A pause to remember the real Dark World – Captain America (1990)
Even if you quibble with aspects of the current wave of comic book movies, you have to appreciate certain things that they do. They have robust financial support, and don’t feel like creative afterthoughts, cheap efforts to wring a little money out of the viewing public. Even if they fail, you at least come away with the impression that the bulk of those involved were trying, that they brought some genuine creativity to the project.
A look into the not too distant past puts this all in stark relief. Twenty years before Captain America was the First Avenger, he had what was supposed to be his big screen debut. “Supposed to be” is the key phrase here, as the resulting motion picture was so stupid, so dreadful, so atonal, it was shunted to the side and released direct to video in 1992, two years after its intended opening. Gazing back to this dim moment makes you realize how far we’ve come. It’s like sitting in a mansion — one that may need some work done on the swimming pool, granted — and harking back to the fifth-floor cold water 150 square foot studio walk-up you used to live in. Yeah, the one with the roaches and rats.
The unsubtitled Captain America starred Matt Salinger — whose father was indeed that Salinger — as the titular hero. But the film doesn’t open on him, but with the senses-shattering but horribly muddled origin of the hero’s arch-nemesis. After the credits roll (Darren McGavin — Kolchak! Ned Beatty — Otisburg!), a brilliant young Italian boy is kidnapped from his home by fascist soldiers and subjected to a process that will make him a superman — but horribly disfigure him.
Yes, the Red Skull is Italian. For no real reason.
The lady scientist behind this procedure has a bout of conscience and flees, and is the one who makes polio-riddled Steve Rogers into Captain America — apparently she ironed out the whole “grotesque red face side effect” off-screen. She’s murdered by an enemy agent, Captain America goes on his first mission to stop a missile aimed at the U.S., is promptly defeated by the Red Skull, strapped to said missile, launched, manages to kick (yes, kick) the missile off course just before it hits the White House, and lands all the way up in Alaska, where he becomes a Capscicle.
And we’re off. And bewildered.
The shoddiness on display throughout is astonishing — absolutely astonishing. It permeates everything. For example: In a sequence that bridges the WWII opening and the present day, a series of newspapers fly past the screen, recounting both the rise of the fictional do-gooder President Kimball, played by Ronny Cox, and the real-life events that occurred during that span. But if you pause the movie, you see that the headlines are totally unconnected to the text beneath them. One headline — “Springfield’s Tom Kimball Joins the Peace Corp.” (slow news day, and it’s “Corps,” not “Corp.”) — is followed by this opening sentence: “The former wife of ex-Padre[?], was sent to jail for violating a child visitation order and faces an additional 126-day jail sentence for failing to let her daughters visit their father.” AND THAT’S THE SAME TEXT UNDER EVERY HEADLINE. EVEN WHEN THERE ARE PHYSICAL NEWSPAPERS HELD BY CHARACTERS LATER IN THE FILM.
Lest you think this isn’t true:
Yes, this is minor, and newspapers used in this manner often have fill-in text, but it’s incredibly half-assed. And emblematic. Would it have killed them to write a few lines? Did the typesetting budget run out?
There are a few moments sprinkled in that feel like they could find homes in better motion pictures. President Kimball as a kid snaps a photograph of both the missile going by the White House and the man strapped to it, and he and his friend go through a process of elimination to figure out who it could be, ruling Namor and the Human Torch out (“Did he have a trident?”). The Red Skull make-up is decent, though it disappears after the opening scene, with the modern-day character, thanks to plastic surgery, looking like Jigsaw (seen at the top of this post). After Captain America is unfrozen there’s a neat scene where he’s riding in a truck with Ned Beatty’s reporter character, trying to figure out whether he can trust him or whether he’s an enemy spy. He sees that the tape recorder is “Made in Japan” and that their Volkswagen is built in West Germany (which dates this movie just as much as anything), and you can almost feel his confusion. Almost.
But these moments are few and far between. The dialogue is a slog. The action is terrible. (The editing in the climactic Captain America vs. Red Skull fight sequence will give you point of view vertigo.) Salinger is a charisma vacuum — though, in fairness, Robert Redford in his prime would have had a hard time injecting charm and gravitas into this gruel. The plot fulcrum — a military-industrial complex helmed by the unSkull kidnaps and tries to brainwash the tree-hugging President Kimball — is as dopey as dopey can be. The movie is a bore, a chore, and everything in between. It’s ugly and cheap, lacking even the cheery goofiness that rescues many a B-movie. Rated PG-13 (CA apparently decapitates a woman at the end, and quips about it), it has no apparent audience, being stupefying for both children and adults.
You cringe thinking back to how Stan Lee used to trumpet these early film forays in his Stan’s Soapbox column.
One of this Captain America iteration’s favorite moves to commandeer a vehicle is to feign carsickness, get the person driving him to pull over, and when they get out to check on him, steal their car. There’s a metaphor somewhere in that for what this movie does to us. We should keep this in mind as we hurl snark at the movies now coming so fast and furious. This was the true Dark World.