2021 marks the 80th anniversary of Captain America Comics #1, the debut of Steve Rogers, better known as the shield-slinging Sentinel of Liberty, Captain America. Since 1941, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s patriotic paladin has been a vital element of various Marvel Comics tales, supported by a diverse cast of iconic heroes and villains, including Bucky Barnes, the Falcon, Sharon Carter and the Red Skull, Cap’s most notorious foe. Last week’s episode of the popular Cap-adjacent Disney+ miniseries, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, would be the last bit of major Marvel Cinematic Universe content until the release of Loki in June. If you’re experiencing a little bit of Cap withdrawal, take a look at one of the most infamous Marvel films made before the dawn of the all-encompassing MCU: 1990’s Captain America.
The film is a distinctly low-budget affair but that’s something that could be expected from a movie distributed by 21st Century Film Corporation, a company formed by Menahem Golan, former co-owner of the infamous Cannon Group. The story of the film, directed by Albert Pyun (Cyborg) and written by NAACP Image Award nominee Stephen Tolkin, is a combination and distillation of two of the most well-known Captain America stories: his Golden Age origin and his Silver Age reintroduction in the pages of The Avengers. If the first two MCU Cap movies are any indication, both stories have plenty of material and thematic weight in them to make a pair of effective films that play to Cap’s strengths as a character. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t give enough time to either of those tangents which makes the film feel a little unfocused and undercooked. Matt Salinger’s understated and inconsistent performance as the title character doesn’t help. Although the script has a good understanding of the bravery, determination and pathos that define Cap, Salinger doesn’t always keep up the pace. He does well in the action scenes and he certainly looks the part but he doesn’t really sell the idea of Cap as a commanding presence who wants to find his place in a world that has moved beyond him. His co-stars do a better job of making Cap feel like the icon he should be, especially superhero movie veteran Ned Beatty (Superman) and Robocop’s Ronny Cox, who sometimes feels more heroic than the title character. Kim Gillingham showed promise in her dual role based on Sharon Carter and Bernie Rosenthal, two of Cap’s most important supporting characters. Finally, Scott Paulin (The Right Stuff) gives an competent performance as a reimagined version of the Red Skull but Darren McGavin, Carl Kolchak himself, does a little better as a corrupt general who secretly works for the Skull’s organization.
Despite its flaws, I thought Captain America worked more often then it didn’t. It has a decent understanding of the idealistic spirit of Cap’s character and the political intrigue that informs some of his best stories. It even has some fun and creative action scenes. If you only know this movie for its less-than-stellar reputation, I think you’re in for a bit of a surprise.