I’m glad the filmmakers of the recent spate of Marvel Comic films have opted to go with lesser known actors to play their hero, like Chris Hemsworth as Thor. I’m sure the producers of these films understood that they wouldn’t have to pay them as much as bona fide movie stars, but in the process they have actually cast the right people for the parts, rather than the people they think will fill seats. Chris Evans exhibits a determined sincerity with his performance as Steve Rogers, the initially lanky weakling who would have been a great model as the wimp getting sand kicked in his face by the bully in those old Charles Atlas ads. Through non-specific scientific tinkering, Steve is transformed into the muscle-bound Captain America. With his fresh off the assembly line bod, Steve proves to himself and the world that America is now here to kick ass.
Comic book mythologies tend to reflect contemporary ideals and anxieties, so it is fitting that Marvel introduced the patriotic protector in the early years of the Second World War. Captain America confirmed the primacy of American morals and strength at a time when nothing in the rest of the world was all that certain. Steve Rogers was a symbol of what Americans hoped their country could be. And, for that matter, the rest of the world as well.
It is less clear how a flag-waving U.S. superhero will be embraced in this day and age. It was probably smart to keep the action in Rogers’ early days before the reputation of the U.S. would be tarnished by a long list of imperialist interventions and covert CIA actions. It was a time when one could be idealistic about the U.S. without sympathetic smiles and pats on the hand from people who assume we’re patriotic because we just don’t know any better. It was the last era of certainty.
We see his futile efforts to join the military in the early years of the war despite a richly deserved 4-F status for being dramatically underweight, asthmatic, and having several other ailments that would have deterred the most patriotic young men. Better to collect scrap metal and grow victory gardens than drop dead of an asthma attack in the South Pacific. But Steve isn’t deterred; he wants to do his part.
His persistency pays off when he is spotted by Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci). Erskine recognizes a perfect candidate in Rogers and invites him to take part in an experimental program that will potentially grow the subject, not just physically, but intellectually and morally as well. It is, therefore, crucial that he find a candidate that also has a well-developed sense of ethics, as those will be accentuated as well. It isn’t the strongest man he was looking for, but the man with a finely tuned sense of morality and justice.
Of course Rogers participates and is transformed into a beefy Adonis despite the early skepticism of the officer in charge of the program, Col. Chester Phillips. Tommy Lee Jones waltzes through the gruff, sarcastic, dry part with ease, but he brings a nice comedic touch to a film that is otherwise fairly serious. (Though I do love the back story of the costume coming from Steve’s stint as a war bonds salesman and movie star before becoming a legitimate hero.)
No superhero would be complete without an equally (or almost equally) powerful nemesis. Hugo Weaving is Johann Schmidt, a.k.a. Red Skull, a man so truly villainous that even the Nazis have to disavow him. Schmidt was an early recipient of Erskine’s serum before Erskine fled Nazi Germany, but Erskine had not worked out the kinks and Schmidt’s face was deformed into a devilish monstrosity. The serum also accentuated Schmidt’s evil nature and now Schmidt, having used the scientific resources of the Nazis, is bent on destroying the capitals of the world’s major nations, including Berlin. He hopes to usher in a new age of superhuman domination. (Did he meet up with Magneto at some point?)
The movie is solid as an action picture but don’t let your brain linger too long on certain things or the historical inconsistencies and holes will be groan worthy. I know we like to pretend we’re not racist anymore, but that doesn’t mean we should gloss over the racial injustices of the past. Seeing black soldiers serving alongside white soldiers might look OK to modern eyes, but the U.S. armed forces weren’t desegregated until after the war. That is one of those unnecessary (and well intentioned) errors that drive me crazy.
Even worse is the unexplained presence of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), a British intelligence agent (I think) who somehow has oodles of authority and rushes out into battle. I would have been willing to forgive all that if some time had been taken to develop her character, but she ends up just being the pretty face for Steve to fall in love with (though she isn’t a blatant set piece like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in Transformers: Dark of the Moon). Their romance is remarkably tepid and uninspired.
Captain America ranks as a stronger superhero movie despite some of these flaws and suffering from a blatant case of sequelitis. It still manages to make the story compelling even though we know that this is all a set-up for the massive Avengers movie filming now and set to be released next year. We saw the beginning of the set up in Iron Man 2 with Tony Stark finding Captain America’s shield among his father’s possessions and the FBI agent being called away to New Mexico (for what we now know will be his meeting with Thor). The Avengers will bring Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and other superheroes together for a big $150 million dollar star-studded extravaganza.
If The Avengers manages to be at least as good as most of the movies that have led up to it (with the notable exception of the wretchedly meandering Iron Man 2), then it should be a movie worth seeing. But balancing action with personal dramas and character development has what has made Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America worth watching. Juggling all these characters along with several others (like Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk) appears daunting and could turn out to be a massive disaster. In the meantime, though, we have Captain America to fill our summer action needs. (Rating ***1/2)