Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dope Island: O Captain O My Captain! Remembering the other Captain America

By Charles Cassady, Jr.

This summer's new CAPTAIN AMERICA motion-picture blockbuster epic gives countless millions their long-awaited bigscreen adaptation of a classic comic-book superhero - as though we haven't seen one of those in less than a month or so. And I'm given to believe that Captain America is a character in a Marvel-authorized "Avengers" feature-film blockbuster comics epic shooting even as these MIGHTY words are being written, somewhere in downtown Cleveland. Lots of empty buildings and recession-shut business, after all, offer major opportunities to film artistes, not just drug-dealing criminals (assuming there's a difference).

Sorry for the attitude, but I must say my disillusion with comic-book superheroes even predates my disillusion with cinema. And, with all due respect to Cleveland artist Derek Hess, who's transfixed by the character, I was never really into Captain America. If anything I was a Swamp Thing guy. Then issue No. 2 of "Swamp Thing" came out, and my younger self said "What! It's a series?! This thing might never end! Bet Berni Wrightson even stops drawing it." And I moved upwards, I hope. Sadly, society went in the opposite direction. There's a "mod" 1960s science-fiction movie entitled THE TENTH VICIM, which depicts the Dystopian world of "tomorrow" - I think it's 1999 or thereabouts - as a decadent place in which a handful of old comic books are reverently referred to as "the classics." I don't think young viewers today, when Stan Lee compares one of his "Spider-Man" Dr. Octopus plotlines to Tolstoy and Dostoyeski, would get the joke.

So the point is, my knowledge of the comics realm comes very second-hand, and I was mordantly amused that Wizard Magazine, which filled me in on much movie/comics crossover, ceased publication earlier this year. I understand the big news was that Marvel actually killed off Captain America, just like they recently "killed off" Spider-Man. Gee-I-wonder-what-the-chances-are-that-these-characters-might-come-back?! Get real, you geeks; DC Comics had a superhero called Dead Man. BEING DEAD WAS HIS %!^&~!ING SUPERPOWER. AND I BET EVEN HE CAME BACK TO LIFE! The only dead thing that never comes back is the economy. Ask Wizard.

So what were my cynical thoughts in this big new CAPTAIN AMERICA movie? Mostly a nostalgic yearning for the days when movies based on comics were campy things nobody much respected. I'm sorry, but it just fit my perspective better that way.

Case in point is "my" CAPTAIN AMERICA, from 1992, a cut-rate US/Yugoslavian (??!!...well, I'll bet there's Chinese money somewhere in the new one) co-production. None of my current publishers deemed me worthy to review the 2011 CAPTAIN AMERICA; that's, like a Tiffany-grade release. But three decades ago a shabby comic-book flick was just at my level (or vice-versa), and so I made $50 out of it. Maybe that's why I was one of the very few reviewers to have anything remotely nice to say about the Clinton-era CAPTAIN AMERICA at all.

Going direct-to-video (meaning good old VHS) in the USA, this CAPTAIN AMERICA was judged proof of the "Marvel Curse" - that DC Comics characters such as Batman and Superman got successful bigscreen outings, at least at the time, while Marvel's movie tie-ins limped along with the likes of HOWARD THE DUCK. Since then I'd say the Marvel-DC level of success/suckiness is about even, though that Spider-Man Broadway musical really tends to unbalance the scales. On that note, this CAPTAIN AMERICA's director, B-action specialist Albert Pyun, was long attached to a movie version of Spider-Man that never took off (of course, so was James Cameron) and led to multiple lawsuits over the property - all ancient history now, but I don't doubt there are panelists at San Diego Comic-Con who look at Pyun's handiwork on CAPTAIN AMERICA and shudder to think what might have been.

The plot remains faithful to the WWII origins of Captain America. It opens in Italy in 1936 (the first portion is jammed with title cards like "One Week Later," "Fortress Lorenzo," "Redondo Beach, California," and so on, in a futile attempt to give the narrative a funny-papers flow), where Mussolini's stormtroopers and mad scientists turn an ordinary boy into the  hideously scarred and inhumanly strong a bad guy dubbed the Red Skull (Scott Paulin). One scientist involved defects to the U.S., and perfects the process for the Allies. Amid much low-tech sparking and crackling, polio-stricken volunteer Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger, the actor-son of author J.D. Salinger, which is like a detail a novelist like Nathaniel West might invent), is thus transformed into a mighty blond hunk. He's sent to tackle the superfoe, but the Red Skull beats up Captain America, fastens him to a flying bomb, and launches the missile at Washington D.C. Captain America at last thinks to kick its tailfin and send it off course to Alaska, where heremains frozen until 1993, when he's thawed out by surveyors. Meanwhile the Red Skull, after plastic beautification surgery looking more like those lumpy gangsters in Warren Beatty's DICK TRACY, has been masterminding all kinds of wickedness for the highest
bidder (his crimes include the murders of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King). Now he's being consulted by the pollution industry, who want to eliminate the new environmental-activist U.S. President.

That's right, the tale makes an abrupt switch from anti-fascism to Hollywood eco-activism, and a trend-begging "green" end credit goes "Please Support the Environmental Protection Act of 1990." Hey, if it weren't for Global Warming, Steve Rogers might still be stuck up there in Alaska. So there. United with the Valley-girl daughter of his wartime lost love, Captain America goes to Italy for a final confrontation with Red Skull meanies who have kidnapped the president and are preparing him for a mind-control implant. Oh, is that how Dittoheads happen?

Non-CGI Special effects rely heavily on stunts (when they try anything else, like the flying bomb, they look pretty threadbare), and while fans hate this flick I had to admit that Albert Pyun keeps the time-knotted script understandable to a point and worked in some cute touches, like dialogue name-drops for the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner. And the revived Captain America is alarmed by all the German and Japanese-made consumer goods he sees. Pyun isn't above a gaffe right of 1930s serials, though. In an old-timey newspaper-headline montage that chronicles the passage of key plot points, the succeeding headlines keep changing but the story underneath it doesn't. Freeze-frame and you'll see it's readable as a divorce scandal involving one of the San Diego Padres.

Matt Salinger actually spends small screen time in the iconic Captain America costume, and when he does the actor is augmented by a padded muscle suit that emphasizes rippled abdominals but leaves his arms relatively skinny; as a result, Captain America seems to sport a formidable beer gut. Perhaps he moonlights as Bud Man.

What can I say? I judged this CAPTAIN AMERICA An okay diversion for little kids of the 1990s but potentially deadly for adults, kind of like the comic books (sorry you True Believers of the "classics.") It's the CAPTAIN AMERICA of my generation, back when film was celluloid and superheroes were trash/kitsch - and there were still enough shops and cafes and check-cashing places open on Euclid Avenue to make it problematical closing it all down for the big fight scene between Nick Fury, Black Widow, Hulk and Fin Fang Foom. In the only resemblance to any superhero I'm feeling a bit like poor Steve Rogers (or Howard the Duck) himself, Trapped In A World I Never Made, waking up to the possibility that an any moment Daniel Day-Lewis will sign on to a record-setting fee to portray Ant-Man.

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