Continuing our look at Captain America on the big and small screens. Okay, that 1990 above is a little misleading. In 1990, 21st Century Films produced Captain America for theatrical release in the U.S., but the film was pulled before release and eventually went direct-to-video two years later. However, the film did get a limited theatrical release overseas, so this did technically mark Cap’s return to theaters, just not in the U.S.
This version was directed by Albert Pyun, who made his directing debut with The Sword and the Sorcerer in 1982. Like James Cameron, Pyun’s early films demonstrated that he could produce stylish, entertaining work on a very limited budget. Unlike Cameron, however, Pyun’s talents didn’t scale up, so he never grew out of the low-budget ghetto, hence films like Captain America.
The film opens in Italy, where fascists (led by Mussolini himself) kidnap a young genius as he’s playing the piano for his family. They take the kid to a castle fortress, where the Mussolini dude shows some Nazi observers a rat that has received experimental treatments to make it stronger and smarter. Oh, and uglier.
The scientist who has invented the treatment is a woman named Dr. Vaselli, who is not happy that her incomplete work is going to be used on an innocent child.
So she jumps out the window as the treatment is starting and runs away. Years later, we learn that Vaselli has escaped to America, which is planning to use a perfected version of Vaselli’s formula to make a super-soldier out of a young volunteer unable to enlist due to polio. His name is Steve Rogers.
Steve is played by Matt Salinger, son of Catcher in the Rye author J. D. Salinger. His mother in this scene is played by Melinda Dillon, perhaps best known for her role as the little kid’s mom in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. For a relatively low-budget film, you’ll see a lot of familiar faces here.
The thing Steve will miss most of all when he leaves home is his girlfriend, Bernie (Kim Gillingham). She tells him she’ll wait for him to come back from the war, and then they’ll get married.
You’re going to want to come back to this pic later. So Steve leaves and ends up in a top secret lab underneath a diner, which is being visited by bigwigs like this guy on the left.
Bill Mumy of Lost in Space and Barnes and Barnes. But the thing is, before he appeared in this movie based on a Marvel character, Mumy actually wrote for Marvel Comics (although not Captain America, AFAIK) so this is almost a creator cameo.
So Doctor Vaselli straps Steve into a chair and the experiment begins, and we all know where it ends up.
That’s right, with the good doctor being shot by one of the observers who is actually a Nazi spy. The spy is stopped by Steve with his newfound powers, but too late to save the doctor. All of this comes right out of Captain America’s comic-book origin, and yet is completely different. And I wonder why they felt the need to make the changes they did.
Who decided to make the Red Skull an Italian fascist instead of a German? Who decided to make the doctor an Italian woman rather than a Jewish man? Was there some sort of trouble with the financing if they had too much Nazi in there? Or were they thinking that the Yugoslavian locations they used would be easier to pass off as Italy rather than Germany? I might even wonder about some anti-Semitic bent that changed the doctor’s identity, if the movie hadn’t been produced by Menahem Freaking Golan.
Anyway, Steve gets shot in the process and ends up in the hospital, being treated by this guy.
And once again, you’ll be coming back to this pic later. Instead of being allowed to recuperate from his gunshot wounds at leisure, Steve is called to duty right away, based on intelligence that an Italian agent known as the Red Skull is planning a major operation. Steve must stop it.
And in the air over Italy, we might learn the real reason the filmmakers chose to change Doctor Reinstein to Doctor Vaselli. The general explains to Steve that Vaselli kept crappy notes and had the details of the super-soldier procedure in her head, along with the secrets for producing Cap’s fireproof uniform and for making his indestructible shield (that’s right–not only was she a world-class geneticist, but Dr. Vaselli was also a chemist and metallurgist).
And maybe that’s the key. Captain America’s colorful uniform, covered with stars and stripes and bearing odd useless details like wings on his cowl, could only have been designed by a crazy Italian woman who resented the military and wanted Captain America to look as little like a soldier as possible.
So anyway, Cap parachutes down to the Red Skull’s fortress, where he uses his shield to destroy a guard tower and blow up some cans of gasoline before he enters the castle to confront the Red Skull.
And with our first look at the full costume comes perhaps the biggest surprise in the movie: the costume is almost exactly like the comic book version. In this post-Tim Burton’s Batman world, it’s almost impossible to avoid the latex costume with sculpted muscles, but otherwise, it’s an exact duplicate, down to the ears sticking out from the cowl (the ears are fake, BTW, molded into the cowl itself).
So thumbs up. On the other hand, Cap’s problem is that he’s a dude who grew up with polio, was made super-strong in an experiment, then rushed onto a plane without receiving any kind of training whatsoever. And his opponent is this guy.
The Red Skull. Just as smart and strong as Cap, but also trained for most of his life in causing mayhem. Cap gets his ass handed to him and comes to strapped to a V-2-looking rocket, which the Red Skull launches at the White House. Oops.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a young boy visiting Washington D.C. with his parents sneaks out in the middle of the night with his camera to take a few night shots of the White House, when he hears a noise. He turns around and looks up to see Cap strapped to the rocket and just manages to snap a picture before Cap kicks a rudder out of shape, turning the rocket so that it misses the White House. The rocket heads up into the sky again and much later, crashes down into a frozen lake in Alaska.
And I wonder if this is an alternate reason for switching the Red Skull from German to Italian–because if you draw a straight line from Germany through Washington, you never come close to Alaska, while starting the line further south, say, in Italy, could get you closer. I’m too lazy to check it out on a real map, though. Captain America disappears under the ice.
And that’s it for this week. For my American readers, have a happy Independence Day, and join me back here next week for the conclusion.