Monday, July 25, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger review

With Hollywood honing the superhero film into a reliable cash cow and even a respectable art form, the time seemed right to bring one of Marvel's flagship characters to the silver screen.  It should be noted however, that the release of Captain America: The First Avenger actually marks the fourth attempt to showcase Cap on film.  First in a 1944 serial.  Then in a couple of 1979 made for TV movies.  And finally a 1990 straight to video version starring the venerable Matt Salinger (son of J.D. Salinger).  All were unspeakably bad, but even with the prospect of a respectable budget, it has long been a topic of discussion whether Captain America, with his star-spangled costume and patriotic values would translate well to the big screen.  Well, that argument appears to be settled.

What's right
Captain has enjoyed very positive reviews thus far and deservedly so.  The movie is fun, has a great cast, and stylish production quality.  Chris Evans delivers a fine performance as Steve Rogers, a virtuous runt who wants nothing more than to serve his country.  He is eminently likable and sympathetic.  The seamless SFX that combine the head of Evans with a frail, 98 lb. body are stunning.  The supporting performances are equally good with Tommy Lee Jones as a predictably gruff commander, Stanley Tucci as the kindly scientist Dr. Erskine, and Hayley Atwell as a feisty intelligence officer and love interest of our hero.  The movie's romantic element works far better than most superhero movies, preferring a certain modesty appropriate to the time period. Hugo Weaving's Red Skull is decent, but nowhere near the menace of Agent Smith in the Matrix films.  Director Joe Johnston deftly combines action, humor, nostalgia and romance into a solid adventure movie that appeals to a very wide audience.

What's Wrong
Last year, Johnston went out of his way to assure everyone that his protagonist would not be "this jingoistic American flag-waver.  He's just a good person."  And that the film "isn't so much about America as it is about the spirit of doing the right thing.  It's an international cast and an international story."  Chris Evans joined this chorus of pre-emptive assurances that the spectre of patriotism would not taint the film, "I'm trying not to get too lost in the American side of it.  This is not a flag waving movie...He might wear the red, white and blue, but I don't think this is all about America.  It is what America stands for.  It could be called Captain Good."
Captain Good?  Uh-huh...
Well, having seeing the movie, I can you tell you Johnston and Evans were telling the truth.  

As a matter of fact, it might as well be called Steve Rogers: The First Avenger.  Is that a problem?  Well, let's face it, lots of other heroes are "good."  Peter Parker is "good." He's a wimpy nerd who, like Steve Rogers, gains amazing powers.  What differentiates the two?  According to the movie, nothing except time and circumstances.   In truth, what separates Captain America from every other hero is his public embrace of, commitment to uphold, and willingness to fight for specifically American values such as liberty, equality, and justice.  This makes him a symbol.  But the studio's determination to avoid any appearance of "jingoism" (i.e patriotism) ultimately robs him of an ethos that is central to his character and his heroism.  Steven Greydanus over at (who loved the film) articulated this sentiment beautifully:

I appreciate that when Erskine asks Steve, “Do you want to kill Nazis?” Steve’s response is: “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies, no matter where they’re from.” That’s a fine sentiment, and a universal one.
At the same time, Captain America is not a universal hero. He’s a hero uniquely identified with the iconography, mythology and aspirations of a particular nation. What does America mean to Steve? What does it mean to him to be an American? I’m not saying Steve needs to be Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith or anything, although, actually, something in that direction might have helped.
Going beyond the character’s underdeveloped comic-book origins might have helped too. Superman’s values were shaped by salt-of-the-earth Ma and Pa Kent and Kansas farm life. Spider-Man’s sense of responsibility was shaped by Uncle Ben in life and death, and Aunt May helps him keep it real. Batman is defined by his parents’ murder. Where does Steve Rogers come from? When did his family come to America? What did America mean to his parents?
Of course, I understand the filmmakers’ reticence; they want to avoid any appearance of jingoism to be as marketable as possible overseas. 
Still, with this hero, if you aren’t willing to at least run the risk of an appearance of a little jingoism, you can’t help falsifying the character to some extent. It’s one thing for a movie like Superman Returns to toss out a line about Superman standing for “truth, justice, all that stuff,” in part because “the American way” wasn’t a fixture of Superman’s spiel until the 1950s; back in the 1940s, Superman really did fight for “truth and justice.” Captain America is different. 
He needs to fight for the American way.

