1979 was a hard year for CBS’ superhero line-up. Wonder Woman aired the final twelve episodes of its third and final season, The Amazing Spider-Man, after airing only four episodes from September 5, 1978 (the day before the ill-fated Doctor Strange film was broadcast) through December, aired two episodes in February and then its final two-parter in July, and two Captain America television films aired; the first in and the second in November, bookending the year.
And then there was only The Incredible Hulk, which continued to run until 1982. But while The Hulk was a continuing success, there wouldn’t be another live-action Marvel superhero film until the arrival of Howard The Duck in 1986. CBS did, however, give Captain America a fair shot over that final year.
Strangely enough, though, this Captain America film wasn’t the first.
Back in 1944, when Marvel was still Timely comics, Republic produced a fifteen-part serial starring Captain America. I considered including it in this series of articles, but as it turns out, sometimes Captain America isn’t really Captain America.
You see, according to some rumors, the Captain America serial was probably originally intended to be another character, but was changed to the good Captain at the last minute. There are a number of theories, but the one that seems the most likely is that the serial should have been about Fawcett’s character, Mr. Scarlet.
It turns out that, like Mr. Scarlet, the film version of Captain America is a crime-fighting attorney with a female assistant who knows his secret identity. There is no super-soldier formula, he doesn’t use a shield, but instead carries a gun. He fights no Nazis and there’s no mention or inclusion of his side-kick, Bucky.
There’s really nothing about the character, besides the costume, that has anything to do with Captain America. And Republic had already successfully adapted Fawcett’s The Adventures of Captain Marvel and Spy Smasher without nearly as many changes to the source materials. So it looks like Republic had a Mr. Scarlet serial ready to go, but then opted to go with the more popular Captain America without doing any significant re-writes.
So I’m not counting that as a true Marvel Movie, even if it was the most expensive serial Republic ever made, and was the last of the superhero titles.
On a side note, Dick Purcell, the actor who played Captain America, died a few weeks after filming was completed, as it seems the strain of filming was too much for his heart.
Side note number two: According to Captain America Volume 1, issue 219, Cap secretly played himself in the Republic serial, taking the place of a stuntman who was shot during the production.
The first real Captain America film aired on Friday night, January 19, 1979, and is a real mixed bag. I have to say, of all the Marvel movies so far, this one has the weakest acting. I was repeatedly reminded of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, which wouldn’t be a bad thing if this were a comedy. Unfortunately, what makes Darkplace so hilarious becomes a serious drawback for an attempt at anything serious.
The lead casting doesn’t seem like it would produce this bad a production. The scientists in charge of turning Steve Rogers into Captain America are played by TV veteran Len Birman and Heather Menzies (who had starred as Jessica in the short-lived Logan’s Run TV series). Birman is the standout here, playing his role of Dr. Simon Mills with a nice dramatic intensity. He’s got a very commanding voice and plays the head of secret projects for the National Security Laboratories as a fairly believable adventure-friendly scientist.
Menzies, on the other hand, doesn’t really seem right for the part of Dr. Wendy Day. Although, on the plus side, we do get a very successful bathing suit scene as she and Steve Rogers frolic on the beach. Aside from that high-point, she mainly serves as a background character who then becomes a hostage at the climax of the film.
But it’s with the casting of Captain America himself where we get a confusing mix of good and bad. Reb Brown, former football player for USC, was an actor who had been around for a few years, making his film debut in 1973’s Ssssss (which starred Heather Menzies as the daughter of mad scientist, Strother Martin, who spent the film turning people into snakes), but this was his first real headlining gig, not counting a three-episode recurring role on CHiPs in 1977.
It wouldn’t be until the 1984 cult classic Yor, the Hunter From the Future that he would get another leading role, in the same year he appeared in the Vietnam POW rescue film Uncommon Valor (with Gene Hackman). Brown then received a nomination for Best Lead Actor in a Dramatic Role by the Australian Film Institute for his portrayal of Private Edward Leonski in 1986’s Death of a Soldier.
Brown plays Steve Rogers as a loveable, if kind of simple, ex-Marine who only wants to be left alone to live in his van and work on his art. He’s a little too stiff in this film, but I’d be willing to bet that a lot of the acting shortcomings of this film are as much a problem with the script as with the talent, which is a bit of a surprise, as the screenplay was written by television veteran Don Ingalls (scripter of episodes of Star Trek, Have Gun Will Travel, and Fantasy Island amongst other shows).
