Captain America II: Death Too Soon (1979)

A portrait in the park? $10 The look on your face when Captain America rescues your purse? Priceless.
A portrait in the park? $10 The look on your face when Captain America rescues your purse? Priceless.

So Captain America II (no subtitle in the opening credits) opens with a standard TV credit sequence: a slide show of the main cast, punctuated by a shot from later of Cap popping a wheelie on his rocket bike. Once the four leads are given their due the rest of the credits play out atop…aww crap! It’s the same driving footage that opened the first film! NoooOOOOOOO! Already I’m having flashbacks! Somebody make it stop!

Once the deja vu subsides we catch up to Steve Rogers (still Reb Brown) drawing portraits in an L.A. park as black men in short shorts roller skate through the background carrying ghetto blasters. Steve’s current client is an old woman, Mrs. Shaw (Susan French) who tells him about how the local muggers are making trouble for the local pensioners every time they cash their checks…because this is still the 70s, when (for all their Evil) corporations still paid pensioners on an actually-regular basis. Steve tells her to go cash her check and, when the thugs descend, Captain America is there to lay a re-introductory action sequence down on their candied asses. (So much for that secret identity, huh?)

Except this is Captain America II so the action scene consists of Steve knocking one guy out with the laziest shield-throw in Cap’s long history and chasing another, dune buggy-riding thug down on foot (watch out for snakes, Cap)…despite the fact that his rocket bike and Mellow Set of Wheels are right fucking there. That might be the easy way, but it wouldn’t be the Captain America way! Good thing that F.L.A.G. serum gave him the power to speed up film. (And I love how none of the extras even turn to glance at the flag-draped man super speed-running down the beach.)

Back on U.S. Government Property, Dr. Mills (still Len Birman) is ordering one Professor Ian Ilson’s private lab blown open. Ilson’s been hold up in there far too long for Mills’ taste. He even missed his own Senate hearing this morning. The fact that Ilson’s no longer in the lab might help explain that. Someone certainly trashed the place, and Mills wastes no time yanking Steve’s chain back to the National Security Laboratory.

Yeah, you better run.
Yeah, you better run.

It’s not exactly the Avenger’s Mansion but at least it’s relevant to the plot. See, Professor Ilson was the head of NSL’s Biological Research Bureau and the “top microbiologist and immunologist in the world” according to Dr. Wendy (now played by Connie Sellecca). Mills assumes Ilson’s been kidnapped, but  whoever took him did such a hack job they allowed Ilson to etch the name of his kidnapper into a piece of glass with some acid solution. M-I-G-U-E-L spells Moon. Except when it spells Miguel “the revolutionary,” who’s apparently the head of a ruthless terrorist organization bent on…something or other…and responsible for laundry list of horrific international crimes. You know what? That actually sounds like an antagonist fit for Captain America. None of this “Evil Oil Magnates who watched too many Bond films” bullshit. Gimmie a villain with substance, someone I can sink my teeth into. Someone played by Christopher Lee.

We meet Miguel (Lee) at the Waterford Federal Penitentiary, where he poses as the warden and carries out his Evil Plot in the last place anyone would think to look…as he gratuitously explains for us. In fact, Miguel’s evil plot has fallen so far behind schedule he hasn’t even gotten past the expository monologuing phase. So he makes one to Professor Ilson about how no one’s going to rescue him because Miguel killed the real warden and…

“Someday,” Ilson says, “someone who knew him will come here.” Damnit, now the movie’s pointing out its own plot holes. Better hide the nuclear launch codes: it’s becoming self-aware! Get John Conner to a bunker and toss a hot chick at him on the way down.

"It's obvious this contest won't be settled by our knowledge of Bad Movies..."
"It's obvious this contest won't be settled by our knowledge of Bad Movies..."

At least we have an actor of Lee’s caliber in the house, and the man does his best to fill this exposition storm (and everything else he does) with menace. Watching him struggle with dialogue this clunky is hilarious in a painful sort of way – like watching someone from the Royal Shakespeare company get hit in the nuts with a football. On the big screen. During his cameo in Jackass 69. Which will, of course, be in 3D, because that’s just what I need to feel complete.

Turns out Professor Ilson was working on an anti-aging formula for the National Security Labs. Fits right in with the Super Soldier formula, the neutron bomb, the Sharktopus research, the various and sundry death rays, and the Mechagodzilla project….don’t look at me that way. You just know NSL’s helping the Japanese rebuild that thing after the last failed invasion by those not-so-intelligent apes from the Third Planet of the Black Hole.

