Little known fact: Judge Patrick Bromley's childhood nickname was "Bucky."
The Sentinel of Liberty! The Star-Spangled Avenger! The Marvel Legend!
More than 20 years before Joe Johnston and Chris Evans brought Cap to the screen in Marvel Studio's blockbuster Captain America: The First Avenger, the Cannon Group and cult director Albert Pyun made their own movie on less than one tenth the budget. Long considered one of the worst superhero movies ever made, Shout! Factory's new Blu-ray release revives the old question: Is it really that bad?
Facts of the Case
It's World War II, and a disfigured Italian fascist known as The Red Skull (Scott Paulin, Pump Up the Volume) is threatening to launch a missile attack against the United States. The American government enlists the help of a scientist for a top secret program that will transform ordinary man Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger, son of author J.D. Salinger) into the costumed super soldier Captain America. As Cap and the Red Skull do battle, Cap saves the White House and ends up in Alaska, frozen in ice for fifty years.
Reawakening in 1993, Steve Rogers must adjust to modern society and soon discovers everyone in his old life has grown old. He's enlisted by reporter Sam Kolawetz (Ned Beatty, Network) to protect the president (Ronny Cox, RoboCop) from the Red Skull, who is still alive and in disguise thanks to facial reconstruction surgery. Cap teams up with the daughter of his 1940s girlfriend to take down the Red Skull and do what he always does: protect the U.S. of A.
It's hard to remember a time when the movie marketplace wasn't flooded with comic book adaptations. These days, a superhero film seems to hit theaters every couple of weeks, but back in 1990, that wasn't the case. Thanks to the success of Tim Burton's Batman, it seemed like superhero movies were on the rise, so it only stands to reason that the Cannon Group, an ultra low-budget studio known for cranking out exploitation films in the '80s, would try and ride Batman's success with their own costumed crime fighter epic. Thus, Captain America was born.
The 1990 Captain America (which never made it to theaters and was dumped to video two years later) is often called one of the worst comic book movies ever made. It isn't. That's not to say it's terribly good, but when you consider the budget and challenges faced when making it, it's impossible to lump it in with cynical, expensive trash like Batman and Robin or X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It can't be compared with the comic book movies of today, which have become the go-to A-list blockbusters. In stark contrast to the gothic darkness of Burton's Batman (the movie's major antecedent), Captain America is bright and sunny (most of its scenes take place in broad daylight, which wreaks havoc on the look of the rubber Captain America costume) and more than a little corny. It's much more rooted in the spirit of the 1940s than the '80s or '90s, and features President Ronny Cox slugging bad guys side by side with Cap. There is no irony, and none of it is played as camp. The movie may be cheap and silly, but it is very sincere, and that sincerity goes a long way.
Though it starts with a bang—a quick re-telling of the Captain America origin that ends with him strapped to a rocket inside the Red Skull's lair—the budgetary restrictions and the smallness of scale eventually make Captain America feel much more like a made-for-TV movie than a big screen adventure. The Cap suit worn by Salinger often looks like a Halloween costume, largely because the movie hasn't established a "big" enough world such that seeing a guy running around in a red, white, and blue bodysuit looks to be at home. The Red Skull makeup fares a little better, but is abandoned after the first 15 minutes—and therein lies one of the biggest issues with Captain America. Neither Cap nor the Red Skull are in the movie all that much. They clash at the beginning and again at the end, while the middle is mostly Steve Rogers driving around talking to people in his street clothes. Again, this probably has a lot to do with not having the money to stage many action set pieces, but it makes for a Captain America that doesn't really deliver on Captain America. Even the Steve Rogers scenes don't really explore his character once the plot gets rolling. In the special features, director Albert Pyun says he hoped to make a movie about a guy who happened to be Captain America. While he was clearly onto something (that's basically the approach Joe Johnston took with the 2011 movie), it's not really the film that got made. I don't think even Pyun would disagree with that.
I'm an Albert Pyun fan. While not every movie in his massive filmography is a success, he's a guy with a tireless work ethic who has been through the ringer time and again (many of the films released with his name on them aren't his intended cuts) but who continues to crank out low-budget genre movies because he loves directing. Despite the varying quality of many of his efforts, his voice is always present—it's in the post-apocalyptic setting, or the random musical numbers, or the dreamlike approach to the storytelling. Captain America bears none of the hallmarks of a typical Albert Pyun movie, but it does carry one characteristic common with all of his work: he is serious about the material. That's not to say Captain America is a particularly serious movie (when Cap breaks the fourth wall and looks directly into the camera, it's clear what kind of film he's trying to make), but Pyun isn't goofing on the material. He's a guy who loved Marvel comics growing up, and his affection for the character shows throughout Captain America.
Shout! Factory's Captain America (Blu-ray) is the best version of the movie ever released. Long available on VHS, the movie was recently made available via a terrible, full frame made-on-demand DVD from MGM. This Blu-ray is the first widescreen release of the film in its 1.78:1 theatrical aspect ratio in full 1080p HD. It looks good, though the age of the the source material and budgetary limitations surface from time to time, with a handful of shots especially soft or beat up. For the most part, the colors are bright and vivid and detail is good, which is a little hard on some of the costuming and makeup effects. Still, this is the movie that was shot, and the Blu-ray reflects that very well. The lossless 2.0 stereo track does a good job with the dialogue and some of the action beats, even if the mix is shallow and lacks a low-end kick. But again, this was a small, low-budget movie and Shout! Factory has put together the best possible presentation.
Sadly, only one bonus feature has been included: a 20-minute interview (in 1080p) with star Matt Salinger and director Albert Pyun. They're both candid about the finished film and realistic about how it turned out, but admit they set out to make something different and couldn't because they just didn't have the money. They cover a lot of ground in just 20 minutes, but both clearly have a lot to say and it would have been nice to hear a full-length commentary. There are no other supplements—not a trailer, not a picture gallery, not even a chapter selection.
I may have oversold Captain America. For all its good intentions and sincerity, it's still a mess and only transcends its low-budget roots in the sheer amount of heart on display. Too many critics have been quick to just dismiss it as cheap knockoff trash (we are living in the age of BEST OR WORST), but there's more to the movie than that. If you're a fan of old-fashioned Marvel comics or want to see an approach to superhero filmmaking from the opposite end of the Hollywood spectrum, it's worth a look. Manage your expectations and you might have a good time.
Not guilty. It means well.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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