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Captain America (1979 TV)
~Review by Grawlix (October 2020)
We are truly living in charmed times when it comes to live action superheroes. These days if you watch a movie or show based on a comic book, you can be reasonably assured that what appears on screen is a recognizable facsimile of what’s on the page. In decades past, this wasn’t always the case. Turn on a superhero show back then, and they’d usually get the costume right, but anything else was kind of a bonus, and you never knew what sort of weird gimmick they might try to shoehorn in. Case in point: 1979’s Captain America TV movie which features the Star Spangled Avenger and his… futuristic motorcycle? Oh, but like most TV action products of the time period, it makes the audience work for it before they get even that.
In this incarnation of the character, Steve Rogers is a former marine who, after completing his (apparently none too distinguished) term of service just wants to settle down and peacefully tour the country with his van and his sketchbook. Unfortunately, it appears that Steve is one of those people that trouble just has a way of finding. First, a chance meeting with an old friend manages to involve him in a conspiracy that not only involves murder, but also stolen state secrets regarding the development of a neutron bomb. He is also contacted by Dr. Simon Mills (Len Birman) an associate of his late father. Turns out that Rogers Sr. was not only a decorated government agent whose patriotic zeal earned him the mocking appellation of “Captain America” but he also helped to develop an experimental super steroid called F.L.A.G. (Full Latent Ability Gain). As F.L.A.G. was based on the elder Rogers’s genome, Mills wants Junior to take up the mantle of test subject, in the hopes that his similar biology will stabilize the effects. Steve initially refuses, but when an (oddly proactive) attempt on his life by the bomb-plot bad guys lands him in critical condition, Mills has no choice but to apply the F.L.A.G. formula (reluctantly, of course) to save Rogers’s life. Unsurprisingly it works, prompting Mills to offer Rogers a job as a secret government agent, much like that of his father. In for a penny, in for a pound, Rogers seemingly reasons, and agrees.
Rogers/Captain America is played by Reb Brown, who would go on to a sort of retroactive immortality when the 1988 sci-fi disaster Space Mutiny, in which he starred, was lampooned in one of the most popular episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Space Mutiny was still ten years off when Brown appeared in Captain America, having mainly popped up in one-off TV show roles before then, but considering how his performance was lambasted in ‘88, you can imagine what he was working with in ’79. To be fair, Brown does look the part, with his dirty blond hair, clean cut features, and impressive physique, but he suffers from a pronounced lack of presence and charisma. He also delivers nearly all of his lines in a gruff semi-whisper that is, I guess, supposed to make him sound cool and in control (see: Clint Eastwood) but mainly just highlights his extreme lack of emotive range (see also: Steven Seagal).
It’s not all his fault, though. Throughout most of the movie, his character is more of a passive observer that reacts to circumstances rather than drives the story. And when the motorcycle finally gets introduced (a perk of top secret agent work, apparently) he gets pushed even further into the background.
It’s obvious that the motorcycle was supposed to be the killer app that sold the movie. A modified Yamaha TT-500 (USA! USA!), the bike comes complete with rocket boosters, a silent-running Stealth Mode, and a bulletproof windscreen that, when detached, doubles as a (his/THE) shield. Immediately after the bike is introduced, it’s given an extended test drive scene wherein all of its capabilities are demonstrated, including a few totally gratuitous ramp jumps. It’s easy enough for some smartass reviewer like myself to deride Brown as just a slab of meat meant to fill out the riding gear, but once it hits the road, one can’t help but get the feeling that maybe the producers felt the same way about him.
