Studios’ ambitious, half-decade-in-the-making project to create a shared
superhero universe to parallel the Marvel Comics universe (with, of course,
major and minor tweaks) culminates next summer with "The Avengers," a massive,
superhero team-up directed by Joss Whedon ("Serenity," "Firefly," "Angel,"
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer"). "Iron
Man I and
Iron Man II," "The
Incredible Hulk," "Thor", and now the
big-screen adaptation of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s first-generation superhero,
"Captain America: The First Avenger" have each, in turn, functioned both as
franchise starters or, in the case of "The
Incredible Hulk," a franchise reboot, and as entries in the shared superhero
universe project, sometimes awkwardly ("Iron
Man II"), sometimes organically ("Thor").
Of the five entries in the project, "Iron
Man I" still holds the number 1 spot in terms of character, plot, and
action, followed by Thor's grand mythology,
but "Captain America" stands on nearly equal ground with the first 2.
Set in an alternate universe/comic book version of World War II, Captain
America: The First Avenger centers on Steve Rogers (an earnest, affable and
squeeky clean Chris Evans), a “90-pound weakling” (visual effects experts
thinned out Evans across 250 shots via labor-intensive CG) who desperately wants
to join the U.S. war effort. Rogers wants nothing more than to fight for America
and American ideals (presumably democracy, self-determination, civil liberties,
etc.) against the Nazis, stand-ins for the bullies he’s encountered regularly in
the real world. After failing four different physicals in different cities or
towns, breaking the law each time, the fifth physical proves to be the charm.
Through a fortunate coincidence (maybe too fortunate, too coincidental), Rogers
gets the opportunity to serve his country as part of a super-secret super
soldier program thanks to a kind, considerate, German expatriate and scientist,
Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, in a very good performance).
Erskine sees something in Rogers Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, his
usual grumpy but likeable self), the military head of the super-secret soldier
program, doesn’t see. Erskine sees more than Rogers’ über-patriotism, he sees
selflessness, even compassion. He sees beyond Rogers’ physical weaknesses to
Rogers’ character strengths. Phillips almost becomes convinced when Rogers jumps
on a “live” grenade (it’s not). The super-soldier program, a combination of
Erskine’s super-secret serum and a mega-dose of “Vita-Rays” (per Captain
America’s comic-book origin), transforms the sickly Rogers into a physically
perfect specimen. It also gives Rogers enhanced speed, strength, and healing
(though not at Wolverine levels). Rogers quickly adapts to his new abilities.
However, before he can become the jingoistic figure that the country loves, he
takes a gig with the USO. This leads to one of the films very best sequences.
Rogers dons the familiar comic book version of the tights and hits the stage
with a chorus of dancing girls to drum up support for the war. Yes, there even
is a theme song for Cap. Before Erskine, Phillips, and several government
dignitaries can celebrate their success, however, an assassin kills Erskine,
leaving Rogers as the one-and-only super soldier (Erskine kept key information
In a parallel storyline, Captain America: The First Avenger also follows Johann
Schmidt (Hugo Weaving, obviously enjoying his role immensely), the head of
Hitler’s ultra-secret scientific division, HYDRA (not an acronym as you might
assume, but pace Marvel Comics, a reference to the mythical, multi-headed
monster). As Erskine’s first test subject, Schmidt shares almost all of Rogers’
enhanced abilities, but the early version of the super soldier serum left him
horribly disfigured (thus the “Red Skull” moniker). With scientist/lackey Dr.
Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) at his side, Schmidt hopes to harness and adapt the
Tesseract (a.k.a., the Cosmic Cube), an alien artifact connected to Asgard, into
the power source for advanced weapons that could change the course of World War
II. Schmidt’s vast, megalomaniacal ambitions leave little doubt that he wants to
out-Hitler Hitler (i.e., conquer the world himself).
Given the over-earnest, unreflective, America-first (and last and always) tone,
Captain America: The Last Avenger unsurprisingly sidesteps World War II-era
social and cultural issues (e.g., race, gender). When Captain America, on tour
to entertain the troops (he’s made a mini-career as a propaganda symbol of
American freedom selling war bonds), learns that his best friend, Sergeant James
Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), has disappeared, captured by Schmidt
and presumed dead, he springs into action (somewhat unconvincingly due to his
lack of training), he emerges as a genuine war hero, complete with his own
multi-ethnic squad, the Hownlin’ Commandoes. The Commandoes make, at best,
fleeting impressions (subservient, as they are, to Rogers’ heroic arc), but not
a single character comments on the racial composition of the Commandoes.
Then again, Captain America has exactly one and only significant female
character, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), British liaison to the U.S. Army’s
super-secret science division and obligatory romantic interest (she sees the
good-hearted man before and after his transformation, but his newly
hypertrophied musculature certainly doesn’t hurt), rarely encounters any
gender-based obstacles, dispensing with the ones she does encounter easily. Her
character arc unsurprisingly turns on the seemingly chaste romance with the
inexperienced Rogers, the resolution or non-resolution of which gives Captain
America: The Last Avenger a moment of poignancy, especially in the last shot
before the modern-day set fadeout.
While the director, Joe Johnston (The Wolfman, Hidalgo, Jurassic Park III,
October Sky, Jumanji, The Rocketeer), and his screenwriting team, Christopher
Markus and Stephen McFeely (with an uncredited script polish by Joss Whedon),
makes subtle and not-so-subtle nods to Raiders of the Lost Ark (e.g., Hitler’s
obsession with the occult, the Cosmic Cube as a game- and war-changer), Johnston
and his screenwriters decided to push the Nazis into the background, making
Schmidt and HYDRA Captain America’s enemies. With HYDRA as the enemy, Johnston
and Marvel Studios hoped to avoid tired World War II tropes and/or treating the
Nazis as ridicule-ready, entertainment fodder as, arguably, Raiders of the Lost
Ark did thirty years ago. That, some critics have argued, would mock the very
real sacrifices and lives lost during World War II.
On a lighter note, "Captain America: The First Avenger" unquestionably succeeds
where "Iron Man
II" failed, integrating macro, world-building components necessary for
Marvel’s shared superhero project (a.k.a., "The Avengers") to succeed next
summer, including, perhaps significantly, a prominent role for Howard Stark
(Dominic Cooper), none other than Anthony “Iron Man” Stark’s father. As depicted
here, the elder stark resembles Howard Hughes. He’s an ultra-successful
businessman with close ties to the U.S. government due to defense contracts.
He’s borderline arrogant, always suave, and, suggested more than show, a ladies’
man, a combination, we can presume, that led to a lifetime of friction and
disconnection with his only son. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) makes the
obligatory appearance here, but only in one, exposition-tilted scene. We’ll see
more of Fury and the other Avengers (e.g., Tony Stark/Iron Man, Thor, Bruce
Banner/Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow) next summer. If "Captain America: The First
Avenger" is any indication, "The Avengers" will be more than worth the wait.
In an era where we’re obsessed with dark and brooding superheroes, director Joe
Johnston’s Captain America is a breath of fresh air. He reminds us that
superheroes don’t have to be dark and disturbed to be interesting, they don’t
need cracks and flaws to earn our affection, they don’t have to be alien gods or
magic motorcycle riding demons. Captain America in his own simple way embodies
much of what's noble and good about humanity. Joe Johnston has crafted a
breathlessly entertaining popcorn movie that unambiguously embraces its hero’s
old-fashioned sensibilities, and invites us to embrace them as well.