Retro Review: Captain America (1979)
We roll on, preferably in a sweet ass conversion van, looking at past iterations of Captain America. Last time we looked at Cap from the 1940’s. This week we look at the television movie version of the Star Spangled Avenger, which stars our old friend, Reb Brown. This film was meant to launch a television run similar to The Hulk and The Amazing Spider Man, which both made their way to home viewers in 1978.
If you’re a scholar of the current Marvel movie miracle, you need to know that the company has tried at least three times to catch lighting in a wallet. The first was in the television boom of the late 1970’s, with Hulk, Spidey and Cap Am. In the late 90’s they tried again with a grittier take, focused on The Punisher, Blade, The Fantastic Four (not either of the ones you know and hate!) and Captain America again (more on that next week!). These sank like lead balloons. After farming their properties out far and wide for a decade, they finally hit gold and started the current golden age with Iron Man, Thor, and your favorite blue bomber, Captain America. They’re printing money now, but it was a long hard road to the top.
Captain America (1979)
Steve Rogers is a decorated Marine recently out of the service who has decided to take some time in beautiful California to find himself. In the aforementioned sweet ass conversion van, he is driving and drawing his way up the road (he’s an artist) to visit old family friends when tragedy strikes. He is nearly killed and he discovers that his father’s closest friend has been murdered over involvement in a project to create a neutron bomb. The forces trying to steal those plans repeatedly try to kill Mr. Rogers, and almost succeed. He is saved by a shadowy government agency for which his father worked, who give him a serum made from his father’s adrenaline that gives him super strength, speed, hearing and vision. Armed with these abilities and a sweet sweet sweet conversion van that can spawn a red, white and blue motorcycle, Steve dons the mantle of Captain America and goes after the mad industrialists who hope to hold the world ransom with their bomb.
This movie has a long set-up. Steve (Reb Brown) doesn’t want anything to do with the government, even after having honorably served and cherishing his time as a Marine. He’s done taking orders and doesn’t like being a government stooge. Despite tragedy all around him, he wants to live the life of a care-free artist and find his own path in life. Tragedy forces him into the project against his will, since the serum is the only thing that can save his life when he is run off the road and nearly blown up.
Reb Brown, our old friend from that little gem called Yor Hunter From the Future, plays a fairly subtle Steve Rogers. He’s kind of dumb and trusting, but he constantly surprises his friends and foes with his eye for detail and his intellect. He is able to constantly make leaps of deduction, only partly based on his super senses, and it doesn’t feel cheap. He’s a lovable oaf, but he’s nobodies dummy. His acting is a bit pedestrian, and sometimes you feel like you’re watching a low-rent play instead of a high-budget movie.
The long courtship between Steve and the military may seem odd for a patriot dressed in a flag costume, but this was a different era. In the 1970’s the government, and particularly the military, was not a cherished institution. Steve echoes those sentiments. He served, and has pride in his service, but he longer trusts his government implicitly. He’s not a jingoist. When Uncle Sam needs his help, he needs to come calling, hat in hand, before our boy answers the call. The downside of this is that we get a ton of Steve Rogers hemming and hawing but very little Captain America kicking and punching.
A Dated Affair
This movie is firmly in the camp of the television drama. The visuals remind me of Dallas, and the music feels like an old porno (I guess every soundtrack from that era had weird synthesizer loops.) I kept expecting a sex-scene to break out, and it nearly does. Steve is courted by a beautiful scientist from the organization (Heather Menzies) hoping to turn him into Cap Am, and while he keeps it PG, the fact that she nearly falls out of her bikini top three or four times nearly made this a X rated outing. (She’s a beautiful lady, so I wouldn’t have minded…)
The imagery is much of the same. I got confused since every scientist dude Steve meets looks like Carl Sagan. When his old family friend is killed, I was confused because the next scene has him talking to a government agent who looks identical. Everybody looks like a PBS special with the same hair and turtle-neck. And that conversion van…
It’s great and awful at once. It has a faux wood interior that cleverly hides his super bike (Steve was also a motocross enthusiast, besides a Marine and artist) despite the fact that the whole van is clearly too small for either the bike or a human occupant, let alone one riding the other. When he jets out of the back, I expected to see his helmeted head roll across the ground and a headless torso to crash off the bike. Their is a lack of special effects and some very…curious…use of sound cues for when Steve uses his super powers. About those…
Just Shy of Spectacle
The problem with this film is that it take so damn long to get to the fun. It was selling a franchise to television, so it does all of the origin story heavy lifting on your movie watching dime. The characters aren’t bad, and the story is pretty decent (though a touch light on actually peril) and the abilities of the hero were used quite well. I could totally get on board with a weekly adventure of this Steve Rogers, who is handsome and decent, who blends some smarts with his aw-shucks looks, and who has a cool set of toys. The movie however, leaves you really wishing you got more Captain America instead of the Steve Rogers’ story. The last half hour is the first time we see the red, white and blue suit, and its pretty OK, and his fights are pretty OK, despite being very PG. There’s a definite sense of fun to the character and his way of fighting bad guys. We just don’t get enough of it. Perhaps this film would have made a bigger splash had they let the super-hero fantasy rip way sooner into the film’s run time.