Since you can’t reverse the aging process unless you know how it works, Prof. Ilson got as far as creating a formula that will accelerate aging before Miguel kidnapped him. Tracking the rare (and illegal – Ilson had special research permits) chemicals needed to complete the formula will inevitably lead Steve to Ilson. So Captain America has to rough up some dock workers unloading a shipment of the unnamed chemical from Ecuador. Why can’t they just call it like it obviously is and used the word “cocaine,” like you can practically feel the script aching to do? Welcome to 1970s TV Standards and Practices, when even mentioning a drug’s name was strictly verboten. Speak of the devil and he shall appear don’t’cha know?

Unlike the Evil Oil Magnate’s henchmen, Miguel’s dockworkers are courteous enough to do stupid things like running into Steve’s shield at a full clip with their heads down. Or dive out of forklifts Steve is lifting all of two feet off the ground, breaking the fall with their faces. To be fair, maybe that henchmen just wanted to commit suicide out of shame. Once you’re taken out by a random guy in a flag suit and a motorcycle helmet your henchmen days are pretty much over. At least Captain America’s doing something before the hour mark and it’s something I’d expect of him: kicking bad guy ass.

And hey, Dr. Wendy got herself a bitchin’ Firebird convertible at some point between films. If only Suicidal Henchman could’ve lived to see it! A hot scientist in a cool car is all I need to restore my faith in the human race. Along with all the happy pills.

You go, Science Girl!
You go, Science Girl!

So Steve hands a sample of the MacGuffin Substance off to Dr. Wendy so she can take it back to lab and make sure it’s the MacGuffin Substance they need. Instead of doing any actual analysis, Dr. Wendy makes some impressionist water color paintings and declares “Steve’s on the right track.” Because when you see slides of multi-colored paint you know you’re in the presence of Science! The real purpose of the scene is to establish some workplace sexual tension among Captain America’s support staff…if only in a dry, ’70s TV kind way…not that anything happens between them in this film. No, it’s just the shadow of a story arc that never was since this series never escaped Movie of the Week Land…for some strange reason.

So Steve tracks the shipment of MacGuffin Substance to  a small town called Belleville. Captain America’s never been the World’s Greatest Detective but Steve’s method of smoking out this conspiracy is weirdly innovative in it’s own, low-budget way. He hangs out in the town park painting portraits of his cat, Heathcliff, until the bastards who’ve been shadowing him this whole time (even as he shadowed them with his F.L.A.G.-enhanced senses) walk up and start acting like bastards. “You know how small towns are,” one says, “don’t like strangers hangin’ around.”

Since Steve’s the Kyle Rayner of the Captain America franchise (twenty years before Kyle Rayner even existed) he leaves the park without trouble. But since he’s a hard-traveling Hero of the 1970s, Steve makes sure to drop by the vet and get his kitty a checkup before hitting the road. I should mention Heathcliff the Cat is my new second-favorite character in these movies (after Dr. Wendy, of course, but that’s just because I’m in love). We’ve never seen him before and I thought he was just a stray Steve manged to pose, but he’s so unaffected by everything around him in such a stuck-up, catty way it’s honestly refreshing. He reminds me of me.

"Are you done yet? Seriously?"
"Are you done yet? Seriously?"

This being Small Town America, the vet works out of his home and there’s a line leading out the door. Steve strikes up a conversation with the kid ahead of him in line, Peter (John Waldron), but the boy’s mother Helen (Katherine Justice) isn’t too keen on hulking blond men chatting up her baby. She recommends Steve try the next town over, Greenwood, but she’s such a bitch about it Steve gets suspicious. Is everyone in town a bastard? A few of them – like the vet – are obviously stupid, completely unqualified for their jobs, and thus Obvious Plants.

Meanwhile, Miguel sends a sample of the Aging Formula to the White House, demanding one BILLION dollars or he’ll spike a major population center’s water supply. We can already see the Captain America formula developing in utero. Someone’s Scientist friend gets kidnapped by some Evil Dude who wants to use Scientist Friend’s Super Science to make a ton of money…for some reason.

Meanwhile, the people of Stepford are flat-out telling Steve to leave town. He’s pulling his “hard-traveling artist looking for America” routine so no one will tell him what’s going on. Is the whole town part of Miguel’s terrorist organization? We know the vet was, but what about the sheriff? The mayor? Helen? She’s telling him to leave town too and she’s driving Bella Swan‘s truck. So either she’s Evil or she’s the Love Interest of the Week. Oh when will she open up and let Steve into her heart?

