Examining Hollywood Remakes–Captain America: The First Avenger

 It’s not too often that a remake is much, much, much better than the original but we have one of those rare instances in the case of Captain America. Years before Captain America: The First Avenger, the first movie version of the star-spangled hero of WW2 was filmed in 1990 and directed by Albert Pyun.

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This movie…was awful! It has a 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and went directly to a video release, wisely bypassing theaters to prevent millions of people demanding their money back. Captain America is played in this mess by Matt Salinger, whose greatest claim-to-fame is that he’s the son of JD Salinger, author of the famous novel “Catcher in the Rye”. Maybe Matt should have tried following in his father’s footsteps as a writer and spared himself this cinematic embarrassment.

 The story: In 1936 fascist Italy, government goons kidnap a boy named Tadzio de Santis (Massimilio Massimi), killing his family, to use him in an experiment to create a super-soldier. Dr. Maria Vaselli (Carla Cassola) objects to using children as Guinee pigs and flees to the USA to offer her services there. Seven years later; the US government has been looking for the right volunteer to be their own Guinee Pig and choose Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger), a tall, slim guy who was excluded from the draft because of his polio. The process succeeds and transforms Rogers into a superman. However, before any more of these enhanced soldiers can be created, Vaselli is shot dead by a Nazi spy.

 The US gives Rogers his costume and shield. His first mission is to stop Tadzio (Scott Paulin) who has grown up to become the Red Skull and is planning to launch a missile at the White House. Rogers tracks him down but the Red Skull easily defeats him and ties him to the missile. When the missile is over Washington, D.C., Cap kicks it and makes it change course, and it lands somewhere in Alaska (?), where he remains frozen for fifty years.

 Cut to 1993, when Thomas Kimball (Ronny Cox) the President of the USA is pushing for pro-environmentalist legislation that angers some powerful military people led by Gen. Fleming (Darrin McGavin), who attends a secret conference in Italy led by the Red Skull, whose skull is no longer red. He now runs a crime syndicate, assisted by his daughter Valentina (Francesca Neri). Through the decades, the Red Skull and his thugs had been hired to kill Martin Luther King, Jr., JFK and Robert Kennedy. Now, the Red Skull is hired to capture President Kimball and brainwash him.

 Rogers’ frozen is body found and thawed by some random characters. When he is attacked by Red Skull’s female thugs, Cap runs away and makes his way back to the home of his old girlfriend, Bernice (Kim Gillingham), who luckily still lives at her old address. She is married and has her own daughter, Sharon, (Also played by Gillingham). Meanwhile, Red Skull’s daughter and her hit-women attack Bernice’s house, killing both her and her husband. The Skull kidnaps the President (off-screen!)

 After spending the bulk of the movie running away from his enemies, Cap finally gets around to rescuing the President. In the final battle, Cap is getting pummeled by the Red Skull (Despite the fact that the Skull would be over 60 years old by then.). The Skull reveals he has a remote trigger for a nuclear bomb, but he gets distracted by Sharon, so Cap uses his shield to knock Red Skull off a cliff before the bomb can be set off. The Skull’s daughter Valentina is then decapitated from behind by his returning shield. Cap gives Kimball a thumbs up.

 The first thing you can’t help noticing about this movie is that our “hero” runs away from trouble constantly. He even runs away from people who are trying to help him. While running away from some women, Cap is saved by reporter Sam Kolawetz (Ned Beatty), a childhood friend of President Kimball who is investigating the Red Skull. Sam tries to explain things to Cap and offers some help, but Steve is afraid of portly old Sam, and feigns illness to escape the car.  He then steals Sam’s car, leaving his rescuer stranded in the middle of nowhere.

 It’s also notable that on the few occasions when he summons up the guts to actually take a stand, he gets his butt whipped like the school nerd. Cap’s two big victories in the end against the Red Skull and his daughter are not very heroic either. He knocks the Red Skull off a wall with a sneak attack while the Skull is distracted, then he decapitates a woman with his shield.

 Now let’s look at Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) directed by Joe Johnson. The best thing about Captain America: the First Avenger is the time and place the story occurs in. The World War Two setting gives it a whole different feel than other comic adaptations. The story takes place at the height of the second world war, when the United States is scrambling for new recruits. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants to join but the army doesn’t want him because Steve is a skinny, asthmatic, 5-foot-nothing 4-F. (This effect is very cleverly done by super-imposing Chris Evan’s face on a diminutive body-double via some impressive visual trickery.) Steve’s lament about not being able to serve his country is overheard by compassionate scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) who is looking for volunteers for a new procedure. Erskine is a German defector who has created a way to turn men into physically perfect super soldiers. He fled the Third Reich to work for Uncle Sam. He takes a fatherly interest in the runt-of-the-litter Steve.

 Even before Steve is put through the super-solder process, we see that he is smart, brave and resourceful. He just needs the muscles to match his fighting spirit. The experiment succeeds and puny little Steve becomes a big, hunky example of physical perfection. Unfortunately, before the process can be repeated on others, Erskine is assassinated by a Nazi spy, which leaves Steve as America’s only Super Soldier.

