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Featured DVD Review: Captain America

August 27th, 2011

Captain America - Buy from Amazon

This week Captain America makes it's DVD debut. ... No, not that Captain America, but the one made in 1990. You've never heard of it? I'm not surprised. Unless you are comic book aficionado, there's no reason to have heard of this film. It was made more than 20 years ago, and it if weren't for the success of the latest Marvel release, it would have been forgotten for a lot longer.

The Movie

The film starts with a titlecard stating, "This film has been manufactured using the best source material available." That's a bad sign. If a movie was made a long, long time ago, say in days before TV, then it might be the case that the film was partially lost and had to be pieced together from substandard elements. After all, back then it wasn't standard practice to keep old masters, unless there was a chance it would be re-released in theaters. Outside of re-releases, there was no financial reason to keep the film and filmstock is expensive to store. However, this film was made in 1989 for a 1990 release. At that time, the home market was large enough that there's no way a movie would be treated as poorly, unless someone tried to bury it.

Starting in Italy during the early stages of World War II, the military kidnaps a child prodigy and guns down his family while he is forced to watch. They require a subject of his intelligence to be the guinea pig for an experimental super soldier serum, one that will create an army of enhanced soldiers for the Fascist regime. It has made animal test subjects twice as smart and twice as strong, but the side effects are grim, as we are shown a rat whose face appears to have melted off. It's so nasty, that one of the scientists who helped develop this serum, Dr. Vaselli, tries to stop the experiment and when she is unable to, she escapes to America.

Flash forward seven years. While working with the American government, Dr. Vaselli has perfected her serum and removed the nasty side effects. It's just in time, as the United States is getting ready to enter the war. Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger) has volunteered after being rejected for service because of his polio. The procedure is a huge success; however, she doesn't have long to celebrate, as a Nazi spy kills her and wounds the new Captain America. It's not long before he's back on his feet and storming a Nazi fortress. These particular Nazis are led by Red Skull, the test subject we met at the beginning of the movie. Their plan is to launch a nuclear missile at the United States, but Captain America manages to arrive just in time... to get his ass kicked and stuck to the side of the missile. He does manage to redirect it to the arctic, where he is frozen in the ice. (But not before a young boy, Tom Kimball, snaps a picture of him.)

Flash forward again, this time to 1993. Tom Kimball has been elected President of the United States by the narrowest margin in history, but is still pushing for a major environmental multinational treaty. This upsets many people, including men in his own military, like General Fleming. In fact, General Fleming is part of an international conspiracy that controls the industrial-military complex, who were responsible to the JFK assassination, among many others. This time they are not planning on killing the president, but kidnapping him instead. By a stroke of luck, it is at this time Captain America is found in the arctic and thawed out. When President Kimball hears of this, he calls his childhood friend, Sam Kolawetz, who is now a reporter. They will need Captain America's help to defeat the bad guys, but it will take a lot to convince him he's been on ice for 50 years

I'm going to end the plot synopsis there for two reasons. Firstly, we do start getting into some heavy spoiler territory. Secondly, in order to write it down, I have to remember it, and I don't want to do that. There was a time when Marvel Comics were well behind D.C.Comics in terms of quality and quantity of theatrical releases. It wasn't until X-Men that that really changed. However, Captain America was long before Marvel Comics became a major player in theaters. In fact, this film arguably set back Marvels attempts at theatrical success many years. It is top to bottom a mess.

The film is an origins story, but they've made a number of changes for no reason. I don't mind when a comic is changed for the movie adaptation; after all, there are some things that work on the page that would look stupid in a movie. (The end to Watchmen springs to mind.) However, making changes for the sake of changes doesn't help, as it alienates fans while doing nothing to bring in new viewers. Unfortunately, making Red Skull Italian is the least of the script's problems. Captain America is less than heroic and the first time we see him in action, he gets slapped around. It's pathetic. In the comic, he leads a group of soldiers and eventually sacrifices himself to save the world. That's how you want a hero to act. The script is confused to the point where it is hard to keep track of locations. (The rocket is fired from Europe to Washington, D.C., but lands in Alaska. How? Captain America is thawed out in Alaska then travels to Canada, where he is ambushed by Nazis and rescued by Sam. How did they know where to find him.) Another serious problem is the budget. Everything looks so cheap, beyond TV movie cheap. (This includes Captain America's iconic uniform and shield.) There are very few special effects, and the ones we see hurt the film. And there's not enough action to sustain such a flimsy plot.

There are two parts of the film that aren't a complete write off. The film has quite an impressive cast, given how terrible the rest of the movie is, and it includes Ronny Cox, Ned Beatty, both parents from A Christmas Story, Bill Mumy in a cameo, and more. Second, I do like Captain America being so disoriented after being revived. His suspicion of Sam is one of the few points of the movie that makes sense. Even then, it is only a partial victory.

The Extras

None. There's barely even a menu. The chapter placements are not done with any consideration and only allow you to skip ahead 10 minutes at a time. This is as bare bones as it gets.

The Verdict

The vast majority of people who watch Captain America will either consider it really, really bad, or so bad that it is good. If you are into bad movies, it's worth checking out, but even then, the DVD is worth no more than a rental.


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