RETRO-REVIEW: Captain America

With all of the other Avengers movies, my anticipation for their release was more intellectual than emotional.  I looked forward to Iron Man because of the cast, and because of its priority in the building story that would reach its climax with what promised to be the ultimate superhero team-up.  Its excellence, ironically, was a heavily contributing factor to my dislike of Iron Man 2.  With The Incredible Hulk, I thought the movie would be leagues better than its Ang Lee counterpart (and so came away disappointed), while with Thor, I couldn’t see any way that a really engaging movie could be made from the character (and so came away enchanted).

But Captain America:  The First Avenger was always going to be different for me.  My emotional tie to the character runs deep.  Cap has been my favorite Avenger since before I even knew what the Avengers were, or anything about him, for that matter.  One look at his costume sealed my affection forever as a kid.  The shield, the wings, the red-white-and-blue motif, the single star on the chest…what can I say?  As far as expressing who he is and what he’s about, it’s still the most perfect costume ever designed.  If this movie had been botched, I would have been out for blood.

Fortunately for everyone involved – especially me, since jail time would pose a problem for living my everyday life – Captain America was a rousing success.  So I think it’s worth asking why this movie worked so well.  The angle into understanding Captain America as a character was always his patriotism, right?  He’s a flag-waving sort of fellow.  And patriotism seems more and more passé these days.  So how do you make Cap’s origin story work in modern times?

In retrospect, the answer was simple:  You don’t try.

This was the single best creative decision made for any of the Avengers movies.  Captain America was originally a product of the environment leading up to World War II, and was intended by his creators to be purely a vehicle for pro-American ideals and anti-Nazi propaganda.  If you separate him from that environment, you take something irreplaceable away from the character.  This was true of none of the other Avengers selected for adaptation.  Thor is a god; he’s supposed to be nigh-eternal.  Scientific accidents can create the Hulk, and a hundred other superheroes, in any day and age.  And there will always be a war on somewhere from which Iron Man can emerge.  But WWII was not just any war, and Hitler was not just any villain; never before or since have Americans been so unified in thinking that they were not just in the right, but fighting for the very salvation of mankind in a titanic struggle against evil.  So Captain America can’t just come into being at any time.  He was given life at the moment when Americans most needed symbols like him.

The decision to make a WWII-era movie does not come without its risks, though.  Everything has to feel real to the audience, and most of us don’t have any first-hand knowledge of the era.  The audience for Captain America is full of people who have no knowledge of life in the 1940’s past what we learned in history class and what we occasionally catch in older films and books (those of us who watch and read such things, that is, which requires us to break away from our own all-consuming contemporary mass culture).  That is the standard by which we will judge the movie’s authenticity.  And that is the standard that Captain America gloriously fulfills.  Everything seems in order, everything is there to evoke the time and place: battered back-alley trash cans, crisp khaki uniforms, gaslights glowing off the chrome on a Duesenberg, patriotic signs selling war bonds and soliciting civilian help in the war effort, kids buying comics at the local newsstand, newsreels and Broadway shows chock-full of unapologetic jingoism.  I’m pretty sure that anyone who actually lived in the 40’s would watch this movie and smile both at the reminders of the America-that-was and the excesses that make this film the America-that-never-was.  For someone of my generation, though, this is what that era should look like.  And there it is.

But all the trappings of the time are of no use without people who can bring it to life.  And that’s where Captain America hits its biggest home run:  the pitch-perfect casting of Chris Evans.  I have a unique relationship with Evans and his work, in that I’ve been a fan of the actor but an ardent advocate against most of his movies.  I loved him in both Fantastic Four movies, but thought the movies themselves (especially the second one) were the worst big-budget superhero flicks made since Joel Schumacher finally, mercifully relinquished his hold on the Batman franchise and allowed it to die.  Meanwhile, I grimaced at Push, and mentally head-slapped Evans when I realized he was in the puke-inducing What’s Your Number?  (Sorry if you felt that, Chris, but you deserved it.)  When I heard he was going to be playing Cap, I had mixed feelings.  I thought he would do a good job, but I was worried that the ineffable curse which seems to haunt his films would sink the Avengers movie I most wanted to see.

