When I first heard the nebulous “they” were making a movie about Captain America I was cautiously optimistic. Hollywood, make Captain America? I’ve been disappointed enough to know that “these people” can’t be trusted. I read several reviews before we saw the movie, ranging from less-than-enthusiastic to gushing, so my expectations were still mitigated going in. And I have to say, even though some of the criticism was warranted, I was pleasantly surprised. Captain America definitely met and in places exceeded my expectations.
The theme of this movie was what I loved the most: strength doesn’t come from muscles, it comes from character. In one scene, Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, who steals every scene he’s in) is trying to convince Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) to use one of the other soldiers for his experiment, one who is bigger and stronger, that that is the kind of soldier who should be turned into a super soldier. To prove his point, Phillips throws a (dead) grenade onto the parade ground to test how the soldiers react. All the soldiers run, except for one who jumps on the grenade to protect the others: 90-pound weakling Steve Rogers (Chris Evans).
Throughout the movie, the juxtaposition of external versus internal strength is the real story. Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) couldn’t handle the power he was seeking because he had no internal strength, whereas it’s not Captain America’s muscles and physical super-strength that saved the day, it is his integrity and selfless strength of character.
Listen, I loved Batman, Iron Man, Green Lantern and all the other reboots as much as anyone (and more than some), but the same old story of the selfish slacker who becomes a hero because he’s forced to be one is, well, same and old. Here instead, we have a man who is a hero because he has a hero’s heart, and we love seeing him be given the opportunity to become that hero physically, as well.
Before the procedure, Erskine tells Rogers that he was chosen because he was a good man, and that by being a good man, he will be a great soldier. That was, unsurprisingly, one of the criticisms from the more “elite” reviewers: Captain America isn’t conflicted and nuanced. But that’s the point. When it comes to right and wrong, there isn’t much conflict or nuance. The Nazis were bad and needed to be stopped. You don’t abandon your friends. You love your country and protect it. You treat all people with respect, regardless of where they come from – or how many muscles they have.
Another example is Captain America’s love interest, Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). A UK military liaison, she is part of the team that brings in Rogers for his training. Carter is an enigma in modern movies. Most female characters today – heck, nearly all of them – are only shown as “strong” through unrealistic hand-to-hand fight scenes with men twice their size or through, pardon me, being a b*tch. And if that fails, they take off their clothes to get what they want.
None of these are Carter. She is a truly strong woman. She’s beautiful, but she’s not a stick figure with sallow cheeks. She looked like the women of her period – feminine, full-figured and graceful. She doesn’t use her body to get her way, she doesn’t use force to intimidate. But she doesn’t take any crap, either. She simply does what she knows – or sometimes, guesses – is the right thing to do. She doesn’t waste time with whining, pouting or purring. I don’t think she even raised her voice once. She is just plain classy. More of this, please, Hollywood.
Finally, these two are contrasted with the evil Red Skull, Schmidt. His goal from the beginning of the movie is to amass strength through any and all means necessary, to the point that it consumes him. He doesn’t care about the value of inner strength, strength of character. Only external force. His search for the Übermensch, the super soldier, winds up destroying him. One of the great ironies of the movie is that the thing he is seeking to create and control – a physically powerful Aryan blonde-haired blue-eyed super soldier – is who defeats him. All of these elements work together to bring home the point that the pursuit of physical strength is inferior to integrity, courage, fidelity and honor.
The cinematography is beautiful. The colors are all nicely muted to soft beiges and greys, thus making Captain America’s red, white and blue uniform all the more striking, and also to cast a haze of nostalgia over the period. There were also fun action sequences, intelligent humor (most from a fantastically-cast Tommy Lee Jones) and plenty of flag-waving. One of my favorite lines in the movie is where the Red Skull tells Captain America, “I have seen the future, and there are no flags.” “Not in my future,” Captain America responds. Hooah.
One of the criticisms I thought was off-mark said the movie portrayed American soldiers in a less-than-positive light. I didn’t see that at all. The story revolves around a man wanting to join the Army more badly than anyone I’ve ever met. As Erskine puts it, “It’s not the five rejections that interest me. It’s the five tries.” That alone, in my opinion, represents our military well, especially considering today’s service members – the majority of them – joined during a time of active war on multiple fronts, just as Rogers attempted to do. The other soldiers we get to know are brave, good-humored and loyal to each other and their country.
The only scene where I can imagine someone got the impression that the soldiers were portrayed negatively is a scene where Rogers is in a USO show at a FOB in Italy. There he is, standing there in his cheesy Star Spangled Man costume talking to the soldiers about taking on the Nazis, and they jeer and mock him, throwing food at him and telling him to get off the stage. A few minutes later, we find out that the audience was made up of a unit that just returned from an engagement where they lost 75% of their men to death or capture. You know what – I wouldn’t expect them to react any differently to a live-action cartoon character trying to give them a pep talk. That wasn’t an aspersion on our troops, that was verisimilitude. And I appreciated the scene being there.
My only criticisms of the movie are spoilerish in nature, so if you don’t want to read, skip the bulleted section below:
- “Captain America” gave us a great hero and several other really good, heroic figures. The problem is, in my opinion, the villain wasn’t…villainy…enough in contrast. While the Red Skull is maniacal and bent on world domination, there’s not much more to him than that. And I don’t mean “nuance.” I mean, I wasn’t really scared of him. At the beginning of the movie, he threatens to burn down an entire village unless an old man helps him. Now, since he’s wearing a Nazi uniform, we know that he’s likely to burn the village down anyway. But the scene could have been played in such a way that heightened the impact when he does, in fact, turn and give the order to open fire. Schmidt is so dead-pan in his delivery, there’s no real punch. And anyway, he a psychotic Nazi officer seeking world domination – there’s really not much he could do to shock us. There needed to be the psychological effect as well, and that’s where the movie missed out.
- The other issue – and this is a huge spoiler – is the ending. It’s not a “happily-ever-after” for our leading man and leading lady. It doesn’t have to be, you can have fantastic movies where the love story doesn’t “work out” in the end. (Casablanca) But when we hear Steve and Peggy say goodbye, you may be sorry it turned out this way, but it doesn’t really sting. I contrast it to the opening sequence of the new Star Trek movie. When George Kirk tells his wife he’s not going to be there to help them raise their son, I bawl like a baby every time. There is a similar scene at the end of Captain America, and in comparison, it flatlines emotionally. Part of that may be because we are essentially told how the movie will end in the opening scene, so I figured out what was going to happen about 3 minutes before it did. Perhaps it’s because we didn’t get to really see a relationship between the two, just the possibility of one. Either way, it’s a shame that scene wasn’t stronger.