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Friday, October 17, 2008

Captain America (1990).

I haven't forgotten yesterday's meme, but I'd figure I'd give one more day for questions to come in.

Meanwhile, I finally broke down and watched the Matt Salinger Captain America movie. And wow.

Let me put it this way. If there was ever a movie that makes the David Hasselhoff Nick Fury movie suddenly seem GOOD (as opposed to merely awesome) it's this movie.

It's hard really to put a finger on what makes it actually bad. I mean, rewriting the Red Skull to be an unwilling Italian child victim of the Super-Soldier experiments is pretty much a miss-step. Call me old fashioned, but I don't believe the Red Skull is supposed to be a character we're ever supposed to empathize with. Like the Joker, I think he works best as a force for terror.

And I always liked his relatively trauma-free back-story. The fact that he was a simple hotel employee that somehow carried enough hate and passionate zeal to impress Hitler himself, there's something a lot more interesting in that to me than yet another warped child victim. Sometimes people are just monsters.

They never really adequately flesh out the Skull's role as a terror-monger/propaganda symbol either, which I think is one of the strongest aspects of the character. And also, without the Skull as an image of terror to work against, it's really hard to explain Steve's costume. Apparently the Italian lady version of Erskine really liked Red, White and Blue.

That was the in-movie explanation for the costume, by the way. Moreover, because Steve botched the first mission against the Red Skull, no one ever learned who he was.

By the way, he ended up strapped to a missile aimed at the White House, kicking it in midair, and knocking its course off to Alaska where he was iced over until found by a "West-German Alaskan Facility"

To be fair, this movie was made in 1990. The same year as the re-unification of Germany. But...why do the West-Germans have a facility in Alaska? This is never explained.

By the way, when Steve bursts out of the ice. One of the members takes one look and snaps a picture. He doesn't actually try to STOP the guy from leaving or TALK to him or anything.

BUT the picture gets run on the front page, whereupon the President, who happened to have been in Washington DC as a boy when the missile was aimed at them, AND looking at the sky at the time with his camera, who zoomed in and got a good look at him.

Um. I don't mean to be a doubting Thomas, and I admit, I don't know a whole lot about 1940s technology. But was it really common for kids to have their own little cameras complete with zoom in capability back then?

But I digress.

One thing that annoyed me about the movie in particular was the way Sharon Carter is dealt with. Sharon's not so much a love interest here as she is "spunky teenage sidekick." Actually as sidekicks go, she's not bad. She speaks Italian, for example and is sensible enough to bring tape recorders... Honestly, she looks and acts a LOT like Chloe Sullivan.

Which would be fine. I like Chloe. The only problem is that SHARON CARTER IS NOT A TEENAGE GIRL. Sharon Carter is a fucking SUPER-SPY. Even at her swooniest, silliest sixties characterization, this was a woman who was so important a SHIELD operative that she could never agree to marry Steve because Nick Fury needed her too damn much. Sharon Carter does not need to be carefully protected in combat situations. Sharon Carter would be stepping back while Steve took out 9 of the 10 bad guys surrounding him only to coolly step forward and belt the last one as it tried to ambush him from behind.

I can believe that Chloe Sullivan could someday grow up to BE Sharon Carter, perhaps, but she's definitely not there yet.

Contessa Valentina de Allegro Fontaine (or however Marvel is saying her name this week :-)) might have been played by a less adept actress. But at least SHE got to stay a super-spy. And gets to demonstrate this by leading efficient teams separate from the lead and shoot bad-guys in the head.

I'd be delighted with a Chloe Sullivan personality in say, Spider-Man. Give Mary Jane something to do besides being waspish and shrill. But Sharon Carter's definitely not the type of female character that needs that treatment. (I'm also not sure why the mother that she's supposed to look so much like is named "Bernie" instead of "Peggy". That just seems like a silly meaningless change.)

That's ultimately not what killed the movie for me.

