DVD Review: ‘Captain America’

No, not that one. The other one. It's finally out on DVD, and we've got the review.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Before there was Joe Johnston’s acclaimed, financially successful Captain America: The First Avenger movie, there was Albert Pyun’s derided, not even released theatrically in the U.S. version. Captain America, subtitle free, was a low-budget, naively written and often silly take on Marvel’s patriotic character. For a long time, however, it was still the best Captain America we’d ever had on film (which says nothing, obviously). Time may not have been kind to Pyun’s film, but perhaps my age has. It’s easy to look upon this simplistic movie and its mish-mash of overly earnest conventions and say to yourself, “Well, at least they tried.”

The DVD release of Albert Pyun’s Captain America movie isn’t a full-scale special edition set, but rather one of those much-appreciated but often unimpressive “Manufactured on Demand” releases, this one from 20th Century Fox and MGM. There are no special features, apart from a trailer, and the only chapter breaks are placed 10 minutes apart, regardless of any organic breaks in the storyline. The film is presented in Academy, “full screen” ratio, which is faithful to the way it was shot. The actual quality of the picture is spotty but as good as we’ve ever seen from the film, which is the standard for “Manufactured on Demand” DVDs, which are released this way specifically because there isn’t sufficient audience demand to justify paying for a proper remaster. It's a minimal presentation for a movie that deserves little more (although a commentary track could have been fascinating). The DVD opens with a title screen reading, “This film has been manufactured using the best source material available,” which makes it seem like the makers and sellers of Captain America are apologizing from frame one, which isn't really necessary.

Unlike Johnston’s version, the 1990 Captain America only lingers briefly in World War II before our hero is rocketed, almost literally, into the present (or at least 1990). Perhaps budgetary restraints were to blame, or perhaps they just wanted to get to the iconic “man out of time” storyline that has become one of Captain America’s defining characteristics. Matt Salinger (yes, the son of J.D.) plays Steve Rogers, a tall, hunky guy who becomes Captain America… a tall, hunky guy. Although the filmmakers reportedly toyed with getting a punier actor to play Steve Rogers in the prologue (CGI not being anywhere near powerful enough to do the job at the time), they decided instead to make our hero a victim of polio. Not a horrible idea on the surface (and it plays into the period very effectively), but it fails to justify how our hero became a skilled soldier before getting a power-up, since he’s thrust into action only days later. It is the first of many misplaced ideas.


[NOTE: The actual DVD cover art.]

Steve Rogers, now Captain America, is rushed into the field with his new shield, and zero combat training, because he is the “only one” who can stop The Red Skull, played by Scott Paulin of TV’s Castle, from firing a missile at The White House. Of course when he gets there, he finds just a few dozen Nazi soldiers, which presumably any well-trained military unit could have handled. Perhaps he was needed to take on The Red Skull himself, who – like in Captain America: The First Avenger – was an early experiment in the same technology that made Steve Rogers a super soldier. He has the power of Captain America, but also a red face. To the film’s credit, the makeup for The Red Skull in this sequence is profoundly effective, marring the actor’s face with not just ruby paint but also a series of jagged, glistening scars. Unfortunately, we see little of it in the film.

Steve Rogers saves The White House but crash-lands in Alaska (hell of a lot of fuel in that rocket, evidently), where he freezes solid until 1990, when President Tom Kimball (Robocop’s Ronny Cox) is about to hold a historic summit to force the nations of the world to reduce carbon emissions and fossil fuel consumption. His impassioned speech about the need for this legislation is refreshingly earnest, especially coming in an era when any such bill would be condemned as “un-American,” or at least socialist. The president is also a comic book nerd, which is kind of charming really, who sends his childhood friend Ned Beatty (classing up the joint) to find the recently-revived Captain America to stop The Red Skull, who is still at large, has undergone extensive plastic surgery (red makeup must have been expensive) and plans to put a chip in the President’s head to stop the historic bill. He’s also responsible for the JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinations, which is pretty broad but does establish him as the second great villain of the twentieth century.

What follows is a global chase as Rogers teams up with the daughter of his 1940s girlfriend, both played by Kim Willingham, to stop The Red Skull and his daughter (played by Live Flesh’s sexy Francesca Neri) from fulfilling his evil plan. Their adventures take them from Los Angeles to Italy, where The Red Skull (who is Italian in this version, for no particular reason that I can surmise) has set up his doom fortress. Captain America teams up with the President to take down the bad guys, which is charmingly patriotic and only a little bit ridiculous. 

Captain America has incredibly low production values, and feels today like an early Made-for-TV effort like the disastrous David Hasselhoff version of Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. It boasts performances that range from slightly goofy (Salinger’s doe-eyes have a community theater charm at best), to actually pretty solid (Paulin seems to be having a lot of fun as The Red Skull). The action sequences lack impressive stunts, resorting instead to brief car chases, low-tech shootouts and darkly lit fistfights. Moments of outright embarrassment are, if we’re being honest, relatively few: the low point is a hilariously on-the-nose ballad from Southside Johnny Lyon about returning home to your girlfriend after an extended leave (above, it's a "must see") that plays like a Trey Parker parody of the same (although the credits song is just as bad), and the plastic ears on Cap’s costume were a bad choice, but overall there isn’t much in the film that’s any worse than the average low-budget, plainly written action movies of the same era.

Captain America isn’t a good movie, but it’s not quite the unmitigated disaster that time and rumor have made it out to be. (Albert Pyun recently shopped around a director’s cut that he’s more proud of, but this isn’t it, and I’m skeptical that it’s much of an improvement.) It’s overly sincere and a little goofy but it’s about on par with the live-action Spider-Man TV episodes from the 1970s, and it’s not a complete train wreck like CatwomanThe Spirit or Batman and Robin. It’s just kinda weak. Fans of the character and comic books in general should enjoy finally having this film available on DVD, either for nostalgia (if you remember seeing it as a kid), or at least for ironic chuckles.