In retrospect, I needn’t have worried.  This is the perfect marriage of actor and material, the role Evans seems born to play.  Though the CGI that makes him the proverbial 98-pound weakling during the film’s first half-hour is obviously not real, Evans still makes us believe it with his performance.  Then he emerges from Dr. Erskine’s machinery, and…well, what can I say?  Chris Evans simply is Captain America from that moment on.  With his neat conservative haircut, his square jaw, his physique that would have been at the very outer limits of what was possible for men of his time to attain, his ability to project an affable modesty and a basic decency – and he’s perfect in the suit.  I was happy to see that they toned down the wings but otherwise left Cap’s basic look untouched, and even happier to see that Evans makes the uniform credible, both during his war-bonds phase and during his war-hero phase.

Let’s talk about the first one of those before we get to the second.  The idea that Captain America was invented for a war-bonds promotional gimmick is just perfect, both because it provides a plausible origin for the costume and because it allows the creative team to indulge themselves in a montage.  As we watch, Cap sells war bonds, “punches out” Hitler, poses with babies, and stars in his own war movies.  We even get to see the first issue of his comic book, repurposed here as part of the story!  The music underneath this sequence, “The Star-Spangled Man,” was so perfect in evoking the character and the time period that I refused to believe it was written for the movie until I saw Alan Menken’s name in the closing credits.  Even then, I had some difficulties.  The song sounded just like an early 40’s melody written by George M. Cohan, or perhaps one of his better imitators.  If you try, you can hear Jimmy Cagney pounding major chords on the piano while speak-singing the lyrics to Joan Leslie:  “WE can’t ig-NAUH there’s a THREAT and a WAUH we must WIN…WHO’LL hang the NOOSE round the GOOSE-stepping GOONS from Ber-LIN…”  This, my friends, is what sheer brilliance looks and sounds like.

Even more fun is that the period setting allows the use of frankly outlandish “scientific” plot devices like vita-rays and vibranium.  Who cares that there never were, and never could be, such things?  They were part of Captain America’s origin story, so they’re here.  It’s a cute moment that reminds us how kooky comics could once be in the service of a story – and still can be, sometimes.  Those devices move the plot along, and that’s all that matters.  Similarly, the major fighting montage is edited together in the style of a newsreel…and also in such a way that it will keep most people from realizing just how vulnerable Captain America is.  The shield helps a bit, but the moment someone realizes that shooting Cap in the knee or leg is an option, he’s in trouble.  It’s not like his costume is fully armored.  But again, just like we put up with such nonsense in the old serials, we do so here.  You didn’t pay nine bucks plus concession prices to see Steve Rogers sit out the war with a shattered tibia caused by a Nazi bullet.  Besides, he’s Captain America.  In our heart of hearts, I think, we secretly believe he could dodge the fire of any German who proved to be so poor a sport.

What he can’t dodge is a matchup with his oldest and most implacable opponent, Red Skull (played perfectly here by Hugo Weaving).  Red Skull, a.k.a. Johann Schmidt, heads a secret Nazi operation called HYDRA, ostensibly a high-tech weapons division but in reality its leader’s personal army.  Schmidt was treated with an earlier version of the super-serum used on Steve Rogers to make him Captain America. The difference is that the formula Schmidt took turned him into something less than human, in Hitler’s view.  Newly-christened untermensch Red Skull plans to get his revenge by fulfilling the plans of the Third Reich and capturing the world…including Germany…for himself.  And without Cap around, he might do it too.  We are talking about a man who commands men wielding an arsenal of phenomenal weaponry, perhaps the least terrifying of which is a special pulse rifle that can literally obliterate its targets from existence.

