Part Two: Super Soldiers
1979 (I) – “Sensational!”
Somewhere around 1975, Marvel started pushing its characters hard to the CBS television network. In 1977, The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man aired well-received pilots that led to regular series for both characters. The Incredible Hulk ran for five seasons and was revived in the late ’80s for a trio of TV movies. Its stars, Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, became beloved figures among comic book fans. The Amazing Spider-Man and its stars, Nicholas Hammond, Michael Pataki, and Robert F. Simon, did not become beloved; the show lasted only 13 episodes. However, it has its fans and the clunky Spider-Man costume and its accessories hold a bit of primitive charm
1978 brought Dr. Strange, starring soap-opera refugee Peter Hooten. It featured a special appearance by Sir John Mills, as a Caucasian Ancient One fill-in, and the luscious (even today) Jessica Walters as the seductive villain, Morgan le Fay. While it had strong moments, Dr. Strange lacked the ratings or a solid enough vision to pull a series pickup. Airing against Roots didn’t help, and the Sorcerer Supreme disappeared from live action, although Marvel Studios supposedly intends to make a theatrical feature with the character.
Better-received was Captain America, in 1979. It performed well-enough to rate a sequel, Captain America: Death Too Soon, later the same year. Both telefilms starred Reb Brown, a former college football star who today may best be known for appearing in the South African cheapie Space Mutiny/Mutiny in Space, which was nicely savaged by the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew.
For a third time, there was no World War II setting, or even a direct military connection. However, Captain America was finally named Steve Rogers. Steve here was a well-meaning lunkhead, a former Marine-motorcycle racer-surf bum-painter just looking to travel the roads of America, work on his art, and find himself.
In the movie, Steve is called to a secure laboratory by Simon Mills, a former student of Steve’s late father. Simon explains that the elder Rogers developed a “super hormone” that he called “Full Latent Ability Gain” – yes, FLAG. It allowed an animal to exploit all of its physical potential. But the research is stalled. The test animals, while granted great strength and speed, “slowly madden and die.” Rogers, senior, based his work on his own adrenal gland, and it won’t take with the test animals. The hormone worked on his father, however, and dad in his younger days chose to right wrongs as a “super crime fighter” his enemies derisively nicknamed “Captain America.” Steve, genetically similar to his father, can offer hope for perfecting FLAG.
Not wanting to be a guinea pig, Steve politely rejects Simon’s proposal and goes on his way. When a friend is killed and the friend’s daughter endangered, Steve steps in to investigate. It’s a dumb move – the criminals run Steve’s motorcycle off a cliff, leaving him critically injured. Simon comes to the rescue with FLAG. Brown was hauling a lot of muscle from his football and boxing days, so there would be no scrawny-into-beefy transformation. Steve’s new abilities are soon tested when he’s kidnapped by the criminals who killed his friend, and he reluctantly decides to help Simon.
They fit out Steve with a rocket-assisted motorcycle housed in what used to be his van’s sink and oven cupboards. It’s presumptuous, and Steve’s left nowhere to make his scrambled eggs Sunday mornings! He also gets a plastic shield, clear with red concentric circles and a blue star at the center – “rather a deadly weapon,” Simon says. Even when Steve throws it with his FLAG strength, it travels a good deal slower than a hard-tossed Frisbee. They dress the hero in an Evel Knievel-style spandex suit based on a sketch of Steve’s that Simon declares “sensational!” Top that off with a motorcycle helmet painted with the “A” and surprisingly silly wings, and it’s the least faithful Captain America costume of all.
Cap ’79 Mark I wears no mask, preferring to disguise his identity (barely) with a pair of motorcyclist’s goggles. Under his helmet is a cowl emblazoned with the famous “A,” although we never see it in the movie.
None of the silliness is mitigated by the facts that Brown was a very bad actor and that he didn’t look at all bright.
Throughout, we get a fine introduction to Brown’s genitals. This, friends, is why Captain America of the comics often wears trunks over his tights.
When Steve has saved the west coast from a neutron bomb, he agrees to become Captain America full time. The movie originally ended there, with a happy-all-around moment. If you saw it when it aired for the first time, you might have been confused when Steve donned a completely different costume later in the year. When the first installment was repeated, a badly dubbed transition led to Steve expressing his wishes to be the Captain America his father had been, to look like him.
That didn’t make any damned sense, because we’d been told that “Captain America” was merely a slur criminals used against the elder Rogers. He wasn’t a superhero in the traditional sense, but more a Six Million Dollar Man type, using his gifts while in civvies. But CBS wanted the kiddies to understand why Captain America had a new costume, so we got a quick sequence with Steve showing off for Simon.
1979 (II): “Magnificent!”
Simon having declared the new costume “magnificent!” in the transitional scene that now ends the first movie, Steve dives right into Death Too Soon – a plot by a slumming Christopher Lee to extort millions from the federal government by threatening to kill an entire city with a drug that speeds up aging. You read that correctly; Christopher Lee agreed to appear in an American superhero TV movie.
The new suit is, surprisingly, the most comics-accurate costume to that point, with buccaneer boots, white half-sleeves and even sculpted wings on Cap’s headgear – though still, I must sadly say, on his motorcycle helmet. They look ridiculous, but it’s more attractive than the odd, painted wings from last time around. Steve has trunks on over the tights, thank all that’s good and pure, so there’s much less peekaboo with the little captain. On the negative side, Steve’s mask under the helmet appears to be made of thick vinyl and looks very uncomfortable. And the suit is, again, shiny spandex, that being the best option for stretch material at the time.
