Home > Comics, Film, History, Reviews > Film Review: Captain America – The First Avenger

Film Review: Captain America – The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011; Directed by Joe Johnston)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe‘s first venture into its deep well of revised comic-book world history glows with occasionally imaginative takes on 1940s futurism. But it also comes off as oddly prosaic and fairly nostalgic for not only square-jawed all-American heroism but for its dissemination through sweeping wartime propaganda. Director Joe Johnston, who previously produced paeans to just such a half-imagined golden age of corn-fed, selfless duty of a vaguely white-supremacist nature like The Rocketeer and October Sky, swaddles America’s complex wartime experience in the gilded robes of aventurous romance, pits it against implacably foreign evil, and locates it in the realms founded by Raiders of the Lost Ark and since annexed by more recent comic-book blockbusters. That Captain America: The First Avenger was met with fanboy acceptance and commercial success testifies to Johnston’s affinity for translating the source material, but its knottier implications remain problematically unloosened.

It will be no spoiler for devotees of the intentionally patriotic superhero character to reveal that the buff Stars-and-Stripes-embalzoned super-soldier was once a small frail kid from Brooklyn named Steve Rogers, played by a CG-reduced Chris Evans in this form and then as the rippling hero (albeit after a few reps in the weight room). Rogers’ physical embiggening fictionally fulfilled the wishes of many a comics-reading skinny boy marginalized by the Second World War era’s valuation of muscular masculinity. But it’s no Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension exercise regiment that packs the bulk onto this weakling, but a medical serum devised by German exile Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and injected into Rogers’ body under the aegis of a secret experimental unit of the U.S. Army called the Strategic Scientific Reserve.

Headed by the cynical Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, spitting crusty fire) and also overseen by a British officer named Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), the SSR initially deploys the Captain as a propaganda tool promoting the sale of war bonds, but Rogers yearns for action on the front as he always has. This is especially the case when he learns that his best bud Sergeant James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and his unit was lost behind enemy lines in an altercation with the shadowy forces of HYDRA, a rogue Nazi organization resembling the SSR and led by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving). Before Dr. Erskine fell victim to an assassin, he revealed to Rogers that Schmidt is his dark mirror, an earlier injectee of the magic muscle juice whose megalomanical evil was also amplified by the serum, just as Rogers’ aw-shucks decency was.

Rogers forms a one-man rescue mission and springs Bucky and the boys from HYDRA’s secret base. This assault puts his nemesis on the run and allows the freed company to capture an arsenal of powerful energy weapons developed by Schmidt and his team with the unlimited power supplied by a mysterious plasma cube called the Tesseract (which re-appears as the central McGuffin of The Avengers film that this movie sets up) that he smash-and-grabs from a medieval church in Norway in the film’s opening sequence. The Cap also catches a glimpse of Schmidt’s larger plan, and forms a special strike force of international badasses to help him take down HYDRA before it takes down, well, everything.

This is not unexciting stuff, and special-effects vet Johnston melds the digital with the visceral effectively, staging action sequences around the Captain’s punches and shield-throwings as well as aboard planes, trains, and automobiles. The production design is a bit early-1940s theme park mixed with an era-specific futurism redolent of steampunk (motorpunk, let’s call it), especially when Rogers and Bucky visit a version of the 1939-40 World’s Fair in Queens headlined by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), the billionaire playboy engineer/manufacturer father of Tony, a.k.a. Iron Man.

