Captain America Review
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Movies based on comic book superheroes show no signs of stopping any time soon—a phenomenon that has elicited equal parts excitement from fans and derision from critics. This summer, we’ve had successes like X-Men: First Class and failures like Green Lantern (as a longtime fan of the character, that was a particularly hard pill to swallow). Among the successes, we can count Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger. While the World War II-themed film emerged as one of the better entries in the genre, it certainly wasn’t the character’s first foray into the cinema, as seen by the DVD re-release of 1990’s Captain America, a film that can help remind us how far superhero movies have come in the last 20 or so years.

  
 
The most recent cinematic Captain America adventure kept things mostly confined to the 1940s, but this version uses those adventures as a starting point. It opens with the creation of the Red Skull (Scott Paulin), this time a young Italian boy who was kidnapped by Nazis and forced into experiments to create a super-soldier. Guilty over her role in the effort, Dr. Vaselli (Carla Cassola) defects to the U.S., where she spearheads the effort to turn good ol’ American boy Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger) into a force able to oppose the villain.

Their first confrontation ends badly for both, with the Red Skull’s plan defeated and Captain America frozen in Arctic ice. Some 50 years later, researchers discover the Captain and manage to revive him, leaving him somewhat confused and lost in the modern era. While he struggles to reconnect with the world, the Red Skull has also resurfaced, kidnapping U.S. President Kimball (Ronny Cox) in a bid to prevent his pro-environmental agenda from interfering with the corrupt military-industrial complex. Of course, there’s only one person who can stop the Red Skull—and, with the help of a reporter (Ned Beatty) and Sharon Carter (Kim Gilllingham), the daughter of his 1940s girlfriend, Captain America gets back into action.

More than anything else, Captain America is a reminder of what superhero movies used to be like. Partly due to technical limitations and partly due to audience tastes, these weren’t the mega-budget blockbusters that so infuriate film snobs now. Outside of the Superman franchise, which flamed out after the dismal fourth movie, and Batman, which had become a surprise hit, few producers were willing to risk much money on spandex-clad comic book heroes.

Those budgetary limitations are all over Captain America. Starting with a decent but uninspired script and continuing through the cast of unknowns and B-listers, everything feels cheap. Salinger does his best as the square-jawed Boy Scout, but he doesn’t have the experience or natural charisma to carry the film. Paulin hams it up as the Red Skull, occasionally showing some real flair, but mostly just wandering through typical villain clichés.

And then there’s the costume. If filmmakers have learned anything over the last decade of superhero films, it’s how to translate the look of a superhero into something that doesn’t immediately inspire laughter. Captain America hadn’t learned that yet, and it goes for a straight translation of red, white, and blue spandex, complete with wings over the ears.

To be fair, it isn’t an awful film. That distinction better applies to Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four, which was so bad it was never even released. Captain America tried to bring one of Marvel’s top characters to the screen, but it was hamstrung from the beginning by a lack of resources and an industry that hadn’t fully figured out how to translate what worked on the page to what works on the screen. Thankfully for those of us who have always been fans of the genre, they’ve gotten much, much better.

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