It is this rifle, in fact, which allows me to start talking about how beautifully Captain America deals with integrating the real-world concerns of the 1940’s into its peculiar universe.  The Nazis, like HYDRA in this universe, were devoted to destroying without a trace anyone they considered in their way…or, in the case of the Jews, the Gypsies, homosexuals, and several other minority groups, anyone they considered inferior.  It wasn’t enough to kill them.  The Nazis literally wanted to wipe them out of existence.  Some of the most chilling shots in the movie come during the climactic storming of HYDRA’s camp, where several of the advancing GIs literally vanish upon being hit by a blast from a German rifle.  Rarely has the core essence of an ideology been so memorably captured, and it’s done here by what many would dismiss as a silly comic-book movie.  This is a movie that knows its main conflict, even if it chooses to keep that conflict in the background.

There’s also a tip of the hat to the man-versus-machine conflict that even the amateur student of World War II appreciates.  The Nazis did indeed have an edge when it came to the superiority of their military technology, especially at the beginning of the war.  They had jet aircraft before the Allies.  Our current missile technology is still based on what they developed.  Too many people these days manage to forget, or perhaps simply never learned, the irony that the heart and soul of the Manhattan Project were a group of German-born scientists who had fled the Third Reich.  Without their expertise, the atomic bomb would not have been possible.  Yet even with their superior technology, the Nazis lost the war because they couldn’t duplicate the greatest asset the Allies possessed:  a group of soldiers who knew why they fought.  “Wars are fought with weapons but are won by men,” says Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), and Captain America (in this universe, at least) is the primary example of that basic truth.

Steve Rogers was chosen to be the first participant in Dr. Erskine’s super-soldier program because he was stronger than his fellow soldiers in every way that mattered.  Though a physical runt, Rogers demonstrated all the qualities that the chemicals and vita-rays couldn’t deliver:  a quick mind, the capacity to think outside the box when necessary, an unflagging determination, a willingness to place his teammates above himself when necessary, and – most importantly – a strong moral character.  “A weak man knows the value of strength,” says Dr. Erskine, “the value of power.”  This knowledge is the weak man’s greatest strength; it is the inoculation he carries inside him against succumbing to the temptations of the Nietzschean will-to-power that everyone possesses.  Rogers is not a bully, nor would he ever become one.  And because he is strong in spirit, he is quickly singled out as the most deserving soldier to be given a body to match.

Most importantly, though, Rogers is supposed to be representing his country when he puts on Captain America’s suit.  So it’s worthwhile to discuss what Captain America has to say about America as a whole.  Rogers doesn’t flag-wave for its own sake (though he scarcely needs to, given his costume).  Instead, in an exceedingly wise decision by the filmmakers, he is allowed to demonstrate to us through his actions the qualities of the American spirit.  Rogers doesn’t back down when people are being rude, or worse; he stands up for what’s right even if he’s towered over.  He will quite willingly lay down his life to save the lives of others.  He repeatedly tries to get into the Army, even after being classified as 4F five separate times, because he wants to pitch in and do his part.  When people need rescuing, he’ll make an attempt, no matter how ill-prepared or ill-equipped he is.  He’ll do whatever he’s asked to do to help, from putting on a crazy costume and selling war bonds to storming a fort as a gloriously garish red, white, and blue target.  That’s perhaps the most critical point – that Steve Rogers will set aside his own identity, however reluctantly, and assume the role of a superhero because he understands that’s what people need.  They need the concrete form of a symbol that stands for justice and fairness and freedom.  They need Captain America.

The amazing thing, as I read back over this review, is that I’ve spent practically no time on any of the supporting players.  Hayley Atwell’s brilliant supporting turn as British liaison Peggy Carter; Tommy Lee Jones as the platonic form of the Army colonel; Stanley Tucci’s understated but typically excellent character work as a German doctor; yet another of Weaving’s memorable cinema villains – all of them have their moments, but all of them pale in significance when set aside Chris Evans and his take on Steve Rogers.  That is as it should be, I suppose.  Captain America is nothing without its central character.  And because of him, the film as a whole is…is…

Well, what can I say?  It’s magnificent.

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