Christopher Lee classes up the joint…
Actor Reb Brown’s birthday was the other day and Rob Kelly stopped in with a REEL RETRO CINEMA column on the 1979 TV flick Captain America. Well, as you likely know, that movie had a sequel the same year, so Rob’s back with a look at the second — and final — installment of Brown’s brief run as the Star-Spangled Avenger. — Dan
By ROB KELLY
Reb Brown returned as the Red, White, and Blue Avenger in Captain America II: Death Too Soon, a mere nine months after the first TV movie aired.
In this one, Steve is a local artist who has befriended the elderly townsfolk in a small beach town. When one of them mentions that “bands of roving gangs” have been mugging senior citizens for their Social Security checks, Steve sets a trap and dons his Captain America costume to apprehend them all.
Meanwhile, Steve’s old pal Dr. Mills (Len Birman) is disturbed to find the lab of Dr. Ilson, a colleague of his, has been ransacked, and the doctor missing. The only clue is the letters “MIGU” written on a piece of broken glass. Birman concludes this means “Miguel,” the name of a freelance revolutionary who has been responsible for several acts of terrorism across the globe in the last few years.
Miguel (played by the legendary Christopher Lee), has holed up in an abandoned American prison, and is keeping Ilson imprisoned while he works on his experimental formula, focused on reversing the aging process. His plan is to hold an American city hostage if his ransom demands are not met, and that city is — Portland, Oregon!
Steve goes — well, not really undercover, exactly, since he dons his garish red, white, and blue helmet and shield combo and blasts out the back of his van on his stunt cycle — to investigate at a local warehouse. He finds a drug from Ecuador used in Ilson’s experiments and tracks a small sample of it, assuming whoever ends up with it is probably Ilson’s kidnapper. Holy Detective Work!
Going all Matches Malone, Steve sets up shop in another small town called Belleville to continue tracking the drug. Being about 6’4” and 220 lbs. of pure muscle, he doesn’t exactly blend in, and it doesn’t take long for two local goons to get in Steve’s face and threaten him to get out of town, or else. Not only that, but everyone in this small town seems to act suspicious — Steve’s landlady, the local veterinarian — and they don’t take well to Steve’s questions.
Turns out Miguel secretly runs Belleville, and when he gets wind of this Steve Rogers guy poking around, he has the local sheriff arrest him. Steve uses his brute strength to break himself out, and then returns as Captain America. He has a fight at a nearby dam and it looks as though Cap has been killed.
There’s a whole lot more skullduggery, leading to Cap having another run-in with Miguel’s goons, and then finally with Miguel himself. Miguel throws a vial of the aging formula at Cap who shatters it with his shield. Miguel ends up taking the brunt of it, and as he fights Cap he ages rapidly, eventually turning into an old man and dying.
Since Miguel has already sprayed Portland with the aging formula (Jimmy Carter does not negotiate with terrorists!), Cap and Dr. Mills climb aboard a chopper and spray the antidote on the city, mentioning that the whole town aged about 10 months in a day and indirectly setting the stage for Portlandia.
With Belleville now out from Miguel’s grip, the townspeople start to relax. Steve reunites with a single mother named Helen he befriended while undercover and her young son, and ends the movie where he began it: sketching.
While Captain America II suffers from some of the same problems as the first film — the pacing is just too slow, and the plot is unnecessarily complicated — it does make some distinct improvements. The main one, of course, is the presence of Christopher Lee.
The character he plays, Miguel, is not all that colorful, but at least the whole “experimental aging formula” bit is something you would have seen in a Marvel comic of the time. It does seem a little absurd that Miguel attempts a fistfight with the much younger, much bigger Captain America, and the final make-up effect of the decrepit Miguel isn’t all that shocking, but at least it’s something.
I’m still convinced that the producers of these movies were hoping for a tie-in toy line at some point — not only does Captain America use his shield and stunt-cycle a lot more, at one point the stunt-cycle transforms into a star-spangled hang glider, the perfect holiday gift for the Captain America fan!
Directed by Ivan Nagy (an episodic TV director who ended his career helming adult movies with titles like Izzy Sleeze’s Casting Couch Cuties), and written by Wilton Schiller (The Six Million Dollar Man, Adventures of Superman) and Patricia Payne (who only had one more writing credit after this), Death Too Soon is no great work, but it at least suggests some sort of formula that could have been adjusted week-to-week (or movie-to-movie) and delivered some fun Captain America adventures. It features decent performances by the supporting cast (Connie Sellecca taking over as Dr. Day, the comic book-sounding Katherine Justice as Helen, and Doc Savage: Man of Bronze’s William Lucking as one of Miguel’s enforcers) and the stunt work is more ambitious. Plus, this movie gave birth to a classic animated gif — one of Cap throwing his motorcycle straight into the air!
The other main issue with these movies is, there’s really no reason for Steve to be Captain America. The general public doesn’t know about Captain America, so he’s not some sort of symbol that America is keeping the world safe from would-be terrorists like General Miguel.
But with this super bright spandex outfit and accompanying winged helmet, he’s not exactly keeping things on the down low, either. Some people seem to know Steve Rogers is Captain America, others don’t. In any case, it doesn’t seem to matter. So while it’s cool that Captain America comes roaring out of his van on his stunt-cycle to stop a crime, it seems a little unwieldy for poor Cap to have to be able to find off-street parking every time he wants to uphold justice. (That’s regular justice, not Katherine Justice, whom Steve wants to uphold as well.)
Other than The Incredible Hulk, which would run for a few more years, it was obvious that CBS’ investment in Marvel superheroes did not pay off. The Amazing Spider-Man didn’t survive long, Dr. Strange was one-and-done, and this was it for Captain America.
That said, I wouldn’t have minded if Reb Brown had been asked to suit up one more time to team-up with the Hulk for one of the TV movies that came along about a decade later. Maybe Hulk could have gotten a stunt cycle too?
Rob Kelly is a podcaster and pop culture historian. He is the host/co-host of several shows on The Fire and Water Podcast Network, including Aquaman and Firestorm: The Fire and Water Podcast, Fade Out, TreasuryCast, Superman Movie Minute and Pod Dylan.
— TV’s 1979 CAPTAIN AMERICA Movie: A Big Heart and a Small Budget. Click here.
— Meet REB BROWN: Bronze Age TV’s CAPTAIN AMERICA. Click here.