Captain America/Captain America II : Death Too Soon
Directors - Rob Holcomb, Ivan Nagy
Cast - Reb Brown, Christopher Lee, Len Birman, Connie Selleca
Country of Origin - USA
Discs - 1
MSRP - $14.93
Distributor - Shout Factory
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
The Film: 1/5
As we speak DC Comics flounders in getting a movie based on one of their beloved iconic superheroes into theaters that A) isn’t another Superman or Batman sequel and B) doesn’t completely suck. Meanwhile Marvel Comics, the young upstart company that begun like DC in the late 1930’s but got a shot in the arm once Stan Lee started creating bold new costumed heroes like the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, is dominating the box office with the Iron Man movies and Thor. But the mighty Marvel motion picture that mattered the most in 2011 was one whose existence had been in the making for ages - Captain America: The First Avenger. Captain America is without a doubt the Superman of the Marvel Universe; although he was not born on an alien world and doesn’t possess powers and abilities far beyond those of us mere mortals he is gifted with unique abilities that make him a man to be reckoned with. But what makes the good Captain the alpha and omega of Marvel is his enduring spirit and his belief that the world can be a better place. There is not a shred of darkness or cynicism in him. Even without the super soldier serum that gave him the power to take on the Nazis and villains like the Red Skull and Modok Captain America is a born superhero, and the recent movie that starred Chris Evans and was directed by former ILM effects whiz Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer) nailed every detail of the character. The result was one of the finest superhero films ever made, a rousing four-color cinematic adventure bursting at the seems with pure joy and excitement, and it was a very long time coming.
Cap’s journey from the comics page to the silver screen was rockier than the legal hurdles Spider-Man had to leap before the bug-eyed kid from Pleasantville could put on his mask. Before his latest cinematic incarnation the immortal creation of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had to endure over six decades of crappy serials, lackluster cartoons, and a low-budget movie that went straight to video in 1992. But none of those endeavors, as poorly funded and planned and executed as they were, could compare to the twin indignities that the House of Ideas’ shield-slingin’ patriot suffered at the hands of the Columbia Broadcasting System in 1979. It was a horror that made every other morally questionable act CBS has committed in the past, from forever souring Edward R. Murrow on reporting the news to giving Pat Sajak a late night talk show, pale in comparison.
CAPTAIN AMERICA (1979)
Steve Rogers (Reb Brown) has just completed a stint in the Marine Corps and now plans to spend some time traveling up and down the West Coast in his sweet new van (with seagulls painted on side) and sketching landscapes. One day he’s summoned to the laboratory of Dr. Simon Mills (Len Birman), a friend and colleague of his late father. En route to his meeting with the scientist a group of thugs set an oil slick trap for Steve that causes his van to go careening off a mountain road, an accident he barely survives. Later Mills reveals to Steve that before his father died he had come close to perfecting F.L.A.G. (Full Latent Ability Gain), a steroid created from his own adrenal gland that gives its user increased strength and agility. The serum also tends to cause its users to flip the fuck out, but Steve’s father injected himself with it anyway and with his newfound powers became a crime fighter protecting the lives of those in need. Mills, figuring that Steve’s genetic make-up contains the key to F.L.A.G., asks him to become a test subject for the steroid and possibly take up his father‘s mantle. Steve is understandably reluctant at first; he’d had his fill of military service and would rather continue his voyage of self-discovery and cook on a hot plate.
Upon arriving at his friend Jeff’s house Steve discovers Jeff dead at the hands of the same criminals who tried to kill him earlier in the movie. It turns out that Jeff had been killed for taking photographs of a top-secret scientific project overseen by the sinister Lou Brackett (Steve Forrest). Brackett’s lackeys pursue Steve in a motorcycle chase and run him off the road….again. Only this time Steve doesn’t fare as well. With his life slowly ebbing on an operating table Simon and his assistant Dr. Wendy Day (Heather Menzies) inject Steve with the F.L.A.G. serum, which brings him back from the brink of death and on the way to a full recovery. Yet Steve still doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps and fight crime. But after getting attacked by Brackett’s thugs yet again, this time in a meat locker, Steve FINALLY decides to start kicking ass (using whole sides of beef for starters). After taking a philosophical walk on the beach with Mills (and going for a swim with Wendy) Steve goes to work foiling Brackett’s evil plans to build and detonate a neutron bomb with the help of a rebuilt, tricked-out van, a high-powered motorcycle that can launch from the back, and a shield made from bulletproof Plexiglas (the same material the Popemobile uses) but actually referred to as “Jet-Age plastics“. I could not make this shit up if I had a lobotomy and a few cans of Red Bull. Soon all the criminals who seek to undermine the American dream will have to answer to the Star-Spangled Avenger, the Sentinel of Liberty….nah fuck that it’s just Captain America. Sort of.
