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Captain America / Captain America II: Death Too Soon
October 9, 2011

The Shout! Factory Captain America double feature will be available on October 18. The disc contains two films, the 1979 Captain America and its sequel, Captain America II: Death Too Soon.

(Apologies. I normally try to cover DVDs closer to release date, because I don’t want to get you excited about something and then make you have to wait, but October is going to be a lot busier than I expected. I’d rather talk about it now than not at all.)

In both movies, Captain America/Steve Rogers is played by Reb Brown, who looks the part well enough but doesn’t have much charisma. From the beginning of the first film, where we’re tracking a van driving along the California coastline while an instrumental ballad plays, it’s pretty clear that yes, this is the 70s.

The Origin of Captain America

In the first movie, Steve has just been released from the Marines, and he’s trying to figure out what to do with his life. A friend (Len Birman) of his deceased father’s contacts him about his dad’s work on “the ultimate steroid”, a super-hormone called FLAG (Full Latent Ability Gain — and boy, coming up with that stumped some writer for days, I bet). It seems that dad developed this serum to work best on his son, and the friend wants Steve to submit to testing, since all the other animal subjects die quickly when experimented on.

Steve turns them down because he’s tired of the military and reporting to authority; he just wants to “kick back and find out who I am.” (70s!) This feels more like Spider-Man’s origin, where he needs to learn the lesson of not being selfish, than Captain America’s. After a friend is killed, he’s still not willing to help; it’s only after he himself is injured in an accident caused by the bad guys that his dad’s friend decides to give him the steroid. Even then, he’s resentful. (This Captain doesn’t seem to have a lot of willpower or other admirable qualities.) It’s not until he’s kidnapped and his own life is at stake that he even admits there’s something neat to what he can do. Even then, he’s still mostly fearful.

Captain America costume

Captain America in action, sliding down a bannister

It’s not until almost an hour in that we get to see some of the traditional trappings, when Steve gets his (clear plastic) shield and jet-powered motorcycle. In the meantime, whenever he uses his powers, we hear a Six Million Dollar Man-like noise to show us he’s super-listening or whatever. This is after Steve learns that his dad was the original Captain America from Birman’s character, the most skilled actor in the film. He makes large chunks of exposition palatable and actually seems like he cares about Steve doing the right thing out of more than selfish reasons. The costume (complete with motorcycle helmet with ears) finally shows up with only 20 minutes left to go in the movie.

The Movie Has Issues

The biggest flaw here, in my opinion, was how they tried to modernize the character. Instead of a straightforward hero with enhanced abilities, Steve’s uncertain and has to be talked into doing the right thing. He’s done serving his country but finds himself aimless. To this viewer, he comes across as lazy and self-indulgent, an opinion not helped by Brown’s laid-back portrayal. He feels like a loose cannon, as though he’ll do whatever he’s told by whomever he’s listening to, not a self-determined superhero.

Captain America motorcycle

Captain America and his motorcycle

A modern viewer will find the pacing slow, as our expectations for storytelling and editing have been greatly speeded up in the 30 years since this came out. Plus, this wasn’t a big-budget theatrical film; it was a TV movie, meant to provide comfortable entertainment in the home. Rumor has it that this project was intended to be a series pilot, and that makes sense, given how it feels like the other Marvel works on TV at the time (Spider-Man and the Hulk). Perhaps that explains how very long we have to wait until we see our hero in costume, but it’s still a test of patience.

This movie is also lacking in what makes the source material exciting: action. There are many shots of vehicles driving around (or even going over a cliff), some sneaking around, very few of Captain America punching someone or fighting. There are no costumed super-villains; instead, Cap is fighting interchangeable guys in suits and their lackeys.

Captain America II: Death Too Soon

I had higher hopes for the second film, for two reasons. The first is that the premise is established, so we hopefully will get more forward movement and events happening more quickly. The second is the casting. The Girl (a scientist, Dr. Wendy Day, who helps Birman) is now Connie Sellecca (a change from Heather Menzies in the first movie), who brings more personality to the role. More importantly, the big bad guy is a terrorist named Miguel, played by Christopher Lee.

Captain America and his hangglider

Captain America and his motorcycle go hanggliding

As I hoped, the movie opens with a bang, as Cap on his cycle chases down some muggers who prey on old ladies. Then we swing into the main plot, about the threat of a chemical that causes rapid aging (at 38 days per hour, as is mentioned several times) and a mysterious town where everyone keeps trying to get him to leave. Steve’s got a pet cat in this one, for added interest and an excuse to stick around the town.

I wanted more Lee, especially early on, but this one is definitely the best of the three TV movies. All of my major concerns with the first movie were addressed here. It’s more consistent, without the need to dwell on details of the origin, and better paced. It’s got more action sequences, both in and out of costume. Steve is more active and determined, less waiting around for other people to make decisions. It’s still quite 70s TV in feel, with plenty of motorcycle chase footage, but it’s more watchable.

They’ll Like This

I think kids and collectors will love this affordably-priced edition. It’ll also be a hit with nostalgia buffs, those who remember watching this the first time around. The first movie is 1 hour 37 minutes; the second, an hour 28. The disc has no extras, beyond an opening ad for the Shout! Factory Super Hero Squad Show DVD. (The studio provided a review copy.)

3 Responses  
Grant writes:  

Any thoughts or guesses as to why they changed the costume for the first movie but changed it back to the original look for the second?

 
Rob writes:  

I saw the first movie when it came out. (Yeah, I’m feeling old.) This is how I remember it:

Steve sees the classic Captain America costume design in his father’s papers early in the movie, but decides to “modernize” it. Hence the motorcycle helmet and the clear plastic shield. At the end of the movie, there’s a Big Reveal when he shows up in the classic outfit, symbolising his final acceptance of his father’s wishes and embracing his role as Cap.

 
Judge Dredd (1995) » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[...] as happened with Captain America, a big company is bringing out a superhero catalog movie to tie into the upcoming release of a much [...]

 
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