"Danielle Steel novel covers do come to life!"
"Danielle Steel novel covers do come to life! Thank you, Jesus!"

There’s a pointless scene back at NSL that’s entirely unremarkable…save for the fact Miguel sent his sample of the Aging Formula “packaged” in a live mountain lion cub. Back amongst the Pod People, Steve’s accosted by a gang of toughs with baseball bats, setting up an out-of-costume fight that looks even more Six Million Dollar Man-ish than usual. At least the costume makes him look distinct. But being out of costume allows Steve’s shirt to be dramatically torn in just the right way. The sight of his sweaty man-pecs fresh from a fight scene proves too much for Helen, finally melting her not-really-all-that-icy demeanor. She might as well be doing a Tex Avery wolf-howl and bonking herself over the head with a cartoon hammer.

Instead, she invites Steve back to her house where, after some gratuitous Reb Brown shirtlessness and an exposition storm from Pete, the boy finds a sheep dead from old age. Pete claims its his pet lamb…Whitey…sigh…but the sheep on the ground is obviously an adult. So how did no one notice Whitey aging over the course of two weeks? How did Whitey get into contact with the formula? Is it already in the town’s water? Did they submit to this voluntarily?

Probably not, so we know Miguel’s got this whole town hostage, having already dosed them with aging formula and using the Obvious Plant at the vet’s office to dole out the antidote. Should Ilson ever stop working, Miguel will cut the antidote supply off, and Belleville will become a graveyard. I’ve figured this out here, but since TV audiences are stupid it’ll take at least another half hour for Steve to catch up. After Dr. Ilson explains it to him.

First we’ve got more stupid to dissect. The sheriff arrests Steve for ripping-off The Six Million Dollar Man in the course of assaulted those five thugs but Steve bends the bars and escapes…making the whole “arrest” thing pretty much pointless. He finally changes back into costume and instead of scattering like roaches (despite the fact these thugs know who Captain America is and what he could do – after all, he’s the guy who saved Phoenix from a neutron bomb) the thugs all chase-scene him onto a dam. Cap jumps over the side on his rocket bike because this Captain America is EXTREME! We’re supposed to question whether Cap lives or dies, but come on – he’s Captain America. At this point, the movie’s just padding itself out.

That’s why we cut back to Drs. Mills and Wendy as they study their new pet mountain lion. Obviously, aging does not work in any way close to the manner presented in Captain America II: Death Too Soon. The security establishment calls Miguel’s bluff and refuses to pay him his billion, leaving the “so-called General” no choice but to drop the Aging Formula on…Portland, Oregon? Holy shit! What did we ever do to earn Christopher Lee’s ire? I saw two out of three Lord of the Rings films in this town. Was that not enough?

Holy shit, it's a black person! Playing a henchman, sure, but it's nice to know we actually exist in this universe.
Holy shit, it's a black person! Playing a henchman, sure, but it's nice to know we actually exist in this universe.

So Drs. Wendy and Mills are hard at work figuring out an antidote…when Miguel calls up to tell them he’s sending a vial of antidote along by mail just to “prove” that he has full control of the Aging Formula...This is just. Damn. Stupid! Are you gonna write “synthesize me” on the side of the bottle in big red letters too? Gawd, and you were doing so well. Had this whole faux-Hydra thing going on, a whole town under your thumb…But now you’ve given the Hero’s Science buddies the key to your ultimate downfall. Somewhere, the Red Skull is pinching the little triangle that used to be the bridge of his nose, trying in vain to stave of the headache Miguel’s plot-induced stupidity just caused.

After an ocean of padding Steve figures out where the town thugs all hang out when they’re not trying to beat up strangers: the Federal Pen just down the road. And no, we never do find out how he survived taking that header off a dam, to say nothing of how his bike survived. He just shows up in Helen’s kitchen, like falling off dams is just another thing he does for fun on the weekend.

Pop quiz: you figure out the warden of a local slammer is actually a terrorist mastermind in disguise. Do you (A) inform the FBI, who’d obviously be interested in such things, and have them roll up on their with a full phalanx of agents, SWAT teams, helicopters and all manner of guns? Or do you (B) rocket bike your way through the gates dressed in a leotard, go driving down random hallways, and hope to hell you stumble across the guy you’re looking for?

"Whee! Fun is fun!"
"Whee! Fun is fun!"