Jesus H. Christ, God, and Bill Hicks almighty does this movie suck. The first Captain America TV movie is by far the worst adaptation of a comic book I have ever seen. Rip apart Batman & Robin or Daredevil if you will, but those movies had entertainment value in spades and were in a sense respectful of their source material (however they were still lousy). Captain America takes one of the most iconic superheroes in the history of the medium, strips him of every character nuance and virtue that made him popular and cool in the first place, and replaces them with the worst trappings of 1970’s television. It’s like removing Hunter S. Thompson’s brain and replacing it that of Pauly Shore. This movie doesn’t just turn a great comic book hero into an emasculated dork, it disrespects the character’s rich history and iconography and takes a Cleveland Steamer on the legacy of Simon and Kirby. When you mess with Captain America you mess with the good ol’ U.S. of A.; try asking Adolf Hitler or Osama Bin Laden what happens when you do that.
But Captain America wasn’t merely satisfied with being bad; it had to be boring as fuck to boot. The movie runs 97 minutes and nothing even relatively important happens half the time. When the….ahem….action finally gets going it’s the kind of lame chases and fisticuffs that ate up many episodes of sub-moronic action shows in the 70’s and 80’s. There’s no reason why the producers, when they weren’t cracking the whip at industry hack Rod Holcomb, had to gut the character ‘s origin of its most intriguing beats. I understand that the budgetary constraints that come with making a TV movie in the 70’s wouldn’t allow for a World War II-set adventure and a plot that embraced the crazier aspects of the comic books, but they didn’t have to reduce Cap to a lackluster cipher utterly bereft of motivation and personality and stick him into a piss-poor Mannix episode. Instead of the Red Skull and Hydra we get Lt. Hondo from the original S.W.A.T. TV show and a bunch of disposable thugs from Central Casting trying to carry a ridiculous plan that the Bad News Bears could foil before the first commercial break. Then there’s the Captain America costume, which looks like an outfit worn by a bad Cap imitator, like the American or the Shield (fuck off Archie Comics). The movie’s costume designers favored a look closer to the then-popular stuntman Evel Knievel, meaning a motorcycle helmet with winged ears in place of Cap’s trademark mask and a windshield that doubles as his weapon of choice. In the last scene Steve switches to a costume closer to the look of the classic Cap but by then it’s too late. The Star-Spackled Moron gets on his rainbow-colored pocket bike and putters off to his next adventure to the swinging sounds of something composers Pete Carpenter and Mike Post decided wasn’t good enough for The Rockford Files.
Worst of all is the way the movie presents Cap and his alter ego Steve Rogers. This version of the character goes against everything Rogers was envisioned to be in the comics; as played by that boulder-brained bad movie divining rod Reb Brown Steve Rogers is a wishy-washy bozo who has to be virtually bullied at times into becoming Captain America, something Simon and Kirby’s creation would have never allowed. In the comics Rogers didn’t have to be convinced of anything; he jumped at the chance to become a superhero not because he thought it would be cool (though to be fair it really was) but because he wanted to serve his country and battle tyranny at home and abroad. By the 68th time Dr. Mills asked Steve for his help and Steve was all “Uh gee thanks but no” I was ready to bash in my television screen with a rusty nail-studded baseball bat. The character debuted in the comics not long before America entered World War II and the imagery of Cap socking Hitler on the jaw became a battle cry for young servicemen thousands of miles from home marching through bone-chilling forests and sweaty, menacing jungles to embrace and take moral strength from in the face of certain death. They understood that what made Captain America the man he was had nothing to do with the amazing powers he derived from the super soldier serum but who he was on the inside.
That’s something the makers of this movie never understood, nor did they want to. The Captain America telefilms were the last in a sorry series of Marvel TV adaptations CBS shit out in the late 70’s. Spurned on by the success of their Incredible Hulk series the network green lighted live-action shows based on Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, but the Spider-Man show lasted a single pathetic season and Dr. Strange never lasted beyond its unsold pilot. Neither Spider-Man or Dr. Strange can be found on DVD yet, although given their quality that’s more of a virtue than a flaw. It’s hard to believe that once upon a time the major movie studios and television networks couldn’t see superhero comic books as anything but juvenile claptrap that wouldn’t appeal to wider, more mature audiences. It took the success of 1978’s Superman: The Movie to change all that, and even after the success of that movie and the Batman film franchise movies based on Marvel Comics characters couldn’t get off the ground except as cheese ball B-flicks (The Punisher, the ‘92 Fantastic Four movie) and syndicated television garbage (Mutant X). Marvel’s big screen fortune finally changed in 1998 with the release of Blade and from there the Spider-Man, X-Men, and Iron Man movies soon follow to box office riches and long-deserved respectability from the entertainment industry.
