Fantasia 2011: A Look Back At ‘Captain America (1990)’
Directed by Albert Pyun
Written by Stephen Tolkin, based on a story by Stephen Tolkin and Lawrence Block, based on characters created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Dismissed by comic-book fans (those who know of it at all) as the Captain America with the Italian Red Skull, this was a film that I had publicly mused about going to see when I took a look at the Fantasia line-up.
To my surprise, I got the following comment on July 13th from Albert Pyun, director of Captain America, not to mention The Sword and the Sorcerer and Cyborg, “Hey Michael – hope to see you at my screening of Captain America and Tales of an Ancient Empire. Think you will enjoy both. They are sort of throwbacks to the 1980’s cinema and I think a lot of fun and laughs… And I really want to read your reviews of both movies here! Look forward to seeing you in the flesh, Michael! Think you’ll have a good time, if nothing else you’ll be able trash my films with me present. That opportunity has to be worth something.”
Being nothing if not susceptible to flattery, I made plans to attend. The night before the screening, however, I found the following post from July 25th on Facebook by Albert Pyun, “Neither I or the films will be in Montreal. I just felt it was more important to get Tales out theatrically as soon as possible and the Fantasia dates really never firmed in a way that it
was worth traveling or screening. The Louisville screening told us what we needed to know and I really am pressured to start Red Moon as well as finish Road to Hell asap! … I agree [Fantasia’s one of the best fests around], but its been hard to pin down specifics with Fantasia and we have more pressing things to move forward on.”
Well, to quote Konnan, “Yo, yo, yo, yo let me speak on this…”
Let’s be clear that I do not in any way shape or form work for the Fantasia Film Festival. On the other hand, I have been going to the festival since it started back in 1996 and I have been running a niche festival for great short films by the World’s best young filmmakers called the YoungCuts Film Festival since 2007, so I do have some experience with film festivals to contribute to the discussion.
First of all, I am not privy to the private discussions between Albert Pyun and the Fantasia Film Festival, but they certainly were not ambiguous about the date for the screening. When they announced their schedule, Captain America was programmed for 11AM on Saturday, August 6th in the de Seve Theatre. When I said that I was thinking of attending the screening, that was the one that I was planning to attend. When Albert Pyun said that he would be there on July 13th, that was the screening that he was talking about.
But that is really beside the point. It would have been nice for Albert Pyun to attend the screening, but like Kevin Smith and Guillermo del Toro he was too busy. (Mind you to their credit, both Kevin Smith and Guillermo del Toro made videos to replace a personal appearance.) Albert Pyun got busy and couldn’t make it? Oh well, shit happens.
What is not acceptable, is failing to send the material so that your film can be screened properly. When a filmmaker’s film is accepted in a festival, especially when it is announced in the catalogue (and the Fantasia catalogue is one of the nicest Festival Program Books that you will find anywhere) you have a responsibility as a filmmaker to ensure that the best possible version of your film is being played for the audience. To do otherwise is not fair to the film, to the festival and to the audience who paid money to see the film.
Just to cite an extreme example from this year’s Fantasia, the Australian existentialist sci-fi film Exit was accepted to Fantasia based on a early rough cut. The director Marek Polgar rushed to complete the final cut only 3 days before he got on the plane to come to Fantasia. After the first sold-out screening, unhappy with the final sound mix – not that anyone in the audience complained or even noticed – he went back into his cut and remixed the sound for their second sold-out screening.
When I bought my ticket, it was number 112. In other words at least 112 people (probably more) paid either 8 or 9 dollars to see Albert Pyun’s Captain America and Tales of an Ancient Empire. As a result of Albert Pyun’s decision not to send the necessary material, Fantasia did not have Tales of an Ancient Empire to screen at all and they only had a low resolution screener of Albert Pyun’s work print of Captain America to show rather than a high res version of his Director’s Cut.
Fantasia is pretty classy in situations like this. They didn’t blame the director, they made an excuse for him. They decided to play the work print, warning us that the quality wasn’t going to be great. They also invited us to stay in the de Seve theatre to watch the next screening of Horny House of Horror for free and told us that our tickets would be good for free admission to any other screening on Saturday or Sunday, the final two days of the festival.
All of which is prelude to explain that what I am reviewing here is the work print of Albert Pyun’s Captain America.
This is a film that has been reviled as comic book fans. It has a worse reputation than The Fantastic Four from 1994, which was literally made so that the producers could renew their license on the property and then shelve the film. The question is: Is the film as bad as its reputation?
No, not really. It definitely dates from a period when comic book films were viewed with suspicion by Hollywood and barely funded, forcing directors like Pyun to make epic films for pennies on the dollar.
