Wednesday, 4 July 2012

A Tale of Three Americas (Captain Americas, that is)


America, Fuck Yeah! Today is the Independence Day of United States of America. And what better way to spend it than delving into the cinematic history of its most patriotic superhero. Captain America was actually first put on film in 1944, during WWII in a movie serial. After that he's been adapted in every wave of Marvel movies (yes, there are three waves), and in addition appeared on copyright infringementing exploitation flicks such as 1973's Turkish classic 3 Dev Adam.





Or this awesome and violent Lego video by ForestFire Films. 


I'll take a look at each of his official appearances.

Captain America (1979)
Director: Rod Holcomb


In his first movie, Captain America came in the form of Reb Brown and in a cheap made-for-TV movie. Marvel attempted to make live action TV series out of its three biggest characters in the 70's, but only The Incredible Hulk was any kind of a success. There's a good reason things like the two Captain America movies and the Nicholas Hammond-starring Spider-Man show have remained so obscure. There wasn't much for an effects budget, so the makers mostly just copied other TV shows that were popular at the time, rather than stay true to the characters. That's why in the 70's, Captain America was a daredevil motorcycle driver, whose father had invented a super soldier serum, called Full Latent Ability Gain – F.L.A.G. The fact that this version of Cap had no background in nazi-fighting was a bad sign to begin with.

Steve Rogers is a former marine turned commercial artist. When he finds out about his father's invention, he doesn't want to use the formula at first. But when a group of bad guys (kind of undetermined bad guys who are enemies of America and/or want the serum, I guess) attempt to kill him, almost succeeding, Rogers has no other alternative than to become Captain America to survive. He's given a special shield and a motorcycle and makes a costume based on his own drawings.
"Be Captain America, Steve! Shove Captain America down their throats!

"Yes, this looks bad-ass. Lunch break, boys!"

Just about everything that is usually wrong with 70's American TV series (and by extend, TV movies), is wrong in here as well. The movie is aimed at Middle America which is why every character is basically played broadly as both a hillbilly and rock-stupid. The Dukes of Hazzard isn't the most smart thing to imitate, you know. The movie is also long-winded, extremely boring and exposition-laden. The producers were more concerned on how to fill the two hour slot in between the commercials than to make the film exciting or even interesting. It doesn't help that the action sucks, too. Some bad movie values are spread here and there but way too thinly. For example, after a lengthy chase at a swamp (where Cap drives a motorcycle and the bad guys' helicopter follows him) a ramp comes up from out of nowhere, which allows Cap to jump to the chopper. Also funny is Cap infiltrating a chemical plant, and being chased by lab-coated scientists. He hits an oil pipe with his shield and then watches behind a pipe with glee as the scientists slip. Yes, even the best bits are too lame to be in a Benny Hill sketch.



Captain America (1990)
Director: Albert Pyun


For fans of bad movies, the next wave's Cap movie offers a lot more treats. At this point, Marvel was eagerly selling rights to their flagship characters for movie options, presumably because Tim Burton's Batman had been such a big hit and Marvel wanted a slice out of the same cake. Unfortunately, they didn't get the blockbusters they wanted (at that time anyway). Many rights-holders churned out cheap exploitation movies to keep their rights until they could've gained enough money for an extensive special effects budget. That's how even the legendarily prolific bad movie director Albert Pyun got his chance to do a superhero film. The cheapo production meant that they had to do the film in the Italian exploitation way, which explains why so much of the movie's plot takes place in Italy and so many actors have atrocious Italian accents.

In 1936, Nazis kidnap a young Italian boy to experiment on, and kill his family. Seven years later, the Americans become worried about this super soldier the Nazis have, called The Red Skull (Scott Paulin). They rush to create their own super soldier, with the help of the defected Dr. Vaselli (Carla Cassola). Captain Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger) is given the honor of having superpowers, but just after the procedure, a Nazi spy kills Vallin and attempts to kill Rogers as well. Since Vallin was the only one to know how to make the super soldier formula, the new Captain America has to work on his own, and is sent to stop Red Skull from destroying the White House with a missile. However, Cap is uncovered and Red Skull ties him to the missile and fires it anyway. Just before the missile is about to hit, Cap manages to steer its course to Alaska where the missile crashes into snow but doesn't explode. Cap's heroism on the missile  is witnessed by a little boy from a window. This boy will grow up to be... the President of the United States.

So, even though Cap fumbles up pretty badly his very first mission, the Americans manage to win WWII without his help. The Red Skull falls underground and becomes the head of an extensive crime family that does impossible assassinations. He's responsible for the deaths of at least two Kennedys and Martin Luther King. Now, he's attempting to kidnap President Kimball (Ronny Cox). Why he doesn't just kill him like the others, but instead opts to brainwash him to speak against environmentalism isn't properly explained. But luckily, Captain America is thawed from ice and it's up to him to stop the Italian-living Skull from his dirty deeds. He must ask himself: Are You A Bad Enough Dude to Rescue the President!?

