By Christopher Campbell | Spout July 19, 2011 at 8:04AM
This week I'll be seeing "Captain America: The First Avenger," an adaptation of a comic book I always avoided in my youth because the idea of a patriotically costumed superhero seemed so silly to me. At the time he was as hokey as Captain Planet or Ray Cycle, a character starring in a one-off comic published by the State of Connecticut at the start of the late '80s recycling revolution. Suffice to say I haven't been that excited about the new movie even if it is a part of the current Marvel repute (though "Thor" put a damper on that already for me). So to give myself some perspective, I watched the infamously bad 1990 film of "Captain America," assuming it would make the 2011 version seem like "Citizen Kane" no matter how terrible it is.
And of course the "original" is really, really bad. Enough that my first thought was to write up a list of the 50 most ridiculous parts. But I couldn't narrow it down. Sure, there are some awful moments that are a thousand times worse than other awful moments (the rocket sequence, for example). Mostly, though, I had questions, like "why did the supposedly super-intelligent Red Skull cut off his own arm?" and "how on Earth did we possibly win World War II when even our Super Soldier secret weapon couldn't succeed at one little mission?" and "why is Captain America's greatest power to feign car sickness?" Some questions conflicted other questions, such as "are we really to believe Ronny Cox as a good guy?," pitted against "was casting Ronny Cox as a noble, Capra-esque POTUS the best against-type hire in Hollywood ever?"
Speaking of the casting, it's both the best and worst thing ever that J.D. Salinger's kid not only is in movies but stars in one of the phoniest pieces of Hollywood garbage ever produced. That's right, Captain America/Steve Rogers is played here by Matt Salinger (who apparently lives in Connecticut and so is perhaps familiar with Ray Cycle, who he should portray in another phony superhero B movie). And he's as bad at acting as his dad is good at writing and reclusive living combined.
But why keep on about the negative aspects of "Captain America," particularly when the movie is universally known for it's faults and failure? It wasn't even released in theaters, after all, and though it was put out on VHS it hasn't really been available for years (except for used copies and a so-so YouTube transfer). Picking on it is like picking on a poor and physically handicapped old man. Besides, this week I'm fueled by a recent Guardian interview with Slavoj Žižek, in which he says, "I have been to terrible films before. There is always something worth seeing." I tend to agree with this idea that few films are entirely worthless. He was on his way to watch "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," which indeed has a lot of worthwhile parts amidst the overall terrible experience. "Captain America" at least made me laugh a few times.
For something like "Transformers," and many of today's blockbusters, the production value makes up for the script value, and I had heard the old "Cap" movie was the exact opposite. A great story without great execution, is the consensus, a defense for its potential and the consideration that it was merely a missed opportunity. Hopefully one that will be redeemed finally this year. I can't agree about the foundations, though, and while I hate to keep kicking the film while it's down, I must dispute that Stephen Tolkin's screenplay is any better than Albert Pyun's direction or 21st Century Films' bank account. Most of the questions I wrote down while watching had to do with plot and dialogue issues rather than anything related to the actual physical production of the movie, which money aside is on par with some of the more recent superhero movies, and certainly some TV series.
Could the movie have been any worse? Well, as much as the movie's cheap production quality and cartoonish idealism is faithful to that hokey boy scout conception I'd had of the hero around the time it was made, "Captain America" is not actually as corny as Ray Cycle or Captain Planet (who is now getting his own movie, coincidentally) or even "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace," in which the Man of Steel went up against a villain who might as well have been an anthropomorphic nuclear missile. Though this has a minor environmentalist agenda, the address of the cause is quite generalized and pretty much just a trend of the times. Cap doesn't fight a monster made of trash and the Red Skull doesn't seem pro pollution or anything. His reason for being against the President's environmentalist cause is just a superficial one of "evil," much like the motives of the villain in "X-Men: First Class" -- which has a near-exact opening to this movie, as a matter of fact.
I do appreciate when low-budget, lowbrow movies work with social messages, the kind that are likely often written into mainstream genre flicks only to be watered down for the sake of apolitical worldwide appeal. For some reason "The Toxic Avenger" isn't that hokey in spite of its eco theme, probably because it's so dark and violent, its optimism hidden underneath a crude coat of cynical sludge. I'd have loved to see "Quest for Peace" or "Cap" made by Troma rather than producer Menahem Golan (who also obviously crapped out the horrible He-Man movie, "Master of the Universe"), not that that would have ever happened in a million years. So because this movie ended up being more of a B movie than it should have been, it could have done with some interesting subtext or even a more specific ideological stance, as long as it wasn't too preachy.
As it stands, with another $100 million in its budget, and maybe another director, this film would still have only been as good as "Conspiracy Theory" crossed with "Forever Young" (interestingly enough, Salinger wishes it had been more like another Mel Gibson movie, "Lethal Weapon") meets "Unknown" (which has a similar ending, issue-wise, with its cure for world hunger unveiled as the credits begin). That movie really doesn't sound much better, and in fact it might have been less memorable than the amusingly kitschy abomination that it is. Maybe it could have held out a year and fit right into the summer of 1991 with bombs like "Hudson Hawk" and "The Rocketeer," similarly earning less than even "The Naked Gun 2 1/2," which it so happens features a villain with the same plot as "Captain America"'s.
Will Joe Johnston (who directed "The Rocketeer") give us something of higher cost but not of any real higher value with the new "remake" of "Captain America"? Let's hope there's a little more production quality and substance this time around.
"Captain America" was supposed to finally hit DVD yesterday, but I see no sign of it at any of the major online retailers.