Captain America technically shouldn’t work on screen. The fundamental top-line interpretation is that he’s a chest-beating, red-white-‘n’-blue überpatriot who could appear obnoxious, removed and unrelatable. Luckily for us, the likes of Joe Johnston, Joss Whedon and the Russo Brothers have delivered a Captain America for the modern era. Through Chris Evans – in the role of his career – the super-soldier has become the most interesting and engaging character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: an anchor of truth that can shine a light on society’s troubles, tragedies and moral quandaries. Yet down a different path, the leading light of America is to be found struggling for air in the smoke-filled offices of 1970s Hollywood.
This tale begins with the cigar-chomping film tycoons Menaham Golam and Yorum Globus. In 1979, Golam and Globus purchased the financially struggling Cannon Films. Renowned for making something out of nothing, they forged a business model of buying ‘bottom-barrel‘ scripts and putting them into production. The public lapped them up and were ravenous for the action B-movies the cousins were producing: The Death Wish sequels, The Delta Force, Invasion U.S.A., Missing In Action and Exterminator 2 were all hugely profitable hits. Having milked several of these malnourished cash cows, the pair looked for their next big adventure. For the princely sum of $225,000, the cousins struck a five-year deal with Marvel Comics for the rights to Spider-Man and Captain America. Oh, how the times have changed. The cousins wasted no time with their superhero properties, shouting their names from every rooftop and purchasing double-page spreads in Hollywood tabloids.
At this point in time, Marvel was far from a land of opportunity in the eyes of filmmakers. The only Marvel production in the pipeline at this time was Howard the Duck. So after going through several proposed directors and writers, Golam and Globus looked toward a trusted pair of hands: Michael Winner. Having done the producers a fine job on the early Death Wish films, they knew they could rely on their old friend Winner. There was one warning issued by the controversial editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics at the time, Jim Shooter:
“The main thing I tried to impress upon [Michael] Winner were the things I thought were of paramount importance—making it credible that a guy would dress up in a red, white and blue suit and do what Cap did. Getting the audience to accept that as a reasonable reality. Avoiding campy-ness.”
According to Cinetropolis, Winner’s first action upon taking on Steve Rogers was to recruit largely unknown television writer Stan Hey, who later wrote episodes of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Dalziel and Pascoe. After that, Winner brought in someone who actually knew anything about the captain: “a geek”, in their words. Hey explained how that process went:
“Michael [Winner] had imported some quaking, black-tee-shirted geek from Forbidden Planet who allegedly knew every story element of the Captain America comics. I was despatched to one of the rooms, not an office, with an electric typewriter on a dressing table, some paper and a handful of comics, and told to get writing, starting with how Steve Rogers became the Captain. Winner would pop in every hour or so, and if I had a query, would command the geek to attend over the house’s intercom system. By the end of the first day I think we had about six mediocre pages. After the first week we took stock and started to write.”
Through the power of the internet, we’ve discovered one of the very few copies of the script they produced in 1985. Open it here, and follow us down this path as we find our captain in a story with a stolen Statue of Liberty, a pantomime villain and a rock star playing human roulette. For those familiar with Joe Johnston’s 2011 version of Captain America, the first 20 pages of this script will ring a lot of bells. In Winner and Hey’s script, Steve Rogers becomes Captain America in the first four minutes, and he’s in the ice thanks to the Red Skull in less than quarter of an hour. It’s fair to say there’s a certain desire to ‘get on with it’.
This time around, however, Rogers wakes up in 1986 and seemingly nobody wants him. His arrival into the modern world is incredibly anticlimactic. Neither the police, the FBI, the army, nor Captain America himself seem bothered about his return. Captain America is very much Steve Rogers. So for the first few minutes in 1986, his greatest achievement is moving into a flat, meeting his neighbour Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Rosenthal, and starting his drawing again (yes, really). When you’re 30 minutes into a superhero movie, you’d hope for the whiff of a promising narrative rather than our protagonist punching a microwave trying to make it work.
All the while we see the origin story of our villain, the Red Skull. His story is actually true to the comics, but does read rather hilariously in this script. We enter Hitler’s office (no, not in the 1980s) to find him flabbergasted by the American officer making the Nazi Party look bad in the press. At this point in the comics Hitler encountered Johann Schmidt, the innocent bellboy of the Nazi Party HQ, and spotted the evil potential in him, hence the transformation into the Red Skull. In this script, Hey and Winner cut the background, simply programming him to despise America, and kill Captain America at whatever costs. That said, we do receive one of the best exchanges in never-made cinema to justify Schmidt’s ascension into supervillainy:
GENERAL: But Führer, he is only a waiter!
