Time for me to come clean and admit I never really liked Captain America. I don’t hate him, no matter how many times I joke about him being a fascist propaganda tool…or a rampaging national id who only exists to spout jingoistic platitudes and win Marvel some gratuitous Patriot Points. Beneath all that I really do understand his appeal.
But come on. Really, what’s so special about Steve Rogers? Line him up with all the other great heroes of the early 40s and compare. Doc Savage is a memory. The Shadow‘s a hallow catch phrase. The Phantom had a movie, but that starred Billy Zane and took fifty years to make. Yet here’s this blond hunk of apple pie, no matter how long you leave him frozen in ice he’ll always pop right off the operating table, ready to kick ass and take names… in America! Or anywhere else S.H.E.I.L.D. needs him.
Ah, but once…back in the Golden Age of Superhero Movies…Marvel tried to update good ol’ Steve for the Masses. Make him hip and relevant for a broader, TV audience that had ignored comic books entirely until Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman and Lou Ferrigno’s Incredible Hulk smashed their way onto CBS in 1975 and ’77, respectively. Heck, even though it’s 2011, I’m still technically this TV movie’s target audience, so why not, eh?
Steve Rogers is here reimagined as an ex-Marine recently discharged and taking a “slow and easy” cruise down the California coast in his “mellow set of wheels”…which, these days – and hell, even at the time this was made – most tend to call a “shaggin’ wagon.” Stopping to collect his telegrams from a roadside surfer dude, Steve discovers some messages from a guy named Simon Mills (Len Birman) and some bad news from an actual friend named Jeff Hayden (Dan Barton). Jeff won’t talk about it over the phone, so Steve arranges to meet up after he visits this Mills dude.
Little does Steve know he’s being watched by a shady character with a walkie talkie. Who, it turns out, is the spearhead of a vast conspiracy that forces Steve into the kind of elaborate trap only TV conspiracies from the late ’70s would even bother about. They stage a fake construction site to divert Steven onto a side road and then cover the side road in an it-could-only-be-deliberate oil slick. Obviously, this conspiracy doesn’t know who it’s messing with, and only succeed in putting Crunch ButtSteak on a path to avenge the death of his Real Mellow Set of Wheels. Because, as everyone knows, trashing a guy’s car is something we take real personally.
At least Steve’s dirt bike survived, so he still makes the meeting with Mills…who turns out to be Dr. Mills of the National Security Laboratory…which you can apparently just waltz right into if the ol’ Doc sent you a telegram. So much for “National Security.” Turns out Mills knew Steve’s scientist father back in the day, when ol’ man Rogers invented this universe’s version of the Super Soldier Formula. “He called it F.L.A.G.,” Mills tells us. “Full Latent Ability Gain.” You see, “Science has known for a long time that Man, in all of his endeavors – mental, physical – uses, very rarely, more than one-third of of his capacity.” Dr. Rogers figured out a way to access the other two-thirds. There’s just this one little problem, and it’s the same problem every other super soldier serum has or ever will have: a limited shelf life.
See, Steve’s dad wound up testing F.L.A.G. on himself and, by God, it worked so well Dr. Rogers decided to become “some kind of super crime-fighter,” as Steve puts it, in his spare time. Rather than hang around with his kid, one assumes, since this is the first Steve’s heard of any of this. But the secret of getting F.L.A.G. to work apparently died with Dr. Rogers and, ever since he kicked it, F.L.A.G.’s been killing test animals left and right. I guess Dr. Rogers couldn’t have…oh, I don’t know…written the secret down somewhere. Like a scientist. But if he had, Dr. Mills would have no reason to run Steve through a series of tests and see if that will point the way toward F.L.A.G.’s full potential.
