Forget Captain America: Civil War. The 1990s straight-to-video version is where it’s at.
A week ago, I had the pleasure of watching Captain America: Civil War, the third movie in Marvel’s esteemed Captain America trilogy.
There is no denying that the Russo brothers have created a masterpiece. While I personally didn’t think it lived up to the expectations set by the phenomenal The Winter Soldier, the third installment of Cap’s story has everything you could ask for in a comic book movie: Beautiful people and special effects, great acting, incredible fight sequences, humor, conflict, and heart.
But enough about Civil War. We’re here to talk about another Captain America movie — a movie I wasn’t aware existed until earlier this week, when the Screen Junkies brought it to the attention of the world.
Captain America was not a property that I, a little Danish girl whose closest thing to fandom growing up was Duck Tales, was ever exposed to. I certainly don’t remember seeing this American-Yugoslavian straight-to-VHS production at my local Blockbusters, if it even came out in Europe at all.
Honestly, this whole ‘Captain America’ thing would probably never have appealed to me if not for Avengers, in which I thought he was kind of funny (but not as funny as Thor), and later Captain America: The First Avenger, which genuinely moved me, and for a long time was the only comic book movie I had more than a passing interest in (Peggy Carter may have had something to do with that, too).
So color me surprised when, on a dare, I decided to give the 1990s version of Cap’s saga with a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes a whirl, and actually… maybe… possibly… liked it?
But wait, isn’t this the worst movie of all time?
Let’s get this straight: Cap ’90 sucks. It’s awful. It’s exactly what you’d expect a superhero movie made in the 90s with b-list actors would look like.
When The First Avenger came out, ’90s-Cap Matt Salinger (yup, that Salinger) did an interview with GQ in which he admitted that the new Marvel movie, “looks like what we had hoped ours would look like.” Heartbreakingly, Salinger went on to confess that he had asked Marvel for a cameo in the movie, which they didn’t grant him. (I feel like he’s my Steve now, so this hit me really hard. Love you Matt.)
But to be honest with you, I don’t really care that it’s objectively terrible. I sat down to watch this movie in an effort to educate myself on Captain America’s history (and to gain new appreciation for the MCU), and, maybe because I was expecting everything about it to be awful, I was honestly surprised by how much this movie got right.
All the moral ambiguity you want in a ‘Cap’ movie
After Age of Ultron, there was a lot of talk about Chris Evans’ Steve being too clean, too nice, too noble. ‘Real’ Steve Rogers fans recognized that the comics character has a dark side, that he can be selfish, that he’s human.
And, for all his buffoonery, Salinger’s Captain America actually, albeit possibly by accident, embodies a lot of the traits we look for in a flawed Steve. Twice he fakes carsickness (!), does a silly run (!), and steals an innocent person’s car (!), leaving them stranded on a deserted road because of some stubborn conviction that he doesn’t need their help (seriously, it’s so dumb and also hilarious).
He’s allegedly a patriotic soldier whose father died in the war, and who leaves his family to become America’s first supersoldier. In the movie’s first 20 minutes, he heads straight into battle with Red Skull and falls into a pile of snow before anyone even realizes he exists, then wakes up 50 years later and heads straight back into the same battle.
During their final confrontation, Red Skull tells him, “No one cares about you,” and Steve’s reply is, “I care.” The world isn’t aware of Captain America in this version of the story, and the values he’s supposedly upholding are irrelevant to everyone around him.
The movie may tell us otherwise, but in actuality, Captain America is just a guy with a grudge, a would-be hero who’d never make it round the block if everyone around him didn’t jump in to help him out. (This probably wasn’t the character flaws fans had hoped for, but it is a nice change to see a supposed superhero actually having to rely so heavily on his non-superhero allies.)
Meanwhile, the movie’s villain, Red Skull, is the one with the tragic past. This was back before Hollywood knew how to make interesting good guys, and so they poured all their characterization into the villain: The movie opens with him as an innocent child in the 1930s watching his entire family get murdered, and then he’s tortured and transformed into a monster.
Red Skull sees Steve as his ‘brother,’ and when we catch up with him in the 1990s, he’s gotten a plastic surgery overhaul, and is working with his daughter Valentina, who for all intents and purposes is his second-in-command. During WW2, Red Skull was working with the Nazis to bomb the White House (don’t worry, Steve rode that rocket all the way from Italy to Washington, and onward to Alaska!), but when that failed, he apparently decided to settle down in Rome and become a low-key Mafioso.
In 1993 (don’t ask why this movie takes place three years after it was made, that’s just part of its magic) he has this big plan to kidnap the President and implant him with some kind of control chip, and when that also fails, he decides to just blow up everyone.
He stands by a piano — which is significant because he was playing the piano right before the Nazis made him watch as they killed his family — and tells Cap, “We are both tragedies. And now I send our two tired souls to rest.”
And Steve? He strikes a pose and declares, “Not if I have anything to say about it!” before using his shield to knock Red Skull off a cliff and possibly-very-likely slice the head off Valentina in the process. Subtle, this Steve is not.
But, intentionally or not, this actually leaves us with genuine Sympathy for the Devil, a depth which The First Avenger arguably didn’t allow for (Red Skull was pure, sadistic evil in that version).
It’s kind of feminist (no, really)
I mean look, it’s the 90s and lead girl Sharon not-Carter totally gets locked in a cell, Ultron-style. But pretty astoundingly, none of the ladies in the movie — of which there are quite a few — are ever actually damsels.
The Erskine character played in the Marvel movies by Stanley Tucci is actually a woman in the movie, named Doctor Maria Vaselli. She starts out as a Nazi scientist working on the Red Skull serum, but when she sees what they do to the kid she rebels and, when they try to shoot her, escapes.
