have helped elevate even the campier moments (like Cap’s first encounter with punk rockers or thong bikinis).

More overt emphasis on the “brother” relationship between Cap and Red Skull could have really enhanced the dramatic tension, particularly in the final confrontation. The missing hand is another dramatic point that is vaguely implied but not really explored.

The Skull was a child prodigy pianist and the loss of his hand means he can’t really play the piano like that again. The climax of the film takes place at the Skull’s crumbling Italian fortress, and there on an outside level overlooking the sea, is a beautiful grand piano. Captain America is able to use an old recording of the Skull playing piano as a child (and then the sounds of his family being murdered) as a distraction. It could be a strong emotional moment, but instead is fleeting and lacks any real power.

However, the simple fact that the piano is there says something about the directorial intention, even if it isn't brought to the forefront. And as strange as this is going to sound, this may be a case of Pyun being too subtle in the presentation.

The fact that the Red Skull decides to kill himself along with everyone in Southern Europe with a nuclear bomb begins to ring true to the evil nature of the character. But he pauses as he hears the tape of his childhood, becoming distracted and pensive. His last lines here signify a shift in his character from being simply evil at this moment, to reemphasizing his perceived familial connection to Captain America.

He says, "We are both tragedies. And now I send our tortured souls to rest." It's a powerful moment that speaks volumes about the character of the Red Skull, making him both somewhat sympathetic (even though he's about to nuke Europe) and much more complex than most of the other characters in the film.

Of course, Cap's "Speak for yourself" reply undercuts the moment, as does the silly "dummy tossed over a cliff" ending for the Red Skull, but those are directorial choices that distance us from lingering or really getting to experience that deeper emotional moment.

Aside from that (and the fact that Cap decides that knocking the Skull and his armed nuclear detonator off a cliff is a good idea), the climactic scenes are action-packed with three actual focuses. The President can barely be contained from running into gunfire, he’s so amped up and ready to bust heads. He takes out a number of henchmen on his own, including a conveniently appearing General Fleming. Bernie’s daughter, Sharon, takes on the Skull’s daughter, very nearly killing her in revenge for her mother’s murder. At the same time, Cap and the Red Skull are going at it.

All in all, it’s a very satisfying conclusion that, while it could be better, works for what it is. It just seems like somewhere along the way, someone didn’t take the project seriously. Or if not seriously, there just don’t seem to be as much invested in the production as there could have been. If only a little bit of the flair that went into some of the directing and editing decisions in the previous year's The Punisher could have come through here, this would be a very different movie. Unfortunately, that lack of investment is a condition that we see again in the next Marvel film that goes into production: The Fantastic Four.

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