Since this all sounds insane on its face, I get why Steve’s not interested; why he just wants to “kick back and find out who I am.” Every Hero refuses the Call to Adventure at least once…but the way he goes about it – with one of the clunkiest expository monologues I’ve heard in a long time – really busts my balls. As if recognizing this, Steve quickly adds that “a friend of mine has some heavy problems right now and needs my help.” Wishing Dr. Mills and Mill’s Gal Friday, Dr. Wendy (Heather Menzies-Urich) “good luck,” Our Hero departs for Jeff Hayden’s house. His only backup: a swingin’ 70s soundtrack!
He’ll need all the groovy guitar licks he can get since stopping at the NSL allowed the Conspirators time to toss Jeff’s office and leave Jeff for dead behind his own desk. Jeff was preceded in death by the phone line, so Steve’s forced to depart. And since Jeff’s murderer was hiding in the closet, the Conspirator gets away with…whatever he was after…clutched in his hands.
Wait…is that a camera? Oh fucking hell, don’t tell me they’re after microfilm. Seriously? Are we a James Bond movie now, Captain America? Where are the alien invaders, steroidal super Nazis, and ruthless terrorist organizations bent on world domination that I’ve come to expect from Marvel Comics…and would’ve expected even more if I’d grown up in the ’70s?
Well, now we’re at the Andreas Oil Company, meeting Mr. Brackett (Steve Forrest), who’ll be our Evil Oil Magnate for the remainder of the picture. So at least that’s something. Everything about him, from his tie to his hair to his limo, practically screams Ee-eevil Capitalist. So, yes, Brackett’s after some microfilm, and his assassin reports Jeff whispered something to Steve Rogers before kicking it. So Mr. Take It Easy just became the prime target of this Evil Capitalist Conspiracy to harness…something or other. Probably a safe, reknewable alternative energy source that would put the oil company out of business if…
Wait…they’re after a neutron bomb? Seriously?
Yes, it turns out Jeff was working on a neutron bomb project for Dr. Mills to go along with the Super Soldier Project and the Sharktopus R&D out at the NSL’s coastal annex. Screw the evil oil company: this National Security Laboratory’s actually producing weapons of mass destruction and seems to have more leaks than BP and Exxon combined. How come the oil magnate gets to be Designated Evil? Just because it’s the ’70s?
Well, that, and the Evil Capitalist Conspirators are willing to kill for Jeff’s microfilm. Hell, they’ll even kill their only link to the microfilm’s location. And after they went to all the trouble of luring Steve out into the night. The chase scene that follows eventually forces Steve off the road and firmly establishes that the forces of Good and Evil in the universe are equally stupid. After all, what idiot agrees to meet deadly Conspirators at a lonely gas station in the middle of nowhere? Or packs his dirt bike’s saddlebags with nitroglycerin (it explodes on contact with the roadside and that’s my only hypothesis – feel free to supply your own)? Did The Conspirators mean to run him off the road? Cuz if so, they’re dumb. If it was an accident…they’re even dumber, and now they’ve created a superhero antagonist, so who the hell am I supposed to be rooting for?
Right. The guy who just motocrossed over a cliff. Fortunately, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have little machines that go ping and Steve’s dad’s Super Soldier Formula all ready to go. Dr. Mills even uses the same “I’ll take full responsibility” line Ash used in Alien before he injects Steve with F.L.A.G., hoping that the serum will grant Steve an accelerated healing factor. It does. And hey: no tissue rejection! “So I won’t die like a lab rat?” Mills guesses not, though F.L.A.G. does seem to have given Steve schizophrenia. One second he wants “a guarantee” F.L.A.G. won’t burn him out like a candle. Mills offers to run some tests…and Steve pulls a 180 so fast I had to rewind, rejecting Mills’ offer. Now Steve swears there’ll be “no tests” and says he doesn’t want to know what F.L.A.G. might’ve done to him. All this in the space of a sentence.
