“No matter what happens tomorrow…remember to be true to who you are. Not a perfect soldier…but a good man.”
Call this sort of a companion piece to my previous entry on Green Lantern, where I discussed why I felt it was such a tremendous failure. Having just seen Captain America: The First Avenger, which was a wonderfully fun “popcorn movie” that fired on nearly all cylinders, I felt compelled almost to use it as a way of reemphasizing my point by discussing why, in contrast, this film worked so very well.
Certainly, Captain America has some advantages that Green Lantern did not – for starters, most people could probably pick the title character out of a line-up. All things being equal, Captain America is better known as an image than he is as a character, and for many years, like the Lantern has been considered a B-level hero in popularity. But unlike the Green Lantern, whose backdrop is wacky, alien landscapes with extraterrestrial populations, Captain America is grounded very much in our history and cultural memory; a walking piece of wartime propaganda who lives on as a dependable exemplar of American ideals. Nevertheless, Captain America can be a slippery slope all his own – a superhero whose image screams “corn,” and who can, at first appearance, seem as two-dimensional as the parchment Thomas Jefferson wrote his little Declaration on some 235 years ago.
In that regard, the makers of Captain America tried to, successfully, invoke a different time – when patriotism was non-partisan and non-ideological, and good and evil were questions of existence instead of existential thought. It’s the type of movie that kind of reminds us of why people ever really cared about superheroes to begin with…they were amazing, they were fun, they were idealistic, and they were unequivocally good. Set during the Second World War, during the era where the superhero first made his appearance as a short-lived but popular patriotic character in Timely Comics (where he was created by Joe Simon and the legendary Jack Kirby), the film evokes a vibrant retroactive nostalgia for what is probably best called “the myth of World War II:” the illusionary narrative where the good guys always conquered bad guys, everything came up wine and roses, and the decimations of war and genocide were subsumed in favor of patriotism and inspiration. And in the right situation, there’s really nothing wrong with that all. It’s important to remember, it was the creation of that myth that helped win us that War in the first place. And there is no more lasting vestige of that myth than old Captain America (or Cap, to his friends and fans).
The film relates the story of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a scrawny, sickly, scrappy kid from Brooklyn desperate to fight for his country, and his journey and transformation into becoming the eponymous star-spangled super hero of wide renown. After being rejected repeatedly from Army enlistment stations as unfit for duty due to his diminutive physical stature and medical history, Rogers, through a chance meeting with emigre military scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), is given the chance to potentially take part in the government’s top secret Super Soldier program. Impressing Erskine and project leaders Colonel Philips (Tommy Lee Jones) and Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwill) with his ingenuity, bravery, and compassion, Rogers becomes the first and only test subject for Erskine’s transformation process, which grants him heightened physical abilities including enhanced strength and increased size. When the process is sabotoged by members of the Nazi breakaway group Hydra, Rogers is still denied the opportunity to fight, exiled into performing as the character Captain America at bond rallies in vibrantly splashy stage numbers. Going into action on his own and rescuing American and Allied troops from the clutches of Hydra, Rogers earns himself the respect of his fellow soldiers and the opportunity to see battle as a real, genuine Captain America. Opposing Cap at the head of Hydra is his Nazi supersoldier counterpart Johann Schmidt, AKA the appropriately named Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). Along with his henchman Dr. Armin Zola (Toby Jones), the Red Skull seeks to harness an otherworldly power source that may allow Hydra to take over the world…
Captain America, on its own merits, may not be a great movie, but it would be almost impossible to call it a bad one. It’s one of those cases where not all the parts are great, but nearly all of them are good, and as a result you have a movie that hits a certain level of quality and manages to maintain it all the way through. At the core of it is an outstanding cast – Evans is extremely likable and grounded as Rogers, and avoids the broad caricature that other interpretations of Cap often fall victim to, and the lovely Atwill has what is likely a breakthrough role as his love interest. Tommy Lee Jones is as dependably gruff and lovable as ever, and Tucci gives the film’s best performance as Erskine; his scenes with Rogers are by far the film’s most poignant and philosophical. As for Weaving and Toby Jones, they reminded me a great deal of Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains in consistency if not in approach; they can probably play villains like these in their sleep yet still do them better than anyone else. The film also offers some of the best use of CGI I’ve seen in quite a while; to present the effect of the pre-Cap Rogers, Evans’s head was digitally placed on the body of a much smaller man, and the effect is remarkably seamless (admittedly, for issues of personal adequacy, I desperately wanted to believe that Evans’s Captain America physique was some miracle of CGI, but no such luck) . The script is alternatively funny, touching, and exciting, but never so much of any of the three that it manages to overwhelm the material. And director Joe Johnston, himself a veteran of so many period films, such as the thematically similar The Rocketeer, knows very well how to evoke the nostalgic elements of these earlier times.
