Captain America: The First Avenger
out of ****
"Whatever happens, stay who you are...not merely a soldier, but a good man."
Captain America: The First Avenger reveals its heart in a quiet little conversation that takes place after a riveting action scene. I'll set it up: Before Cap (Chris Evans) parachutes into enemy territory, his pilot, a womanizing Howard Hughes-type (Dominic Cooper) discusses having a “fondue” with the woman Cap loves, special agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Cap doesn't have time to think about what this means before he jumps from the plane and liberates a whole battalion of P.O.W.s from the clutches of the evil Nazi the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), but the great exchange that I'm talking about comes later, not long after the mission: The pilot has to explain to a nervous Cap that a “fondue is just bread and cheese. It didn't really mean anything.” Cap sighs with relief, the jealous visions of his misunderstanding vanishing in his mind's eye.
This scene makes absolutely clear that we're dealing with an entirely different type of superhero movie, with a rare protagonist whose innocence and good intentions are as well-defined as his deadly accuracy with his magical shield: Here is the world's greatest soldier, a man who in the course of this film nearly single-handedly wins World War II for the Allies, and he remains as awkward around women as he was before the experiment that transformed him from a 90-pound weakling into a world-class athlete. Sure, he could kick Indiana Jones' ass, but he'd still blush if he shared a conversation with the archeologist about his lady conquests.
It's been a long time since I've seen a movie character who is so utterly easy to root for, who I so completely wanted to succeed in his mission, than Captain America. When the exasperated Red Skull finally gets around to telling Captain America, “You just don't give up, do you?”, our hero shrugs, says, “Nope,” and carries on. He literally has no other conceivable answer, because he has absolutely nothing to prove. Spider-Man or Batman would have given a speech to justify the demons that drive them to fight the bad guys, but Captain America gets on with it.
How fitting that Captain America: The First Avenger is first and foremost a period piece, detailing the rise of one of the most enduring and beloved of superheroes during his tenure as a World War II hero: Director Joe Johnston has managed to capture the essence of that simpler time at the movies, when bad guys were Nazis who needed no further justification than their German accents and SS badges, and heroes were not motivated by personal demons but by a good-natured commitment to a democratic idealism. If Frank Capra had the sort of budget that today's Hollywood offered, this is basically what his Captain America film would look like. As played by Chris Evans, the star-spangled hero is so sincere and well-meaning that I couldn't help but think of Jimmy Stewart in the role if it had been made in the 1940s. (As the Red Skull, perhaps Claude Rains.) A case could certainly be made that Johnston has created with this film the last of the patriotic epics made during that decade's war-time.
This does not mean that Captain America is a square film. On the contrary, it's a rip-roaring adventure of the first degree, with breathless action sequences, a top-rate villain, and a style that uses Raiders of the Lost Ark as a template rather than Marvel's other recent superhero opuses like Iron Man, Ghost Rider, and Thor, which are all darker pictures that present protagonists with more ambiguous motivations. You do not have to be a Tea Party patriot to appreciate this film, nor necessarily a traditionalist who clings to the “good old days” when Mr. Smith went to Washington. Yes, I value The Dark Knight as much as the consensus, but what I'm suggesting is that this is a different kind of picture—an exploration of a completely sincere man who acts like a super-human in both mind and body, and who in fact seems to love being a superhero. At this movie's heart is a good-natured everyman, a hero so utterly decent that he still has to work up the motivation to get the girl and will actually take the time to lament the fall of fellow soldiers—but not let either of these emotional pauses to get in the way of his duty, which is to win the war.
Thinking about the film's plot and structure with a little distance between it and my viewing, I recognize that the world in which Captain America lives is not far removed from the standard superhero origin movies to have emerged in the last few years. Point of fact, the largest criticism I've read is that this is really just a set-up for the upcoming Avengers movie, which will unite Cap with Iron Man, Hulk, and other Marvel titans in modern day (it comes hot off the heels of Kenneth Branagh's Thor, who is another member of the Avengers). The film has been accused of being too generic and routine, and story-wise, this might be true—Captain America has a lot of ground to cover to introduce the character for Marvel's upcoming crossover opus, and it sticks pretty closely to the conventions of a “superhero movie.” Cap is turned into a super-soldier with a miraculous serum; he fights a villain who controls an all-powerful MacGuffin that makes Allied victory unlikely; he moves through one spectacular action sequence after another; the ending is a prologue serving to make absolutely clear that Cap's adventures do not end here. I admit, if you've seen any of the other Avengers prequels, you can practically set your watch to how this movie's developments proceed.