It's not Matt Salinger even. I mean, he's a very mediocre actor and I pray that the new Cap actor is a much better fit, but it's not as though David Hasselhoff was pulling off every Fury-snarl either. He's not even that bad looking a man. In fact, during the parts of the movie where he gets to wander about kicking general ass in civilian clothes, I actually think he's kind of hot.

The costume however is really poorly designed. I mean, okay, it's inevitable that the Cap costume looks a little stupid, but we don't need to compound this by sticking on fake ears. And the cowl shape was really bad against Salinger's nose. Salinger has a flat, kind of squashed looking nose, which works fine and is even quite attractive when he's maskless, but makes his face look squat and lumpy under the cowl. I don't know how many ways there are to cut a cowl and still have it be identifiable, but whatever they did didn't work.

Oh, they explained the 4F thing by giving him polio which I thought was a fairly clever means to explain why an otherwise fairly hale looking young man wasn't at war already. But then they had to give him inflatable muscles. Which...yeah. If you're going that route, just fucking cast two people. Cast a tiny spindly boy and then a bigger young man from a somewhat similar ethnic background so that they look like they could possibly be related. Either give a reason for a lack of pronounced physical change, or GIVE us an actual physical change. But don't half-ass it. I should be able to see Cap's physique and not picture him landing on a porcupine and popping.

I did like when they had him throw things. Tables. Garbage can lids. And of course the shield. That much was good. I always like seeing Cap chuck objects at people.

Ultimately, I suspect what killed the movie for me was a lack of internal consistency. I don't think the movie makers really knew what they wanted to do with the movie, or with Cap, and it showed in the inconsistent details. It didn't fit together.

Say what you will about David Hasselhoff's Fury, it was fairly clear that the writers knew 1) exactly what role SHIELD played in their version of the Marvel Universe; 2) how different characters were aware of and related to Nick Fury himself; and 3) how their internal timeline was set up.

They were, to be honest, a tad shaky on timeline matters and they never concretely establish a WWII origin, though it's somewhat implied at least. But they were generally fairly steady in their concept of how things happen, and the changes made were either very minor appearance-wise (Dugan's mustache, Val's hair) or made sense given the limited time for the story (the sudden closeness between Nick Fury and Clay Quartermain, the melding of Alexander Goodwin-Pierce and Jasper Sitwell, and so on.) Essentially, it's fairly clear that the movie makers had a very clear idea as to what the movie is, who Nick Fury is, and what SHIELD is, and kept to those ideas. And they ended up with a product that while undeniably flawed, fit together in a clear and consistent manner.

But Captain America, not so much. And it's little details that really demonstrate this.

For example: we first see the Skull as a boy somewhere between 10-14 when he's taken by fascist forces and experimented upon. Seven years later, it's 1943 and twenty-something Steve Rogers is experimented upon. But when Steve and the Skull clash, the Skull is clearly MUCH older than twenty years old (and much older than Steve) and is in a high enough position in Hitler's army that the number doesn't make sense.

Bernie apparently married her husband after waiting for Steve for sixteen years, a fact which moves Steve, and leads to the only genuine emotional moment of the movie. But Sharon Carter is at most twenty herself. Considering that this takes place in 1993, and one of the reasons Bernie gave for marrying someone else is wanting children because she was thirty-eight...

Something's not adding up.

Finally, and the biggest problem, is that the movie doesn't remember the role of Captain America in its own universe. This is a story where Steve botched his first mission. Ergo: no Bucky. No Invaders. No crossovers with the Commandos. No newsreels or propaganda. The only person who knows he exists is a young boy who manages to take a blurry picture with his camera. "The man on the rocket" is what the boy will refer to him later.

Certainly, no one recognizes the costume. But... When Sharon and Steve are driving through Italy, and he fakes car sick to get her out of the car so he can steal it and leave her out of danger (which would be clever and funny, and was the first time he used it against a conspiracy nut friend of the President's, but Sharon's the only one of the two who speaks Italian...) Sharon sing-songs "Captain America is carsick?"

