In the modern superhero-movie gold rush, Captain America was always going to be one of the hardest comic book characters to adapt to screen.
For one thing, his name is Captain America.
That’s so unsubtle it sounds like a parody, and not a particularly timely one either. We’re already forty years past that name being ironically referenced in Easy Rider, and nearly ten years past the jingoistic marionette spectacle of Team America: World Police. It’s also a problem because what happens when Major America and General America show up? The Captain’s got to stand down. He might be king shit to guys like Private America and Chief Warrant Officer America, but let’s just say Captain America doesn’t have Batman or Spider-Man’s autonomy.
There’s also the matter of Captain America walking around quite literally dressed in the American flag, which is something even the Team America puppetswere too modest and demure to do.
Those are the superficial issues. At the core of the character are some even trickier prospects. Captain America never had the split-personality secret-identity of Clark Kent and Superman — the story of Captain America is the story of Steve Rogers, a 98-pound weakling from New York City who wanted to fight the Nazis so badly that he signed up for a Super-Soldier program which made him bigger, stronger, and tougher than the average GI.
Arguably the two most popular superheroes are inarguably the two most financially successful ones, particularly in movies: Batman and Spider-Man. Along with Captain A, these two were always my favorites, but even I have to admit that Batman and Spider-Man are fueled by vengeance fantasies: Batman is a bipolar, obsessive aristocrat who uses his parents’ murder as a reason to scare the shit out of every criminal he meets, while Spider-Man is a neurotic nerd whose beloved uncle’s murder sets off his compulsion to go after the same target population. As the two most popular, these two are the most emblematic of the majority of superhero stories: Most superheroes are aggressors. Captain America is a little different. Captain America is primarily a reactor. Think of it this way: The Mighty Thor swings a hammer. Captain America carries a shield.
That’s a bit of a reduction, since the most basic appeal of Captain America has always been that comic cover where he busts Hitler square in his stupid little mustache…
…So it’s not exactly as if Captain America doesn’t have vengeance on the agenda too. He is an avenger, sure. It even says so in the title of the new movie. But unlike Batman or Spider-Man or Wolverine or even Superman, Captain America doesn’t start fights. He only finishes them.
More than any other character in comics, the core of Captain America is decency. Patriotism and propaganda were part of his creation, but the reason why Captain A has endured is that he’s the character who always does the right thing, the most noble and the most pure-hearted, the most good of all the good guys. The storytelling problem that poses is how to keep such a character interesting.
The symbolic approach is a mistake. After 9/11 in particular, there were some comic images that leaned heavily on Captain America, saluting or standing mournfully or even digging through debris, which, like the Native American with the tear in his eye, is crude and overwrought. Using a costumed-crimefighter character in such a context is simplistic, inadequate, and in retrospect, laughable. So you can’t do the Chris Nolan approach, and try to engage with modern issues. The best way to do it, as I suggested in an earlier piece, is to embrace the escapism.
The first Captain America comics I ever read weren’t the earliest ones by writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby, nor were they the later comics by Kirby with Stan Lee, or the very influential comics by Jim Steranko. It was a later storyline by writer Mark Gruenwald and artist Kieron Dwyer, where Captain America gets drawn into a globe-trotting race to track down a long-lost artifact. Captain A and a pretty female sidekick travel by air and by sea and through jungles, facing obstacles including several different booby-traps, a swarm of angry cannibals, and also snakes. Any of this sounding a lot like something else to you yet?
He also fights a shark…
But that’s just about the only thing that didn’t happen in Raiders Of The Lost Ark.
All of this is a roundabout way of getting to the point that Marvel Studios made this Captain America exactly the way I always imagined it could be, and exactly the way it really should be: Indiana Jones in a silly costume.
You’re never going to get Spielberg to direct a superhero movie, but what you can do is to get one of his protegees (Joe Johnston) to bring that swashbuckling 1940s serial aesthetic that Spielberg conquered the world with in the Indiana Jones movies, and graft that onto the squarest of the square-jawed Marvel heroes. It’s the best possible approach. Even though the World War 2 era had unimaginable but very real horrors, it’s somehow still possible to use that setting for cartoony adventures. It doesn’t work to shoehorn fantastical elements into a modern wartime setting, but for some reason it’s allowable with World War 2, I would guess because comics, cartoons, and superheroes were such a part of the war effort at the time. World War 2 was the last war that was a clear case of good versus evil. By Vietnam and continuing towards Iraq, American motives are more complicated, arguably even more sinister. You can’t have Captain America become the kind of bullies he chooses to fight.
