The recent shuttering of Video Watchdog – a sad moment for film fans – leaves some DVD reviews commissioned by Tim Lucas without a home. So I’ll publish them here. This is my look at the two 1979 Captain America TV movies – out on DVD from Shout Factory.
CAPTAIN AMERICA/CAPTAIN AMERICA II
Given the current media dominance of Marvel’s superhero stable, it’s hard to remember that they struggled to hold their own outside their home medium for decades. Even when Marvel Comics were in the ascendant, the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the X-Men and company were obscure to general audiences, while DC’s Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman remained pop culture icons. The Incredible Hulk TV series (1978-82) was the first live-action success for Marvel, prompting a similar, less-lasting take on The Amazing Spider-Man and the one-off TV movie DR STRANGE. In 1979, CBS and Universal tried to set up a Captain America series, mounting two feature-length pilots (following the strategy of the television versions of Hulk and Spider-Man). The 1970s craze for superhero-type shows (The Six Million Dollar Man, The Invisible Man, Wonder Woman, etc) had all but petered out, and this straight-arrow, patriotic-but-spacey Cap didn’t fly as a series. In fact, the only way the cycle could be extended was through satire, as demonstrated by the 1981 debut of The Greatest American Hero, which copped its heroine (Connie Sellecca) from the second Captain America pilot.
Because Cap’s origins and capabilities weren’t as fixed in the public mind as those of, say, Batman or Superman, this incarnation takes only a few random elements (like the hero’s sideline as an artist) from various comics versions which had been about since Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (uncredited anywhere, though Stan Lee scores his usual ‘consultant’ nod) created him in 1941. This Steve Rogers (Reb Brown–who resembles Ben Murphy on steroids) is a preppy drop-out ex-Marine, roaming about California in his custom van (‘a pretty mellow set of wheels’). An odd sidestep in the character’s evolution is that, picking up on Cap’s use of a motorcycle in the original comics and the 1944 serial with Dick Purcell, Peter Fonda’s character in EASY RIDER was nick-named ‘Captain America’. This nudged Marvel into taking the unfashionable-in-the-era-of-Vietnam-and-Watergate patriotic edge off the hero by having him follow Fonda by taking to the road on his bike in search of the real America. Brown’s Rogers is on a mild TV version of the same quest, turning down an opportunity to volunteer as a human guinea pig to continue his late father’s scientific research into human potential by decreeing ‘I just want to kick back and decide who I am.’ A few murder attempts and several appeals to national and family loyalty don’t sway Steve, but (in a development akin to the origin of The Six Million Dollar Man) a van crash leaves Dr Simon Mills (Len Birman) of the United States Government National Security Laboratories with no option but to administer the senior Rogers’ experimental FLAG (Full Latent Ability Gain) steroid (tailored to his family’s DNA and fatal to other subjects) to save the hero’s life and give him added strength (though he already has the muscle mass) and sharpened senses.
The fact that the comics’ Captain America gained his powers through methods which would render him ineligible to participate in the Olympics has been a longstanding problem for creators handling the character. These films were made when it was just about possible for the term ‘steroid’ to be used without negative connotations, though the main effect of the FLAG serum is to augment Steve’s sight and hearing in a way that hasn’t generally been accepted as part of the character’s skill-set (a musical burble indicates whenever he is using these abilities). In his first outing, Brown’s Cap wears a stars-and-stripes outfit that owes as much to Kirby and Simon’s Fighting American as their original design, and also has an Evel Knievel disco look. In the coda and the second film the costume is altered to more closely resemble the comics’ look, though the cowl is replaced by a crash-helmet and the shield is a giant perspex frisbee. The rationale for this is that Steve wants to look more like the Captain America his father was, positioning these films as a sequel/reboot for a never-before-seen version of the character in which scientist Steve Rogers Senior self-administered the FLAG serum and fought crime in a costume before being murdered by enemies who would presumably have been brought to book in the planned series. It’s possible this phantom Cap was supposed to evoke Dick Purcell, though the serial featured a homefront vigilante version of the character in which DA Grant Gardner donned the outfit to battle spies and thugs beyond the reach of the law.
Brown (later YOR, THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE) has an open-faced sensitive lunk appeal, though Captain America minimises his showings in the costume. Screenwriter Don Ingalls blandly introduces a continuing mentor character in Simon Mills (who plays more like Richard Anderson’s Oscar from the Bionic TV series than any established Marvel player like, say, Nick Fury) and a sexy labcoat assistant in Dr Wendy Day (PIRANHA’s Heather Menzies). Though reliable sneerers like Joseph Ruskin and Lance LeGault show up as henchmen, the main villain–wicked millionaire Lou Brackett (Steve Forrest)–is a disappointment, and his neutron bomb bullion robbery scheme at once unresonant and easily-foiled.
Rod Holcomb (MIDNIGHT OFFERINGS) stayed around to handle second-unit work for the sequel, billed as CAPTAIN AMERICA II: DEATH TOO SOON on the packaging but with only a burned-in CAPTAIN AMERICA II on the print, but Ivan Nagy (MIND OVER MURDER, SKINNER) took over as director. Brown and Birman return, but Menzies is replaced by Sellecca for no apparent reason since the shows seem to have been shot back-to-back. Without the need to spend half the film on an origin and with higher-quality villainy from Christopher Lee as an all-purpose terrorist bathetically known as ‘Miguel’, the follow-up plays better than the first effort. Miguel threatens a major city (Portland, Oregon) with an aerosol ageing drug, and Steve infiltrates a tyrannised small town to expose the plot. Taking a leaf out of Roger Moore’s Bond playbook, Cap has augmented gadgetry in this instalment, including unfolding stars-and-stripes wings that transform his bike into a hang-glider. The addition of the ageing drug, which someone is of course overdosed with at one point prompting a rapid-decay special effect, to Cap’s heightened abilities suggests a tentative willingness to embrace the fantastical elements of the Marvel Universe in a way that the timid Hulk and Spider-Man TV series, in which the heroes are the only fantastic characters facing ordinary villains and soap scenarios, did not. Still, Lee’s scowling, off-the-peg rotter—a terrorist who takes over a prison, posing as the governor—is hardly in the weight class of the Red Skull, MODOK, Baron Zemo or the Hate-Monger. Cap gets to toss about the same regulation hoods and stuntmen Purcell did in 1944 while barely working up a sweat since the films don’t trouble to bring on robots, costumed martial artists or super-powered villains who might give him a fair fight.
Shout!’s DVD puts both films on one disc and has no extras. Print/transfer quality is excellent, given the soft (frankly, ‘mellow’) look standard for TV movies in the late 1970s. These might not be major releases, but it’s nice to fill the gap on the shelf between the Purcell, Matt Salenger and Chris Evans versions of the character. Perhaps it’s now time to revisit Peter Hooten’s Dr Strange …
Here’s a fun trailer mash up for a never-made 1978 Avengers TV movie.