He looks more like a lover than a fighter.
Surprisingly enough, the beginning of the movie is quite accurate to the original comics, even so much as to be quite similar to its bigger-budgeted 2011 counterpart. The olden scenes aren't shot in sepia tone, but rather, in pitch-black darkness, for instance to hide the cheapness of the sets. The laboratory set for instance doesn't have any more props than one electronic cupboard, which promptly electrifies a Nazi to death. The modern day, then, is shot in broad daylight and is noticeably worse. For instance, The Red Skull is explained to have had facial surgery, which has made him look more like Skeletor from the Masters of the Universe movie, i.e. a burnt out candle. In the beginning his red skull mask still looks somewhat believable and comic booky enough.He claims in 1944 to be studying English but his accent actually has gotten worse in the scenes set in modern day. I bet he was based on Silvio Berlusconi.

He's kind of like Tommy Wiseau playing a super villain.

Sadly, Cap's old flame Bernice (Kim Gillingham) has grown old during his long hibernation. But luckily her daughter Sharon (also Kim Gillingham) is young, beautiful, and interested in joining him on an adventure. So Cap picks her instead. Most of the film features the lovebirds hanging out in Italy sitting in caf├ęs arguing, as if on a vacation, trying to figure where the president is being held. Now and then they are attacked by The Skull's men. Cap has to dodge al ot of machine gun fire. Several action scenes are still shot with as little light as possible in an attempt to hide the bad fight choreography and useless props. Cap versus a nunchaku-wielding ninja is particularly shameful. The chase scenes are also ludicrously bad and unexciting. The godawfulness of the film is crowned by it's cheap MIDI score, which breaks into horrid faux-Bruce Springsteen doing godawful country songs on one montage. Not very funny, but it could be a lot worse. A lot better, too.

★★

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Director: Joe Johnston


Joe Johnston's modern Marvel Universe update of Cap's exploits is the most streamlined, and, by any measurement, by far the best of Cap's starring movies. Johnston utilizes the old-timey boy's own storytelling style he developed for his film The Rocketeer in the early 90's. And for my money, for a much better effect here. A good, healthy budget does wonders for creating such high-flying dreams. It also helps that, this being a Marvel presentation, the film has a certain boyish charm and a twinkle in its eye by default. It doesn't seem to take itself as seriously as its two Cap-movie predecessors, yet it also doesn't rub the audience's faces in the fact that many of the things it presents are quite ridiculous. It also pays a funny homage to the original comic book and its let's-punch-Hitler attitude.

In modern day, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in the Arctic discover a plane on ice and what appears to be Cap's famed shield. A flashback tells us how they got there. In 1941, the Nazi Occult and Science section Hydra, led by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), discovers a mystical glowing cube in Norway. The treasure, belonging to Odin himself (as seen in the same year's other Marvel film Thor, as played by Anthony Hopkins) gives away huge amounts of energy. Hydra can use it to power Dr. Arnim Zola's (Toby Jones) special weaponry, turning the course of the war for the Germans. Meanwhile, in New York, weakling Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, starting the film in a CGI frame) hopes to go fight for his country against the Nazis. The problem is, he's way too skinny, asthmatic and all around puny to be accepted. But Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), the man who was already involved in the creation of German super soldier Red Skull and now wants to help the Americans perfect the formula, notices his strong will, noble attitude and considerable bravery and suggest him to be the test subject for the American super soldier program.

The procedure gives Rogers a muscular and tall frame, and the attention of agent Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell). But the rise of Hydra costs Erskine his life. The military, particularly Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) don't trust Rogers enough to send him on the battlefield, so instead, he has to do humiliating shows at 12-year-olds to get them to buy war bonds. But while on a mission in Italy, the new Captain America hears that his old friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has been captured behind enemy lines, and he decides to go rogue, rescue his friend and take on Hydra by himself.


The film's biggest flaw is that it's narrative is a little jumpy and episode-like. There are several action scenes that feel almost like climaxes in themselves. And then the actual climax doesn't awe in the way that one would expect. The flashback structure makes the whole romance subplot of the film essentially a tragedy from the get-go. The thing feels just like a prologue, which it actually is, for this summer's The Avengers. It works as a stand-alone story as well, but a bit worse than other Marvel movies. For us Marvel fanboys, luckily the film has several logically placed winks and nods. Tony Stark's father Howard (Dominic Cooper) plays a major part, also giving Cap his iconic vibranium shield. Nick Fury's comic book-version's war buddies, The Howling Commandos, also appear.

★★★

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