The ‘90s were not a particularly kind decade to superheroes in film. Nobody at the time really knew how to tell a solid, compelling superhero story with interesting characters in live-action. Apparently, because comic books tend towards being cheesy and over the top (in a fun way), movie makers decided that their comic book movies had to be cheesy and over the top, too (but not in a fun way). And the Yugoslavian-American production of Captain America released in 1990 is no exception.
The movie was budgeted for $10 million. In other words: It was made on the cheap. However, it only grossed $10 thousand at the box office. That should tell you how successful it was.
A few fun facts: Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin, the parents from A Christmas Story, both appear in the film. Also, Matt Salinger, the actor who plays Captain America, is the son of the author J.D. Salinger. This does make me feel a little sorry that I have to trash the movie he starred in.
Captain America opens in 1930s Italy as fascist soldiers break into a family home and grab the young son, saying they need him for his “superior intellect.” Then they shoot and kill all the other family members. (Yeah, this isn’t a family friendly Marvel Studios flick.)
The boy is taken to a lab where it’s explained that a new procedure has been developed to make living beings way stronger and smarter. They know this procedure is definitely going to work because they tested it out on this ugly-ass rat.
See how well it turned out?
Now it’s time to test it out on a human, and this kid is the first volunteer. (And when I say “volunteer,” obviously I mean forced human guinea pig.)
When they bring in the scientist who invented the procedure, she’s horrified by the prospect of using it on a child and refuses to have any part of the experiment. In retaliation, the soldiers try to kill her, but she manages to escape, leaving the fascists to experiment on the little boy.
Obviously, this is supposed to be the origin of the Red Skull. Who now has an Italian origin. Everyone knows that the Red Skull is supposed to be a German dude named Johann Schmidt who worked alongside Hitler and the Nazis and went on to form the terrorist group, Hydra, but we’ll let that slide.
So, why did his nationality have to be changed? Was it too expensive to get a German actor to take on the role? Was it because it was cheaper to film in Italy instead of Germany? Captain America came out in 1990, so did the Berlin Wall play a role in this decision? There are so many unanswered questions.
The movie then jumps seven years into the future and we’re smack dab in the middle of World War II. The scientist who invented the super-soldier procedure has apparently defected to the United States and refined the experiment. This means the next guy up won’t have his face turned into a bruised, rotting tomato. And that lucky guy is… Steve Rogers! He lives in Redondo Beach, California (NOT BROOKLYN, NEW YORK).
You see, Steve Rogers has been severely disabled by polio and was unable to join the army to serve his country. Just look at this frail, weak, crippled man.
Yeah, you can really tell just how sickly he is. If you squint you might see him limp. Slightly.
Captain America: The First Avenger went to the trouble to show a distinct contrast between pre and post-Project Rebirth Steve Rogers. It was critical to show just how physically underdeveloped and frail he is before he gets all buff and beefy so you can see the awesome power of this super-soldier serum
Here he is before the experiment:
And here is after the experiment:
Big difference, right?
In the 1990 movie, we’ve seen Steve before the procedure:
And here he is after the procedure:
See the difference? No, of course, you can’t. Because there is no physical difference! Actually, he looks a lot worse than he did before the procedure.
A Nazi spy infiltrates the experiment and murders the lead scientist, and when Steve is able to take the guy out, that’s how we know it worked. Oh, and he doesn’t have that minor limp anymore. Yay!
After Steve gets pumped full of superman serum, he’s getting shipped out right away, but first, he’s got to say goodbye to his gal back home. Bernice, I guess, is supposed to be the stand-in for Peggy Carter. Except she does much less. And by less, I mean nothing.
Remember in The First Avenger where Steve has to go through extensive training and really get a handle on his abilities before he can go out and fight? Yeah, that doesn’t happen here. Cap’s had his new powers for roughly a day before the American army decides, “Good enough,” shoves him out of a plane all Captain America-d out, and yells, “Go get them, Nazis, Steve!”
Cap comes face to face with the Red Skull who is planning a missile launch to destroy Washington, DC. The Red Skull proves to be a formidable adversary since he and Cap have the same powers, only Red Skull is clearly riper.
Not only does he look like a diseased strawberry, but the Red Skull trained for seven years while Cap had roughly five minutes and was just handed a giant plastic frisbee shield.
Cap ends up tied to the ballistic missile and headed on a one-way trip to DC. Not gonna lie, for all of his supposed great power, Captain America kind of sucks here.
The missile gets dangerously close to hitting the White House before Cap manages to redirect its path in the most cartoonishly hilarious way possible by kicking one of its fins mid-flight. So the missile ends up in Alaska and crashes into the ice where Captain America is frozen beneath the icy depths. A hero, but presumed dead. Don’t worry though, unlike First Avenger, this movie is far from over.
