Tuesday, 2 February 2016
Captain America (Albert Pyun, 1990)
With Marvel Studios' current domination of the cinematic box off ice like a veritable four-colour Kirby-dotted Titan, it's very easy to forget the long lean days of yore when to be a comic book fan who wanted to see one's mighty heroes transliterated from the pulpy page to the silver screen was to be given less choice than Sophie Zawitowski. It must be near impossible today, when Disney chairman Bob Iger confidently states that Marvel film productions "will go on forever" as the production slate for the Marvel Cinematic Universe shifts from Phase Two to Phase Three (with a projected roster of eleven movies spanning from Captain America: Civil War [Joe Russo and Anthony Russo, 2016] to Inhumans ), to conceive of a time when a superhero movie was a rare beast - when the David Hasselhoff-starring made for television Movie of the Week Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Rod Hardy, 1998) would be eagerly anticipated, when reruns of the classic Bill Bixby / Lou Ferrigno The Incredible Hulk (1978-1982) would be gleefully enjoyed with any thoughts about how unlike the source material it really was pushed to the back of the mind, or when perfunctory Dolph Lundgren actioner The Punisher (Mark Goldblatt, 1989) would transcend its slightly grubby B-list Death Wish status in the eyes of the viewer because it was Marvel character Frank castle there on the screen. Slim pickin's indeed. For the Marvel comics fan cum cineaste, it was like trying to convey to a young Doctor Who fan in the modern age what the 1990s were like. "We didn't have all this stuff!".
And much in the same way that a Who fan can sometimes sound like he's perversely nostalgic for the days when there was less of what he likes around, in some ways I do look back fondly upon the days when a comic book adaptation was the rarity rather than the rule. As good an actor and likeable a screen presence as Mark Ruffalo is, Bill Bixby remains the archetypal (David) Bruce Banner for me. Neither Tobey Maguire nor Andrew Garfield have displaced Nicholas Hammond as Spider-Man in my mind's eye. The fervour with which the TV showings or VHS releases of Marvel product in the 1980s and most of the 1990s was met meant that these portrayals were seared indelibly upon my impressionable young brain. In the case of Star-Spangled Avenger Captain America, long before Chris Evans strode onto the screen as Steve Rogers there was another actor who had essayed the role. Well, there were three previous actors, actually: Dick Purcell (star of Jean Yarbrough's 1941 King of the Zombies) had played Cap in a 1944 Republic Pictures movie serial that saw the character's alter ego changed to crime-fighting district attorney Grant Gardner, and Reb Brown had taken hold of the mighty vibranium shield for a pair of TV movies in 1979 that i won't cover in any detail here, as they're so genius / awful that i'm certain i'll get round to doing them in detail some time. But the film i'm concerned with here is the 1990 Cannon Films production starring Matt Salinger, son of reclusive Holden Caulfield-spawner J. D. Salinger.
Coming hot on the heels of Pyun's superlative essaying of futuristic apocalyptic angst Cyborg (1989) - and you know what, i may not even actually be joking there - but before the dizzy heights of 1991's Dollman or 1996's Omega Doom (alright, yes, i'm just straying into ridiculous territory here) this feature eschews both the modernising take of the 1970s movies and the historical setting of the most recent iteration by going the whole entire hog and establishing the character's origin from the frail polio-stricken Steve Rogers into the titular Super Soldier during World War II, as well as his first skirmish with the villainous Red Skull (Scott Paulin, of Teen Wolf  and other stuff, probably) before literally putting the character on ice until 'the present day'.
The film features Ned Beatty, possibly best known to fans of the superhero movie as Otis 'Otisburg' from off of the Superman (1978), as childhood Cap'n 'Murica fan (his younger 1940s self being portrayed by Beatty's son Thomas) and confidante Sam Kolawetz, 'Dick Jones from RoboCop' Ronny Cox as President Tom Kimball, and in a weird piece of double casting that makes my fannish mind explode both Bill Mumy (from Lost in Space [1965-1968] and Babylon 5 [1994-1998]) and Darren McGavin (Carl Kolchak himself from Kolchak: The Night Stalker [1974-1975]) as the respective younger and older versions of the dodgy General Fleming.
The more recent films obviously have the talents of performers such as Hayley Atwell to call upon, but this modest take upon the material does quite well with the performance of Kim Gillingham as both Steve's 1940's love interest Bernie and her present day incarnation Sharon in a contrast of 'The Olden Days' with 'The Present Day' that Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (Jay Roach, 1997) would exploit to more comic effect later in the decade.
I was a bit sad when the Red Skull died. But then, i tend to be on the side of the super villains more often than not. I have no idea what this could possibly mean, psychologically speaking.