Which...okay, I can assume that he told her his code name. But so far, she's known him to be a slightly doofy, bumbling, yet very combat adept weird guy. Aside from a fight scene or two, he hasn't been particularly impressive, even if she does know about the serum. The sing-songy amusement makes sense from characters in the Marvel universe, even those that don't know him that well, because, well, he's Captain America but that title means nothing to her and on his own, he's not been impressive enough to warrant that kind of amused glee.

Also when they finally do rescue the President, the President somehow KNOWS he's called "Captain America" despite having no idea who the guy was aside from "the guy from the rocket". Even if he heard the Skull ranting about it (and the Skull is very fixated for a guy that pretty much WON his only encounter against Steve) there's very little evidence for the guy to connect.

Moreover, in the last confrontation with the Skull, the Skull goes on and on about Steve being "a clownish symbol no one cares about", and Steve saying calmly in the one Salinger line reading I actually liked "I care". This would be a fairly powerful scene. In a different movie. But it's not thematically supported here.

It isn't that no one cares about Cap as a symbol. The issue in this movie is that no one knows who he is. That's an entirely different issue.

Essentially, he's saying that the values that Captain America symbolizes and the spirit that led Steve to make the decision to become Captain America no longer exist or have been rejected. But for that to work, we'd have needed some kind of culture shock or disappointment or feeling of alienation to support it.

Actually, the best example for comparison is, of all things, Austin Powers. When Dr. Evil and Austin are facing each other, and Dr. Evil mocks him by saying how everything that Austin valued in the sixties: free love and all that don't have a place in modern society. Austin himself experienced this culture shock with Elizabeth Hurley's character after he'd slept with the enemy spy. And even though he and Vanessa came to an understanding, that confrontation and the other moments of general ill-fittingness were important, because then it actually meant something when Austin explains that it wasn't really about the free love or swinging or all that, but that those were just expressions of what really mattered, and THOSE values are still alive in the present day.

But it doesn't work in Captain America, because Steve never really HAS those moments of alienation or culture shock. I mean sure, he thinks conspiracy-guy's a nazi spy because he has a Japanese radio and a German car, but that's hardly the same. And really all the people Steve meets are good folk: the conspiracy nut, Bernie, Sharon, the Italian family, even the President at the time is a reformer out to save the environment and make things better for everyone. The only evil people he meets are the Red Skull, the Red Skull's daughter, and their followers.

Heck, even the negative things that Steve ends up researching thanks to conspiracy-guy's words: the deaths of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr have been explicitly established to have been arranged by the Red Skull.

The only real conflict between Steve and the future might be that no one knows who he is/remembers him. But that's not a "Captain America" thing. At least, it's not about Cap-as-a-symbol so much as Cap-as-a-man. And it could be an interesting story. But Steve really isn't a good character to explore that with. Even when he WAS a propaganda symbol, Steve didn't do things for recognition. Steve did good deeds because they needed to be done. He didn't expect thanks or admiration. If anything, Steve's flaw in 616 Marvel is that he consistently underestimates his own effect on people.

And this version of Cap really isn't that different. He's not as much of a deep thinker as his comic counterpart. And lacks a certain element of common-sense, competence, and affinity with people. (Or at least the movie didn't let him explore it.) But his general zeal to help is the same.

So ultimately, there really isn't ANY internal personal conflict. And trying to tack one on at the end doesn't work. Maybe if Steve ended up running afoul of the Government. Like if they perhaps wanted to study the effects of the serum and make him a lab rat, or use him for ethically questionable missions. Or he ended up constantly face to face with people who appear selfish, uncaring, cruel, or thoughtless. Then it might have worked. But in this movie? No.

So yeah. It's a bad movie. On the plus side though, it makes me more excited about the upcoming one. There are plenty of indications that they already know exactly how the universe fits together, and specifically Cap's place in it (and suddenly I'm overjoyed by the whole "The First Avenger" thing. I thought it was lame before, but I'll take lame if it means that they have a consistent idea) and so far, Iron Man and Hulk pretty much nailed exactly what WORKED with both of those characters in my opinion.

