Bad Movie Diaries: Captain America II: Death Too Soon (1979)

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Bad Movie Diaries: Captain America II: Death Too Soon (1979)

Jim Vorel and Kenneth Lowe are connoisseurs of terrible movies. In this occasional series, they watch and then discuss the fallout of a particularly painful film. Be wary of spoilers.

Ken: Jim, I thought you could use a reminder of how lucky we all collectively are to live in the greatest country on Earth. I trust Captain America 2: Death Too Soon, filled your veins with the same intoxicating patriotism it did mine?

Jim: Ken, I could go on some kind of hyperbolic ramble about how watching this film made me want to rush down to the local armory and shove fistfuls of cash at anyone who would sell me a war bond, but that would be a lie. In truth, there’s oddly little to do with “America” in this retro version of The First Avenger. Like, is it ever explicitly stated in this that Steve Rogers is working for the government? No one seems to even know who the guy is.

Jim: Of course, it probably doesn’t help that we watched the sequel to the original 1979 TV film, also starring Reb Brown in the lead role. But in our defense, the original does not have Christopher Lee in it. As far as I am aware, anyway.

Ken: That it does not, Jim. And just as you will need to scroll through miles of wiki material in order to fill the gaps in your Avengers knowledge prior to Infinity War, it might actually be better not to go into the particulars of Brown’s first foray as Cap. I can assure you that this version of the character was not a Nazi-slaying super-soldier awoken from a decades-long sleep, but literally a dude who was just injected with some drugs. That drug was called the FLAG serum, by the way. It is an honest to goodness acronym for “Full Latent Ability Gain.” Now you know that, too.

Jim: This is new information to me, but I happen to be in possession of a lot of random factoids about the people involved in this film. In particular, I know Mr. Reb Brown quite well, because he’s the chunkhead star of two classic B movies— Yor, The Hunter From the Future, and Space Mutiny, which is one of the most beloved episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. If you’ve ever heard references to “Big McLargeHuge” or “Punch Rockgroin” in reference to an action hero, they’re talking about ‘ole Reb here.

It seems he mostly played big, dumb bricks of meat with a penchant for screaming.

Ken: Oh, Jim, I’m quite familiar with Mr. Brown. Internet denizens might recall with affection that YouTube pioneer Noah Antwiler (maker of the Spoony Experiment) used to annually roast this actor’s movies as part of his Rebruary event. No words can do justice to the silly features that bear this fellow’s name. In one very real way, he’s more apt a casting choice for Captain America than the upright, plainspoken Chris Evans.

But while the world vaguely remembers Reb’s original movie, I daresay it was next to impossible to find a single word of commentary on this follow-up, which you’ll note was a TV movie released the very same year. The only information I can find is that it was aired across two days, the second of which led into a screening of the much better-regarded Salem’s Lot TV movie. But with Sir Christopher Lee as a villain, how could we leave this feature forgotten?

Jim: And oh, what a meaty role they gave to Sir Chris. He’s playing an international terrorist here named simply “Miguel,” or sometimes “General Miguel,” with a completely opaque background. Is he supposed to be Hispanic? I have no idea, but it wouldn’t be much of a stretch, considering this is the same guy who once played Fu Manchu in a series of ill-advised movies. All I know is that at one point he describes himself as “an old jungle fighter,” whatever the hell that means. Also, he has a dastardly plan that involves holding the city of Portland for ransom, or else he’ll unleash an aging serum on them that will rapidly turn the city’s entire population into senior citizens.

Ken: Perhaps he refers to the jungles of Northern Spain? You never know.

The best thing about Lee is that no matter how thin and utterly unmotivated the role, he sinks his teeth down to the bone. He certainly gave a committed performance, even if we have no idea why he’s doing what he’s doing apart from wanting an absurdly large ransom from the president. It seems like there are probably far easier ways to extort a billion dollars, even in 1979 money.

Jim: Lee is the consummate professional. It’s ironic that he would end up in this kind of role opposing Captain America, given that he was part of a British organization that actively hunted down Nazi war criminals after WWII. Of course at this point he had finally stopped portraying Dracula in various Hammer sequels, so he may have been hard up for work. It’s crazy to think that this is the same guy who ends up playing Saruman in The Lord of the Rings, though. Even when you’re Christopher Lee, it’s hard to convey gravitas when you’re escaping in a mid-’70s, turd-colored station wagon.

Ken: I promise we will get to the other vehicles in this, but we kind of have to start with the most important one, which, as it happens, appears in the very first scene: Cap’s bike. Jim, why don’t you paint a word picture of the first bit of action our Star Spangled Man engages in?