HITLER: Only a waiter! I was only a house-painter!
Fast forward back to 1986. We now find the Red Skull in Paraguay as an old man accompanied by his daughter Eva, who has unspecified powers, and the four Sisters of Sin: Death, Dream, Agony and Pleasure. Through Wikipedia, it’s possible to work out that the Sisters are the leaders of a quasi-religious cult that promotes hatred and violence. Yet from the script, you wouldn’t be able to tell them from your own mother-in-law.
Still wishing solely for the death of America, and believing that Captain America is the epitome of this ‘evil’, the Skull attempts to draw his enemy out by stealing the Statue of Liberty. Upon its grand re-reveal to the world, following a two-year clean-up of NYC, the curtain falls to reveal a banner of red writing that reads “Die America! Die!” Where’s Steve Rogers in all this? Well, he’s showing off his art portfolio. The man’s got to make a career, guys.
Cap soon heads to the police chief’s office in full uniform, revealing himself for the first time, just as the Red Skull sends one of the Statue’s shrunken fingers to the police. Stop smirking. Having solved the crime immediately based on absolutely no evidence, Captain America agrees to drop off the demanded $10 million to Red Skull. When he arrives at the agreed spot, he encounters the Sisters of Sin and Eva who taunt the Captain, and shrink the already-small Statue of Liberty to the size of a paperweight. Mission apparently accomplished, they leave, cackling all the way. It’s all so hilarious and shaming, according to Red Skull. Despite this put-down, the best part is that in the very next scene, Steve Rogers simply goes to dinner with Bernie. He doesn’t chase them down. He doesn’t attempt to fight them off. Our hero mopes and goes to dinner. He eventually does save the world ten minutes later as he visits the Sisters’ mansion, beats them up, steals the ray gun off of them and re-bigulates the Statue of Liberty. Huzzah.
With the ‘action’ out of the way and an hour left on the clock, things turn weird as the film seemingly runs out of plot. Captain America now sets up the Captain America Hotline. Oh yes, the Captain is ready to receive you 24/7 to battle the injustice you’re suffering. What follows is basically a less impressive Superman montage where Steve instantly drops his art portfolio and transforms into Captain America whenever danger abounds. His next mission, seemingly on a whim, involves finding Natalie Cohen – a daughter who has gone missing. Pretty high stakes for the most powerful man in the world, eh?
By the way, the Red Skull is still alive. Somewhere. The main villain is not waiting for anything, or planning some evil; he’s just not here right now. Anyway Natalie Cohen, the missing girl, was last seen at the rock star Ricky Roulette’s concert. With little progress made, our captain breaks into the mansion to see what’s going on. Obviously, it’s sordid. There are rich gross men who use the boundless number of girls as human roulette chips on a giant board on the floor. Some scuffles ensue and the girls are all saved. We’re now at the 90 minute mark, folks. What does this have to do with the overall narrative? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Act 3 begins with the ball-achingly frustrating relationship that you don’t care about as Bernie pesters Steve to marry her. He refuses, and then receives a plot revelation out of nowhere. Apparently all of the water in New York City is set to be poisoned. The Red Skull, now seen in India(!), has hired some wise old men, who are also Nazis, to help him create the potion. With such a potent potion and such global evil potential, where will the Red Skull go? The annual meet of the USA Flying Club in Iowa, of course!
My word, this script is so goddamn terrible.
The Red Skull, Eva and the four Sisters of Sin check in to a hotel to enact their evil plan. Before that, in a local sawmill, the Red Skull has a group of mobsters ready to enact his evil plan, revealing the barrels of green syrup – the ‘Elixir of Death’ – that he intends to distribute into the water supply to destroy the population. He samples it on a trapped mob member, who then ages to death much like Walter Donovan in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.
Soon after, Steve and Bernie check into the same hotel. Meanwhile the Red Skull – the epitome of evil – is posing as ‘Professor Marvo’, a magician who once appeared on Carson. As the four Sisters and the ‘Professor’ perform, they hypnotise their audience through a green gas. As the audience stare frozen and lifeless at the act, mob members emerge to stand behind each of the hotel guests. Sister Dream’s power erupts, causing the mobsters to become exact clones of the guests.