I was surprised by how pedestrian the direction of the film was, too, given that it was directed by Rod Holcomb, a director who got his start directing episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man (1977-78), and went on to direct episodes of Battlestar Galactica (1978-79) and still is directing to this day. He even directed the episode “Jughead” from the 2009 season of Lost.
To be honest, though, the entire concept is hamstrung by the limitations put on the production by CBS. Not only did the network want to avoid the show being too comic-booky, they didn’t want to spend too much on it either. Because of this, most of what makes Captain America who he is in the comics, is jettisoned.
Instead of being the World War Two hero and only survivor of the Super Soldier Program, our Steve Rogers is an already musclebound, good-natured fellow whose father had been a scientist working on an Ultimate Steroid. His research was developed with samples from his own adrenal gland, and he created F.L.A.G. (Full Latent Ability Gain). After trying it on himself, he was able to use 100% of his body’s capabilities, and being the most patriotic man Dr. Mills had ever known, used his abilities to become a super crime fighter.
This is news Steve takes so casually one might think he was drugged.
The elder Rogers was so patriotic that his enemies mocked him, calling him Captain America. Then, eventually, he was killed. Unfortunately, F.L.A.G. never worked on anyone else, providing lab rats with two weeks of super capabilities before driving them mad and killing them.
Naturally, when Dr. Mills explains all this to Steve, Steve wants no part of it, preferring instead to cruise the coast in his awesome van, drawing landscapes and riding his motorcycle. Of course, fate has other plans.
One of Steve’s oldest friends, Jeff Hayden is in trouble and asks for Steve’s help. Before Steve can do anything, Jeff is killed in his home. As luck would have it, Jeff also works for Dr. Mills on secret research relating to the development of a Neutron Bomb. Mills suspects that Jeff might have been a spy.
Steve won’t hear
of it, but before he can find out much one way or the other, the villain of the piece, evil oilman Lou Brackett (played by Steve Forrest) puts out a hit on Steve, which very nearly succeeds.
With Steve in the hospital, dying, Dr. Mills decides to inject him with F.L.A.G. as a last-ditch effort to save his life. And guess what? It works!
Soon, Steve is super-strong, with super-hearing, super-eyesight, super-reflexes, and is an all-around super-guy. Dr. Mills persuades Steve to take up his father’s old job of super crime fighter and provides him with a jet-powered motorcycle, a special shield made of “Jet-age plastics,” and a costume (that Steve designed himself as a goof, upon hearing about his father’s exploits) to protect his identity.
Mills gives one of the most inspirational speeches I’ve ever heard in a film. He tells Steve that they ridiculed his father, and then they killed him. “Be Captain America, Steve… Jam Captain America down their throats. And at the same time, protect yourself.”
I teared up a little, there.
After Brackett builds his Neutron Bomb and heads out to threaten a city with a very poorly thought out plan. Really, I have no idea how he was planning on surviving or why he wanted to blow something up in the first place. Steve and the gang assume he’s going after a billion or so dollar stash of gold. How he’s going to get it, transport it, etc, is anybody’s guess.
And then, in a very anti-climactic scene, Steve, in his full Captain America garb sneaks his way onto the top of the semi truck that is hauling the Neutron Bomb, funnels the exhaust into the back, knocking Brackett unconscious. And that’s that.
The good guys win.
Then, in the final moments of the film, as our heroes bask in their success, Steve decides that if he’s going to be Captain America full time, he wants to wear his dad’s old costume. This is the first we’ve even heard that his father wore a costume, but on the plus side, it’s the Captain America costume from the comics.
So we all win.
Over the course of the year, as I’ve noted, Wonder Woman and The Amazing Spider-Man both wrapped, and then on Friday, November 23, 1979, CBS aired Captain America 2: Death Too Soon. The all-around quality of this production is much higher than the origin story, with better acting from everyone involved, a better script, and lots more costumed super-action than before.
To be quite honest, I’m surprised that this wasn’t picked up as an ongoing series.
Reb Brown and Len Birman return as Captain America and Dr. Mills, but this time, Dr. Day is played by Connie Sellecca in one of her first TV roles, and she brings a believable intelligence to the role that, I’m sorry to say, just wasn’t there in Menzies’ performance. Sellecca would go on from this to play Pam Davidson Hinkley in The Greatest American Hero and star in the hit nighttime soap, Hotel.