Jim: Alrighty: The year is 1979. President Jimmy Carter is closing out a troubled single term. Captain America is cruising around rural America in a blue van with doves (or are they seagulls?) painted on the side. We know they’re painted, because Cap spends his time painting old women in parks, and saving them from being hit by errant frisbees. One old woman tells Cap that there’s a gang of ruffians in town who steal money from the elderly after they cash their pension checks, so Cap sets up a sting operation and beats the crap out of a bunch of random dudes. He also demonstrates his powers, such as: jumping higher than average, and outrunning a dune buggy.

captain dune buggy inset (Custom).jpgOnly a man who has been injected with an experimental super soldier serum could possibly catch up to that beach pleasure vehicle!

None of these things have anything to do with the larger plot.

Ken: I just want to let everyone know that Cap keeps this rockin’ freedom cycle in the back of that van, and that whenever the van’s back doors open up to expel it, a cloud of smoke bursts out first. It must be a fog machine, because Cap would never do drugs.

Jim: We never really get to see the interior of that van, but I imagine it has one of those slingshot devices you’d find on the surface of an aircraft carrier that just fires his ass out of it like a human bullet.

Anyway. Cap rolls into another idyllic rural town and poses as a, I shit you not, “wandering artist” as cover, only to find that things here are not quite what they seem.

Ken: It’s really quite confusing what the overarching plot of this thing really is at first. Some scientist is missing, and the only clue he left was the word “Migu—” on some glass in his lab. There is apparently only one criminal mastermind named Miguel in the whole world. He’s the Madonna of villains.

Cap gets there via a silly action sequence at a dock, where, as we’ll discuss, he beats up some guys and then sends the drugs they were ferrying off for analysis, then, I guess, tails the drug dealers to the town. Cap’s experience in this suspicious town, by the way, is so insular that it seems like an 1879 town rather than a 1979 town, right down to the simple farm life and standoffish, single woman.

Jim: It reminded me of one of those peasant towns in a gothic horror movie, where all of the unhelpful townsfolk just warn the hero to “get out, this place is cursed!” Here, though, it’s eventually revealed that the entire town is effectively being blackmailed by Miguel…for some reason? Cap gets suspicious after bringing his cat (Captain America walks around town with a cat in this movie) to the vet, who doesn’t know how to administer proper treatment. These things I’m describing happen in what is ostensibly A SUPERHERO MOVIE, Ken.

Jim: Name one other superhero movie that involves a trip to the vet to look at a cat’s paw. I dare you.

captain america cat inset (Custom).jpgSteve Rogers: Confirmed cat person.

Ken: I was drunk during our screening of Halle Berry’s Catwoman, so you’ll need to tell me if there’s been one.

Jim: That’s probably as close as you would get. Catwoman does have super-powered basketball in it, though.

Ken: Now, while this is going on, it’s important to note that Christopher Lee has used a prop-plane to crop dust Portland with a gas, made by the captive scientist, which promises to cause rapid aging in those afflicted. Thirty-eight days of aging in one hour, to be precise. To prove how serious he is, he sends a mountain lion cub to Cap’s overwatch team and over the course of the movie we watch as it goes from kitten to nearly full-sized catamount.

Now Jim, just a question: Does this serum also provide the necessary NOURISHMENT to do that? Because if so, it’s one step removed from actually being a Miracle Grow competitor.

Jim: By god, you’re right. If they could isolate this to specifically work on crops, you could grow corn from a seedling to man-high in like a week.

Leave it to Miguel to solve world hunger forever. That’s just the kind of dude he is.

Ken: But yes, he’s also terrorizing an entire small town, which, it eventually comes out, he’s been using to test this super-aging serum. In fact, our standoffish single mama tells Cap that Miguel has been poisoning the people with it and then doling out just enough antidote to stave off the effects but not cure it. This, despite the fact his true base of operations is actually the nearby penitentiary, where he is impersonating the warden. I guess the legion of hardened criminals whom society avowedly would not care about aren’t viable enough test subjects?? Instead, we’re using the Baron Harkonnen’s sadistic blackmailing tactics against unarmed civilians, I guess.

Jim: I do rather love that he could somehow just take over a federal prison without anyone in, you know, the federal government ever checking in on him. He’s so self-satisfied, too: “Who would think of looking for the world-famous terrorist Miguel inside of an American penitentiary?” Evil laugh

Of course, it doesn’t take long before Cap is hot on his trail, which leads to a series of punch-heavy action sequences. Is it just me, or does Cap end up beating up a number of people who aren’t even involved in this plot? Those were just random dockworkers earlier, right? Is it not a normal reaction to fight back when a man in a costume comes screaming in out of left field on a ROCKET BIKE?

Ken: This would be the action sequence that led him to the small town, yes. I think we’re supposed to believe these guys—who are shuttling some kind of drug, maybe?—are all on the take. I just want to point out they’re all minorities and they all get a righteous fist to the face and take a series of dives into whole piles of cardboard boxes.

