Early in Captain America: The First Avenger, we find Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in a darkened movie theater unhappily protesting the boorish, disruptive behavior of another patron. “Hey, you wanna show some respect?” he appeals, not too hopefully.
How can any film lover resist such a hero? How many ringtones will echo in theaters showing Captain America this weekend? How many flashing handheld screens will distract viewers while their neighbors text or tweet about the movie or about what they had for dinner? A hero who champions respect, civility and silence in movie theaters is surely a hero for our times, even if the year is 1943 and there are no mobile phones yet. Why don’t more of us object to that sort of behavior?
Steve’s agitation is compounded by what’s on the screen: a patriotic World War II newsreel celebrating the nation’s efforts to pull together for the war effort, down to children collecting scrap metal. His appeal is a plea for respect not only for other audience members, but for the nation, for the war effort, for the soldiers dying overseas. It’s a plea that falls on deaf ears: The next scene finds poor Steve in an alley behind the theater, enduring a nasty beat down from the noisy bully. Oh yes, that’s why more of us don’t object.
But this is what separates Steve from the rest of us: not that he’s bigger and stronger — on the contrary, he’s a proverbial 98-pound weakling with a host of health problems who keeps getting slapped with a 4-F classification (unfit for service), no matter how many times he tries to enlist. What’s special about Steve is that he stands up for what’s right no matter how many times he gets knocked down.
After a rash of immature, bad-boy cinematic superheroes for whom responsibility is a bigger challenge than taking down supervillains — think Iron Man, Thor and Green Lantern — a hero for whom decency, humility and self-sacrifice come naturally is a breath of fresh air. Even Peter Parker, as nice a guy as he may have been before that spider bit him, had to learn the hard way that with great power comes great responsibility. Steve has all the responsibility in the world; it’s the power that he lacks.
That’s what brings Steve to the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), an expatriate German scientist who defected to the U.S. and brought with him research with which the U.S. military hopes to create an army of enhanced “super soldiers.” Naturally, the Germans, with their whole eugenic Aryan master-race thing, want the same thing. Things do not go according to plan, and the upshot is that the Americans and the Germans each wind up with one super soldier apiece: Steve Rogers, who becomes Captain America, and Nazi officer Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), the Red Skull.
Nimbly avoiding origin-story doldrums, the filmmakers whip up a consistently entertaining blend of period piece, war movie, sci-fi action flick and James Bond thriller that never feels like they’re just setting up pieces or plodding through predetermined plot points. It’s easily the most satisfying origin story since Batman Begins, and the best chapter yet in the films of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” converging on next year’s Avengers movie.
In some ways, Captain America is as gratifyingly old-fashioned as its hero, channeling 1940s’ Hollywood by way of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which director Joe Johnston worked on as an art director and visual effects professional, and which is overtly referenced a number of times. Although the WWII milieu is filtered through comic-book sensibilities, the sci-fi elements feel as much like 1940s’ futurism as modern retro fantasy, accentuated by a World Fair-style “Modern Marvels Pavilion” technology expo featuring a strangely familiar Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), whom you can easily see being the father of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark.
Startlingly persuasive computer effects allow the powerfully built Evans to play the scrawny Steve as well as the bulked-up Cap, but the technology is secondary to Evans’ appealing performance, which anchors the character through his transformation in a way that wouldn’t have worked swapping out different actors. After Evans’ turn as the obnoxious Human Torch in the lame Fantastic Four films, I was deeply skeptical that he was right for Cap, but he steps into the role like he was born for it.
Narnia screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do far better justice to Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s pulp hero than they have to C. S. Lewis’ fantasies. Although the material is played straight, without postmodern irony or camp, the film brilliantly narrativizes Captain America’s actual origins as an icon of patriotic war-era propaganda to fashion a subversive explanation for the iconic “Captain America” identity.
What happens is this: After a rousing chase scene in the streets of New York, Steve becomes a media hero — only to find himself being exploited to sell war bonds, much like the heroes of Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, obliged to re-enact their famous flag-raising at Iwo Jima over and over at war-bond sales shows.
In Steve’s case, he finds himself stepping onstage at USO shows in cheesy, star-spangled long johns, flanked by a chorus line of dancing girls in a period-perfect production number, punching out “Adolf Hitler” night after night. There are also “Captain America” propaganda films (“I enjoy your films,” the Red Skull taunts at one point) and comic books in the hands of children (along with a nifty shot of a group of children playing with a garbage can lid painted red, white and blue).
It isn’t until Steve finds himself at a USO camp show for jaded servicemen overseas that the door opens for a truly heroic chapter in Cap’s career. Later, there’s a second, more battle-worthy uniform and a series of ever-bigger action set pieces. The reinvented uniform works surprisingly well, and I appreciate that the movie honors both versions of Cap’s shield: the original, triangular heater-shaped shield and the famously aerodynamic, indestructible buckler.
Supporting roles are remarkably well cast. Weaving rocks a cartoony Werner Herzog accent as the Red Skull, and Tucci projects Einsteinian enlightenment as Erskine. Tommy Lee Jones brings all his crusty swagger to a skeptical officer who wanted a super-soldier army but has no use for just one. Hayley Atwell makes more of an impression as Peggy Carter than any recent superhero movie love interest except Gwyneth Paltrow. (In keeping with the film’s traditional sensibilities, their chaste romance goes no further than a kiss.)
For the most part, Captain America works as a stand-alone adventure, although the denouement dovetails tightly with modern-day Avengers continuity, and a magical McGuffin called the Cosmic Cube is introduced but not explained — for now. While the movie generally works like gangbusters, and there’s little if anything that doesn’t work at all, there is one notable omission that I hope the Avengers movie may rectify.
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. (At one point, the studio was actually considering marketing the film overseas as The First Avenger without even referring to Captain America; it now seems the film will be called Captain America everywhere but Russia, the Ukraine and South Korea.)
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. On the other hand, the iconography of Americana is all over the film, from the Uncle Sam recruitment posters to the wonderfully designed end credits sequence — and, of course, Cap’s star-spangled self.
Captain America doesn’t transcend the comic-book genre, but it succeeds as a movie like few recent superhero movies have. In a disappointing summer season, Captain America stands head and shoulders over anything else.
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus blogs at NCRegister.com.
Content advisory: Much hand-to-hand, firearm and action violence, frequently fatal and sometimes bloody; a villain committing suicide to avoid capture; hearty drinking; a couple of kisses and mildly suggestive content; limited profanity and some cursing and crude language. Might be okay for older kids.