The script this time around is by Wilton Schiller and Patricia Payne. It was one of the last things Schiller worked on, after a long career as a writer, but it was one of the few things Payne ever did (according to IMDB, anyway). The director for this second outing was Ivan Nagy (with Rod Holcomb doing some second unit directing).
Nagy’s got a bit more flair and there were a number of times during my viewing where I was impressed with the way the camera moved through the scene. Unfortunately, he wasn’t long for the mainstream television and ran into some trouble with the law in 1991. Before too long, though, he was back behind the camera, spending the Nineties directing straight-to-video nudie films. I don’t think there’s any actual hardcore porn in there, but lots of things with “All Nude” in the title.
Maybe it’s the extra energy that Nagy brought to the set, I don’t know, but Captain America 2 hits all the points one might want from a 1979 live-action superhero television movie. Of course it didn’t hurt to have some quality British actors on-board this time, to jazz things up a bit.
Christopher Cary plays Professor Ian Ilson, and while he’s not all that accomplished in film, he did play King Richard in the 1982 cult classic, The Sword and the Sorcerer, which also featured Reb Brown in a supporting role. Cary’s not in Captain America 2 very much, but when he is, he’s excellent.
Particularly when going head to head with the villain of the piece, the terrorist General Miguel, played by a slumming Christopher Lee. I’m not going to run down his credits. If you don’t know who Christopher Lee is, you’re beyond hopeless. Just look him up and start renting his films. He’s a genius. To me, there is no other Dracula. Or Saruman. Or Count Dooku. Or Cardinal Rochefort.
Plus, he and Reb Brown co-starred in one of my favorite camp classics, Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf, alongside Sybil Danning and her boobs.
In this film, he discovers that Professor Ilson had been working on a way to combat aging, kidnaps him, and forces him to create a chemical that does the opposite. He finds a way to speed up the aging process of those exposed to his chemical, 38 days per hour. That averages out to seventy years in the span of four weeks.
But as the film begins, we don’t know any of this. We open with Steve Rogers hanging out in the park by the ocean, painting a portrait of a little old lady. There’s lots of local color as people in bathing suits loiter around or roller skate by. When Steve hears that a local gang has been harassing the elderly and stealing their pension checks, he leaps into action and makes short work of them.
This is probably the weakest part of the film, hamstrung by generic badguys, cheesy action, and a very vanilla “boyscout” approach by Captain America that would have been more believable if he had actually been the “man out of time” version of the character that we all know and love. Instead, he just comes across as a lovably goofy, nice guy. And those are always hard to take seriously.
Once this opening sequence is taken care of, we move into the actual plot of the film, as Dr. Mills discovers that Professor Ilson has been kidnapped.
From this point on we get a pretty fast-paced adventure, and by the half-hour mark we’ve already discovered that Miguel is smuggling in the chemicals needed for the aging drug from Ecuador, Steve’s discovered the shipment and battled a group of thugs on the docks, tracked the shipment, lost track of the shipment, started hanging out in the town of Bellville with his cat, Heathcliff, and getting noticed by the bad guys.
That’s when Miguel demands one billion dollars or he will unleash his aging chemical on a U.S. city.
That’s a lot of plot crammed into a half hour. And it works pretty well, all things considered.
It’s at this point that the film moves into the more familiar approach that was working so well with The Incredible Hulk, as Steve befriends a local widow and her son. Helen’s husband is dead and she’s given up show riding to run her farm and take
care of her son, Pete.
After Steve is jumped by five guys with baseball bats, and handily kicks all their asses, Helen takes Steve home and can barely keep herself from sexually assaulting him. He is poured into those jeans and has his shirt ripped to shreds. Who can blame her? This gets interrupted by Pete finding a dead old sheep that he swears is his missing lamb.
When Steve takes note of this, a farmhand takes note of him, and before too long, Miguel puts a hit out on Steve and the local police arrest him. But before the locals can gather at the jail and lynch him, Steve disappears through the mangled bars of his cell.
And when he goes driving by on his motorcycle in full Captain America regalia, someone declares, “Captain America just broke Rogers out of jail!”
Um, yeah. No connection between the musclebound guy in the street clothes and the musclebound guy in the flag suit. No connection, whatsoever.
I supposed this is as good a time as any to comment on the costume.
I can remember watching these films when they originally aired. I was almost 11 years old for the first one and nearly 12 for the second and can clearly remember being disappointed with the costume. It was better for Captain America 2, since it was actually the costume from the comics, but that first film made Cap look more like Evil Knievel than a superhero.
Although, to be fair, Evil Knievel was kind of like a superhero when I was a kid.