Before Marvel could finally become the king of superhero movie blockbusters it had to travel a rocky road of dried shit and the crushed souls of the comics fans who grew up on the exploits of their costumed crime fighters and had to stand by why a cold and cruel Hollywood raped their precious memories over a barrel, and later a pinball machine. At least Heather Menzies looks amazing in a swimsuit.
CAPTAIN AMERICA II: DEATH TOO SOON (1979)
The first Captain America TV movie must have did well in the ratings when it aired on January 19, 1979 because a sequel was commissioned and promptly hit the airwaves the following November. Between the two movies I was born, but that doesn’t matter. Apparently the network didn’t think the auteurist excesses of Rod Holcomb would hack it this time around so the retained the services of another noted hack-for-hire, Ivan Nagy. A serviceable director of television action shows and C-movies, Nagy earned his greatest notoriety when it was revealed he was a former boyfriend of the Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss.
Now firmly ensconced in his role as the new Captain America Steve travels the coast and picks up some side money as a boardwalk sketch artist. In his spare time he puts on the Cap suit and foils bandanna-wearing crooks who like to snatch pension checks from sweet old ladies by hurling his trusty Frisbee shield and hitting the bad guys on their dumbass skulls because they’re too stupid to simply step out of the way (and is it just me or did the sound effects crew on this movie use the sound of a Tupperware garbage can lid hitting the ground after being dropped from a height of two feet in the air?). One of the thugs flees the scene driving what looks like Speed Buggy. When a scientist colleague of Simon’s is kidnapped by the terrorist leader Miguel (Christopher Lee) Captain America is back on the case. Miguel is using the scientist to develop a chemical weapon that causes rapid aging and it’s up to Steve, his snazzy motorbike, and his porno movie theme music (which I’m now starting to fucking hum on occasion) to save the day. His investigation takes him to a bucolic small town where the locals are reluctant to help for fear of reprisal from Miguel and his hired mustachioed goons. Connie Sellecca pinch hits for the absent Heather Menzies as Dr. Wendy Day, but who gives a shit?
Like most superhero movie sequels Death Too Soon is a helluva lot better than the original, but that’s like saying having a circumcision via spork is better than a rusty circular saw castration. This movie still blows donkey cock. Not even the presence of the great Christopher Lee (who can usually liven up any party), a teleplay co-written by an actual World War II veteran, and a serious increase in action beats can save it from being dull as dishwater. Once more, instead of taking on a villain who could give Cap a run for his money we’re presented with yet another colorless criminal with as much ambition as a Kardashian husband. Miguel’s master plan is inane and since he never seems that serious about carrying it out whatever tension the plot could have had is immediately drained. But at least the experience of watching Death Too Soon (a title which takes on a special meaning to the viewer as they watch the movie and realize that yes, death could not come too soon) is marginally less torturous than the original and the increase in action scenes helps dull the pain, despite the fact they’re still mostly flat-out fucking goofy. The opening chase with Captain America pursuing a purse snatcher on a beach is the kind of ninth-rate shit you could find in any episode of Charlie’s Angels, only without the easy-on-the-eyes spectacle of women in skimpy bikinis packing firearms. But the undisputed action highlights involve Cap’s magical motorcycle: one scene has him going off a bridge and down a dam while on it during a chase, and in the finale as Lee is fleeing with the aging serum Cap‘s bike since sprouts a hang-glider add-on. I don’t think Pee Wee Herman had a bike this cool.
Former Bond girl Lana “Plenty O’Toole” Wood is on hand briefly as Miguel’s henchwoman, but she adds nothing to the movie. The late character actor Stanley Kamel (Monk) features in the proceedings as Miguel’s right-hand man Kramer, but by far the strangest name I saw in the credits was the art director David L. Snyder. Three years after working on Death Too Soon he served in the same function on Ridley Scott’s sci-fi landmark Blade Runner. Calling that a big step forward is the understatement of the goddamn epoch.
Both movies are presented in their original full screen broadcast ratio of 1.33: 1 and the transfers are solid but unexceptional. I expect no less for a pair of lame late 70’s TV movies.
Other than an upfront preview for The Superhero Squad Show Volume One no bonus features are included on this disc, but what good would they have done, honestly?
These aren’t just bad movies, they’re disrespectful to the hard work of the good people who created Captain America and kept his legacy going strong for more than seventy years and a vicious and loathsome affront to the sacrifices laid down by our fighting men and women since this great country was first founded. The current Republican presidential candidates should put aside their differences for the moment and publicly denounce this DVD release, that is if they consider themselves true patriots. Thank you CBS for giving us a Captain America that actually hates America, and a special thank you to Shout! Factory for giving these abominations new life. Excelsior? I think not.