This is the twenty-fourth installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes. For the previous installment click here, for the first installment click here.
In 1984, the Cannon Group – who would go on to purchase an option on a fourth Superman film from Alexander and Ilya Salkind and produce “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” – acquired the feature film rights for Captain America. Cannon, who was known for producing low budget B-movies mostly, was desperate to get into the blockbuster game and Captain America and Superman were their attempts at doing that. The problem was, they weren’t in a position to put out the upfront cost needed to truly make a blockbuster film. Captain America, while ultimately not produced by Cannon, would suffer from the same budgetary problems Superman had in 1987.
Cannon first put Captain America into production with Michael Winner, who had directed the “Death Wish” films with Charles Bronson, as director and James Wilke as screenwriter. By 1986, Silke was out and Winner had taken over scripting duties alongside Lawrence Block and Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Stan Lee. In 1987 Winner himself left the project and John Stockwell, who had played Dennis in John Carpenter’s “Christine” – based on the novel by Stephen King – had come on board with a new script penned by Stephen Tolkin.
In 1989 Manahem Golan left Cannon Group, and as part of a severance package was given control of his own imprint – 21st Century Film Corporation – and the license on Captain America. Golan immediately put Captain America into production, shooting for a 1990 theatrical release. This timeline of just barely a year would have been detrimental to the film alone, regardless of how much money the studio was willing to throw at it, but it suffered from no time and no money on top of that.
Golan brought with him director Albert Pyun, who had directed the Jean-Claude Van Damme film “Cyborg” at Cannon – to helm the project, retaining the Tolkin script. Matt Salinger, son of acclaimed novelist J.D. Salinger, was cast as Captain America with Ronny Cox, Darren McGavin and Ned Beatty in supporting roles. Scott Paulin, who had played astronaut Deke Slayton in “The Right Stuff,” was cast as Captain America’s nemesis the Red Skull.
Originally, Pyun had intended for some sequences to be much grander and full of more scope, wanting to film scenes in Alaska and the United States, but 21st Century Films ran out of money and corners were cut to finish the film. The production never went to Alaska and only two days of pick-ups were filmed in the U.S. The majority of filming took place in Yugoslavia.
Several release dates were set between 1990 and 1991, but the film never saw theatrical release in North America. It saw theatrical release in December of 1990 in the UK and other countries, but wouldn’t see the light of day in the United States until it was released direct-to-video in 1992. For many years, it was only available on DVD as a bootleg found at comic book conventions. In 2011, to coincide with the release of “Captain America: The First Avenger,” MGM released the film on DVD courtesy of their manufacture-on-demand service, then in 2013 Shout! Factory released a mass marketed Blu-ray edition of the film. A “Director’s Cut” of the film exists, but has never been released.
Critical reaction to the film was mostly negative. Common complaints included the traditionally German character of the Red Skull being made Italian and the lack of realism in the costumes, including the rubber ears on the side of Captain America’s mask. The film holds a 9% on Rotten Tomatoes.
“The “Never Got Made” Files #66: Cannon’s CAPTAIN AMERICA (1984-87)”. Video Junkie. July 22, 2011.
Hartl, John. “‘Captain America’ Flies Straight To Video”, The Seattle Times via the South Florida Sun Sentinel, July 8, 1992.
Lee, Stan. “Bullpen Bulletins: Stan’s Soapbox,” Marvel comics cover-dated May 1990.
Ryan, Mike. “Matt Salinger: The True Captain America,” GQ, July 20, 2011.
“Captain America (1990)”. Rotten Tomatoes.