Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Avengers: Endgame is actually last week's film, but since it's still making simply gaudy amounts of money, it seemed okay to run with it. The film has triggered much retrospection over the history of Marvel movies; I thought it would be worth going all the way back to the pre-history of the MCU, and first time a future Avenger appeared in a feature film.

It's amazing to think that as recently as thirty years ago, comic book movies weren't merely rare, they were so rare that the big Hollywood studios honest-to-God didn't think that there was any reliable way to make a profit off of them. Even once Batman came along in 1989 and made a ludicrous amount of money, it's still easy to detect a nervous confusion about how to go ahead with making more of these. Part of that, of course, comes down to visual effects: it is known that Spider-Man took so long to get his first movie because nobody could figure out how to make web-swinging look right prior to the widespread adoption of high-quality CGI. Much more of it, I am certain, was a lingering doubt that anybody would take any of this seriously, a fear undoubtedly justified by the showy box office failure of Dick Tracy (not exactly a comic book movie nor a superhero film, but in the spirit of such things), almost exactly one year after Batman set all of its records.

Hence, outside of Warner Bros. continuing to fund Batman pictures, the comic book movie spent most of the 1990s hanging out in the world of low-budget independent cinema. Such as, for example, the warm bosom of producer Menahem Golan, who at the start of our story had recently left Cannon Films, the company he turned into an improbable genre film powerhouse with his cousin Yoram Globus. Part of his severance package included the rights to the second-tier Marvel superhero Captain America, which had bounced around for a while before ending up with Cannon; presumably deciding that Batman's success meant that the doors were about to open for a wave of comic book adaptations, Golan decided to put a long-dormant Captain America screenplay by Stephen Tolkin into production, eyeing a late-summer 1990 release. And here we see just how uncertain people were about the whole "comic book movie" thing in 1990, because the film was ready on schedule, and it just... didn't come out. New dates were announced, and it didn't come out. By the end of the year, it started getting a patchwork release here and there, but the big U.S. release didn't happen, and didn't happen in 1991, despite dates being announced, and finally, it drifted out as a direct-to-video release in the summer of 1992. For Golan, one of the absolute greatest hucksters in the medium's history, to be that anxious about putting out a completed film, something must have been in the air.

Or, the alternative hypothesis: even Golan couldn't sell every turd that rolled across his path, and Captain America is quite a lumpy little piece of shit at that. If the film's producer is one kind of bad movie legend - the "gloriously tacky and dementedly ambitious" kind - the director is a different kind altogether. Won't you all join me in welcoming to Alternate Ending for the first time Albert Pyun, who I do hope we shan't be seeing again. Pyun is one of the most infamous filmmakers of modern times, a man whose name reliably comes up in conversations looking to find the worst director in history. That might be overselling it - my masochistic taste in bad movies takes me in other directions, and I've seen hardly any Pyun films, so I really don't know - but this much is true: Captain America is a completely dire movie, incompetent in so many ways but in a sort of soullessly proficient way. Incompetent but with just enough budget to act as a safety net, let's say. That, plus it's incompetence leavened by a total lack of passion or commitment the material.

The film that results from this is outrageously, excruciatingly dull, dragging out its 97 minutes to a point that time itself more or less ceases to have any meaning; at a certain point, when Captain America (Matt Salinger) and Sharon Not-Carter (Kim Gillingham) have arrived in Italy through a process I didn't follow in order to find something that I wasn't paying close enough attention to notice, I realised that I no longer recalled anything else other than the experience of this movie slapping into my retinas at a tar-like speed, and that perhaps there was no existence other than the eternal presence of Captain America rolling through its plot with all the haste of a dead slug gently drying into a sticky film on the sidewalk.

To be fair, Italy is actually the point where Captain America finally snaps into... focus, but really it's more like the point where it has sloughed off enough of the clutter that it can just be a straightforward "trek into the lair, fight the bad guys" plot. The previous eight-thirds of the film are absolutely impossible, skipping from place to place and year to year just long enough to give us only the absolute bear minimum of exposition necessary to perceive that there's an origin story afoot here, though I will not credit it with being possible understand that origin story. No narrative that skips through Captain America's creation with the metronymic rhythm this film depicts is understandable. I know that the Italian woman who ran away from the Fascists says hi to Steve Rogers before the Nazis kill her - but I do not, truthfully, have any idea what the fuck I just wrote.

