One year ago today John Nolte reported in this space that “Captain America: The First Avenger” director Joe Johnston said the film based on the legendary comic book hero is “not about America,” and I can finally confirm that he spoke the truth. The $140 million blockbuster, which opens at midnight, is not anti-American–it’s even kinda pro-American–but if you’re looking for that rare film that surrenders itself to the reality of American exceptionalism, don’t let the title fool you. Johnston describes the latest from the summer movie factory that is Marvel Studios best: “It’s an international cast and an international story. It’s about what makes America great and what make the rest of the world great too.” Now, I’m very much relieved that it’s now okay to call America “great” in Hollywood, but as far as “Captain America: The First Avenger” is concerned, self-conscious pandering to multi-cultural feel-goodism combined with some unambitious storytelling makes for an unsatisfying movie-going experience.
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“Captain America: The First Avenger” is set in the latter half of World War II. The action begins with a scrawny Steve Rogers (a digitally depreciated Chris Evans) doing everything he can to enlist in the U.S. Army. Rogers has all kinds of heart, but he’s gaunt and is thus 4-F. The plot turns when an impassioned speech to a friend (“There are men laying down their lives. I have no right to do any less than them.”) catches the ear of Dr. Abraham Erskine (a very Stanley Tucci Stanley Tucci). Erskine is a German scientist who is working with the U.S. Army to develop a Super Solider Serum–the ultimate performance enhancing drug–and is on the lookout for a test subject. The serum amplifies what’s inside of you, so someone of Rogers’ size and character makes him the perfect candidate for this breakthrough procedure. Erskine and engineer Howard Stark (father of Tony) put Rogers in what looks like a retro-50s refrigerator, crank up the dials until all the power in the building short-circuits, and out comes this guy:
So what does the Army do with the most-badass solider ever to exist on earth? They use him as a propaganda tool, of course! Rogers goes state to state shilling war bonds in elaborate stage productions as the character Captain America. At first, Captain America is played for laughs; the stage shows are absurd and Rogers is no more than a jingo indoctrinating the public. The show is an acid-trip of brightly colored American flags that are starkly contrasted with an otherwise dimly-lit movie. Not content to profiteer for the war industry, Rogers ultimate breaks away and goes off to fight his future nemesis, Johann Schmidt, aka Red Skull (played with typically villainy awesomeness by Hugo Weaving).
There are a handful of legitimately patriotic moments that were a treat to watch. One such scene is when the under-sized yet hopeful Rogers longingly watches a recruiting video with a perfect balance of pride and jealousy; the scene will make not a few of you want to enlist on the spot. Another moment that should give conservative viewers the warm-and-fuzzies is when one character exclaims that the success of the procedure that turned a normal young man into a Super Solider is the “first step on the path to peace.” Imagine if that was said every-time the real military developed a new type of bomb or unmanned drone?
But, predictably, these moments are offset by a smattering of mini-sucker punches. Clichéd racist, sexist, and stupid American soldiers abound and are constantly being outsmarted or needing their asses saved by Captain America and his personal motley crew of multi-colored troops (including a French drunk guy) you’d think he plucked out of a United Colors of Benetton ad (joke hat tip: Mr. Breitbart). When the War is won, we see a celebration scene in the streets of the United… Kingdom. Rogers’ love interest is sexy-feminist (not an oxymoron after-all) Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who is an American in the comics but is British in the film.
A credits sequence that’s pure Americana leaves you with a good taste in your mouth, but I can’t help but wonder if the same one will appear in the cut of the film that is seen overseas.
The movie is typical of Hollywood in the 2011: What it lacks in deep, compelling storytelling, it makes up for with excellent production quality. There were many appealing performances (along with a handful of caricatures), and the film has a nostalgic look that captures the era with just the right amount of modern flair. Evans is solid as our hero; strong, charismatic, yet vulnerable, and I didn’t catch him Blue Steeling even once. A scene where Captain America chases a car… by foot… is pure fun and the movie’s payoff sets up “The Avengers” (due out next summer) quite nicely. Stick around until the very end for a teaser for “The Avengers,” and do take note of how Captain America’s suit has all of a sudden gone from the dull coloration that inspired our ire a few months ago to a brighter, more authentic blue.
Still, in the well-paced two hours, I can’t think of one bold decision when it comes to the plotting or the characters.
It’s also worth drawing attention to a bizarre story-line that Captain America isn’t fighting the Nazis as much as he’s fighting Schmidt/Red Skull’s extra-nasty fringe sect. It seems unnecessary to have nuance when it comes to the Nazis in this case, considering the bad guys are supposed to be pure evil. The Nazis were the ones that carried out the Holocaust and sought to dominate the world, and that’s who Captain America fought in the comics! Lou Loumenick over at the New York Post thinks Paramount may have made this call so as not to piss off any German movie-goers.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to complain about how patently distracting and unnecessary this 3D experiment has been. (Social liberals like to argue that one day we’ll look back on this time and think we all supported same-sex marriage; I think we’ll look back on it and remember hating 3D movies.)
The line that best encapsulates “Captain America: The First Avenger” came early on in the film when Dr. Erskine asks Steve Rogers, “Do you want to kill Nazis?” Rogers replies, “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies.” I hate bullies, and all of you on the Bigs Team know that we strive to fight them every chance we get, and it was good on Hollywood to give us a hero dedicated to standing up to them. Yet, standing up to bullies is not specifically American (think the British who fought along side us in World War II or the Iraqis who fight with us now, just to name a couple), and I think Captain America would want to kill Nazis. It’s a decent line, it’s a decent film, it just doesn’t soar in that magical way we all hope something called “Captain America” will when the lights go down in the theater.
The IMDB description of the film states that Captain America is “a superhero dedicated to defending America’s ideals.” Dennis Prager is keen to note that American values are best summed up on your coin: e pluribis unum (“out of many, one”), in God we trust, and liberty. None of these ideals are seriously touched upon in Joe “Jumanji” Johnston’s film. This Captain America is a hero of unquestioned bravery, but he’s more interested in the general and unspecific “doing the right thing” and having his friends’ backs. That’s all well and good and makes for a very likeable lead character, but it’s just not uniquely America, and you can bet that’s by design.