July 21, 2011
Captain America is a rousing, massively entertaining movie that’s as much an old-school, earnest World War II epic as it is a modern superhero action movie. It also features a showstopping song-and-dance number and moments of surprising poignancy and emotion.
Captain America: The First Avenger begins in the present day, as an Arctic expedition has unearthed an impossibly advanced plane that has been trapped in the ice for nearly seventy years – and, inside it, a familiar-looking shield. The movie then flashes back to 1942, as the Nazi scientist Johann Schmidt and his own personal army HYDRA is besieging a Norwegian town in search of the Cosmic Cube, a mysterious artifact of probable Asgardian origins that could change the entire course of the war.
Meanwhile, 90-pound weakling Steve Rogers is rejected from the army for the fifth time. Still desperate to enlist despite his obvious physical defects, Rogers accompanies his best friend James “Bucky” Barnes to the World Expo, where his latest attempt to enlist attracts the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine, a German refugee who has created an experimental super-soldier serum. After a barrage of tests at the hands of the crustily no-nonsense Colonel Chester Phillips and the sexily no-nonsense British agent Peggy Carter, Steve beats out a bunch of superior physical specimens to be the first recipient of the serum, turning him into: Captain America.
Tragically, a HYDRA agent kills Dr. Erskine right after the experiment, taking the secret of the serum with him. Colonel Phillips, who was expecting an entire army of super-soldiers instead of just one, cancels the project and goes off to Europe with Peggy and genius industrialist Howard Stark to fight HYDRA. The government decides Steve is too valuable an asset to risk losing, so he’s put to work as a propaganda mouthpiece in the USO. When the show gets sent overseas, Steve recognizes an opportunity to save a platoon of soldiers – including Bucky – from HYDRA’s clutches, and so he defies Colonel Phillips’s orders and heads behind enemy lines, beginning an all-out war between Captain America and Red Skull.
What’s most refreshing about Captain America is how little it resembles a standard superhero movie. The success of Iron Man has established a fairly clear formula for the origin story, in which the arrogant but loveable protagonist gains great power in a life-altering experience, wrestles with his own self-doubt before emerging stronger for it, and finally confronts the big bad, who is usually some twisted version of the hero. This year alone, we’ve seen that formula applied to fantastic results (Thor, which admittedly twisted it around slightly) and to…well, to less than fantastic results (Green Lantern).
And yes, you can still find a lot, in not all, of those beats in Captain America. But the difference is that, between all the familiar stuff, it stops being a standard superhero movie and starts being a straight-up World War II epic that just happens to have super-powered soldiers. Perhaps the most obvious proof of that is the movie’s high body count – Cap is the opposite of bloodthirsty, but he acts like a soldier at war with the enemy instead of a superhero dealing with some henchmen, and plenty of soldiers on both sides die over the course of the film. Tonally, long stretches of this movie, particularly the scenes set in Italy, feel more like something out of Patton than, say, Iron Man, and that’s a very fun change of pace.
A lot of the credit for this should go to director Joe Johnston, who nicely balances the big action sequences with the lighter elements. There are plenty of big, exciting setpieces in this movie, including the newly empowered Steve chasing a HYDRA agent through the streets of Brooklyn that includes Cap punching a submarine (every bit as awesome as it sounds), a deadly motorcycle chase through the forests of Europe, multiple daring raids onto HYDRA bases, and a final huge airborne fight which involves Cap being thrown out a plane and then finding a way back on board.
I’ll admit that there are a few moments where the special effects don’t look absolutely look perfect, but they generally work fine within the film’s mildly stylized tone. And, most importantly, the film’s most important digital effect – the shrunken, 90-pound Steve Rogers – looks consistently fantastic, and is easily the most convincing human-based digital effect I’ve seen.
Johnston has mentioned the USO show is his favorite part of the movie, and it’s not hard to see why – it’s hilarious (though quite pointedly never at the expense of Cap) and is a gleeful throwback to the gung-ho American propaganda of the era. It also serves as an awesome excuse to get Steve into the original winged pajama Captain America suit and have him punch Hitler, even if it is just a bit of pantomime play-acting. Indeed, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have managed to weave in a bunch of cool (and unobtrusive) Easter Eggs for comic book fans, including a quick visual shout-out to one of Captain America’s fellow Invaders that I would almost say is worth the price of admission alone, just for the sheer giddy thrill of seeing Dr. Phineas Horton’s android up on the big screen.
Another big part of what sets Captain America is the 1940s setting, which feels far more remote and unfamiliar than the 1962 of X-Men: First Class. This is a gray, drab world that is teetering on the brink of total annihilation, and the only rays of light come from its earnest, square-jawed heroes and the can-do spirit of the general populace.