I probably could have accepted the look if it hadn’t been for the helmet. Captain America ran around in full costume with a motorcycle helmet for a mask in that first film. I was not impressed. It looked like he had a giant head whenever he went into action.
I preferred, then and now, the second film’s costuming, even though they kept the motorcycle helmet motif. I suppose it was inevitable, given that he spends a lot of time riding around on a motorcycle, and that’s only safe, after all. But it seems like they could have let him ditch the helmet when he wasn’t riding and actually wear a mask.
Oh well. We’ll see how I like it when I take a look at the 1990 Captain America film, eh?
Back to this one, once Cap shows his face the plot starts moving even faster, and after being cornered on a dam, he launches himself over the side, bouncing his motorcycle off the dam and down into the waters. Of course, the bad guys think he couldn’t have survived.
But while Cap is out of commission and the President has made it clear that we don’t negotiate with terrorists, Miguel gasses Portland and ups his demands to two billion dollars. Steve shows up at Helen’s and together they figure out where Miguel is hiding out.
Turns out he’s taken over Waterford Federal Penitentiary by killing and then pretending to be the new warden. From this point, the film kind of dumbs itself down and we get a parade of action sequences that are all kind of half-assed and poorly executed.
For some reason, Miguel commands his henchmen to give some guard dogs a triple dose of the aging drug and set them on Captain America. I still can’t figure that one out. Anyway, Cap just forces them back with his shield and closes the door to the hallway. Then he frees Ilson and heads off after Miguel, who has escaped the prison with the drug, the antidote, and a machine gun. Cap follows by manually tossing his motorcycle up to the top of the prison wall in one of the worst bits of wire work I’ve seen in ages.
This is when we get the piece de resistance. Captain America then jumps his motorcycle off the wall, hits a special button on the dash, and deploys the hang glider attachment.
He then follows Miguel’s car in a nearly ten minute long scene of gliding and driving that fills out the final half hour. This is followed by a few minutes of motorcycle chase, that ends with a foot chase through the woods. I have to admit, there’s something kind of cool about seeing Christopher Lee lope through the forest with a metallic suitcase in one hand and a machine gun in the other.
When Captain America confronts Miguel, he tries to use his shield, but you can’t fool an old jungle fighter, after all. You know, because instead of using the shield as a direct weapon, he tosses it off to the side and expects Miguel to be a chump and not see it coming up behind him.
He does, and steps out of the way, allowing the shield to fall to the ground at Cap’s feet. Miguel tries to shoot him, but he’s able to kick the shield up in time to deflect the bullets. Then Miguel takes the time to open his suitcase, pull out a glass beaker of aging drug, and hurl it at Cap. But Cap’s got his shield, remember?
He flings it, busts the glass, and douses Miguel with his own aging serum.
And Miguel dies of old age.
Once everything is taken care of, Steve and Dr. Mills go and gas Portland with the antidote, then Steve goes and hangs out with Pete and his mom for a while, bringing Pete a puppy named Toby to replace his dead lamb. The film closes with little Pete happy that his mom has that extremely happy look on her face as she rides around the pen.
I’m sure it’s just that she’s riding again. Sure. That’s all that’s making her smile like that.
Remember, Steve is using all 100% of his physical capabilities.
As I said, I’m surprised that this didn’t get picked up. Even though they threw out everything that makes Captain America Captain America, I think that Reb Brown grew into the role over the course of the two films and would only have gotten better if given more opportunities. Maybe the idea of an American Icon being portrayed as an art-loving cat-owner with a goody-goody streak a mile wide was a little too much for the network to get behind.
I have to admit, that I found myself snickering a little at the idea of the beefy blonde guy living in his van with his cat. I really can’t see the reasoning behind many of the changes made in the character. In fact, I’d have been interested in seeing a filmed version of the story of Steve’s dad. I wonder if that was a vague reference to the 1944 serial?
Anyway, thus ends the last of the Marvel Television Movies until 1996 and Generation X. Well, technically, there’s a 1991 Power Pack TV film out there somewhere, but I’ve yet to be able to find a copy of it. If I can find it before we reach that point, I’ll be sure to include it, but it’s not looking good.
In the meantime, we are about to move into a series of feature film failures, beginning with Howard The Duck (1986), and followed by The Punisher (1989), Captain America (1990), and The Fantastic Four (1994). Then we move back to TV for Generation X (1996) and Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (1998).
After that, we move up into the big leagues.