With the success of Captain America: The First Avenger this summer at the box office, it's easy to forget that Marvel has tried to cash in on its most patriotic creation more than once. In 1979 they made a TV movie starring Cap on a motorcycle with a clear plastic shield, and in 1990 they tried again with a feature that flopped so badly it didn't even get released until a direct to VHS deal in 1992, two years after it was made. And for good reason.
Our story begins in Italy of the 1930s, where a child prodigy is playing the piano until Nazis show up to murder his family and promptly turn him into the Red Skull, thus raising red flag #1: why is the Red Skull Italian now? Anyway one of the doctors that make Red Skull feels super bad about creating a fascist super soldier, so she replicates the process in America, selecting all-American California-native and Polio sufferer Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger, J.D.'s kid). That's right, instead of being sickly and from Brooklyn, he's now a pretty buff dude with kind of a limp and a nice tan. The process makes his ears super plasticky but otherwise cure his polio and turn his hair blonde, but the scientist is promptly killed.
Cap's very first mission is a daring raid on Red Skull's castle, where he is promptly caught and strapped to a rocket. Oops. Red Skull makes a bunch of jokes about how excited he is for a chance to practice his English while bragging about launching Cap straight into the "Casa Bianca," or "White House" as us Yanks call it. Cap grabs Skull in an attempt to delay the launch, but Red Skull calmly slices off his own hand to make sure nothing slows him down. Couldn't you just, you know... slice off Cap's hand? That's what I'd do.
The scene inexplicably switches to downtown Washington D.C., where a young boy announces that when he grows up, he will be president. In this movie, this is foreshadowing, not just a dumb thing that a kid said. The boy sneaks out to take photos of his future residence (the White House), presumably for his planned re-decorating in 45 years, when he notices a rocket-shaped object moving towards him. His camera's zoom manages to catch Captain America heroically tied to a rocket, still fully conscious: apparently the Super Soldier Serum means he doesn't need to breathe oxygen. Cap waits until he is practically on top of the kid to make a last ditch effort to kick the rocket off course, causing it to crash land in Alaska (!!!). Because not only are intercontinental rockets totally a thing, you can easily make them go thousands of miles off course with a bit of a kick. The boy shares this story with his fat school paper friend, who says the hero described couldn't be Sub-Mariner or Human Torch, other heroes who in this universe are apparently far superior to Captain America, who completely failed in his first and only mission.
We then get a newspaper montage showing the past 45 years of history, along with audio clips talking about the little boy as he joins the military in Korea, goes to law school, joins the Peace Corps, then becomes a Congressman before finally winning the presidency. He apparently ran on an anti-pollution platform, narrowly defeating Captain Planet villain Looten Plunder. When the new president plays hardball with a country-fried general, the general's response is to go to Italy and enlist the services of the Red Skull, now a world-level terrorist with crazy make-up who sets up assassinations. Skull refuses to kill the new president, electing instead to make him a pawn of evil. Insert political joke here. Oh also the president is played by Ronny Cox, a veteran character actor mostly known for playing evil corporate villains in Robocop and Total Recall, so it's a bit odd to see him as the radical-left-wing environmentalist guy.
Meanwhile, Captain America is unfrozen and wanders off after saying the word "Nazis." This prompts a blurry photograph that causes President Cohaagen to call his childhood fat friend Sam Kolawetz, played by Ned Beatty in a Deliverance reunion, to go find this guy from 50 years ago. Naturally the reporter doesn't hesitate to jump to the president's commands, like all loyal journalists would! The Red Skull also reads the Juneau Gazette and the National Unquirer, so naturally he jumps to the conclusion that Captain America is out to stop his fiendish presidential scheme. He asks his surprisingly cute daughter to see to the American personally. Where's this girl's mother, anyway?
Skull's daughter Valentina takes the next flight to Northern Canada, as our next scene features Nazis attacking Cap on dirtbikes. Our brave hero heroically runs away through the woods like a red white and blue Sasquatch before getting himself shot. Does he not know how to use his shield or what? Sam the reporter saves him as he has apparently hurried to Northwestern Canada, rented a car, and drove aimlessly through the woods hoping to find Captain America.
Cap is suspicious of Ned's "MADE IN JAPAN" audio recorder and his Volkswagon truck (do they make trucks?), and takes him for a Nazi Spy, even though Sam explains he is only interested in information about the Red Skull. Cap heroically steals Sam's car, then drives it until it runs out of gas and leaves it to hitch a ride on an 18 wheeler back to SoCal, illegally re-entering his own country in the process. Seriously is Cap an anti-hero now? I mean so far his greatest act of heroism was trying and failing to fight the Red Skull, while he has broken numerous laws while being pursued by Skull's henchman despite having literally zero clue what Skull's plans might be.
