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Captain America 2: Death Too Soon (1979 TV)
~Review by Grawlix (October 2020)
I’ll bet there are some interesting stories behind the production of the 1979 Captain America TV movies. I’d imagine they’re probably more interesting than the movies themselves, but that’s not a high bar to clear, all things considered. The first movie was released in January on CBS at a time when the network was actively drawing down on their (considerable, relative to other networks) superhero themed programming. Reception was lukewarm at best, and if the plan was to spin a full series off of it, it failed to gain any traction.
Yet, inexplicably, a mere 11 months later, a second Captain America movie aired on the same network. By this point, CBS’s plans to move away from superhero programming were well underway. The Wonder Woman TV series had died of fairly natural causes in September after a solid three seasons, while The Amazing Spider-man was unceremoniously put down in July, despite respectable ratings, after a mere 13 episodes, leaving only The Incredible Hulk still in production. How anyone thought that a Captain America TV product could thrive in this environment, much less after the same concept had fizzled less than a year before, is beyond me. So why was it made? Was it on an overly optimistic production schedule in anticipation of a warmer reception to the original movie? Did they get in too deep with production costs and need a way to try to recover? The internet doesn’t seem to know or, frankly, care, but whatever the reason, for the second time in less than a year, Captain America graced the small screen with Death Too Soon.
I’ll give credit to the production company (Universal, aka NBC… man, television is weird), likely recognizing the rare circumstance of getting a second attempt at a pilot, they seemed to have raised their game, at least as much as they could. The pacing is much improved, with considerably more action. This is probably helped along by the fact that the character origin steps were already completed in the first movie, but it’s still encouraging that they recognized this as an issue that needed correcting. The villain has been upgraded to an international terrorist named Miguel (an alias, apparently) played by Christopher Lee! It’s still a disappointing substitute for an actual supervillain (seriously, was Baron Blood so much of a stretch to offer to a guy who built his career on playing Dracula?) but a marked improvement over the nefarious CEO of the first movie. His master plan is suitably comic-bookish: poisoning a city with a drug that causes rapid aging, and then ransoming the cure. He and the Captain even have a proper tête-à-tête at the end.
To recap things on the hero side, this Captain America is not the thawed-out WWII hero we’ve come to know. Rather he’s the son of a particularly patriotic government agent, given an experimental super-steroid as a last resort after being critically injured in a car wreck. With his strength, speed, and senses raised to superhuman levels, he takes up his modified, gadget-filled motorcycle and sallies forth as a vaguely defined, government sanctioned agent/vigilante of the sort that 70s and 80s television was so fond of producing. As such, it’s a little strange to see the Captain taking more orders than initiative, but it’s probably just as well since, like so much else from his comic backstory, his vaunted leadership qualities remain MIA.
Captain America is once again played by Reb Brown (Bold Bigflank!) who, once again, has the look but not the personality. In the first movie, Brown (Dirk Hardpec!) was able to coast a bit with a script that seemed more interested in developing the motorcycle’s character rather than his own. This time out, however, has Brown (Slab Bulkhead!) doing a bit more character work. The Captain, as his uncostumed alter ego, Steve Rogers, goes undercover infiltrating a small town to which a chemical needed to manufacture the aging drug has been traced. Most of the residents range from aloof to openly hostile to outsiders, but Rogers manages to make friends with a single mom (Katherine Justice) and her young son (John Waldron). This gives Brown (Blast Hardcheese!) the opportunity to stretch his acting chops as both a love interest and a big brother, but he conspicuously fails to rise to the occasion, rarely emoting beyond a signature gruff rasp that he simply doesn’t have the presence to pull off.
The attempt at some character development was a noble addition to the script, if not a bit ill-conceived in light of the limitations of <ahem> some of the cast, but a lot of the story and plotting decisions are just plain sloppy. Captain America’s big entrance sees him triumphantly riding his motorcycle onto the scene of a crime, but he inexplicably abandons it to chase down a dune buggy on foot. A bit later he smashes his bike through a wall (solely for dramatic effect, apparently) and then proceeds to beat the piss out of a bunch of dock workers, heedless of the fact that we haven’t witnessed them doing anything wrong (certainly nothing that would deserve a concussion, anyway). Later still, everyone conspicuously fails to figure out that Steve Rogers and Captain America are the same person even though Captain America is spotted riding down the street moments after Rogers escapes from a jail cell via bent bars (they conclude that Cap broke Rodgers out), even though Rodgers beat up five guys himself in the previous scene, and even though the bad guys have been keeping track of literally everyone who enters or leaves the town. They also don’t seem to fully appreciate that the appearance of a government sanctioned agent in their supposedly clandestine base of operations means the jig is probably up.
Oh, and I also have to mention that there is this weird shuddering sound cue to indicate whenever the Captain is doing something superhuman that gets old way before the final credits roll.
In terms of the action, they definitely improved the quantity, but not so much the quality. Not that you can expect too much from a 70s TV production, but man is some of this stuff downright embarrassing. At one point, Miguel uses “enraged” drugged-up dogs to cover his escape, but the effect just comes off as ridiculous since it’s obvious the pooches just want to play. The Captain does throw his shield from time to time, but it moves like an anemic frisbee and really would’ve benefitted from some more aggressive editing or sound effects or… something. There’s also an endless car chase towards the end than drags on and on over deserted back roads without so much as a fruit stand getting knocked over and seemingly exists only to get the motorbike on screen one last time (I can only hope that Brown (Punch Sideiron!) looked up the bike’s agent after production wrapped).
The motorcycle is still an integral part of the production, though with the more varied action, its unofficial top billing is a little less obvious. It still gets plenty of screen time, with multiple chase scenes, and even busts out a new flight mode courtesy of a built-in hang glider. But even when it’s not front and center it’s impossible to forget about completely since a motorcycle helmet is integrated into Cap’s costume and his shield remains the bike’s detachable windscreen. Brown’s (Smash Lampjaw!) persistent lack of charisma doesn’t do the comparison any favors, either.
If there’s one thing we can take away from the 1979 Captain America movies, it’s that their revamped version of the character was irredeemably flawed at conception and no amount of minor tweaking would have made it viable for an ongoing TV show. The characters were bland, the plotting was weak, and, with the exception of the occasional motorcycle-based money shot, the action was uninspired. Even if you’re a fan of the character, there’s really no reason to track these movies down as they add nothing to his legacy and barely rise above the level of banal distraction. Amusingly, the current MCU has not forgotten about these movies completely. Reb Brown (Big McLargehuge!) had a cameo in Captain America: The First Avenger, and some of the scenes in Avengers: Age of Ultron (Mainly when Black Widow is on her motorcycle) mirror similar scenes in the ‘79 flicks a little too closely to be coincidence. That’s about all the acknowledgement they’re likely to get, though, and frankly, about all they really deserve. When it comes down to it, this Captain America is best left on ice.
Final Grade: C
Captain America 2: Death Too Soon is like a revised term paper turned in by a lazy student after the first draft was rejected. It addresses a few specific, glaring problems, but there are so many issues with the core concept that the only way to truly fix them would be to trash the whole thing and start over from scratch. And, thankfully, this is eventually what happened… only 32 years later.
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