And the whole Branagh as directing Thor thing is so perfect that I'm excited all the more. Besides, it can hardly be worse. :-)


  • At October 17, 2008 8:34 AM, Blogger LurkerWithout said…

    The mom/Ex being named Bernie might have been a small nod to Bernie Rosenthal, Cap's girlfriend in between Sharon Carter and Diamondback...

    But yeah the '90 "Captain America" is truly terrible. And thats with me not even catching the Sharon Carter thing. Mostly because when I was reading Cap then he was in-between times dating Sharon...

  • At October 17, 2008 8:35 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    *nod* I know she's a nod to Rosenthal.

    It just makes no sense considering she's essentially Peggy Carter anyway. :-)

  • At October 17, 2008 10:05 AM, Blogger SallyP said…

    Whoa. This does sound bad. Hilariously bad.

  • At October 17, 2008 11:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    The Red Skull was given a sort of bad childhood during the Marc DeMatteis: his mother died giving birth to him and he was raised by a cold and distant drunk of a father who blamed him for his wife's death.

    However, DeMatteis was very clear that Johann Schmidt wasn't driven by a bad childhood- he chose to follow Hitler for reasons of ego. And eventually believed himself Hitler's better.

    Sally P: You have no idea how bad it is. I think the precise moment my brain broke watching it was when the little kid was the ONLY one outside of, you know, the WHITE HOUSE, in a time of WAR, notices a HUGE ROCKET heading toward the White House... and then thanks to the magic of spinning newspapers, we find the kid was inspired by Captain America's heroism to run for President.


    Fun fact: while most of the non-Beatty/Cox principals' acting careers have faltered since, Scott Paulin, who played the Red Skull, has flourished as a TV character actor. In fact, he was on House this very week!

  • At October 17, 2008 4:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I don't know what to think about the upcoming movie. Mostly, I'm alternating between believing it will finally be the movie that replaces Iron Man as my favorite, believing it'll change for the vastly worse, and believing that it'll turn out okay, but not quite like the Captain America who is my favorite character.

    Kalinara, what scenes or side characters are you hoping to see in the movie?

  • At October 17, 2008 4:04 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Honestly, I'm hoping that, like the rumor, it's entirely WWII based and ends with him being frozen.

    Then he can be unfrozen in the Avengers movie. <3

    (I think Steve's modern wake-up story works best with the other Avengers. Besides, it'd be neat.)

    I would like to see Bucky Barnes there. With a relationship fairly similar to what was established in the recent comics. I like the give and take and the fact that Bucky actually has a PURPOSE. :-)

    I'm also hoping for the Red Skull as villain, though I'd be happy enough with Baron Zemo.

  • At October 17, 2008 10:08 PM, Blogger Diabolu Frank said…

    I gave up on the Ed Brubaker run because, as a lifelong Cap fan, everything he's been doing feels like a slow motion rehash (mostly of Gruenwald.) However, his work on Bucky's role in WWII makes an excellent template for a first Cap movie.

    Because there's never been another one.

    Everyone confuses those Wonder Man movies from the '70s as Cap features.

    That thing from the '90s was propaganda created by Saddam Hussein to crush the spirit of America.

    There has never been a Captain America movie. Ever. Ever ever. wimper.

  • At October 18, 2008 3:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I'd like to see some nods to the Invaders in a Captain America movie; granted, rights issues would be difficult. I'm not even sure what studio owns the Sub-Mariner, and I assume O.G. Human Torch is the property of Fox, like Johnny Storm.

    But Spitfire is a pretty awesome character, and Union Jack is like, the best costume EVER.

    The Invaders was never a GREAT series, but for tales of superhero derring-do, it puts a spring in your step and a smile on your face.

  • At October 20, 2008 9:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    It just goes to show you, you can make decisions about casting, budget, etc. But if you don't have the writing, you got nuthin'. And that's really the least expensive thing about movies like this, and could be the easiest thing to absolutely nail.

    It's about the writing ...


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