When Marvel studios announced that they’d follow up the successful Iron Man with an Incredible Hulk reboot, an adaptation of Thor, and an adaptation of Captain America, I knew it was that last one that would be the biggest challenge. While characters like Thor make you think of cool things like Norse mythology and Viking warfare, Captain America is a character that conjures the kind of the mindless flag waving personified by the Trey Parker and Matt Stone song “America, Fuck Yeah” from the movie Team America: World Peace. I wasn’t sure how they’d go about marketing a superhero with a red white and blue shield to a world audience, and I also wasn’t whether they’d go with the World War II setting or if they’d keep his kitschy costume. That they brought in the less than awesome Joe Johnston in to direct the film brought my faith down significantly. The casting of Chris Evans, whose performance was easily the worst thing about the Fantastic Four movies, made me even less excited for the movie. The only thing that got me to even go near the movie was sheer Marvel geekery and completeism. I went to the movie with very low expectations, which may have just set me up for a rather pleasant surprise.
The majority of Captain America is set during World War II, and focuses on Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a scrawny short weakling who in spite of his medical problems is desperate to enlist in the army in order to fight Nazi Germany. When asked if his desire is to “kill nazis” he responds: “I don’t want to kill anyone… I just don’t like bullies.” Seeing potential in Rogers’ attitude, a scientist working for the Army named Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) decided to recruit him for a program intended to create a super soldier over the objections of Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), who doesn’t see the same potential in the asthmatic recruit. The experiment is a success, giving Rogers increased strength, agility, and endurance, but because of an attack by a German spy the program is sabotaged and Rogers is left as the only remaining super soldier. Unsure what to do with their new creation the army sends him on a stage tour in order to encourage people to buy war bonds, but Rogers wants to do more than punch an actor playing Hitler on stage.
What’s probably Captain America: The First Avenger’s biggest failing is that Captain America himself is not a very interesting character. Rogers begins the movie pretty much the same as he ends it, he’s a white bread All-American kid from Brooklyn with very little moral ambiguity. He isn’t a dark avenger like Batman, he doesn’t have a colorful personality or redemption arc like Iron Man, he isn’t mired in royal intrigue like Thor. You could maybe compare him to Spider-Man, but Peter Parker at least has a personal life and secret identity to juggle and has more time to grow over the course of his films. Chris Evans does the best he can with the material and does at least make Rogers a pretty likable person, but there’s not a ton to latch onto.
On the other hand, I thought that Rogers’ nemesis Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) was actually pretty awesome. This villain is the leader of a Nazi splinter group called Hydra, which has discovered an ancient artifact left by Odin (yes, that Odin, from the movie Thor) that they have harnessed to give themselves cool and anachronistic weapons like ray guns. This fusion of Nazi occultism and science fiction technology give the film a cool Wolfenstien-esque aesthetic. Hugo Weaving (who seems to have no fear of being typecast as a villain at this point), brings a lot of the same menace to the role that he brought to The Matrix, and I also thought that the makeup effects used to literally give him a red and skull like face were very cool. As a character he’s not much deeper than Captain America is, but as an evil force with a lot less screen time that isn’t such a problem. I might go so far as to say he’s the best villain we’ve seen in a film based on a Marvel property with the possible exception of X-Men’s Magneto and Spider-Man 2’s Doctor Octopus.
On a story level, Captain America: The First Avenger gets bogged down in an origin story as most first installments of superhero franchises do. However, the movie is largely saved by its quality action scenes. What’s interesting about Captain America as a superhero is that he really isn’t very powerful at all. He’s strong and fast, but not all that strong and fast, he’s only moderately more “super” than your average fitness nut. This means that the set pieces in the movie tend more toward traditional shootouts, chases, and war scenes rather than huge effects sequences. As someone who wants to see more traditional action in the age of the superhero movie, this was welcomed. There’s a pretty exciting chase through the streets of New York early in the film, and later we see a fairly epic attack on a Hydra base, and the film also ends with a well staged fight on a futuristic Nazi airplane. For the most part the period setting and absence of outlandish powers keeps the film from being a CGI fest and that made it a lot more fun than I expected.
As for the flag waving… it wasn’t too bad. The movie plays it pretty safe on this front and goes to great lengths to avoid offending both the people who don’t want to sit through a two hour celebration of “American exceptionsim” and the right-wing commentators that would have loved to call the movie an attack on American values (the same people who think there’s a “war on Christmas”) if it didn’t have the requisite amount of jingoism. The film certainly seems to celebrate the U.S. army without question and certainly has a number of American flags all over it. However, Rogers does seem less than thrilled by the empty flag waving that surround him while he’s on a war bond selling tour, and he also works with a commando unit late in the film with international members including a Brit and a Frenchman (though you wouldn’t know from watching the film that the Soviet Union was a U.S. ally during the war). They don’t even go so far as to be virulently anti-Nazi, in fact I don’t think that they even showed a swastika once in the entire film. Instead they focus entirely on the fight against Red Skull’s fictional splinter group Hydra, which apparently the Nazi’s don’t even like. The film’s title and costume will probably still put off international audiences, but the film itself doesn’t have too much more patriotism than your average Michael Bay movie.
I said at the beginning of the review that I went into the movie with very low expectations and that’s because I thought it would be relentlessly mediocre. On a story level I got exactly the kind of mediocrity I expected, but the action scenes, period setting, and excellent villain did elevate the film into something that is slightly better than mediocre. Is “slightly better than mediocre” something to aspire to? Not exactly, but the resultant film is indeed an entertaining work that will satisfy most people looking for a decent action film.
*** out of Four