Of course he does.  But the movie won't have any of it.  It's almost comical.  There's a scene in which Rogers is sent by the USO to give a show to some combat weary troops in his red, white and blue propaganda costume.  He later wears this when he rescues a bunch of captured soldiers.  Upon returning, he has a utility uniform made for him modeled after his colorful USO outfit.  The movie never explains why he does this or why his commanders would allow it.  A symbol to communicate ideas/values? To rally? To inspire?  We're never told.

In fairness, the film by no means bashes America.  In fact, the USA and the military come off quite well, going so far as to assemble a multi-racial team of soldiers to fight alongside the Captain (In the segregated U.S. military of 1944.  Right.).  And while the film doesn't dare to utter anything overtly patriotic, it does have a few good lines that can easily be interpreted that way.   

When asked by the Red Skull, "What makes you so special?" the Captain answers, "Nothing.  I'm just a kid from Brooklyn."  This implies, if one likes, that all Americans will fight tyranny with the same courage and determination.  Another nice line comes when the Skull mocks his costume, "I have seen the future.  There are no flags." To which the Captain responds, "Not in my future."  It's subtle, but perhaps as patriotic as Hollywood is currently capable of without raising the ire of the media and cultural elites, who are ever vigilant to protect the public from the kind of simple minded sentiments that would undoubtedly lead to nationalism and hatred of all other peoples.

Despite this lengthy criticism, I did enjoy the film.  But because it lacks anything other than a generic goodness at its heart, the movie fails to thrill or stir us in any lasting way, which is what prevents Captain America: The First Avenger from being a great superhero movie.

Fanboy Quibbles
In the comic book, Steve Rogers is trained as a master tactician and battlefield commander.  His enhanced physical abilities are honed through intense martial training, making him the most formidable hand to hand combatant there is.  In the movie, he basically walks into battle after battle with virtually no training (including flying a plane) and kicks butt, relying purely on his physical strength, agility and endurance.  The outstanding Avengers cartoon doesn't forget these details, and has a far better grasp of his character than this movie.  OK, I'm done.


Anonymous said...

I agree with most of what you have said. I don't want to start a "what wrong with America today" thing, so I won't go into the paralells between how this movie sits on the fence ideologically in an effort to avoid "jingoism" with the increasing distaste some Americans have for American ideals. Or even the distaste some notable Kenyans have for American ideals.

I did like how this movie, and most of the recent films in what is becoming the Avengers series of prequels, put in lots of little winks and nods to Marvel fans. I doubt I'm the only one who caught the original Human Torch in the glass case at the World's Fair.

Like you I had a hard time with the fact that they left out completely that Steve Rogers is one of the Marvel Universe's premier tacticians and hand-to-hand combatants. That's why he's the leader of The Avengers. He's unbeatable when it comes to combining force and intellect. Look at the rest of the Avengers. You have a nuclear physicist who also happens to turn into one of the physically strongest beings in the Marvel Universes. You have one of the most brilliant bio-chemists who can turn himself into a giant. You have a freaking god. Okay, let me say that again, Thor is a god. And who does he defer to? Besides Odin the allfather? Steve Rogers. It's not because Cap is more powerful than the god of Thunder. It's because when it comes to the battlefield Stever Rogers can plan his work and work his plan. In this movie, though, we get a guy who seems to rely on bumbling luck as much as on his new physical abilities.

As far as the unit the Cap led throughout the movie, I'm pretty sure they were supposed to be Nick Fury's Howling Commandos. And if memory serves, they were pretty metropolitan, but I could be wrong.

One thing you left out in your review is that this movie got the period firearms dead on. And make no mistake, Captain America uses a freaking 1911. Damn right he does.

I wish they would have watched Braveheart shortly before they made this movie. There's a scene where Robert the Bruce is talking to his deformed father about how much he admires William Wallace. The elder Bruce tells his son, "of course, uncompromising men are easy to admire." Makes me almost wish that madman Mel Gibson had directed Captain America.


Tim Lewis said...

No flags? I would think Red Skull would be all about flags. Didn't the Nazis have a flag? Or in later iterations of Red Skull, the Communists?