 After Steve makes headlines by stopping the German assassin, the government decides that the best use of their perfect specimen is as a public relations symbol. They dress him in a red-white & blue costume, dub him Captain America and put him on display in movies and war bond rallies, where he gets to punch a phony Hitler. (The concept is similar to Flags of Our Fathers, where the Iwo Jima soldiers go on a war bonds tour, reenacting the famous raising of the flag.) Steve is mocked by the real soldiers who think he’s basically a dancing monkey in tights.

 Meanwhile, an elite faction of Nazi soldiers known as Hydra is hunting down ancient artifacts of Scandinavian and Germanic origin. Hydra is led by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) better known as the Red Skull. Early versions of the super-soldier experiments have turned him into a blood-red Skelator look alike. The Red Skull actually thinks Hitler isn’t ambitious enough in his plans of world conquest, and the Skull has a faster way to do it. He and his scientist ally Armin Zola (Toby Jones) are using the artifacts to collect energy from the multi-dimensional tesseract known as Ygdrassil the World Tree (Which was an important plot point in the Thor film) to create his mystic Cube of power (A surrogate for the comic book Cosmic Cube) which will allow him to conquer the Earth.

 Cap goes into action, acting against orders, when his old buddy James “Bucky” Barnes (Sabastian Stan) is captured by the Nazis. Cap’s daring rescue not only brings back Bucky but also a group of eclectic, multi-national commandos, including “Dum dum” Duggan (Neal McDonough), Gabe Jones (Derek Luke) and others. Cap becomes a national hero, and the government decides to reassign him to the front lines and send him after the Red Skull and Hydra. Cap gets a nifty new weapon in the form of his impenetrable shield, created by Howard Stark, father of Tony Stark of Iron Man fame. Bucky and the commandos back-up the star-spangled hero during his crusade against the Hydra and Red Skull. Bucky is (apparently) killed so he can be the Winter Soldier in the sequels, and the angered Cap has his final confrontation with the Red Skull which ends with the Skull being sucked into the tesseract and Cap crash landing a plane into the artic where he is frozen for 70 years. He’s found and awoken years later, where Nick Fury (Sam Jackson) recruits him for the Avengers.

 This film is very well done (although not as good as its sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier.) It has an 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie excellently captures the WW2 era feel of films like The Rocketeer and Sky Captain, with a touch of Raiders of the Lost Ark thrown in.

 Lovely Haley Atwell first plays Peggy Carter here, back when the character was still just a pretty WAC assigned to help Erskine in his project, before she became the special operative we see in ABC’s Agent Carter. She starts off feeling sympathy for skinny little Steve, but her compassion turns to something more when Steve grows muscles and gains a few inches in height. Steve is immediately attracted to her and they have an innocent flirtation throughout the film. Tommy Lee Jones plays the bombastic Colonel Chester Phillips, who is the military supervisor of the project. At first Phillips doesn’t think much of this costumed amateur but soon comes to begrudgingly respect his heroic super-agent.

 Chris Evans does a very good job as Captain America, combining an earnest ‘gosh-golly’ quality, along with Steve’s steely determination to make a difference. Evans previously played the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four films, but this time he is less comical and creates a much deeper and more mature character. He makes a good action hero. Tommy Lee Jones provides the humor as the sarcastic, temperamental colonel Phillips, and gets most of the good lines. Hugo Weaving does his usual good job as the evil Red Skull.

 The remake is so much better than the 1990 direct-to-video original that comparisons seem unfair. The 1990 films leave you with so many questions, such as…How does kicking a missile which is about 100 yards away from the White House in Washington DC make it somehow crash land in Alaska? Hint to the filmmakers– Look at a map! And if the missile had a guidance system that led it straight to the White House, why didn’t it course correct? Also, why didn’t it explode when it crashed in the ice?

 Here’s another problem; When Cap is tied to the missile and the Red Skull is about to launch it, Cap desperately grabs the Red Skull’s wrist, thus making the Skull cut off his own hand to avoid being pulled along with Cap. The question is, why didn’t the Skull just cut off Cap’s hand instead? And why wasn’t his skull red? And why was he Italian instead of German?

 Which one is better? Does it even need to be stated? The First Avenger wins by a mile. The 1990 original rightfully deserved to be condemned to a VHS release. Everything is wrong with it, especially the cowardly Cap who runs away from everyone. There is a scene where he and Sharon are being chased by ONE GUY on a motor cycle (they have the guy outnumbered two-to-one) and what do they do? You guessed it–They run! The movie also tries hard to slip in an awkward environmental message but it’s so badly done that I doubt anyone will come away from this travesty thinking about preserving the eco-system.

 The 2011 remake is a lot of fun. The movie walks a delicate, tight-rope balance because it has to appease foreign markets. Obviously, a character called Captain America is going to be an all-American hero, but the story and dialogue are crafted carefully as to not hit the viewer over the head with a lot of jingoistic “God Bless America” speeches that might alienate overseas markets. It hits the right marks and makes a good lead-in for both the Avengers and the Winter Soldier.

 So that’s it for this week’s look at a cinematic remake. We’ll be back next week to dissect another one. Until then, enjoy Captain America: Civil War and feel free to look up our previous articles Examining Hollywood Remakes.