The biggest departure form the comic books is that the Red Skull is Italian. A piano playing child prodigy, he is snatched by Mussolini’s goons (his family machine-gunned down in front of him) because of his intelligence. They intend to use him as a human guinea pig for an experimental process which has already massively increased the strength and intelligence of rats, while also disfiguring their rodent faces into red skulls. When Dr. Vaselli (Carla Cassola) protests at using a child in the experiment, she escapes just ahead of machine-gun bullets, eventually arriving in the United States where she spends seven years perfecting the process that is then used to turn Steve Rogers into Captain America.
Dr. Vaselli is killed by a Nazi spy just like in the comic books, dying with the secret to the Super Soldier process. Steve Rogers’ first mission brings him into conflict with the Red Skull. He loses the fight and finds himself strapped to a rocket aimed for the White House. The Red Skull monologues too close to the Captain and when the Captain grabs the Skull’s arm just seconds before the rocket blasts off, the Skull is forced to cut off his own hand to save his life. The Captain is able to divert the rocket from the White House through a series of well-placed kicks, but the only witness to his heroism is a young boy. (The boy witness eventually shares his blurry photographic evidence with his best friend – a member of the Captain Midnight fan club.)
Somehow, the rocket has enough fuel that after just missing the White House, it crash-lands in Alaska! Captain America is frozen in ice for more than forty years, awaking (conveniently) after the young boy witness becomes President Tom Kimball (Ronny Cox). The President’s lifelong best friend is reporter and conspiracy buff Sam Kolawetz (Ned Beatty) who is convinced that the mysterious Red Skull is the mastermind between the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King.
The President is kidnapped in Rome (during an environmental conference) by the Red Skull so that the villain can plant a mind control device in the President making him more pliable to the needs of the military-industrial complex and less of environmentalist and New Deal Democrat. Captain America has to rescue the President leading to a final confrontation with the Red Skull…
Mixed with the 80’s cheesiness are some really good ideas. The Red Skull is much more of a tragic figure than the comic book version and his relationship with the Captain is a form of twisted brotherhood. The way that the Red Skull was ripped from his family leads a tragic dimension to his relationship with his daughter. While identified as Valentina de Santis (Francesca Neri) rather than as Sin, the abusive relationship should be familiar to any reader of Captain America.
Making the inventor of the Super Soldier process a woman also works well. Dr. Vaselli is the “Mother” of both the Red Skull and Captain America, again making them brothers. It even gives more textual validity to Skull and the Captain being the only Super Soldiers created by her process. Like Erskine in the original stories, she keeps the secret of the process in her head and it dies with her. Motherhood is not a process that can be duplicated by male science.
(As an incredibly minor quibble, I keep saying Super Soldier process rather than Super Soldier serum because no injection seems to be involved. A minor detail, but a telling one. Otherwise, the process looks like it was designed with left-over equipment from a low budget Frankenstein remake. Other than the missing injection, that works well. Dr. Vaselli, like Dr. Frankenstein, is usurping God to Capital C Create. She pays with her life, but her Creation is a happier one than Dr. Frankenstein’s, partly because Creation or Motherhood is something that comes more naturally to women than men.)
Lacking the budget (and the CGI technology) of Captain America: The First Avenger, the buff Matt Salinger’s 4-H status is explained with a limp and the reveal that he suffered polio as a child. This is not just a simple low budget solution to the problem. It connects Steve Rogers to the architect of the New Deal, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who also suffered from polio and was crippled as a consequence. It explains how Vaselli was able to get funding for her experiments and why Steve Rogers was picked for the program. A Super Soldier process invented by the Nazis might get scoffed at, but a cure for polio – one that would uncripple its victims? That would get (Presidential) attention in a heartbeat.
In a sense, Captain America’s first mission saves the life of the original New Deal Democrat and his second mission saves the life of Roosevelt’s spiritual heir. The film may lack Bucky Barnes and Nick Fury, but who is a better side-kick for Captain America than the President of the United States? (Granted FDR never actually appears in the film, but his presence is certainly felt.)
Part of Captain America‘s narrative is that he is a time traveller, frozen in ice for decades and unthawed to a time that he does not understand. Pyun’s film does a good job with this in a variety of ways. Steve Rogers is initially convinced after being unthawed that the Nazis are spoofing him to get him to reveal US secrets. The fact that every piece of equipment that reporter Sam Kolawetz uses is marked “Made in Japan” makes Steve rightfully suspicious. It is only when he makes his way to his California home, and meets his 1940’s sweetheart, now in her sixties, that Steve is convinced that he has skipped ahead 40 years.
The same actress (Kim Gillingham) plays Steve’s 1940’s girlfriend, the brunette Bernice “Bernie” Stewart and Bernie’s spunky blonde daughter Sharon in the present day. Again, this is not just a low budget workaround, it emphasizes Cap’s temporal confusion. (For comic-book trivia buffs: Bernie is a reference to Steve’s 1980’s girlfriend Bernie Rosenthal, while Sharon is a reference to Cap’s on-again, off-again secret agent girlfriend Sharon Carter, the niece of his WWII girlfriend Peggy Carter.)