The Conspirators are in no mood to let all these awkward dialogue scenes go on, so three of them kidnap Steve right out of his hospital bed. Dragged to a slaughterhouse, Steve escapes thanks to F.L.A.G., and the cheap synth-sound effect that rings out every time Steve uses his new F.L.A.G.-powers. As bland and uninteresting as this little “action” scene was, at least Steve’s got his powers now. And the way he leaves the henchmen tussed-up on meathooks for the National Security boys brings up some interesting (to me at least) lines of inquiry. For what is your average henchmen if not a slab of meat, tossed at Our Hero by the Villain of the Week in a futile effort to stave off the inevitable?
Speaking of which: after the scene transition that used to be a commercial break, we (by which I mean, Dr. Mills) find Steve on the beach, attempting to mellow out by filling in his sketch book. Hard to keep up your portfolio with a Conspiracy on your ass and a jumped-up Scientist stalking you (and probably shadowing your ever move with unseen agents).
Steve attempts to articulate the miasma of feelings swirling about inside him, something beyond Reb Brown’s capacity as an actor. Feelings of violation and responsibility that, all things considered, gel into a very nice little World of Cardboard speech: “If I’m not thinking about what I’m doing,” Steve tells Mills, “I could hurt or kill somebody. If I move this pencil too quickly…or hold it too tightly…[snap]. How would you feel, Simon?”
Mills’ head is too full of Science to actually empathize with his test subject so he once again tries to convince Steve to follow in his father’s vigilante footsteps with another impassioned speech about how Dr. Rogers
Mills: “…was truly the most patriotic man I ever knew. And not in the typical, flag-waving, corny politician way, but in the real sense that he believed in the American ideal and he tried to live it. Put his life on the line for it time and time again.”
Thick McRunFast: “…’American ideal.’ That’s a little tough to find these days, isn’t it?”
Mills: “Not if you know where to look.”
Splint ChestHair: “…Right on.”
Mills: “It was the spoilers of that ideal your father went after. The real criminals. The bosses, the organizers, the ones in the really high places…he shook so many of them out of the trees that they coined a nickname for him: Captain America….They meant it as a mockery, of course, but in a way, it fit…Steve, I’m authorized to offer you a job very much like mine only using your very special talents…only four people would know. You, me, Wendy and the president…and you’re gonna make me look very bad if you refuse.”
This little dialogue actually, honest-to-God got me. It’s the perfect origin story: quick, to the point, and philosophically sound. It paints a picture of Dr. Rogers’ lonely, one-man-war against gangsters, Evil Capitalists, and smiley glad-hands with hidden agendas (if you’ll pardon the redundancy) and paints Steve into a corner, forcing him to take up his father’s legacy. Like any decent hero, Steve’s after some Recognition By his Father, and since dad’s dead Dr. Mills (who supplied Steve with Supernatural Aid via F.L.A.G.) is the closest thing around. Despite my snark, at least Mills tries to recognize Steve’s discomfort, and we can see his Heartfelt Speech as the first of several Ultimate Boons he’ll bestow on Steve in the last half hour.
The other Boons come courtesy of NSL’s tech boys, who “borrowed” Steve’s Mellow Set of Wheels, finished the repair job, and added a few special improvements of their own. Like a rocket bike! Hidden in the wall! And, of course…the flimsiest “bulletproof” shield in all creation. But never mind that now. Time for the film to kill five minutes with helicopter shots of Steve dirt biking around. Backed by the porn-y-est cut on this Captain America‘s soundtrack. Once the guitar laid itself over the triumphalist, CBS orchestration, I seriously expected Steve to come across a pair of hitchhiking, nymphomaniac cheerleaders and settle down for a little roadside Afternoon Delight.
Thankfully, after three minutes that feel like hours, some Conspirators show up in a helicopter and being taking pot-shots at Our Hero. Never mind how a civilian chopper flew unopposed into a secret military proving ground/motocross track. At least something’s happening, and since nothing happens in this film way more often than something I’ll take whatever I can get. Remember when varying vehicle chases were the only special effects TV networks could reasonably afford on a regular basis?
