TV Movie Review: Captain America (1979)
Was there a worse time to make a “Captain America” movie? This thing first aired January 19, 1979, six months before Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech, when patriotism was for squares and scoundrels and superheroes were wish-fulfillment fantasy for skinny geeks. Or so people thought. “Superman: The Movie,” released a month earlier, already proved both ideas wrong, or at least irrelevant in the marketplace, but “Captain America” tread lightly around both subjects. We don’t see Cap as Cap much. And as for patriotism? Well ...
The original Steve Rogers was a 4F volunteer who knowingly signed up for a dangerous experiment because he wanted to serve his country. This Steve Rogers is a muscle-bound, peace-loving dude with a van. He’s a former Marine who wants to coast up and down the west coast, drawing what he sees.
This is his early philosophy, as he turns down the offer to become a superhero. He says it in the bland, lifeless monotone of a non-actor:
It’s been yes-sir no-sir for as long as I can remember. Three military schools and the Marine Corps. That’s been about it. I think I’ve paid my dues ... Now I just want to get out on the road, look at the faces of Americans. Maybe get some down on canvas. I don’t want to report in or check out. I don’t want to look forward to weekends. I want every day to be the same. I just want to kick back, find out who I am.
Is there a greater late ’70s ethos than that? A van, bad art, and “finding yourself.”
The American ideal
It’s easy to see what they were going for. The great superhero of 1970s television was the Six Million Dollar Man, the great daredevil of 1970s television was Evel Knievel, and Marvel had already launched both “Spider-Man” and “Hulk” TV franchises. Mix them all together and you get this. Get the good Captain to do motorcycle jumps like Evel, have him jump high and crush things like Steve Austin, and make the superpower all about tapping into human potential.
Bill Bixby’s “The Incredible Hulk” did that. In moments of stress, people could lift cars and things? That’s what fascinated David Banner. Here it’s similar. “Science has known for a long time that man, in all of his endeavors—mental, physical—uses, very rarely, more than one-third of his capacity,” says Dr. Simon Mills (Len Birman), this show’s combination Oscar Goldman/Dr. Rudy Wells, as he tries to get Steve to become Cap.
It seems Steve’s father, back in the ’40s, had developed “the ultimate steroid,” synthesized from his own adrenal gland, that unleashed the human potential. He called it FLAG: Full Latent Ability Gain. (I know.) The serum still works ... but it kills its host. Cell rejection. But Steve is his father’s son. Same cells and shit. Maybe it’ll work with him?
Except that’s when he gives the above thanks-but-no-thanks speech and splits. Superstrength is great but ... he needs to paint, bro. Even though he looks like he’s spent his entire life in a gym.
Fate intervenes. He finds one of his father’s friends, Jeff Hayden (Dan Barton), dead. Then Steve himself is run off the road. He’s about to die. So Dr. Mills arranges for him to be injected with FLAG. To save him ... and create the show.
Guess what? Steve isn’t grateful. He’s angry—if you can sense anger behind Reb Brown’s acting. So he splits again. But he’s followed again—this time into a meat locker, where, between the slabs of beef, he takes the bad guys out. And he kinda digs it. And he spends a day at the beach with Mills’ assistant, Dr. Wendy Day (Heather Menzies), then walks along the beach just rapping with Dr. Mills about Steve’s father. How he went after the corrupt ones, “the bosses, the organizers, the ones in really high places,” and how they, snidely, gave him a nickname: Captain America. We get this:
Steve: The American ideal. A little tough to find these days, isn’t it?
Mills: Not if you know where to look.
Steve: Right on.
The bad guy in all of this is another job creator, an oilman named Lou Brackett (Steve Forrest), who is building his own neutron bomb so he can rob the Phoenix gold repository of billions. Captain America, with a motorcycle helmet for a helmet, stops him by swinging onto the truck that contains Brackett and the neutron bomb and twisting an exhaust pipe so Brackett is asphyxiated. When two henchman investigate, he knocks them out by ... wait for it .... pushing the door open really, really fast.
And thus a superhero is born. The art world’s loss is the world’s gain.
The hills are alive with something
It’s not completely, horribly awful. I like the human potential idea. And the cell-rejection answers why there are no other Captain Americas. Plus a few of the stunts aren’t bad.
But it’s shot on a thin dime with a thinner imagination and one of the worst leads I’ve seen. Reb Brown displays a range of emotion from A to A-. He’s supposed to be a nice doofus in the beginning and a superhero by the end, but in the middle he shows his cards by being a bit of an asshole. “C’mon, little man,” he says to one helpless guy after he sneaks into the Andreas Oil Co. His mighty shield is clear plastic and doubles as his motorcycle windshield. His helmet makes him look like the Great Gazoo. I get it: They’re trying to get away from the superhero costume—as most superhero movies have since (“X-Men, “Heroes,”)—but they don’t do it in a smart way. Worse, the whole thing is filmed in that awful, washed-out, late ’70s style.
Did they hire Menzies, another “Sound of Music” alum, because it worked so well with Nicholas Hammond in “Spider-Man”? Because it didn’t. And doesn’t. To be fair, Menzies is given a thankless role. She’s supposed to be the head of some top-secret government research lab but seems mere assistant to Mills. Is she also Steve’s girlfriend? They share a kiss on the beach; then she’s forgotten. So ’70s.
But at least Steve Rogers finds himself. Right on.