Friday, October 21, 2011

Nostalgia Theater: Captain America Edition

Note: I'm working on being more regular with these "Nostalgia Theater" installments and having them good to go every Friday, so bear with me while I get some kind of a system going.

Captain America: The First Avenger hits home video this Tuesday on the heels of its very successful theatrical run last summer, and while the Joe Johnston-directed, Chris Evans-starrer made the notion of bringing Marvel's patriotic hero to the screen seem like a no-brainer, especially in this age of dime-a-dozen cinematic superheroes, there was a time when the pickings were mighty slim if you were looking for a successful comics-to-film translation for the Star-Spangled Avenger.

Although the character's first turn on the big screen came in the form of a Republic movie serial from 1944, the first live action Cap I was ever exposed to came via two 1979 made-for-TV movies/backdoor pilots, which saw a short, notable wave of Marvel-inspired telefilms following the success of the Incredible Hulk TV series on CBS. Of this batch, Spider-Man got himself a short-lived show (which I hope to talk about one of these days), but Cap never made it past two trial runs, and given what lies after the jump, it's probably not hard to see why.

Both of the telefilms starred Reb Brown (who I saw later on an episode of Miami Vice, and who IMDB shows as having a surprisingly full filmography) as Steve Rogers, an artist whose father fought in World War II under the alias "Captain America," and who finds his own strength and reflexes enhanced after being administered the experimental FLAG serum following a road accident. The resultant superpowers prompt Steve to do what anyone else would do in a similar situation: suit up in flag-themed tights, hop on a motorcycle, and start righting some wrongs:

Captain America (1979) - Motorcycle Scene by Internapse
So, yeah. That exists. I especially love the instantly-dated music from famed composer Mike Post, who's created countless memorable TV themes in his time, of which Captain America isn't one. I also like how, between the vertical stars-and-stripes, motorcycle helmet mask, and transparent shield, they didn't even try making the costume accurate to the books, which is made doubly-strange by the character showing up at the very end wearing a slightly more comic-accurate suit. How much more effort would it have taken to have him wear it the whole time?

Anyway, while the first TV movie wasn't particularly well received critically or by audiences when it aired in early '79, it still led to a second go-round the next fall with the same cast, now featuring legendary actor Christopher Lee -- paying for an addition on his house apparently -- as the evil "Miguel." And yes, that's really the bad guy's name. Here's the opening credit sequence for Captain America II: Death Too Soon, which has to take some kind of prize for "Most Pretentious Title For Least Pretension-Worthy Production":

The second time proved not to be the charm, and that spelled fin for Cap in live action until 1990, when Marvel's then-owners New World Pictures partnered with '80s schlock producer Menahem Golan (he of American Ninja and Delta Force fame) for a Captain America feature directed by Albert Pyun, starring Matt Salinger (son of author JD, and who's kept pretty busy himself) as Rogers, and Scott Paulin as the villainous Red Skull (inexplicably portrayed as an Italian fascist instead of a German Nazi) who spends most of his screentime as neither red nor skull.

This one skipped theaters during its domestic run and didn't hit home video until 1992, but I saw it on video a little earlier on a trip to London. While there's not much to recommend it, it does get some points for being somewhat truer (in spirit, at least) to the source material, and for a great, completely out-of-nowhere musical montage smacked right in the middle -- following our hero's awakening from a decades-long slumber in ice and having to adapt to modern life -- that manages to sum up everything that's wrong with this movie and, conversely, everything that's so right. Enjoy:

Favorite part: Cap running in horror when a punk kid asks him for a cigarette. The song, just as an FYI, is by an artist called Southside Johnny, who does a pretty mean impression of Bob Seger. I'd love to tell you that this is some kind of hidden gem, but honestly, despite a decent supporting cast, including Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty, and a fairly likable lead in Salinger, the Pyun Captain America is a mostly terrible movie that certainly didn't have a prayer in the post-Batman world of the 1990s (which was the story of Marvel's theatrical fortunes for most of the decade), and that just about killed it for the First Avenger until, well, The First Avenger.

Hoping no doubt to cash in on a wave of nostalgia/curiosity from the new movie, the Reb Brown and Salinger films have all been made available once again, and can be purchased here and here. Bear in mind though that these releases are aimed almost exclusively at enthusiasts and archivists. I picked up the Brown DVD, containing both flicks on a single disc, earlier this week at the local Wal-Mart, and even at just ten bucks total (or five dollars for each one), I still feel like I overpaid.

1 comment:

Ian Sokoliwski said...

I was given the Tv movies as a Christmas present this year, and they are a hoot! I really love the review for each of them at the Spoony Experiment as well!