There’s a lot to like about the new superhero movie Captain America: The First Avenger. Chief among its strengths are Chris Evans and Hugo Weaving, who play the heroic Cap and his arch-enemy, the Red Skull, with complete and un-ironic conviction.
Steve Rogers is such a good guy that he tries five times to get into World War II, despite a physique that would not look out of place on a 12-year-old. Johann Schmidt is so evil that he regards Hitler as an amateur, dismissing the Fuhrer with a very clever side reference to another, much-loved movie. He’s so monstrous that halfway through Captain America, he simply stops bothering to masquerade as a human being.
Both Rogers and Schmidt have refreshingly straightforward motivations. Rogers is a scrawny kid from Brooklyn who wants to do the right thing, and doesn’t like bullies. Schmidt wants to be a god. Ironically, Rogers is the one fated to wind up hanging around with one. It will be fun watching Captain America learn that all of the Red Skull’s deranged ravings about World Trees and the armory of Odin were, in fact, entirely correct, down to the smallest detail. (Do not leave the theater until after the credits have rolled.)
Impressed by Rogers’ humility, courage, and resourcefulness, a scientist who used to work with the brilliant but twisted Schmidt, before defecting to the United States, gives the little guy a dose of super-soldier serum combined with high-energy vita rays. This turns him into a superhuman fighting machine with incredible strength, speed, reflexes, and endurance. Throughout Captain America’s adventures, which are told with high production values and terrific visual effects, we return constantly to the central idea that his real super-power is his fearless and compassionate heart. The man who went into the vita ray chamber is the one to be admired.
There is no post-modern irony in Captain America. We are not meant to see the people who line up to watch Cap sell war bonds with a song-and-dance number as fools. Steve Rogers isn’t crazy for wanting to get onto the front lines and save the world from fascist terror. The little band of colorful war prisoners he forges into a commando squad are not idiots for following him into one wild mission after another. When the Red Skull envisions a “world without flags,” and Cap swears to keep it from happening, the audience is not supposed to laugh at the delicious irony of a monstrous villain spouting no-borders ideology.
For all of its strengths – and it is, undeniably, a good-old fashioned couple of fun hours at the movies – Captain America suffers because it does the one thing Steve Rogers refuses to do: it gives up.
Take that unwieldy title. We didn’t need the title of this movie to be an advertisement for another one coming next summer. Captain America is perfectly capable of carrying a movie on his own. If someone who had no inkling of the studio’s future plans watched this picture, they would be utterly baffled by the title, because no one ever talks about “avengers,” and there’s no reason to see Cap as the first member of a group that is never mentioned.
While there’s no irony in this movie, there are moments where the character motivations ring hollow. Asked whether he’s eager to get into the Army so he can kill Nazis, Rogers replies that no, he really just hates bullies. It feels as unrealistic as some of the dialogue in Saving Private Ryan, whose soldiers talked about how rescuing the eponymous private would be “the one good thing” to come out of the war. Toppling Hitler would be nice too, but whatever.
There are only a couple of actual Nazis in the film, since the Red Skull and his crew have formed their own little cult, something Hitler is surprisingly incapable of putting a stop to. Everyone is very careful not to say anything unkind about Germans, who were commonly referred to by a number of colorful nicknames by actual World War II soldiers. There are no giant swastika flags or other encumbrances that might make the movie a tough sell in the modern international market… but much more importantly, there aren’t any American flags, either. You can almost make a drinking game out of spotting all the places there should be one.
Thus, you have a movie that conjures the can-do, innocent courage of the Greatest Generation, while deploying the minimal necessary amount of American pride. There aren’t any star-spangled monologues about the good old U. S. of A. Uncle Sam pops up on posters here and there, but remains tastefully in the background. V-E Day is depicted with a montage of people waving British flags.
On a technical level, the script would have profited from a bit more clever writing, particularly during Captain America’s confrontations with the Red Skull. It’s a fast-moving film… sometimes too fast, as wondrous images whiz past before we have a chance to savor them. Cap’s war exploits are abstracted into a montage of very cool snapshots, which are utterly devoid of context.
The action set pieces have very little set-up, which robs them of drama. Cap is suddenly riding through a forest on a motorcycle, a bunch of the Skull’s goons appear on motorcycles, and the next action scene begins. How did he get there? Where did those henchmen come from? Never mind, just enjoy the ride.
Director Joe Johnston has a sweet tooth for pulp adventure, as he proved with the conceptually similar Rocketeer twenty years ago. (Yeah, it was twenty years ago. Gulp.) I get the impression his love for the era far exceeds his understanding of it. This summer, he’s given us an entertaining movie about a fictionalized ideal of the American war hero, with the American stuff sufficiently muted to keep the studio’s foreign distributors happy.
It’s still a refreshing experience. After a week spent listening to the cynical prophets of our declining era tell us how everything is impossible, it’s fun to spend a little time with characters who don’t know the meaning of the word.
The most remarkable thing about Captain America is that America keeps producing men and women just like him. There’s nothing wrong with Captain America: The First Avenger, but it would have been so much better if it gave the impression that it understood why.
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