Super (TV) Movies – Captain America (1979)

So yeah, I’m breaking my own rules here by featuring a TV movie version of Captain America.  I can only justify including this and not, say, the 1970’s TV version of The Incredible Hulk with two excuses. Number one, the DVD just fell into my lap, and two, unlike The Incredible Hulk, which had a pretty decent pilot, this is just awful from start to finish, but is less well known. So let the mockery begin.

Captain America was a pilot for a series that never happened, starring Reb Brown (best known to fans of MST3K for his starring role in Space Mutiny) as Steve Rogers. So right away it has a leg up on the serial, in that it at least features the same character as the comic book. Yes and no. Stay tuned. (Trivia Question: Can you name all the Marvel Comics characters adapted for TV by Universal during the 70’s?)

The film opens with lilting romantic music as we see this sweet van with the seagulls on the side driving down the California coast. So it’s obviously not going to be a WWII story with Cap and Bucky fighting the Red Skull, but then, who would have expected that?

Steve stops in at a surf shop to see a friend, who mentions that Steve has only been out of the Marines for two weeks.

Guess the Marines had different haircut standards in the 70’s. Now Steve wants to be an artist and live out of his van. It’s good to have ambition. But when the surf shop guy gives Steve his mail, there are two items that will crush his dreams. One is a telegram from a guy named Simon Mills, and the other is a letter from a friend named Jeff Hayden, who’s in trouble. It’s never mentioned how Jeff and Steve know each other, or how Jeff expected Steve to be able to help, but Steve agrees to meet him that night, after he meets with this Mills guy.

But someone doesn’t want him to make that meeting. A tanker truck coats a twisty mountain road with oil, causing Steve to run off the road and crash. His shirt gets a couple of odd random slashes in it, and the van is wrecked. But Steve’s motorcycle is okay, so rather than get medical attention and summon a tow truck, Steve changes his shirt and rides his motorcycle to see Simon Mills, a mysterious government scientist who says he worked with Steve’s father.

Simon tells Steve that his father invented something called the FLAG serum–Full Latent Ability Gain. It’s a kind of super-steroid that can confer extraordinary powers, but because it was synthesized from Steve’s father’s DNA, everyone else who tries it dies within a couple of weeks.  Simon and assistant Dr. Wendy Day want to run some tests on Steve, and by “run some tests,” they mean inject him and see if he dies.  Steve says no in a long speech in which he oddly references trying to live his life by the motto of West Point (which, BTW, is an Army college, not USMC).

Steve then goes to Hayden’s house, where he finds Hayden dying. When Steve goes to call the cops, the killer comes out of a closet and takes a spy camera and calendar off the desk.

Mr. Brackett of the Andreas Oil Company (Steve Forrest from TV’s S.W.A.T.) is upset that the camera was recovered without the film. The film contains a formula necessary for Brackett to finish building his neutron bomb.

Simon Mills shows up at Hayden’s house to grill Steve about what happened. When Hayden’s daughter Tina (General Hospital’s Robin Mattson) shows up, she cries about her father being dead, so a doctor gives her a sedative and recommends she be checked into a hospital for a day or two. Because women were so delicate in the 70’s, you know.

Simon tells Steve that Hayden was working on the neutron bomb, because you’re allowed to tell your coworkers’ children all kinds of state secrets, apparently. Once again, Steve wants nothing to do with Simon the spook.

So Steve is all alone when the call comes in from a mysterious someone saying he will tell why Hayden was killed, if Steve will meet him at this abandoned gas station. Faster than you can say, “It’s a trap!” Steve heads down and runs into a couple of goons who want to know where the missing film from the camera is. Steve flees on his motorcycle and crashes.

In the operating room, the doctor’s prognosis is negative. Steve is too badly injured and will die. So Simon decides to inject Steve with FLAG.

And wait a second. This all sounds familiar. Maybe we haven’t strayed too far from the serial after all. I mean, yes, we’re a lot closer to the comics character–same name, given powers by a super serum. But if you’ll recall, what the serial did was take the Captain America name and costume and plug it into a standard serial plot.

And the TV movie does the same thing.  Mortally injured hero is given superpowers by a secret government research agency in the process of saving his life and then becomes an agent for said agency–that’s the set-up for The Six Million Dollar Man, which was then repeated for the spin-off, The Bionic Woman. And look, producer Allan Balter was also a producer on The Six Million Dollar Man.

So once again, the people adapting the character to the screen have discarded most everything about the character (except for a couple of touchstones) and just plugged him into an existing formula. No wonder it sucks.

