Captain America: The First Avenger is set to hit theaters this Friday but it isn’t the first attempt by Marvel Comics to translate their iconic hero to the big screen. While DC was churning out Batman and Superman flicks at will in the 80’s and early 90’s, Marvel was lagging behind. For the Captain America’s 50th Anniversary Marvel Comics put together a feature film centered around the hero.
Financing issues (which the production ran into after it had moved overseas for shooting in Europe) and the addition of stunt sequences, further re-shoots, and editing bogged the film down. Captain America went unreleased for two years. Although it did see the inside of theaters internationally, in the country of his origin poor Captain America was limited to a unheralded straight-to-video release.
The film begins neither in America nor in Germany, but in Mussolini’s Italy. A young boy is brutally ripped from his family and taken to a secret government laboratory where a reluctant scientist, Dr. Vaselli (Carla Cassola), will attempt to create the world’s first Super Soldier.
Seven years later, after escaping Italy, Dr. Vaselli attempts to undue the damage done by creating the Red Skull (Scott Paulin) by choosing Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger), an honest and patriotic young man burdened with Polio, to become America’s first Super Soldier. As in the comics, the experiment is a success but the scientist and the knowledge of the procedure is lost in an assassination by a Nazi sympathizer (Gary Epper).
The film truncates Captain America’s military service to a single mission to stop the Red Skull. Despite being severely wounded in the attack on Dr. Vaselli, Rogers volunteers for the mission to stop the launch of a Nazi attack. In a situation similar to the comic’s origin, Captain America stops a missile destined for the US, but becomes lost for decades when he is frozen in the Arctic.
Once dethawed and united with a journalist (Ned Beatty) and the daughter of his childhood sweethart (both played by Kim Gillingham) Captain America tries to put his life back together and save the President from a diabolical plot by the Red Skull and one of the President’s own advisors (Darren McGavin).
Although much maligned the film does do justice to the character in many ways. The script spends time featuring Steve Rogers and showcasing why he’s a hero, Super Soldier Serum or no. The man out of time storyline, central to the charter’s origin, is also explored. Also worthy of note, the film includes the Red Skull’s daughter (Francesca Neri) whose role in the current Marvel Universe has increased dramatically over the past few years.
Where the film falters is in its lack of style. In many ways it certainly looks cheap, and it was. The film was finished only due to director Albert Pyun putting up his own money to see the project through. While the tattered costume works well enough after years in the Arctic, it’s not as heroic as some might like. The shield attacks and stunt sequences are adequate for a mid-range action-drama, but feel rushed and mostly forgettable.
Some of the film’s cheesier aspects also are problematic such as the kid (Garette Ratliff Henson) who sees Captain America tied to the missile over Washington D.C. becomes the environmentally friendly President of the United States (Ronny Cox) when Rogers is resurrected.
Captain America isn’t a great movie, but it’s far better than many of it’s critics would have you believe. I’ve seen it referred to as the worst comic book movie of all-time. That’s simply not true. I’d compare it favorably to something like the low budget 1994 version of The Fantastic Four (which is far better than Tim Story’s craptastic masterpiece) and despite its budgetary issues it gets far more right than even the best of the Punisher films or Elektra.
We’ll never know how good this version of Captain America could have been had Marvel given it a proper budget and the full backing of the company. As it stands it’s more of a curiosity than anything else, but fans of the character, and comic book movies in general, should try to find themselves a copy and give it a fresh look. As to whether Marvel’s new film will have better success, I guess we’ll have to wait and see.