This is a world that Joe Johnston has explored before, both in his 1991 cult classic The Rocketeer and while doing visual effects work on Raiders of the Lost Ark. Like those earlier efforts, this is an idealized version of the past without being too overly stylized – we’re very much looking at the Marvel universe version of the 1940s, and it’s similar but not identical to our own. The movie elides over the segregation of American troops, for example, but it does include some subtle nods to the underlying prejudices that permeated the period, and even Cap himself isn’t completely immune.
I should probably address the decision to make Red Skull and HYDRA the main villains of the movie as opposed to the Nazis, a decision that has attracted a whole lot of, uh, spirited discussion. For the record, there are plenty of Nazis in this film, but it’s true that they fade to the background in favor of HYDRA. Honestly, I think the movie made the right decision on this one.
Part of the movie’s conceit is that the Red Skull himself has used the Cosmic Cube to push his technology to levels even beyond what we have today, and with that new-found power he has made HYDRA independent of Hitler’s control. This makes Cap and Red Skull the opposing generals in a secret war parallel to the real-life World War II. Frankly, I prefer the implication that the Allies were still capable of beating the Axis without the aid of super-soldiers. The decision to use Red Skull has more thematic resonance anyway, as he is also a recipient of the super-serum and so considers himself and Steve the vanguards of a new master race. Of course, Steve disagrees on that point.
The movie’s old school conception of heroism and values wouldn’t work without some nifty writing – Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script makes it clear Steve wants to go to war not to kill the enemy but to keep some other poor soul being killed – and a great central performance by Chris Evans’s, who sublimates all the cockiness he displayed in Fantastic Four (and then expertly lampooned in Scott Pilgrim). While the character’s values are old-fashioned, Evans resists any temptation to go for ironic distance. He embodies Cap’s earnestness and innocence, and he remains a strong presence whether he’s taking on the entirety of HYDRA or standing around looking deeply out of place in a glitzy, ridiculous USO show.
He’s helped along in this by Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter. On some level, Peggy is a bit of an odd character, a fiercely independent woman in an era when misogyny ran amok, and Atwell pulls off the difficult trick of keeping her anchored in the time period while still playing as a strong character to modern audiences. Like Evans, she evokes the strong women of 1940s cinema – Atwell has mentioned Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis as inspirations – without coming across as a pastiche.
The best performance of the film might be Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull, even in spite of the fact that he once again spends much of the movie hidden behind a mask. (Although precisely whichof his faces is the mask is a very good question.) At this point, Weaving is an old pro at finding the hidden layers in larger-than-life characters, and while Johann Schmidt remains thoroughly unsympathetic, Weaving allows us to understand the character’s motivations, no matter how twisted they might be.
Raiders of the Lost Ark has been mentioned a lot as a touchstone for this movie, and it’s nowhere more apparent than in Weaving’s work, which often recalls the similarly chilling but restrained villainy of Raiders‘s top Nazi Major Toht. He’s also ably supported by Toby Jones as Dr. Armin Zola, who is portrayed as the rare supervillain who is more coward than megalomaniac and is a nice reminder of how banal evil can be.
Really, there aren’t any bad performances in this movie. Stanley Tucci is a lot of fun as the fatherly, wryly humorous Dr. Erskine, Tommy Lee Jones is reliably grizzled and badass as Colonel Phillips, and Sebastian Stan does a nice job playing Bucky both as the protector of the 90-pound Steve and as the man who has to now live in Captain America’s shadow. The Howling Commandos don’t get much to do in this movie, but everything I saw suggests they’d be great fun to see more of in a sequel, and, if nothing else, Neal McDonough really, really looks like Dum Dum Dugan.
This is a rousing, hugely entertaining film, and I’d put it right in the top echelon of superhero films alongside Iron Man and Thor (for the record, I put the Nolan Batman films in a different category). But what really puts this movie over the top for me – and what still stays with me nearly a week after having seen it – is the ending. I’ll try not to spoil anything, but we know that Captain America has to be brought forward to 2011 in time for The Avengers. If you go back to the original comics, the decision to freeze Steve in ice was a bit of a clumsy retcon, a way to make Cap a contemporary of the new 1960s superheroes without sacrificing his World War II origins.
But the movie takes what could have been a clunky plot contrivance and wrings every last ounce of emotion out of it, really getting across the tragedy of Steve’s fate and what he meant to those he left behind. And the movie’s very last line – except for the much-anticipated post-credits sequence, that is – is absolutely perfect in its bittersweet longing and quiet humanity…words I never thought I’d be able to use for a superhero movie, and that’s part of what makes Captain America so special