In his hospital room later, Steve is not happy to hear that he has been used as a guinea pig (even though it worked) and once more refuses to work with Simon. Then he gets kidnapped by Brackett’s goons and taken to a meat-packing plant. After some futile questioning, Steve breaks the ropes binding his wrists and beats up the goons with his enhanced strength and slabs of beef (or maybe pork). BTW, Steve is the one in the sweater vest.

Later, on the beach, Steve is sketching some random kid (who gets a lot of camera time for an extra–I wonder if he’s Reb Brown’s son or something), while Simon compliments his artwork, prompting the gayest line of the movie: “It’s what I had in mind for maybe the rest of my life. Until I met you.”

Simon tells Steve that his father, who had also injected himself with FLAG, was ridiculed by his enemies and called Captain America. So Steve draws a joke page of a dude in a star-spangled costume.

Later, Wendy (Heather Menzies of Logan’s Run, the TV series) tries her hand at seducing Steve into joining the agency with her cleavage, but she is interrupted by Simon.

Wendy is sent to talk to Tina, Hayden’s daughter, while Simon takes Steve to see his sweet van, now repaired. But Steve’s awesome waterbed is gone (sorry Wendy), replaced by a super-motorcycle that can jet-launch out the back. There’s also a shield.

High school me thought the transparent shield was a pretty cool update, but it looks awfully flimsy. And we never really see it in action here. Simon describes it as a lethal weapon, then throws it. But instead of demonstrating its lethality, the shield just silently glides away, then glides back. Steve catches it easily.

Steve then test-drives the bike and is attacked by goons in a helicopter. And perhaps now is a good time to mention, the action scenes in this–the oil slide, the bike chase at night, the helicopter chase–all go on way too long. The thing about TV movies that sets them apart from theatrical films is that they have to fill a certain time-slot. But they’re also filmed on a very tight schedule and budget, and plot–meaning more scenes, more set-ups, more unique shots–costs money. Since action sequences are expensive, they usually run the footage as long as they can, even repeating shots, to pad it out to the next commercial. This film does that a LOT.

Steve finally  uses the rocket-assisted jumping capability of the bike to get onto the helicopter and catch the bad guys. Meanwhile, Brackett is with Tina Hayden and with her help has just found the missing microfilm, when Wendy arrives. Brackett takes them both hostage.

Then he calls Mills and tells him the girls will die if Mills or Rogers interfere with his plan. But Steve’s super-hearing detects a loudspeaker talking about tanker trucks, so they figure out the girls are at Andreas Oil.

So Simon sends Steve out after Wendy and Tina, but first gives him a costume, claiming that they need to keep Steve’s real identity a secret or else they’ll keep trying to kill him (like, say, the four times they’ve already tried to kill him?). Simon hands Steve the box with a costume just like his drawing, and says, “Jam Captain America down their throats!”

So Steve heads out to Andreas Oil in his new threads and we finally see Captain America in costume.

Not loving the costume, there. I hate the vertical stripes. The satiny sheen makes the costume look flimsy and (dare I say it) feminine, and the helmet–while more practical than a cloth mask–makes his head look huge. Steve runs rings around some guards, then rescues the girls. But Brackett has already left to execute his evil plan.

To wit: he is smuggling the finished neutron bomb to the U.S. gold depository in Phoenix, where he will set it off, killing all the people in the vicinity while leaving the billion in bullion intact. Don’t know why he insists on riding in the trailer with it, though. Even with a radiation suit, he’ll be killed if he’s in the immediate area when it goes off.

Doesn’t matter. Simon and Steve figure it out and catch the truck, where Steve diverts the truck exhaust into the trailer and knocks Brackett out. But then Brackett, who is wearing a deadman switch to detonate the bomb, almost dies from carbon monoxide poisoning, so the big action finale consists of Steve holding an oxygen mask over Brackett’s face while Simon gives him an injection of something.

The scene doesn’t exactly crackle with tension. So Brackett is stopped and Steve decides to stay on with Simon’s agency, since he apparently enjoys ramming Captain America “down a few throats.” But he has one condition: he wants a new costume, one just like his dad’s.

Except that nobody ever mentioned his dad wearing a costume before. It seemed earlier that the whole costume idea was something Steve came up with as a joke that Simon took seriously. Now it’s implying that Steve’s dad was the comic book character we were all expecting Steve to be.

Oh well, it’s just an excuse to get Steve into a more classic Cap costume to match the comics, although that huge freaking helmet is still seriously distracting.

And that’s a wrap. As a pilot for a series, Captain America barely hit all the marks it needed to hit, but it was slow-moving and action-lite. So before they would make a series order, the powers-that-be at CBS green-lighted a second Captain America film, I’m guessing to see if the ratings would improve. We’ll take a look at that one next week.

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One Response to Super (TV) Movies – Captain America (1979)

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