The mobsters/clones head out to 50 (count ’em, 50) awaiting airplanes, each with a map and a bottle of green poison for their chosen state. Steve, despite Bernie’s terrifically annoying efforts, with help from commandos – they’ve appeared out of nowhere, guys – stop all of them. The Red Skull escapes with the Sisters, a henchman, and bottles of poison via a nearby helicopter, but Captain jumps on and fights them all over the mountains. As they crash and tumble, they fall out onto the mountainside. The Red Skull throws a bottle of the poison at Captain America, and he ages instantly. Now he truly is Marvel’s OAP: creaking bones rather than cracking them. Feeling satisfied, Red Skull asks Cap to kill him now as he has finally finished off his foe. Cap obviously refuses, but Red Skull accidentally puts his hand down onto a soft piece of rock, falls through and dies.
All the while our hero is aging. As he turns white, only one thing can save him – America. When we say America, we mean good and true ‘Murica. With one of his dying breaths, he stares up at an American flag and screams out:
“The poison may be stronger than any man but the spirit within me, the spirit of America, is stronger than any poison!”
I kid you not, America’s history is Steve Rogers’ flashback. We hear excerpts from the great speeches of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Neil Armstrong in their own voices, and then eventually an American flag waves over the screen as the national anthem plays. Cap is revived! And then Bernie’s lines of “I love you!” interrupt this moment as the army finds Steve. We eventually cut to Bernie and Steve talking about dinner in their Brooklyn apartment, with Steve finally proposing to Bernie. This moving moment is interrupted as Eva and the Sisters of Sin fly towards him, preparing for another battle, with Steve Rogers standing proud in his Captain America outfit. Cut to black.
So to summarise: what the fuck?
Before you wonder any further, Stan Lee immediately rejected the script. He hated it, and threw it right back at Winner and Hey. It’s clear to see why. The story plays out like a less interesting episode of Columbo crossed with an even more boring Clark Kent. Winner and Hey are clearly out of their comfort zone, and there’s a total absence of understanding or appreciation of the character. Their inability to handle this plot is self-evident in the fact that the entire second act is irrelevant. All Captain America does is set up a phone line, and save a girl from a weird rich guy’s sordid mansion. In fairness, the pair is writing from what they know. They know TV, and so they’ve created four episodes of TV smushed together into a two-hour film. It doesn’t work one bit, but if you have a week to write something and you have no idea what you’re doing, I guess it’ll do.
Even then, the characterisation is just awful. It’s fine if you don’t get the comics, or appreciate their artistry, but you can at least – as a writer – attempt to produce a good set of characters. Thing is, Captain America is a Grade-A dickhead in this: a patriotic asshole that you want to punch in his perfect teeth. His greatest achievement is impressing the Mayor of New York, making him a Plain Jane with boring views.
So when he frees the women trapped within Ricky Roulette’s mansion and says:
“Girls of America, you have seen the terrible dangers of the mindless worship of these so-called singers. Theirs is a cruel and shallow world. They are not examples to be looked up to! Go to where you are wanted. Go home to your mothers!”,
he comes off as a bit of a sanctimonious bum. The dreadful characters around him do not help either. Bernie, the love interest, is the single most stereotypical Noo Yoikah you’ve ever seen. She’s brash, jokes constantly, and simply takes up space. Our villain, the Red Skull, is supposed to be a brainwashed Nazi with one goal in mind, and yet he’s a pantomime, unfocused, Americanised villain with no teeth or gravitas. The Sisters of Sin have no powers outside of one – the ability to clone and brainwash (apparently) – and Eva begins with actual intrigue, but then entirely disappears for the subsequent 90 minutes.
In 2016, we’re about to experience a Captain America film that is being heralded as the “best Marvel movie they’ve ever made“. In 1986, we were going to endure the single worst Marvel movie feasible. Including Howard the Duck. Yes, you can be truly counterfactual and create some bizarre, truly strange plot, but let’s be frank: this is an absolute mess from top to bottom. A low-key, undercooked, underwhelming, unfocused, frankly boring drama with minimal action, laughable dialogue and a preposterous setup. This series is titled the Best Films Never Made not just because of the wondrous projects we missed, but also the catastrophes we thankfully avoided. Michael Winner’s Captain America is one of the luckiest bullets we ever dodged.