Besides having a bland lead who’s upstaged by his vehicle every time they’re on screen together, (which, to its credit, does presage Knight Rider) Captain America boasts a host of additional problems. In fact, there are very few original ideas anywhere in the film. The whole rebuilt-better-following-a-catastrophic -injury plot had already been done pretty thoroughly by the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman, both of which ended their multi-season runs a year before. You could argue that the gadget-cycle was ahead of the curve considering all of the super-vehicle shows that debuted in the 80s (including the aforementioned Knight Rider and cycle-centric Street Hawk, though that one is hardly a barometer for quality) but really it was just riding current trends considering the popularity of CHiPs (on which Brown guested a few times), James Bond, and a prior decade of Evel Knievel stunt jumping. The villainous mastermind turns out to be an amoral businessman, a cliche that was already beginning to wear thin at this point, and though actor Steve Forrest does manage to give him a certain amount of eloquent menace, his grand plan doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and he proves to be a weak adversary. And the film’s climax is a pathetic whimper that relegates both Captain America and his Motorcycle to ancillary observers and in general would be considered a disappointment in any television filler episode, much less in a movie.
One thing Captain America does have a lot of is, oddly, helicopters. I’m not the first person to notice this and can’t say why I happened to notice it with this movie in particular, but a lot of 80s action television (and not just Airwolf and Blue Thunder) seemed to feature tons of helicopter sequences, from aerial shots to actual action scenes involving them. General consensus is that lowered prices for their purchase/rental along with an abundance of qualified pilots entering the private sector following the end of the Vietnam War were the primary factors contributing to this, but whatever the reason, Captain America is a standout example of this trend with not one, but two full sequences dedicated to helicopter vs. ground vehicle chases. Unfortunately, it’s a trend that hasn’t aged particularly well. Helicopter stunts have to be handled carefully for a multitude of reasons (see: Twilight Zone: The Movie, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, et al.), the sequences tend to run long, and nothing on a TV budget from this time would allow them to sustain any sort of damage. In short, every time a helicopter gets involved, there ends up being a lot of screen time expended for very little payoff.
In many ways Captain America screams “backdoor pilot” but it was released into an unusual network climate. It originally aired on CBS, which was also the host network for contemporary series like The Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman, the abortive Doctor Strange TV film, and the live action The Amazing Spider-Man, the latter of which was still technically in production when Captain America aired, but facing a wavering commitment as CBS was wary of becoming known solely as a superhero network. In consideration of this, one wonders why they bothered making Captain America at all. The best I can think of is that, having already paid for the rights, they probably figured they should try to do something with them, leaving open the possibility for a series if it somehow became a runaway ratings success. Obviously, this did not happen, but they did knock out a second Cap movie, subtitled (possibly ironically) Death Too Soon before the end of the year.
Watching Captain America really gave me a new appreciation for the 1960’s Batman TV show. Yeah, it was campy and goofy (though it did reflect the tone of the comic at the time) but it also featured character-accurate costumes, vehicles, gear, and, perhaps most importantly, a recognizable rogues gallery. By contrast, Captain America had a sort-of accurate costume (he finally dons a comic-accurate version in the final scene) and an origin with a reasonable analogue to the Super-soldier serum, but his iconic shield is reduced to window dressing (literally), his classic villains are MIA, and, seriously, a motorcycle!? I mean, I get that the Red Skull might’ve been a tough sell for prime-time TV (Then again, considering the time period, who knows?) but would it have been so hard to build the plot around battling, say, Baron Blood, or Batroc, or The Secret Empire? Wouldn’t that have been better than Generic Evil Industrialist? Or, alternatively, if they wanted to incorporate a motorcycle so damn badly, why not just make a Ghost Rider movie? Yeah, the subject matter might’ve been a little more abstruse, but that didn’t stop them from making Doctor Strange. And, yeah, maybe it would’ve been tough to find a stuntman willing to repeatedly have his head set on fire, but they could’ve made a few tweaks and still looked more like its comic inspiration than Captain America. Sigh. So many questions. So many missed opportunities. So disappointing.
Final Grade: C-
Captain America sports some major-network polish, and most of the secondary cast are pretty good, but beyond just not aging well, it suffers from a weak lead, nonsensical plotting, and some downright odd narrative choices. It’s a mildly interesting curiosity, but nothing more.
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