Jim: I’m glad you brought that up Ken, because I was compiling a list of all the random, stationary objects that men are hurled into by Captain America in this movie. They include: A pile of ropes, a stack of boxes, a work bench full of hubcaps, a pile of hay bales and, in the film’s greatest moment, several wicker chairs.

captain america wicker chairs inset (Custom).jpgOur reasonably priced deck furniture, noooooo

Ken: That elevator fight from Winter Soldier was pretty good, but it was no wicker chair pile-driver, Jim.

Then there are the jerk-ass enforcers who hassle Cap once he’s made it to the town. Cap is being surveilled by a woman in a Jeep who is wearing the late ’70s equivalent of the “Can I Speak to the Manager?” starter pack, and who never does get any comeuppance. He’s also being pushed around by a bunch of goons who threaten that cat of his. He does FINALLY get to tussle with them, though. By punching out the support beam of a porch, causing it to collapse and K.O. them.

Jim: In that battle you mention, Cap receives some serious damage to his shirt, leaving him looking like Lou Ferrigno if he was raised on a farm in Iowa. So he goes home with standoffish Mom, who is now warm-and-inviting Mom, obviously having been turned on by the sight of Steve kicking the crap out of five guys. Although really, the only reason I’m mentioning any of this is that I wanted to say that the film introduces an exceedingly random, two-sentence subplot here where the woman’s son tells Cap about Mom’s former horse-riding career. In addition to the veterinary office trip, this has to rank pretty high on the list of things you never think you’re going to hear in a superhero movie: ”…and that’s why I want to get my mom back into show riding.”

Ken: And yet “Hawkeye having a family” is still the most pointless part of the wider Marvel oeuvre in light of that.

Somehow, Cap, using the odometer reading on a bad guy’s car and the trace evidence he pulls off the tires, uses his super smarts and a compass to figure out the bad guys are running things out of the prison. And FINALLY we get on a collision course with Christopher Lee!

Jim: We do, although it’s a long and convoluted one, as Cap stalks through the penitentiary and has this awkward scene where he pushes away infected dogs with his shield, before then leaving the prison in pursuit of Miguel via hang-gliding motorcycle, before they finally have a very poorly staged confrontation in the woods. But I can forgive all of that, because said confrontation involves Christopher Lee having aging serum thrown in his face and immediately going Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on everyone’s asses.

By which I mean, “he chose poorly.”

christopher lee miguel inset (Custom).jpgFrom Miguel to Saruman in about 30 seconds.

Ken: You know, we haven’t brought up his shield yet, have we? Tell me, Jim, because maybe you’re more down with comics lore than I am: Is there a vibranium alloy that has the appearance, jiggliness and transparency of clear plastic?

Jim: I am no Marvel expert, but I feel confident in saying that there is not.

Why wouldn’t they at least have made it opaque plastic, Ken? Did no one involved in this production bother taking a glance in the general direction of a Captain America comic even once?

Ken: Maybe they thought Reb Brown was the selling point, and we shouldn’t be deprived of even a single frame of his manly physique. Though I guess that wouldn’t explain the big, round blue bike helmet that serves as an excuse for his superhero mask.

captain america clear shield (Custom).jpgYou know, when you really think about it, the most useful shield would be one you could see through. Just sayin’.

Jim: That was just practical, Ken. The man is riding a bike. You’re a biker, are you not? You know this. Captain America is undoubtedly the type to practice proper bike safety.

Ken: I know toting that amount of molded plastic on top of my head would be more a hazard than a safety feature. But I guess worth it for America.

Jim: So, when all is said and done, how do you think former college football star Reb Brown measures up to our modern MCU Cap, as played by Chris Evans? I must note that I was laughing consistently while picturing the current Cap trying to go undercover by painting a cat in the park.

Ken: Evans has truly never operated at stakes as high as this, Jim. Battling vicious alien minions while trying to evacuate downtown NYC is impressive, but we’ve never seen his Captain America try to perform the subterfuge necessary to outwit a fake veterinarian as part of a sting operation.

I do want to ask this, as we witness the beginning of the end of this decade-long Marvel experiment: Does going back to watch dumpster fires of superhero cinema like this make you wonder about why we had so many misfires earlier? This is a serious question.

Jim: I believe there’s a few reasons why this came to pass. For one, back when stuff like this was made—and really, almost all of the way until Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002—comic book adaptations simply weren’t considered to have a wide appeal. With a few notable exceptions such as Tim Burton’s Batman, they were seen as nerd fodder, and not blockbuster material. And the producers probably weren’t wrong, either. It took the gradual realignment of American society into a much geekier state in the 2000s in order to make these properties into the cross-cultural tentpole films they became. The average person is simply much nerdier, and much more interested in accepting a comic book storyline, than they would have been in 1979.

Ken: I was going to point out that special effects also made a quantum leap in that same time, but let’s be honest: You don’t need dazzling FX to tell a story about a guy in a costume who punches Nazis for a living. You just need to make sure the bad guys drive something more intimidating than a station wagon.

I hope you’ll enjoy your own inevitable screening of Infinity War, Jim. Until then, no spoilers, if you don’t mind.

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