“Be Captain America. Jam Captain America down their throats. And at the same time, protect yourself.” Words to live by, really.
Rod Holcomb’s Captain America from 1979 is a far cry from the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s grim-dark take on the most patriotic Avenger, but what the movie lacks in moody seriousness, it more than makes up for with a carefree kind of innocence and joy that you don’t really see in cape films anymore.
Though the made-for-TV film was greenlit with Marvel’s blessing, the story bares little resemblance to Steve Rogers’ comics origins. Instead of being a skinny kid from Brooklyn who always dreamt of becoming a better version of himself in order to serve his country, the film introduces us to an already-strapping Steve (Reb Brown), a good-natured Marine fresh off his most recent tour of duty.
Steve finds himself at a point when he’s ready to leave his life as a soldier behind in favor of spending his time traveling the country and honing his drawing skills. But things take a sharp turn when an attempt on his life leaves him with nearly fatal injuries that he’s only able to survive thanks to an experimental procedure using FLAG (“Full Latent Ability Gain”), a super-steroid developed by his late father and Dr. Simon Mills. Because Steve’s father developed FLAG using his own DNA, Steve’s the only person capable of surviving exposure to the drug, and it imbues him with all of his classic enhanced abilities.
Interestingly, Holcomb’s Captain America treats Steve’s alter ego as something he uses to keep his identity safe, rather than as a highly-visible advertisement for the adventures he’s fated to become a part of. Rather than taking down squads of super-science-y Nazis, Steve spends the bulk of the film hanging out with Mills and the FBI as they investigate a string of mysterious murders committed by an organization that’s racing to build a neutron bomb. There are also plenty of sequences that focus on Steve’s fancy new motorcycle with its fancy bulletproof (but mostly opaque) windshield that conveniently pops off to be used as his regular shield. It’s all silly and cheesy and admittedly not a particularly good movie, but it’s the sort of thing that one imagines would have jazzed the hell out of the children of the late ‘70s.
As action-packed as the movie might sound on paper, it’s surprisingly chill, and its stakes never feel as if they’re getting all that high. Reb Brown looks every bit the part as Steve and totally rocks the Captain America costume he dons toward the end of the movie, but he’s a markedly less charismatic presence on screen compared to Chris Evans. Instead, his Steve is much more of a quiet, simple man who always feels as if he’s just a beat behind everyone around him, something that works in his favor because of how charming Brown is. At multiple points in the movie, it’s shocking just how much he looks like the classic Captain America that Chris Samnee’s recently been illustrating in Marvel’s books.
Brown’s Steve is a Soft, Good Boy™ more than your traditional action hero, and while his performance isn’t exactly much to write home about, it’s refreshing to see a version of Captain America who performs his masculinity in a way that doesn’t immediately read as aggro. It’s difficult to imagine that Marvel would put out a film like Holcomb’s Captain America today because, well, movies have to move and this one really, really doesn’t. Still, though, it’s comforting to know that it exists and will always be a part of the character’s decades-long legacy—one that’s not coming to an end anytime soon.