The exaggerated period setting of Captain America: The First Avenger is part of what makes it so appealing. I liked Johnston’s previous movie, The Wolfman, and part of that, again, was the atmosphere, the smoky inkiness of the locations and soundstages. Cinematographer Shelly Johnson returns for his next Joe Johnston movie, using a hazy, washed-out palette, out of which more colorful characters like Captain America and the Red Skull almost literally jump. The look of the movie is halfway between Saving Private Ryan and Spider-Man 2. It’s weird but fun.
This movie also happens to be perfectly cast. Chris Evans has made a steady career out of playing callow, arrogant, bull-headed characters (to very entertaining effect), but here he projects a stolid decency that is absolutely right. Many writers and critics argue that it’s more fun to root for the bad guy, that it’s nearly impossible to make goodness appealing, but just because it’s hard to do doesn’t mean it can’t be done: Evans makes decency utterly compelling. Even when he’s eerily de-buffed for the early CGI-abetted scenes as the scrawny Steve Rogers, Evans gets you on his side. Those early scenes are just a tiny bit comical: There is definitely a side of me that would have liked to see Steve Rogers receive all his super-powers while still retaining that original tiny size, just to watch a little monkey Captain America jumping around for the latter half of the movie, but I think the filmmakers went the right way.
Hugo Weaving, who plays the Red Skull, is something of a genre-film mainstay, between The Matrix and The Lord Of The Rings and The Wolfman, but he’s enough different here that it’s worth it. And frankly speaking, not many actors can do this kind of work, bringing weight to subject matter which is perilously close to weightless. Weaving plays the Red Skull with a quasi-Germanic accent reminiscent of, and in fact patterned upon, the voice of director Werner Herzog. Again, this kind of thing makes me fantasize about a world where Werner Herzog himself gets to play the Red Skull (battling a little monkey Captain America), but again I suggest the filmmakers did the more reasonable thing.
The Red Skull has a toady little assistant named Doctor Zola, who is played by the character actor Toby Jones, who played Karl Rove in Oliver Stone’s W. and so is playing pretty much the same character here. I remember this character from the comics, where he became a funky cyborg whose head was in his chest. In a movie already stocked with geeky in-jokes (the Human Torch costume in the World’s Fair scene; the off-hand Raiders reference to Nazis digging in the desert), my favorite was the shot introducing Dr. Zola, where he’s peering into a microscope and the visual effect makes it look like his face is on his chest. I’m not a fan of in-jokes if they slow the movie down, but these in-jokes didn’t.
Another in-joke is the character of Howard Stark, played byDominic Cooper, who we quickly figure out is meant to be the dashing scientist dad of Robert Downey Jr.’s character from the Iron Man movies. Stark and Professor Erskine, played by Stanley Tucci, head up the team who turn Steve Rogers into the strapping super-soldier he becomes, and who also perfect his famous shield. These two are just a part of the wide-ranging and hugely likable supporting cast, which also includes Derek Luke and Band Of Brothers‘ Neal McDonough as two of the Howling Commandos (lesser-known but awesome Stan Lee/Jack Kirby creations.)
Best of all are Tommy Lee Jones, cracking jokes and stealing all the best lines as Steve Rogers’ hardassed superior officer — I guess Tommy Lee would technically be “Colenol America” in this movie — and Hayley Atwell as the love interest, British officer Peggy Carter, who gets to be a much more active participant than we’ve seen in any superhero movie so far let “the girl” be. Let’s not get carried away; we’re still a long ways off from a superhero movie where female characters get to drive the plot in any kind of interesting, developed way, but this actress projects a real wit and intelligence, an assertive femininity, that the movie really does need. It doesn’t help that she’s more voluptuous than the standard Hollywood actress. Sorry! I don’t mind admitting that I like a woman with brains and feistiness, but also one who’s demonstrably woman. See here:
In fact, instead of ending this piece with the classic review structure (“In conclusion…”), I’m just going to end it with a Hayley Atwell photobomb, because when I do this kind of thing I get more visits to my website, which my website deserves, and honestly speaking, it’s not exactly unpleasant for me either.
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