Evans’ cocksure Human Torch was perhaps the only good thing about Marvel’s lamentably second-rate Fantastic Four movies, but he’s left in a tough spot as the lead here. Steve Rogers’ earnest sincerity seems like an anachronism even in the period setting of Captain America, and it was later the butt of incessant Whedonspeak jokes at the hands of Robert Downey, Jr.’s younger Stark in The Avengers (Cooper’s elder Stark gets a barb or two in, but never lives up to his name or to the snarky promise of his trim mustache). Captain America’s Greatest Generation devotion to duty and national service can’t help but feel alien to modern audiences, and it isn’t dwelt on for too long once the shooting and punching and explosions ramp up. His courtship with object of affection Carter is nicely underplayed by both Evans and Atwell, but can’t escape generic conventions and as a result undermines a potential robust female foil character. Atwell enters the movie by dropping an insolent, sexist SSR recruit, but her personality and intelligence is siphoned off gradually by plot requirements until she’s reduced to a sex-object appearance in a red dress, jealously shooting bullets at the Captain’s iconic vibranium shield after she catches him with another girl, and a teary farewell phone call to the self-sacrificing male protagonist.

Please allow me to gauge the structural integrity of your nipple. Don’t worry, I’m a professional.

If Captain America: The First Avenger has a defining handicap, though, it’s surely Johnston’s inability to reconcile his own and the material’s nostalgic fondness for the propagandistic jingoism that the character inescapably represents with a more sober, revisionist modern view of the implications of that jingoism as well as of the morally-complicated war that it helped to romanticize. The montage of Rogers’ career as a walking war bond advertisement attempts to lampoon wartime propaganda, but does so only gently. There is some wit to the sequence, as Rogers begins by delivering his exhortations to the crowds to support their brave boys over there awkwardly before warming to the performance, then becoming disillusioned when battle-hardened troops scoff at his bluff act. He also punches out the same creeping, dastardly Hitler proxy in one city after another (Buffalo! Chicago! exclaim onscreen titles like previews of Saturday afternoon serials).

Johnston clearly feels undisguised affection for such clumsily earnest propaganda, and splashes famous images from its annals across his end credits with the brassy accompaniment of Alan Silvestri’s heroic score. He even tosses up J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It!”, now a commonly repurposed feminist empowerment image, next to Atwell’s credit, an insufficient atonement for allowing his movie to reduce her independent identity. But the darker side of WWII propagandistic discourse, which traded on xenophobia and racial stereotypes and fed into the national stain of the Japanese-American internment, is glossed over.

Some token lip service is given to multiculturalism with the Captain’s strike force, a microcosm of the Allies which includes a Frenchman, an Englishman, and a multi-lingual African-American, granted (no Soviets, though; old prejudices die hard). But the white supremacist (Aryan, even) implications of a blond-haired, blue-eyed male as the symbol of a complex, multi-ethnic and multi-national democratic resistance to Nazi tyranny is never interrogated, only reproduced with direct intentionality. Additionally, the movie apes Raiders‘ vaguely irresponsible innovation to the long-standing utilization of Nazis as movie villains. Schmidt is constructed as so dangerous and frightening because his lust for power pushes him out from under the National Socialist big tent into a special strain of megalomaniacal world-destroying super-villainy. Compared to HYDRA, the actual Nazis appear fairly reasonable, and hinting at that, even in a silly superhero movie, is a mite troubling.

Now, it’s perhaps not fair to ding Johnston for these ideological lacks in his movie. Had he crafted a genuine revisionist critique of the patriotic mythos of Captain America (like Gore Verbinski’s villified The Lone Ranger offered a proscribed kick at American colonialism in the West), popular audiences may not have embraced the product and fidelity-obsessed comics fanboys would have undoubtedly crucified him on the digital Golgotha of internet fan site comment threads. Like practically all of the successful products of Marvel’s onscreen Avengers stable, Captain America: The First Avenger is assured entertainment that only intermittently condescends to the masses and respects the devotion of comics fandom (although even the latter must agree that Stan Lee’s awful cameos really ought to cease; the man may be a living geek god, but his appearances are hell on the suspension of disbelief and smack of brown-nosing). But there’s not even the commonest poetry to it and what scant political suggestions it carries are unappealing. Unlike Marvel’s usually socially-aware products, this superhero is protected from reality by a figurative shield made of a more impenetrable material than vibranium: nostalgia.

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Categories: Comics, Film, History, Reviews

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