Old Captain, My Captain! Matt Salinger Is Your First Movie Captain America!
I saw 1990's Captain America for my bad-movie quest and was surprised by how much I liked it. Hell, my original notes read, "I honestly enjoy it more than Transformers or Fantastic Four 2". Sure, there was the dogs-playing-pool-painting kitsch appeal but the film was also genuinely engaging in parts and possessed of a scrappy charm throughout. This week, though, I couldn't quite put my finger on exactly why I recalled it so fondly. There was only one thing to do: while the rest of the world held its breath to see whether Chris Evans would accept the shield of destiny, I'd revisit the movie which had Matt Salinger, son of J.D, as its main masked man.
Given the insane levels of interest in The First Avenger: Captain America, it's amusing that twenty years ago no-one outside the comic-book store much cared about the franchise. When the film wrapped in 1990, it sat on the shelf for a couple years before finally sneaking out onto VHS. Few noticed, though Entertainment Weekly took the time to give it a small review with a F grade. Was it all that bad? Well, a little bit yes but mostly no.
Captain America might've made more of a splash if the role had gone to someone with a higher profile. Or any profile. Michael Keaton was Batman. Warren Beatty was Dick Tracy. Even 1989's low-rent The Punisher got Dolph Lundgren, who'd been in a Bond film, a Rocky sequel and played He-Man in 1987's Masters Of The Universe. While Matt Salinger had "Is he related to...?" surname recognition, the young actor's biggest credit was 1984's Revenge Of The Nerds. And with his blond good looks and strapping frame he didn't even play one of the heroes of that hit.
Successful franchises have been born with newbies -- Christopher Reeve was unknown till he donned the Superman tights -- but what also went against Captain America was having Menahem Golan as producer. The schlockmeister only had the rights to the character as part of a severance package from his ailing churn-and-earn B-movie house The Cannon Group. And the man Golan planted behind the camera, Albert Pyun, hadn't made a halfway decent film since his guilty-pleasure 1982 debut The Sword And The Sorcerer. Put it this way: there wasn't a lot of money, talent or love being poured into Captain America.
Which makes it surprising that the result isn't an F at all. More like a C-minus -- but one of those goofily endearing failing students. (Rate it yourself, it's free on Hulu) Much of this has to do with the goodwill earned by an initially brisk pace that keeps us from getting too hung up on the plot holes or leaps of illogic. We move quickly from a juvenile Red Skull being singled out for amplification by Nazi fascists in 1936 to the spin-off 1943 American program that seeks to create super soldiers but uses as its test subject polio-afflicted Steve Rogers when an above-ordinary G.I. might produce extraordinary results. There's zero explanation of the process -- except that it causes a lot of electrical sparks and some calf-muscle close-ups -- or exactly what powers it bestows.
When the smoke clears, vaguely superfied Steve, now code-named Captain America, is ready to don a fireproof suit (designed by his creator, Dr Vassily, who, it's explained, didn't know much about camoflage but "sure did love the red white and blue") and parachute behind enemy lines to stop grown up Red Skull (he must now be all of 14) launching an ICBM at America on behalf of his Nazi overlords. Captain America wears a mask decorated with little wings (also unexplained) and takes along the shield (ditto) that sometimes works like a super-boomerang and sometimes doesn't but whose red-white-blue pattern sure glows brightly on the darkened battlefield (Salinger nails a reaction shot of disbelief, though it's uncertain if this was in character or his real bemusement at the scenario).
Anyway, having arrived at Red Skull's lair, Captain America barely puts up a fight before he's strapped to the rocket and fired at the White House. Only! ... in the nearest of near misses, he manages to divert the missile to Alaska -- but not before a visiting kid from Springfield, Ohio, snaps a photo of the superhero stuck on the underbelly of the projectile.
That kid grows up to be President and Captain America has a big sleep in the Arctic snow, with the passage of those five decades marked by shonky headlines set to Duran Duran-esque pop. One such newspaper mock-up is actually misspelled and they're all wickedly generic, with my favorite from the movie being the screamer: "War Rages On In Pacific And Europe". It's up there with the title overlay over a shot of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that helpfully tells us this is: "White House, Washington, D.C."
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