That’s this Captain America‘s whole problem in a nutshell. Bound by the conventions of late-70s TV movies, there’s little it can do to achieve its many, many high ambitions. It turned Captain America into a transparent rip-off of The Six Million Dollar Man because whoever came up with this story (whether that be credited story-maker Chester Krumholz, teleplay writer Don Ingalls, or director Rod Holcomb) had no idea what else to do. Those Incredible Hulk bastards set the standard by ripping off The Fugitive and doing it so well nobody really minded..no matter how many times David Banner’s Love Interest of the Week got kidnapped.
Speaking of which, its time for Bartlett to kidnap Dr. Wendy and Jeff Hayden’s daughter, Tina (Robin Mattson) after he tricks Tina into revealing the microfilm’s location by pleading friendship with her diseased dad. Christ, I can’t even type that sentence with a straight face. At least Steve finally has an excuse to put on his flag-suit and actually be Captain America.
Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. This is a revisionist re-telling of Cap’s origin that strips everything unique and interesting about the character in the name of updating him. So Cap’s traditional Kevlar and chain-mail battle suit becomes a kitschy Halloween costume (its zipper plainly visible down the back) and his indestructible vibranium/adamantium shield ends up looking about as bulletproof as a pet store Frisbee. The additions to Cap’s mythos (like the rocket bike, or Steve’s initial apathy and need to figure out who he is) are shameless bits of pandering intended to make Cap seem “identifiable” to The Youth of this film’s day.
I’d forgive all that if the plot weren’t such a cancerous mass of coincidence and contrivance. What are the odds Our Hero – a “thoughtful” artist, an ex-Marine, and an all around “mellow” dude – would have a Super Scientist for a father? How exactly did Dr. Rogers die anyway? Dr. Mills says “they” killed him, but who the hell were “they”? What are the odds Steve would share a friend with Our Evil Oil Magnate? What are the odds that friend would be the one Super Scientist capable of perfecting a neutron bomb? What in the name of Hell does Brackett even want with a neutron bomb, anyway?
Oh…so he can rip-off Goldfinger, using Phoenix in place of Ft. Knox. Thanks, movie. For a second, you had me worried Brackett’s Evil Plot would end up being something stupid. Do me a favor and take a moment to think about all the people who worked on this project. Not a one of them realized money is the last thing an Evil Oil Magnate needs! I don’t care how scary Jimmy Carter’s presidency was to certain Evil Capitalists – real or fictional – no one gets to be an Evil Capitalist by being this dumb.
I could forgive even that if the cast weren’t so bland, led by the Baryshnikov of Bland, Dirk HardPec. To be fair, this is one of Reb Brown’s first leading roles and they obviously didn’t cast him for his range. He only really comes alive in the suit, but you have to suffer through an hour of his low-key, one note, Steve act before the suit even shows up. I stand in awe of Len Birman’s ability to read Dr. Mills lines without busting a gut, but he only stands out thanks to his multiple expository speeches.
Everyone else plays plot devices, knows this, and give the kinds of performances you’d expect. Thank God the movie’s padded like a stunt team’s crash mat or we might have to watch more of them awkwardly pretending to emote. Except that makes things even worse: a good 40% of this film consists of gratuitous vehicle shots. We see Steve driving his Mellow Set of Wheels. Steve riding his bike on pavement. On dirt tracks. On more dirt tracks that lead up to ramps. We see Brackett’s limo driving…and driving…and driving…We see Dr. Mills pilot a helicopter. We see that helicopter banking. And landing. And landing. Still landing…oh, it’s gone behind a hill now. So we won’t actually get to see Steve’s rocket bike shoot out of the side. But don’t worry: one clumsy edit and we can all pretend we actually saw it. Isn’t using your imagination cool?
The saddest part is this was less than a year after Superman kicked off the Golden Age of American Superhero Movies. Imagine a world where Marvel sold out to the Salkinds instead of settling for these cheap-ass TV movie deals that commit unforgivable sins. Like this one, which made makes Captain America boring, something I can’t forgive, no matter how many Dramatic Speeches Len Birman makes.