But there is more to the success of the whole of Captain America than the sum of its admirable parts (and I’m not talking about Cap’s ludicrous pecs). Just as Green Lantern failed by never understanding its character or the world around it, Captain America succeeds because it precisely understands the appeal of its hero, and it’s creators crafted the film outwardly from there. A shining example of this occurs in an absolutely marvelous montage sequence that could have been drawn directly out of a 1940’s musical (Yankee Doodle Dandy comes directly to mind), which encapsulates Cap’s touring as Captain America, performing an Alan Mencken-penned song-and-dance number. In these numbers, Rogers wears a cheesy felt version of the “classic,” and admittedly silly, Captain America outfit, where he sings a song and basically makes a fool out of himself, before knocking out a Hitler lookalike at the climax of each performance. The beautiful thing about the sequence is that it is postmodern and self-aware without being ironic. It sends up the cornball aspects of the Captain America image to emphasize the more authentic one. It displays a level of awareness and sophisticated understanding about this character that the makers of Green Lantern probably couldn’t even fathom.
The thing that has always made Captain American unique in the world of Marvel Comics (within which he reemerged in the early-sixties and has maintained a constant presence ever since), is that he is, within the Marvel continuity, something of a straight man to everyone else. While Marvel has always been known as the home of “heroes with issues,” Steve Rogers has always been the “normal” one, whose main conflict has always been that the world around him is gray when he mainly sees things in black and white. In this film, we’re given the earlier version of Captain America – the one before the world went irrevocably gray, and where superheroes were superheroes because they were heroes.
In a separate piece that I’m currently been revising for publication here, I partially discuss how the duality of good and evil have become blurred in the new millenium, and in ways that have been positive and negative. Certainly, Captain America embraces the sharp duality of good and evil, but what I greatly appreciated was that it precisely champions the qualities of good and demonizes the qualities of evil. It’s hardly a searing examination of either, but often other stories of heroes and villains are dependent on motive and psychological impulse. Batman, for instance, is driven to fight crime by the death of his parents and Spider-man by the guilt over failing to save his uncle from being killed by a criminal he let escape. Captain America, however, is a hero because he understands the difference of right and wrong, pain and loss, triumph and sacrifice due simply from his own quality of character in the face of a life of adversity as “the little guy.” Everything we understand about Steve Rogers he wears on his sleeve, and from the first time in the film he laments that others are giving their lives for his country and the he should not be expected to do anything less, we know everything about him that we need to know. Captain America deftly reminds us that the main job of a hero is not simply to fight evil, but to help his fellow man – who, with simply a little change in circumstances, could have been a hero themselves.
In contrast to Rogers – who, ironically, would be the physical embodiment of the Nazi Ubermensch – is the Red Skull. Like Cap, he wears his personality skin deep (though perhaps more literally), but his character’s evil within the film is the thematic opposite of Cap’s goodness. While Cap sees himself as just another soldier, the Red Skull sees himself as a god among all men. Many reviews I’ve read have commented a great deal on how this film upholds the tradition of using Nazis are such dependable villains, but the film actually takes great pains to establish Hydra as a rejection of Nazism, and Schmidt actually makes a point of disparaging Hitler’s fascistic ideal. The Red Skull of the film certainly does share the Fuhrer’s own self-deification, but his evil is almost more a byproduct of objectivism than fascism. This Red Skull is not about finding the ideal, he’s about placing everyone beneath him, and therein lies the contrasts between both he and Hitler and he and Cap. For a movie so heavily steeped in nostalgia, I think there is a contemporary point being made here.
What, in many respects, separates Cap from so many other heroes, truly, is that he is not a Demigod made flesh, but the Ideal Soldier – one who defends his country, regardless of the sacrifice, regardless of the odds; who fights bravely and for the right reasons, and ultimately, albeit in slightly altered fashion, gives his life so that others may live. And certainly, from Cap’s enduring heroism comes the film’s almost wonderful nostalgic feel, from its excellent Yankee Doodle Dandy inspired USO montage, to its almost newsreel like sequences (well, if newsreels were ever directed by Michael Bay) depicting Cap’s heroic career, to its romance, to its humor, to its pure uncynical heart. Of course, Captain America: The First Avenger, is not, in and of itself, the end of our hero’s journey. But that story gets told on another day. (That “another day,” of course, is coming in May 2012.)
Of course, the one real problem I had with the film was that the studio felt the need to tack on the awkward subtitle of The First Avenger, which will actually be used as an alternate title in foreign markets where it is felt that anything with “America” in it will foster resentment and drive away business. It’s a sad and deeply cynical state of affairs when the image of our country, that so many people over the last 235 years have given their life for, has come to this. I wonder what old Cap would have to say about that?
Very good write-up. You make a lot of points that I had only begun to consider, and some I hadn’t even thought of yet. Alas, I never actually got to see Green Lantern in theaters so I can’t make that comparison, although from everything I’ve heard you’re spot-on. I especially liked the way you phrased Captain America’s approach to good/evil – “questions of existence instead of existential thought.” Good stuff. I look forward to your next piece. (Also, from comic book fan to comic book fan – that WAS the golden age Human Torch in the wide shot of the Stark Expo, right?)