Unlike his thugs, Miguel’s smart enough to make tracks, taking the antidote with him. Cap pursues, going so far as to sacrifice his last shred of dignity by sliding down a stair railing on his ass like an anime schoolgirl setting up a bit fanservice. The things brave men do for their country! Chucking his rocket bike atop the prison wall (with the help of some of the worst wire effects in film history – watch how the bike visibly slows down before it lands) Steve escapes by deploying his bike’s hidden hang glider. I wish I were joking.

Why the prison guards don’t just shoot Steve in the back we’ll never know. Nor can I figure out why Miguel would leave Ilson alive, or not take him with. Who came up with the idea of a Captain America-branded hang glider? Was it Steve? Dr. Mills? Dr. Wendy? And where the hell was that thing when you had to jump off a dam, Cap? Gah! For every two steps forward these movies drop half a mile back.

In any case, Steve’s hang glider-cycle manages to catch up to Miguel’s car and we get yet another ill-paced chase scene, shot too tightly and not nearly as Pulse Pounding and Action Packed as the music believes it to be. Considering how long a glide Steve pulls out of it, that prison wall must’ve been as tall as the Washington Monument.

Born free...as free as the wind blows...
Born free...as free as the wind blows...as free as the laws of physics...or aerodynamics...in these films.

Realizing he can’t outrun Captain America in a station wagon, Miguel abandons his car and takes the chase off-road, unaware of Steve’s background as a Motocross Expert. Why even run away from the prison in the first place? That’s where you kept all your henchmen, dumbass! Did those stupid wings on Steve’s head scare you that much? We didn’t even hear you sneer “He’s just one man, damnit” in that contemptuous tone of voice villains use to intimidate henchmen. Instead, Miguel lures Captain America into the woods, where he stands out even more than he does on a busy street. But instead of shooting him from cover like the jungle fighter Miguel’s supposed to be, Our Villain wastes all his ammo and resorts to lobbing vials of Aging Formula. Steve easily hoists that petard and, doused in a full vial of the stuff, Miguel tires to pull a Dracula on Cap before he pulls a Walter Donovan.

And then things just stop with Steve back on Helen’s farm, watching her ride horses and smile. There’s no denouement, no real resolution, and no real end either because this wasn’t meant to be an ending. Steve’s supposed to help put Pete to bed, shag his mom, and then show up free and easy in the next episode, ready to fall for yet another Love Interest of the Week. Because it was intended to launch a continuing series there’s no time to give this story the scope it really needs. Captain America – along with most other superheroes – was too big for television of this era…even comparatively high-budget stuff like this.

Without that scope, or the time you need to make a superhero epic well, all the flaws jump right out and mug you. There’s more action in this one, and you’d think that would mean it’d be paced better…but you’d be wrong. Its incredibly stupid story is so padded with travel montages, expository speechifying, and glorying in empty spectacle (Steve’s hang gliding, for example, goes on forever) it makes Catwoman looks like a lean, mean, storytelling machine. And you all know I how hard it is for me to say nice things about Catwoman.

You see what acting in shitty TV movies does to you?
You see what acting in shitty TV movies does to you?

The one decent actor in the house gets nothing to do but sit at a desk and talk on the phone, or order others to release the hounds. Miguel’s as crazy and stupid as the last asshole who tussled with Flint Ironstag and I’m too busy thinking about all the holes in his Evil Plot to really enjoy Lee’s presence. If you’d like an example of the many grotesque horrors brought about by the collapse of Hammer studios, look no further.

If you’d like a superhero film, look elsewhere. Hell of it is, I thought this would be my favorite of Reb Brown’s Captain America movies. It’s superficially superior to its predecessor in every way. More elaborate set-pieces, more Six Million Dollar Man sound effects, more stunts, and more shots of Reb in-costume. Death Too Soon has no right to be this stupid, this boring, or this big of a waste of time and effort. Don’t know about you, but I’m going back to Gotham City. Screw Captain America. Screw the entire Golden Age of Marvel TV Movies. The Incredible Hulk Returns was the only half-decent one of the bunch and it would take ten years for them to achieve even that dubious level of quality.

And Filip? Your answer is, “Yes, believe it or not, it’s true. Reb Brown does not once, in either film, raise his voice in anger.” Some of Brown’s fans (believe me, they do exist) consider this its own special kind of blasphemy. As a non-fan, all I can say to that is, there’s more than enough to go around here…

…in America!

Half-G

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