[21 May 2013]
“It’s not as bad as you’ve heard” doesn’t constitute a ringing endorsement. On the other hand, you’ve heard some very bad things about Albert Pyun’s 1990 film version of Captain America. Sometimes touted as the “worst superhero movie ever made,” Shout! Factory has released a blu-ray “Collector’s Edition” of the effort that gives Cap fans a chance to see if it lives up to its lousy reputation.
Keep an open mind. Captain America has some pretty good moments, but its effect sours overall. Filmed in Yugoslavia on a shoestring, the action sequences are generally absurd and the dialogue feels at times like bad dubbing. Nevertheless, it captures enough of the spirit of Captain America that Marvel fans will probably want to own this odd piece of ephemera from before the age when Marvel movies became a juggernaut.
Captain America opens somewhat promisingly, beginning the story during the Second World War and with Cap’s arch nemesis, Red Skull. Here, Pyun at least improved over the horrific 1979 made for TV films, with which his effort sometimes gets confused. Pyun’s work is vastly, and I mean vastly, better… not that that’s a great accomplishment since the TV Captain America used the super soldier serum to help an old lady catch some muggers stealing her social security checks (I’m not kidding).
Once, the story leaves the ‘40s, we’re pretty much done here. Captain America ends up frozen in ice just like in the comics and finds himself reawakened in the ‘90s. This middle part of the film slows to a crawl, with the bright spot being Ned Beatty showing up as the best friend of the current President of the United States. Unfortunately, he’s in exactly three scenes before the Red Skull’s henchmen kill him off so he can pick up his paycheck and get the hell out of there.
This segment also contains an atrocious action scene in a warehouse so darkly lit that the high-def transfer just seems to make it look darker. Cap’s not wearing his costume and, adding insult to injury, using a garbage can lid in place of his shield. His search for the Red Skull in Italy includes a poorly choreographed shoot ‘em up at a café where, again, Cap’s out of costume.
Meanwhile, Cap’s old enemy has kidnapped the President. The Red Skull has had plastic surgery and no longer sports a spiffy Red Skull, primarily because of the real villain of this film: low production values. Why has he kidnapped the President? Its some kind of Manchurian Candidate plot but we don’t learn much about, other than that there’s some high-ranking general in the Pentagon who has allied himself with Red Skull because the President is pro-environment. Or something.
There are other weird elements, too. Iconic scenes and ideas from the comics that are perfect for film never appear. We never get to see sickly Steve Rogers apply and be rejected when he tried to join the army to watch Nazis. We’re just told in the beginning that he’s become a part of some super secret project. Meanwhile, Roger appears to be in his mid-30s during the WWII portion of the film, and an avid smoker. He also has a penchant for stealing people’s cars, Grand Theft Auto-style. And then there’ the aforementioned refusal to just put on his damn costume and be Captain America.
But again, it’s not all rubbish. The action sequences early in the film are not too bad, including the battle with the Red Skull. Scott Paulin as the Red Skull plays up the nefarious really well and his look matches up serviceably with the comic book villain.
And yes, when he finally puts it on, the Captain America costume look silly. But it also looks like Cap from the comics. No substituting a red white and blue army helmet for those iconic, ridiculous looking little wings popping out of his cowl. They went full on cartoony. He looks like something out of a comic book, in other words, and why is that a bad thing?
In fact, the suit sums up the one redeeming feature of this failed project. Director Albert Pyun and Matt Salinger seem to have loved this character and put as much of his spirit into an underfunded film as they could. This counts for something, and earns the blu-ray a place in most every comic book fan’s collection.
The single special feature is really only a series of interviews with Matt Salinger and Albert Pyun. In general, the very short featurette (about 20 minutes) tries to explain everything that went wrong with the production. Salinger claims that he thought the script was excellent. Its not. It contains lines like “When we get to the Red Skull’s castle, I want you to stay out of the way and let me do my job.” Otherwise, Pyun and Salinger talk about how great it was to work together and more or less give the impression that with more money and more time they could have put together a better movie.
This is not a good film and doesn’t even achieve the “cult status” that it claims, but it’s a film worth owning for genre fans.
Is it the worst superhero film ever made? No way. Think about all the other candidates for that title a moment. I would watch the 1990 Captain America before I’d watch Batman Forever. In fact, there are just as many bad ideas in Spider-Man 3, bad ideas globbed over with enough expensive CGI that fans offered more forgiveness than they should have. Pyun’s Captain America may be a bad film, but its true to the source material and its creator is clearly respected.