Steve is still atop the Honda cycle, and the slowly spinning shield actually seems to have become more ridiculous. It’s bulletproof, supposedly, but attack dogs can bend it. Hardly mighty. None of this is helped by Brown’s junior high school acting class performance, but at least he looks half-acceptable.
1990: “That Crazy Fireproof Uniform”
As Cap’s 50th anniversary approached, there was pressure within the Golan-Globus film production company, which then held the rights, to have a movie ready before 1991. A story was created by TV writer Stephen Tolkin and novelist Lawrence Block, with a script by Tolkin. Tolkin admitted at the time that he had never read a Captain America comic. Perhaps no one else involved had, either; it might explain why the both Cap and the Red Skull were created by a female, Italian scientist, Dr. Vaselli. Or why the Skull was a 10-year-old Italian kidnapped in 1936 by Il Duce and forced to undergo the super soldier process before Dr. Vaselli escaped to America and refined the technique that was used on Steve Rogers.
A lot of things might be explained by Tokin’s unfamiliarity with the character. Others appear to have been the casualties of a slashed budget and rushed production after the project moved to 21st Century Film Corporation, when Golan-Globus split. Still others seem related to director Albert Pyun’s less-than-spectacular skills. While hardly incompetent, Pyun was used to working on a smaller scale. He planned big and failed. But while this is not a good movie, neither is it terrible. It’s very genuine in its emotions and ideas. It is not interested in jingoism, in spite of some rah-rah moments. It believes there is a reason good people do good things and some less-good people do bad things. Not all of its conflict is based in right vs. wrong. I almost like it.
For the first time, the movie makers attempted a transformation from frail Steve to well-muscled Cap, without a lot of success. Matt Salinger, who played Steve, was in good shape and somewhat muscular, but not bulging. He didn’t have the build for either pre-transformation Steve or post-transformation Cap. So they cheated. Steve’s relative frailty was explained away by childhood polio. He was thin, but had kept himself in shape as much as possible.
The imaginative people behind the movie did this by first putting Salinger in oversize civilian clothes and using makeup to hollow out his cheeks and eyes. It was mildly successful but mitigated by the fact that, in 1943, most young men wore looser-fitting shirts and jackets.
The actual transformation was handled similarly. Salinger lay down in the treatment chair in a large medical smock. The process was conducted largely in darkness, with shifting lights used to suggest the growth of Salinger’s calves and forearms. He got out of the chair in a smaller, tighter-fitting smock, wearing standard hero movie makeup. While simple and not very convincing, the Project: Rebirth scene at least gave the audience an attempt at a significant part of the origin story.
Conceptually, the costume is great, incorporating all the famous characteristics of the comic-book suit. It has buccaneer boots, flared gloves, red and white stripes, wings on the cowl, and a big star. The designers, however, still faced the problem of the star’s physique not being comic-book perfect. The “crazy fireproof uniform” Vaselli had made for Steve fits Salinger less like a glove and more like a suit borrowed from a larger friend.
The designers, though, found comfort in latex and plastic. Can’t see Salinger’s abdominal muscles through the stretched rubber? Build them into a half-shirt. Unfortunately, the half-shirt isn’t supposed to be Batman-style body armor. The rubber doesn’t move like muscles, and the sculptor takes the “abs” almost as high as Salinger’s nipples.
The chest star and the “A” on the cowl are thick rubber, obviously glued-on. The wings, larger than in many comics, are a bit startling. The ears are fake; Salinger’s skin chafed badly when the cowl was glued down around his ears, so they fabricated some plastic copies that, unfortunately, took a beating during filming. Here, poor Cap looks determined, but his ears are buckling as if they’d been chewed upon.
In some shots, the costume’s weaknesses combine to show us a Cap who looks like he’d shrunk during his time in the ice. No matter how beaten and tired, Cap should never seem as if he’s still wearing his Hallowee’en costume after a weekend as hard as the one in “The Hangover.”
So it went. Salinger wasn’t big enough to fill the suit. The latex creases badly. The fake abs and ears often look fake, and Cap once again suffers from mask-tenting disease that pulls the cowl’s eye holes out of line and make him look cross-eyed.
Surprisingly, the more battered and dirty the suit gets, the more believable it seems. When things work, mostly in battles with the Red Skull – when the lighting is right, when Salinger holds himself properly, and especially when the fight choreography is good – it looks like Captain America was on the screen. The shield, though obviously made of plastic and oddly ribbed on its top side, flew fast, repels bullets convincingly, and ricochets hard off walls when it isn’t a distracting visual effect.
The people behind Captain America 1990 may not have been great talents, but they wanted to make a good movie, and they worked hard at it. The hard work shows.
The Red Skull, like Cap, spends a lot of time in the movie out of costume, in a way. Only in the 1943 sequence does the Skull show anything resembling his traditional visage. Perhaps finding the character too silly, the writers had the Skull’s face altered by plastic surgery so that he appears reasonably normal, though badly scarred, in the scenes set in 1993. I found it a poor idea at the time, though it makes sense in the story. The Skull clearly hates being a deformed victim of his government, so he moves beyond the identity imposed upon him. It’s a shame, though, because Scott Paulin’s makeup is more interesting and believable than the very literal version seen in The First Avenger.
Next: “I Had Some Ideas About the Uniform”