This week Neil Calloway looks at a forgotten Marvel comic book film from 1990…
With the release next week of Captain America: Civil War, it’s time to look back when Marvel Films weren’t blockbuster event movies with bottomless budgets and huge all star casts.
The 1990s were an odd time for superhero movies; the Batman films were doing well at the box office, and there were several attempts to get Superman back off the ground, but most of the films were substandard versions of relatively unknown superheroes. One exception to that rule – or at least to the unknown superheroes part of it – was 1990’s Captain America film.
Before the MCU came into being, the film rights for Marvel characters were owned by different production companies. Cannon Films – who produced the last of the Superman films starring Christopher Reeve – had snapped up the rights to Captain America. When founder Menahem Golan left Cannon, he took Captain America with him and produced his own movie.
You can see the thinking; if a dark Batman movie directed by the guy who did Beetlejuice can make millions at the box office, surely an iconic character like Captain America can be a hit, too? That could have been their thinking, or they just had to make a cheap movie before their hold on the rights expired. Having seen the film (it’s available on DVD very cheaply now, with the subtitle “The Original Avenger” on the cover), I’d go with the latter.
Val Kilmer was apparently approached for the role of Captain America/Steve Rogers as were Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dolph Lungdren, whose accents presumably disqualified them. The role eventually went to Matt Salinger – son of Catcher in the Rye author JD Salinger.
The film is better than the unreleased 1990s version of The Fantastic Four, but not by much. An early shot of the White House is captioned “The White House, Washington, DC”, so the potential audience aren’t confused by one of the most famous buildings in the world. Here the Red Skull is an Italian Fascist soldier turned Mafia boss, who leads a shadowy cabal of cigar chomping industrialists that were responsible for the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. A child who photographed Captain America on his first mission grows up and is elected President on a environmentalist ticket. Kidnapped by the Red Skull during a summit in Italy, Captain America – who has conveniently awoken from his being frozen in Alaska since the Second World War – is the only one who can save him.
As early 1990s straight to video (it got a theatrical release outside the US) action movies go, it just about stands up, though there is very little action to speak of, but as a Captain America film it is sorely lacking. Ronny Cox, who plays the President and also starred in Total Recall and Robocop, said it was one of the best scripts he’d ever read, but something went wrong; you can guess that the budget was cut, they didn’t get the director they wanted – Michael Winner and John Stockwell were lined up to helm the film before direct to video veteran Albert Pyun took over. Stan Lee defended the film before its release, but as he gets a producer credit he was probably contractually obliged to do so.
It’s not a great film, and is really only of interest as a pre-MCU curio for hardcore Marvel fans. It should be shown in a bad comic book movie double bill with the unreleased Fantastic Four movie from 1994; aficionados can quote the President’s line at the end of the film when Captain America has saved him and told him to hide until the danger is over, “I’m not bailing out on Captain America.” I’d go to a screening, but Chris Evans and the Russo Brothers don’t have much to worry about.
Neil Calloway is a pub quiz extraordinaire and Top Gun obsessive. Check back here every Sunday for future instalments.