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Subj: Sci-Fi/Superhero Cinema #51 - Captain America & Captain America II: Death Too Soon (1979)
Posted: Sat May 01, 2021 at 07:14:38 pm EDT (Viewed 247 times)
Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon (1979)
I have always seen these movies referred to as examples of extremely poor adaptations of the comic book source, but I have never actually seen them until now. Since I've been watching a lot of 1970s movies lately, and some TV, maybe I can evaluate these with less of a modern perspective on how dated they may seem.
I think the majority of the complaints against these movies really stem from budgetary concerns. It's a shame that in the wake of 1978's Superman that studios weren't more willing to grant budgets more in line with what would be necessary to achieve the visual splendor of comic books. Complaints about this pair of movies generally center around poor costuming, lack of super powers displayed, lackluster writing, generally poor acting. All of which happened because these made-for-TV movies were clearly pilots for a potential TV series on a modest budget which would attract writers and actors used to standard procedural shows and would not offer much of a special effects budget.
The biggest change from the comics is that in this version, Steve Rogers (Reb Brown) is not a soldier or war hero, although I read a synopsis somewhere that claimed he was a Marine, but I don't specifically remember that being stated in the movie. In this version he is a retired motocross champion who now makes a living sketching people at county fairs, it seems. Both background details will figure into the plot once he becomes Captain America who does have super powers, but relies more on his super-motorbike to do amazing feats. He comes up with the sketch for his eventual costume, an American-flag inspired motocross outfit that looks suspiciously like something Evel Knievel would wear.
Steve goes bumming around small towns in his groovy 70s van drawing sketches. But suddenly people are trying to kill him for no good reason. Dr. Simon Mills (Len Birman) finds him and tells him that his dear departed father, Rogers Senior (unnamed as I recall), was working on a formula called FLAG (Full Latent Ability Gain) that would grant people full human potential in the categories of not only strength, speed and agility but also hearing, sight, and healing. Unfortunately it won't work on anyone who's not a Rogers since he made it from his own DNA. Steve turns down the chance to help unlock the secret, but when he's left on death's door from a car crash, Mills injects Steve with FLAG to save his life, and now he's Captain America. Steve's biggest concern now is that he might be too strong to grip a pencil without breaking it during a sketch session.
But Steve soon comes around thanks to Mills' assistant, Dr. Wendy Day (played by Heather Menzies in the first movie, Connie Selleca in the second). Mills tells Steve that Rogers Senior had once used his own super strength to topple evil businessmen and terrorists and other ne'er-do-wells and was such a do-gooder that everyone started calling him "Captain America" as an insult but he decided to take the name as a badge of honor. Steve decides to use the name as well and sketches out the costume and Mills supplies the super-bike which fits right in the back of Steve's van. The first costume looks like a biker outfit with clear goggles and helmet, but in the second movie he adapts his dad's original costume, we're told, which looks just like the comics version with the full head cowl and everything, but he still insists on wearing the bike helmet over it, even when not riding, which kind of ruins it.
I'm torn on the shield, it does look like exactly what it is, which is a clear plastic frisbee with some red stripes painted on, and it looks really weak when thrown. It hits enemies with all the force of someone getting tapped with an open umbrella, and yet they fly across the room and get KOed. It is supposed to be some space-age bulletproof plastic and in one scene when pinned down by gunmen, Steve takes cover behind the shield and since it's clear, he can see through it to plan his next move, which might be incredibly handy. Every time he mounts the bike, he places the shield on the front and it occurred to me that it is acting as the bike's windshield, and suddenly the choice to make it from plastic rather than metal made sense to me. It still looks too lightweight to do damage and that might have been solved by the way it was filmed and they could have added some weighty sound effects, which they did not.
Speaking of sound effects, every time Cap uses one of his super powers such as strength or sight there is a sci-fi sound effect that reminds me of his Bionic colleagues from another network. Both The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman had ended their runs the year before, so maybe it wasn't stepping on any toes. Actually, his use of super-senses reminds me of a supercop show from the '90s, The Sentinel, about a man with his five senses enhanced to the level that he could function as a "one-man CSI."
Of course Marvel had already adapted Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk to live-action on TV in 1977. Spidey's show ended its run a few months after Cap's first movie, but the Hulk series would run for several more years. According to Reb Brown, they planned at least two more Cap movies where he would meet up with Spidey and the Hulk, but it never happened.
I was wondering why they chose to put so much emphasis on Cap's bike in these movies rather than his superpowers. I thought maybe it was cheaper? But they spent money on the bike and when it "flies" with its turbo-boost or the built-in hang glider I'm sure it still took some rigging to fly it on a crane along with some cameras mounted, so it probably wasn't any cheaper than Hulk going through a breakaway wall. It probably had more to do with not wanting to duplicate Hulk's powers and trying to distinguish Cap from being just another muscleman. In fact there are a couple scenes where he analyzes some evidence and seems more like Batman.
The plots are fine by TV episode standards, which is probably how they should be judged. The first movie has Steve Forrest planning to use a neutron bomb on a gold depository, because it will kill the people in the vicinity but leave the gold unharmed, which is sort of the opposite of Goldfinger's plan from his James Bond movie. The second Cap film has Christopher Lee as "Miguel," a one-name world terrorist who is trying to get his hands on an anti-aging drug by first forcing a scientist to create a fast-aging drug that he can use to hold the world hostage. He crop-dusts the town of Portland, Oregon with the aging drug which should make everyone age a year every week, or something like that, unless he gives them the antidote.
Both final confrontations are a little lacking. Steve Forrest is moving his bomb on a semi truck and Cap bends the exhaust pipe into the trailer to knock out the villain. When facing Christopher Lee, he could probably have rushed the bad guy with super speed but he waits for Lee to set down his case of aging serum, open it up, pull out a bottle and throw it, which Rogers deflects with his shield, dousing the terrorist with his own poison.
Another thing I didn't like about these 70s TV versions of the Marvel heroes was that all of their villians were just white-collar crooks. Businessmen, politicians, terrorists. They never tried to adapt the comic book supervillains which seemed like a missed opportunity. It wasn't until Cap's next outing in 1990 from Cannon Films that we got the Red Skull.
Reb Brown was a college football player before he went into acting. He certainly has the body of Captain America, as you can see when he goes shirtless a couple of times. He's good looking and seems kind of charming but his acting is a bit wooden, he could have used some coaching. But what do I know, he made a ton of movies like Howling II and Yor, the Hunter From the Future. They probably cast this the way they cast Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk, based on his physique. But Ferrigno had Bill Bixby to handle the heavy acting. I do remember liking Brown in Uncommon Valor.
I mentioned Evel Knievel, a motorcycle stuntman known for staging big event jump spectacles, often televised. A movie was made about him starring George Hamiltion in 1971, and Evel starred as himself in Viva Knievel! in 1977, so it was fresh in everyone's minds when they made this. The similarity can't be a coincidence.
Altogether these weren't quite as bad as I was expecting, that's because I forgive all problems arising from budget limitations which is most of them. Still they are a bit slow in parts, with lots of scenes of characters driving from one place to another in between dialogue or action scenes, which seems like filler. Had these movie-length outings been trimmed down to single hour-long episodes, they would have seemed just about right. Nothing great, mind you, but on par with the Spider-Man and Hulk shows.
While made for U.S. television, Captain America did run in theaters in Colombia and the U.K., at least. Captain America II: Death Too Soon had some theatrical exposure around Europe.
Posted on the Captain America board also.
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