Cap finds his way to his old girlfriend's house after a terrifying run-in with some punks and a girl in a bikini, all set to Randy Newman-esque warbling about what's on the screen. He sees a young woman that looks a lot like his girlfriend and puts a hand on her shoulder, causing her to knock over our hero with some water bottles. The girl yells for her parents, causing Cap's girlfriend, now an old lady, to come out and instantly recognize him despite his lack of polio, blond hair, and stubborn refusal to age for 50 years. It's a good thing she never moved in the last half century! The movie explains that improbable behavior by stating that she waited over a decade for Cap before settling for the loser she married, who moved into her house and never moved because clearly he is a loser.
Now that Cap has met her more age-appropriate daughter, his 40s girlfriend should better start counting the hours. While Cap and Sharon (Kim Gillingham) go to the library to learn about JFK and MLK, Sam the reporter shows up, followed closely by Red Skull's daughter, who flew back to California after flying from Canada to Italy to be chewed out by her father for her previous failure. She's really racking up the miles on her jet! She shoots Sam then tortures Cap's old girlfriend for information. I'm sure Ned Beatty was relieved there was no squealing involved. Cap swears vengeance, but still hasn't had the bright idea to check that castle where he fought Red Skull last time, where the president is now being held after being kidnapped (off screen). Our story continues as Cap tracks Red Skull down and learns about his parents-murdering origin, then has to save the president and the world from the horrors of Red Skull's nuclear piano.
Super hero movies, like sci-fi and other "genre" films, have to make a commitment to make us believe that what we're seeing could actually happen in some semblance of the real world. Because most of your audience genuinely wants to believe, this isn't all that hard: you just need some basic world-building early on in the movie that establishes the "rules" of that universe. Not only does Captain America not show what, exactly, Cap is capable of, he spends 9/10 of the movie looking like a loser or an idiot. The new Captain America film attempts to make the viewer connect with the character, then has a scene designed to showcase his strength, his shield-using prowess, and his ability to look great without a shirt. In the 90's movie, we get none of this, as his first important fight is with the Red Skull, who easily defeats him. He also does nothing heroic for about 2/3 of the movie, and isn't particularly interesting or likeable as a character.
And it's like the whole film takes place in some alternate universe where Rome is only a 5 hour flight from California, considering Red Skull's daughter makes the trip about 4 times. Plot points are brought up so hammily and re-enforced so mercilessly by the script and the pandering score that their key demographic must be people in some form of suspended animation. This also explains why we get newspaper headlines summing up the past 40 years (and video footage in the library scenes) of major events. Cap of course never deals with any of this loss; his reaction is general befuddlement. Sharon is nominally his love interest but there is literally no charisma between them, they're just the only age-appropriate, non-evil pairing in the movie. And frankly Red Skull's daughter is way hotter.
I also need to point out that Captain America, despite being called a "symbol of America," is a pretty awful role model. From his failures and lameness to his illegal entry into his own country and repeated criminal acts to his approach to stopping the Red Skull. Namely, he distracts him with a recording of Skull's family being murdered, then throws his shield at him while he is lost in thought. While our country may not always be perfect, we deserve better in a national symbol than a dull loser in a silly-looking halloween costume.
There's some so-incompetent-it's-funny humor to be had here, but it's basically the same kind of humor you can mine from pretty much every Marvel movie pre-Blade. They cut every corner in directing, casting, props, music, etc., and ended up with this weird mess that was so bad it was shelved for two years. This is made especially humorous by an ending credits plea to vote for a 1990 environmental protection act; I'm not sure what's more absurd, that this movie thought it would have that profound an impact on its audience, or that they believed people of the legal voting age would voluntarily watch it. Also I'm not even sure what they're endorsing? The Clean Air Act of 1990 is the closest thing I can find to an Environmental Protection Act in that year.
Equally embarrassing to Captain America's legacy as a Rob Liefeld cover:
Red Skull: You are a perfect symbol of America my brother: weak and self-pitying. You have even failed to teach me English. But, I am much practicing while you sleep. "Where is the big bomb going?" "The big bomb is going to the..." How you say "Casa Bianca"?
Red Skull: Tell me... do you think I could be President of the United States?
Captain America: No...
Young Kimball: When I grow up, I'm gonna be president.
President Kimball: I've been waiting for this moment for a long time.
Captain America: Gee whiz!
Red Skull: We are both tragedies. And now I send our tortured souls to rest!
Red Skull: Fifty years ago you were Dr. Vaselli's ridiculous idea. You remain a clownish symbol that no one cares about.
Captain America: I care.
Red Skull: You care? Then come to me, my brother. Let us see if this heart of yours is stronger than my hate.