The temporal distortion has an interesting affect on the relationship between the Red Skull and Cap. For the Red Skull, more than 40 years pass between his first fight with Cap and the second. For Cap, barely a week passes between the two fights. In fact, when they fight a second time, Cap’s uniform still has scars left from their first encounter. (Again, this is a low budget issue that actually works.) This compression does heighten the drama even if raises the question how Cap got good enough to beat the Skull so quickly. Or the concern that he only beat him because the Red Skull got old.
The best part of the film is Ronny Cox’ President Tom Kimball. He somehow manages to be presidential, while keeping the sparkle in his eyes of a little boy – inspired to become President after watching Cap save the White House while being strapped to a rocket. When kidnapped by the Red Skull, rather than just accepting the situation, he pockets a vial of acid, uses the acid to break out and rather than be recaptured and turned into the Red Skull’s mental slave, jumps off a castle tower in a literal expression of “Give me liberty or give me death.”
What doesn’t work? Pretty much everything else. The film is cheesy as hell. Cap’s cornball gee whiz dialogue is better suited to Captain Marvel than Captain America. Steve Rogers is supposed to be a patriot not a naif; he was raised during the Depression for fuck’s sakes.
While the broad strokes of the plot work, the details are a little goofy. Having the rocket just miss the White House and then crash-land (and not explode!) in Alaska is ridiculous. It is also a lost opportunity to connect the narratives of Tom Kimball and Steve Rogers in a more natural way. Say that the rocket crashed into an iceberg in the Atlantic, far-fetched but possible, was found by the Army and kept on ice in fear that thawing it out would detonate the missile. And the new President orders the masked war hero unthawed to be given a proper burial (somewhere remote in case the rocket does explode.) Then the President is actually responsible for Cap being around. Or if you insist on the Alaska crash-landing, at least have the President mention his concern about the Arctic melting to connect Cap’s release with the President’s environmental mission.
Part of the goofy plot hinges around Cap and Sharon finding the original laboratory where Cap was born, looking for Dr. Vaselli’s diary, hoping to find some details about the Red Skull. The diary is just sitting on a work-bench out in the open. This is just silly. There is no way that the government wouldn’t have seized the diary hoping to find enough details to duplicate the Super Soldier process. And even if they didn’t, the Red Skull’s suborned General Fleming played by Bill Mumy in the 40s and Darren McGavin in the present day would have confiscated it.
The entire “finding the diary” sequence doesn’t work. Granted that it is supposed to be in a basement lab that has been abandoned for 40 years, but it seems very dark. It could have been the print, but it would have been nice if Steve Rogers had been able to get some light on the situation. 40 year old generators working aren’t any more improbable than anything else in the film and Cap beating Skull’s modern goons with the help of (his “Mother’s”) 1940’s technology would have been a nice touch.
One minor, probably budget related complaint, is Scott Paulin’s makeup. He is in full Red Skull garishness in the 1940s, but in the present day he is just a scarred old man who has apparently had more plastic surgery than Joan Rivers. It would have been nice if the Red Skull makeup could have have made one last reappearance before the end. (And there was a vial of acid handy to pull off the trick.) It also would have been nice to have Paulin throw some goon around to show that the Red Skull was still a Super Soldier, still strong, still a threat in the present day, making his eventual defeat by Cap that much more impressive.
The Captain America costume is extremely faithful, looking like an award-winning Comic-Con cosplay costume. That is also the problem. The Jack Kirby design looks great in comic books and in animation, but it just doesn’t look right on the screen. Captain America gets the costume right, but the characters wrong. Really, it should be the other way around. Be faithful to the characters, adapt the costume to the needs of the screen.
Matt Salinger’s Steve Rogers is from California. That’s just wrong. Captain America was created by two New York Jews, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Steve Rogers may have been a blonde goy, but he was also a New York scrapper that grew up during the Great Depression fighting bullies just like Jack Kirby. During the Depression, California was where you escaped to. If you stayed in New York, you fought your way through the hard times. The Super Soldier process didn’t make Steve Rogers tough; the Super Soldier process made him strong, but he was already New York tough.
The comic book fan knee-jerk reaction and dismissal to this film turns out to be right. Scott Paulin is a great hammy villain, but an Italian Red Skull is an abomination. In the very first issue of Captain America Comics, cover-dated March 1941, but on the stands in December 1940 (a full year before Pearl Harbor) Cap is on the cover punching Adolf Hitler… not Mussolini. Cap is an expression of patriotism by Simon and Kirby. Their animosity was not aimed at Fascist Italy, who were bullied into anti-Semitism; their venom was reserved for Nazi Germany. An Italian Red Skull is not the arch enemy that Captain America deserves; not the best worst villain that Steve Rogers could have faced.
Ultimately, Albert Pyun’s Captain America has some good ideas diluted by a cheesy delivery and ruined by a fundamental misunderstanding of the character.
– Michael Ryan