When Cap is saving DC, a little boy named Tom Kimball sees him redirect the missile and manages to snap one photo of him. Inspired, little Tom Kimball vows to become President of the United States one day.
Fifty years pass, and young Tom does indeed grow up to become President of the United States after serving in Vietnam, serving in local politics and later as a Congressman. A respected President, Tom Kimball wants to do what is best for the country and the world. His latest endeavor is a push for strict worldwide environmental legislation that will help preserve the planet and the ultimate well-being of all human life.
Is there any way we could get this guy to be our real-life president?
Well, this just pisses off all the military figures of the world who gather in secret to decide how they can get rid of Kimball. And who do you think is heading the entire operation? This guy named Tadzio de Santis!
Does he look familiar to you? He should because that’s clearly the Red Skull after some really cheap plastic surgery. Does nobody notice that this guy’s face radiates a distinct ketchup-tint?
Well, it turns out that this group is responsible for all the major assassinations over the last fifty years; John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., etc. But the Red Skull insists that this time, they can’t just resort to straight-up killing Kimball. They can’t have another martyr on their hands.
Instead, they kidnap Kimball from a world summit in Italy and plan to stick a microchip into his brain so they have complete control over him. This is basically a horror show for tin foil hat wearers everywhere.
Meanwhile, Captain America has been thawed out of the Alaskan ice by some researchers.
Once he realizes that he’s woken up fifty years in the future, what’s he going to do? Go find his old girlfriend, of course! While wearing a sketchy trench coat in California heat and running down the street like a lunatic while dramatic music plays in the background.
Luckily for Steve, Bernice hasn’t gone anywhere, so when he turns up at her house, the exact one she lived in for more than fifty years, she’s right there!
Oh, and she’s married and has a kid. I said she hasn’t moved in over fifty years, I never said she didn’t move on.
This is Bernice’s daughter, Sharon who is supposed to be this world’s Sharon Carter equivalent. Only without being a cool, highly trained S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (and yes, the actress playing Bernice also plays the daughter).
I’m sorry, I can’t not laugh every time she’s on-screen. Again, this movie was made in 1990, so we’re still at the height of bad 80s fashion.
The elderly Bernice and Steve have a tender reunion in the kitchen while presumably, her gutted husband listens from the other room with a cup to the door.
But the homecoming doesn’t last long because Steve’s Alaskan thaw-out made international headlines. The Red Skull soon sends a team of assassins to California to kill Cap.
The assassins track Steve to Bernice’s house. She’s shot and killed, and her husband has a heart attack from the shock. Bernice’s husband is still alive, just unconscious. But we’ll never know his fate because we never see him again.
At the hospital, Steve and Sharon hear the breaking news of President Kimball’s kidnapping, so it’s off to Italy to save him! Sharon, despite having no discernable espionage or combat skills, is tagging along because she’s fluent in Italian after studying there for a month.
Cap and Sharon discover the Red Skul’s origins and visit his old home where they find the recording of his kidnapping and family’s murder by the Nazis on an old radio. How convenient that someone had the foresight to record their own murder!
Next, they head to the Red Skull’s fortress where the President is being held. Kimball manages to escape his cell and meets up with Captain America along the way. Cap conveniently recognizes the boy he almost hit with a giant missile fifty years ago, so they decide to team up.
The Red Skull is about to detonate a nuclear bomb, so Cap unleashes his secret weapon. He literally breaks the Red Skull’s mind by playing the recording of his family’s murder.
While the Red Skull is paralyzed by a PTSD flashback, Cap seizes the opportunity to fling his frisbee-shield and knock him off the side of the building.
The Red Skull is gone, President Kimball’s environmental pact passes (seriously, can we find this guy?), while Captain America and Sharon embrace, implying a new romance along with a lifetime of horribly dysfunctional sexual issues. If Sharon’s father ever gets out of the coma, this will surely finish him off for good.
So, was it a good movie? Not at all. It’s another cheap Marvel superhero movie where no one knows how to tell a compelling story. The characters are flat and just placeholders fulfilling their formulaic roles. I never really even felt I got to know Steve Rogers/Captain America; he’s just a cardboard cutout superhero. You don’t really feel anything for any of the characters because we don’t know them. And this movie definitely lays down the melodrama and the cheesiness thickly.
If you really want to see how early Marvel movies looked before they became awesome, it’s worth a look since you can watch it for free on YouTube. It’ll give you a renewed appreciation for what we have now. Even Thor: The Dark World looks better in comparison.