Still, these observations are far from reservations. Of course Captain America is a traditional superhero movie. It has to be traditional—Captain America is one of the first heroes to appear in comic form, and he pioneered, along with Superman and Batman and only a handful of others, all those conventions that are now staples. If this picture is conventional, it is because we have placed certain expectations on this genre that Johnston succeeds in first fulfilling, and then transcending. He flourishes at this task in three notable ways:
1) Johnston gives us a rock-solid hero who is, above all else, an absolute pleasure to root for. Watch the various transitions that Cap goes through in this film, and notice how his resolve and determination remain unblinking: Whether he is a grunt in boot camp, a propaganda tool selling war-bonds, a warrior on the front lines, or a man-out-of-time who wakes up to a world decidedly NOT on the front lines, he finds his resolve by being a good man. Not to say that Cap is a stale character; he is simply awoken more and more throughout the picture to the potential of his courage. Chris Evans wisely plays him as a man of unwavering morality, whether he is rewarded for his valor or not. When he expresses hesitation or regret, it is only so that he can calculate the best way to fulfill his duty. Is he a boyscout? Yes. But, when in a fix, who wouldn't want to be rescued by the world's greatest boyscout?
2) The film serves us a classy villain in the Red Skull and allows the central conflict to play out in a mythological scenario that places the struggle firmly into the context of fantasy. As interpreted by Hugo Weaving, Skull is how we would envision Werner Herzog if he was a mad scientist instead of a filmmaker. He leads Hitler's deep science division, called HYDRA, but it doesn't take him very long to realize that his powers and vision far exceed those of his master. Skull quickly declares himself a free-agent and forms his own army, and Cap is assigned to take HYDRA out while the rest of the world fights the “front” war that masks the real stakes. This is a narrative masterstroke on the filmmaker's parts, because it regulates Captain America to being a secret agent devoted exclusively to taking out a threat of comic proportions that far outshines anything that the Axis could envision. This move effectively removes Cap from the true horrors of war (I can't imagine it would have been appropriate to have a comic hero participate in Normandy or Hiroshima, as it might have whitewashed the truly horrific nature of those battlegrounds) and places him firmly in a fairy tale battle against a modern variation of the Evil Witch. I particularly like the way that the relationship between Cap and the Skull develops throughout the film; they are not arch enemies, simply soldiers working toward their endgames. Cap wants to take out Skull because he is a threat to freedom, and the Skull is indifferent to Cap for the most part, except as a nuisance who keeps interfering—“I'd explain my master plan to you, but I'm on a schedule!” he mutters wearily to the hero at one point.
3) Johnston utilizes a style that is a throwback to old-school Indiana Jones pictures (to which he was a second-unit director), including imaginative action sequences that exhilarate instead of depress, and an array of colorful supporting characters who actually serve to SUPPORT the story and protagonist. I could elaborate on the epic scope of the last showdown or character actors like Tommy Lee Jones, Toby Jones, and Stanley Tucci lending their expertise in guest appearances, but let me park on one specific example: There's a chase-sequence in the bottom of the first act that begins with an explosion in a lab, continues as a footrace through the snow-soaked streets of New York, and tops itself with Cap diving into a harbor and swimming after a submerged submarine. This chase is just about the most well-executed action scene that I have seen since Indy was fighting on that tank through the desert in The Last Crusade; it would have certainly been enough to glue our riveted eyes helplessly to the screen, but the film throws in a little touch that grounds the sequence with real humanity: When the pursued Nazi tosses a little boy in his way into water as he rushes toward his sub, Cap stops his chase to save the lad. But the boy is already treading water safely, and he says, “Go get him. I can swim!” This kind of aside, technically unnecessary except to give the film extra charm, is like a breath of fresh air after the dark, depressing battle sequences in action movies these days, in which the heroes would just as soon shoot bystanders as the villains. It reveals a film that is actually invested in the well-being of the world it creates.
Ponder Cap's nobility with me for a moment: Marvel superhero movies these days bend over backwards to feature a tortured vigilante—you might count on Wolverine or the Punisher to save you from certain death, but would you want to introduce them to your parents afterward? Captain America here does the right thing not because he expects vindication, not because he is motivated by revenge or a misplaced sense of honor, but because he has observed the world around him and has decided that being Captain America is simply the right thing to do. What a great character, in such an exciting film that rejuvenates the tired clichés of recent superhero cinema by working backwards to reveal what made us look up to these masked avengers in the first place. Instead of eying its protagonist suspiciously as so many post-modern comic adaptations do, this film fully embraces heroism and suggests for the first time since Richard Donner's Superman that, yes, a superhero can actually be a wholly good person who is capable of feeling joy instead of weariness or despair at the prospect of defending the earth from evil. Adjusted to the tormented caped crusaders running around in Hollywood these days, that practically makes Captain America a foreigner!
Chris Evans: Captain America
Hugo Weaving: The Red Skull
Tommy Lee Jones: Colonel Phillips
Hayely Atwell: Peggy Carter
Sebastian Stan: Bucky Barnes
Stanley Tucci: Dr. Erskine
Samuel L. Jackson: Nick Fury
Dominic Cooper: Howard Stark
Toby Jones: Dr. Zola
Paramount Pictures presents a Marvel Studios production. Directed by Joe Johnston. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, from characters created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Rated PG-13, for intense war action. Running time: 124 minutes. Original United States theatrical release date: July 22, 2011.