Anyway, so it's 1936 and there's this Italian woman, Dr. Maria Vaselli (Carla Cassola), who is convinced she can make a super-soldier for the Fascists. The subject of her experiment is a genius little boy named Tadzio de Santis (Massimilio Massimi), and in order to acquire him, the Fascists massacre his entire family in front of him. He's understandably upset about this, and as Vaselli prepares to subject him to her super-soldier magic, she is stricken with a fit of conscience, running out of her lab just as he's transformed. She runs all the way to the United States and 1943, in fact, where the government signs off on the creation of a good Yankee super-soldier, with sickly Steve Rogers (Salinger doesn't look remotely sickly, unless you count his weird, putty-looking jawline) proving the ideal candidate. Soon, Captain America - Rogers's codename - is off fighting the Axis and recalling his best girl back home, Bernice Stewart (Gillingham), before the hideously mutated Tadzio, now calling himself Red Skull (Scott Paulin) straps him to a missile aimed at the White House. Rogers manages to shift the course of the missile, sending it and himself to Alaska, where he ends up frozen in a glacier. At the same time, a boy named Tom Kimball (Garette Ratliff) witnesses Cap's amazing heroism, and is so inspired that he throws himself into public service. 50 years later, Tom (Ronny Cox) is the President of the United States, Bernice is married with an adult daughter, Sharon, the Red Skull is apparently widowed with an adult daughter, Valentina (Francesca Neri), and he's also the head of the mafia, and he also doesn't like it when the president announces a major piece of environmentalist legislation. Also, Captain America thaws, and is kidnapped by the president's journalist best friend Sam (Ned Beatty), who tries to convince him it's the '90s and that the good people of the world need his help to find and stop the Red Skull.

I hope you found that irritating and sloppy as you read it; Christ knows that's how I felt as I watched it. Watching the first globule of Captain America feels less like engaging with a narrative, more like watching a checklist getting filled out.

The film's total, peevish-making approach to "storytelling" is bad in its own right, made worse by the film's confounding lack of anything resembling rhythm; the fact that it's badly-made on top of that is insulting and enervating. There are, to begin with, straight-up mistakes, like the music cue that has had a measure or two audibly cut out to fit it into the editing scheme, or a newspaper headline that proudly situates us in "Sprinfield", and which is the subject of a zoom in on top of it. Then there are the various incompetencies: the acting is a big one of these, with Ronny Cox the only one of the four leads who survives the film without making a total ass of himself. Gillingham is warm and earnest as Bernice, but her performance as Sharon is so grating and ditzy that it's hard to figure out how the same actor could have perpetrated both characters at the same time. Paulin is the closest the film has to a traditional bad movie shortcoming: his Red Skull is a hammy clown, he is palpably lost behind the thick, hideous latex sheath that fails to make him look like anything but a man with an inch-thick layer of badly-lit prosthetics, and his accent, dear sweet Lord, I don't know if he's not sure what Italians sound like and got confused because they shot in Yugoslavia, or if he was trying to triangulate between Italian and German, or if he really just felt that "Red Skull is a Bela Lugosi-style vampire" was a valid creative choice. It's something, though. At the center of this, Salinger is a huge liability, thick and meaty and totally devoid of charisma or even the whisper of intelligence crossing his preposterously rectangular face as he spits out dialogue.

Oh, yeah, the dialogue: it's absolutely dire. I regret that I didn't jot down any examples of the syntactically strained, poetry-free exposition; there was some world-class stuff in there. It's just that I was too busy trying to get my ears to stop gushing blood. "Gee whiz, we gotta get going, Mr. President" is the film's signature line, if that helps.

Anyway, worse than all of this is the film's soporific, illegible action. At no point is the film well-edited; but during the action scenes, it becomes fearsomely hideous indeed. The moment that the Nazis attack Vaselli's lab, trying to stop her from creating Captain America, is a perfect case in point. Not only does the cutting speed up the assassin's reveal so fast that it feels like the scene has barely started before it twists, it fragments the subsequent violence into such tiny, disconnected pieces that I couldn't reconstruct a narrative from them if you paid me. At one point, there's just, like, a shot of a woman's foot in a white shoe. I imagine it has to be Vaselli's, but under pain of death, I couldn't tell you where she was in that moment, why it mattered that we saw her generally or her foot specifically, or why she was facing the wrong direction. Other action scenes bring in their own anti-pleasures of this sort; the climactic fight is a great example, awkwardly shifting to a wide shot in exactly the right places to slow things down and dilute the impact of punches.

In short, everything that could go wrong, did. The film is confusing, sloppy, stupid, and the rubbery Captain America suit looks dumb as hell. Worst of all, it's not even embarrassingly bed enough to be fun. This is so boring. It is a solemnly awesome disaster: so indifferently fast-paced that the plot becomes an impenetrable slurry, which makes it feel like it's going nowhere, which makes it feel agonisingly slow-paced. When your movie is simultaneously way the fuck too short and way the fuck too long, you've achieved something that I barely even understand how to articulate. So congratulations, Mr. Pyun. You've beaten me this round...