She begins working with the American government to improve the serum, and by the time Steve is all ready for his dose, she’s still around. She’s killed, of course, like Erskine is, but having a woman in such a position of authority in the 1930s, so matter-of-factly, just reminds me that the ’90s were a lot more chill about what we’d consider ‘progressive’ in 2016.
Peggy Bucky Bernie, Steve’s one true love who promises to wait for him “forever, and ever, and ever and ever.” You think she’s just a doe-eyed love interest until we catch back up with her 50 years later. Turns out Peggy Bucky Bernie did wait for Steve, but not forever.
When Steve finds her, she tells him she waited till she was 38, then basically said ‘f*** it’ and got married and had some kids, because she wasn’t actually gonna let her life pass her by. When she confesses that she feels old and ugly compared to him, he tells her she’s beautiful, which is also kind of neat, in this age of women being told they’re ‘too old’ to exist at age 26.
Later she dies, killed by Red Skull’s daughter, and we learn that even when her life was on the line, she never gave up any information about Steve — a hero, in her own, quiet way.
And then there’s Bernie’s daughter Sharon. If you thought Civil War made it weird with Sharon being Peggy’s niece, oh boy — not only could this Sharon have been Steve’s daughter in another life, but the two women are also played by the same actress!
But Sharon, for all that she’s not the awesome, badass Agent 13-version of Sharon we meet in the MCU, is actually a pretty refreshing lead female character. For one, she’d never explicitly made Cap’s love interest, and she’s also got a very specific non-romance-related reason for tagging along with him.
“We get our orders from the Red Skull’s daughter”
When Bernie dies, Steve mourns for about 0.1 seconds, but Sharon is obviously devastated. She follows Steve to Rome in order to confront Red Skull, and learns that Valentina is the one who killed her mother. Sharon finds herself up against Red Skull’s daughter several times (and the two even have a few conversations that earns Cap ’90 a pass on the Bechdel Test), before she ultimately punches her in the face. Cap might be the one to kill Valentina, but Sharon definitely got her moment.
At one point, Sharon also pulls Steve’s own silly car stealing trick on him, basically sacrificing herself by letting Red Skull’s henchmen catch her so Steve can get away (if you’ve seen Civil War, this might ring a bell).
Okay but it’s still awful, right?
Oh don’t worry, it’s terrible.
For one, the movie does absolutely nothing to explain what the serum actually did to Steve, other than cure his limp. He’s stronger and can throw a frisbee with deadly accuracy, and that’s about it… but in fairness, I guess that’s kind of true for Evans’ Cap, too. The lack of a physical change — he’s a dopey dude and post-serum he’s still a dopey dude — really diminishes the effect of him, however, especially considering the dorky costume they make him wear.
Also, Cap freezes in the ice within the first 30 minutes, and beyond being mildly wary of tape recorders seems completely unperturbed by the world of 1993. There’s no Black Widow, or Bucky, or Howard Stark, or any of the other people the MCU have taught me to assume would of course be present in a Captain America movie.
“Pictures don’t lie and neither do best friends”
There is however a President Kimball, a super sympathetic Al Gore-type environmentalist, who ends up helping out with the whole saving-the-day thing (this is a movie about Captain ‘Murica after all).
Tom Kimball actually saw the rocket-surfing Steve back in the ’40s, and the transition from the ’40s to the ’90s is done through newspaper clippings showing how Tom went from a boy who dreamed of being the president, to the actual president (that part was actually really cool, even if they made a really obvious spelling error — see below).
He also keeps up with his childhood best friend Sam, and their friendship through the film actually feels genuine, amidst all the terrible stunt coordination and one-liners.
Sam, who helpfully drops a Human Torch reference (Chris Evans, it was meant to be), continues to believe in Tom’s Captain America, even after Cap leaves him stranded on a highway. And when Sam is killed, still in an effort to protect Cap — who gives no f***s — he leaves Tom some kind of decoder locket thing he’s had since they were kids. #ImagineYourOTP
Captain America suffers from spectacularly bad production value, and some misguided (and half-assed, to its benefit) attempt to make Captain America a stoic, square-jawed Superman rip-off. The punch sound effects are taken straight out of a cartoon, some of the backdrops are laughable, and Steve’s actual character arc is non-existent: He’s a good soldier who wants to be a good soldier and continues to be a good soldier — his only real personality trait is that he likes to pretend he’s gonna barf and then steal people’s cars.
But around the epic fail of the hero himself, there’s actually a semblance of an interesting story. There’s a tragic villain ripped from his family and forced to become a monster, raising his daughter to be a leader in her own right. There’s a strong-willed girl who loses a parent and follows the one man who may bring her justice, and there’s a president whose faith in this mythical Captain America may be an expression of his faith in a better world — a faith which, if the desperation and ill-contained frustration of our contemporary Captain America is anything to go by, we’re collectively beginning to lose.
Am I giving this movie too much credit? Absolutely. It’s cheesy, badly made, and not very much fun. But it’s also dark — a child is tortured, a family is gunned down, and Red Skull’s daughter has to listen to a recording of her grandparents being killed — and, of course, there are cool chicks doing motorcycle stunts. At the end of the day, there’s a lot to enjoy about the 1990s version of Captain America.
As someone whose knowledge of Cap pretty much begins and ends with Chris Evans’ MCU version, I was actually pleasantly surprised by this supposedly-and-actually-awful, but still surprisingly solid, Captain America movie.
“Listen to me!”
“No time, Flyboy.”
With lines like that, what’s not to love?