[Author’s Note: After the successful launch of the Spectating Spoilers series, it has come to my attention that the column must undergo a change of process. While still a critical examination of why the films are worth appreciating, it’s going to be done in a more condensed manner.]
In the very first scene, it’s present day somewhere in the Arctic. You can hear the fade in of whistling bitter cold wind and special transportation trucks to traverse through the dangerous terrain. It reminds me of the opening scene to X-Files: Fight the Future. But instead of looking for alien life forms, the special ops teams have discovered a long lost World War 2 aircraft that kept the one hero America needs. The audience already knows the origins of Captain America, however it’s a real treat to see just how he became The First Avenger along the way.
The movie audience is then transported back in time to Norway, 1942 and introduced to the film’s arch-nemesis Johann Schmidt, masterfully portrayed by Hugo Weaving. He establishes his ruthlessness in obtaining the Norse mythological Tesseract artifact. But instead of expecting a true 1940’s period film, audiences are introduced to a secret faction of the universal bad guy Nazi code-named HYDRA. I am okay with this continuity alteration, believing that in order to create a movie that exceeds expectation there has to be some levels of fresh character interpretation; the portrayal of Nazis in films are cliché. They’re the built-in bad guys audiences universally hate. Nothing cinematically creative can be found. Whereas, with HYDRA established as a Nazi sect, the film can explore even more depraved acts of violence. So, the movie provides proof for one of my own theories of comic book films. The movie is only as good as it as proportionately measured to the antagonist’s threat level.
But once this new threat has emerged, there must also be a strong hero to match to HYDRAs unspeakable evil. Steve Rogers, a wimpy young man with a huge heart, is just trying to get into the military. But even after being refused enlistment 5 times, he still gets his wish after being scouted and selected by Dr. Abraham Erskine. Dr. Erskine decides to test Rogers and find his true intentions. To the doctor, it wasn’t a matter of physical ability. To build a soldier to combat HYDRA, it had to start from the inside out.
At this point in the film, it’s established that Steve Rogers is the ultimate wish fulfillment story. The world he lives in is threatened by evil people so he expects no less than to try to protect the world. You would expect Steve to be an alpha male, brawny, broad shouldered, and confident. But Steve is a skinny young man who confesses that despite his bravery, he still doesn’t desire to kill anything or anyone. So, he’s fast-tracked to the basic training camp where he’s introduced to his fellow soldiers and a few other special Army operatives: Col. Chester Phillips and British special agent Peggy Carter.
Col. Phillips steps on screen as the cantankerous Hollywood icon Tommy Lee Jones. This places him on a short list of actors to have appeared in both a DC Comics and Marvel Comics movie. His performance in the role is no less than golden as his drill sergeant demeanor is on par with the legendary John Wayne. I think what Jones brought to the film was absolutely necessary. If you don’t know what Captain America is and stands for, audiences are still treated to a war movie. The male bravado in the movie’s cast doesn’t stand alone. The audience is also treated to Special Agent Peggy Carter who’s on-screen action stands just as formidable to the male ranks.
Agent Carter, portrayed by Hayley Atwell, is a British soldier brought on to help recruit for the special super soldier program. She’s impeccably classy even when in combat. Her performance has since transformed from a one-off into a cult following of her brave feminist character, reprising her role for the upcoming Captain America sequel and a short film sequence of her own.
We then move along to the training where my favorite scene in the entire movie just exemplifies the Steve Rogers character. While Rogers struggles with basic training and unimpressed superior officers, he is given a far more important test. Rogers dives selflessly on a grenade protecting his fellow soldiers, who all duck for cover. It’s a touching moment in its resulting character development. It’s just as easy to overlook a simple line that Col. Phillips uses that’s highly quotable.
“You don’t win wars with niceness, Doctor, You win them with guts.”
The next scene is also one of my favorites and mostly worth noting. Captain America isn’t just about fighting the bad guys and saving the world, it’s about a man who was chosen to be more – a symbolic icon that’s unconquerable. Dr. Erskine quietly tells Rogers his own history before immigrating to the States and explains how evil Johann Schmitt truly is. Steve is given something much more than a new muscular physique, but it’s sage advice that is also quotation fodder.
“A strong man who has known power all his life may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of that strength and knows compassion.”
He also continues to plead with Rogers before the big super soldier experiment. It’s advice that I’ve also taken to heart.
“Promise me one thing. Stay who you are – not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”
I did say that this movie is real geek wish fulfillment, right? In the next scene we are again treated to some more exposition between Agent Carter and Steve Rogers riding in a beautiful 1940’s auto. Carter expresses that she may be under-appreciated in the Military because she is a woman. It’s relatable to today’s men and women who may be lost in a dead end job or passed over in life. Steve also says in his awkwardness that he doesn’t know how to talk to a woman. I can relate to Steve and I bet the rest of the audience can too.
For the rest of the movie, I have to acknowledge that Chris Evans is doing a tremendous job becoming Steve Rogers and making Marvel movie fans forget that he was also once cast in the role of the cocky Johnny Storm. Some other fans and critics were harsh towards the news of Chris Evans’ role as Captain America, but hopefully arrived at the realization that he has a lot of range as an actor. He is Captain America.
Another criticism of the film was the accuracy of the costume and whether or not the director Joe Johnston is faithful sticking with the comic book source material. He’s already proven his worth by directing similar period action film for Disney’s The Rocketeer (1991). Authenticity is what fanboys and girls demand in these types of movies. We are treated to what Steve looks like in a cloth classic Captain America’s costume performing on stage for the USO tour. The creative team in this movie was making a point to the audience just how silly Captain America would look like with mercurial wings on the cowl. It was a brave decision to go with a more practical padded battle suit design. Ultimately, it didn’t take me out of the film.
We fast forward to 1943 as Captain America is overseas still continuing his USO show tour for troop morale. He’s downtrodden and feeling like he’s not making a difference. Real soldiers were giving their lives and he’s a stage act. Would Dr. Erskine approve of what he was doing?
Here comes more wish fulfillment. Peggy Carter finds Steve and with a charming smile continues to look incredibly beautiful. She helps him find his purpose in a short pep talk. “You were meant for more than this.”
Fast forward to the introduction of a lost battalion that Steve realizes that his best friend, Bucky Barnes, is on. While freeing over 300 soldiers from the HYDRA captors, he gains the respect of the other soldiers. Captain finally realizes his full potential and mission to stop HYDRA’s plan.
The Red Skull, Captain America’s arch nemesis, is also fully exposed in his plans of world domination with the help of Tesseract weapons. Just as I was saying before, the movie is only as strong as the antagonist’s threat. While the Red Skull is just as skilled in hand-to-hand combat, he’s also contradictory to all the advice that Captain America has been receiving through the film. Hugo Weaving shines in this role by delivering his lines with his signature sinister speech patterns.
We fast forward again through a montage of Captain America’s trek through World War 2 Europe destroying every secret HYDRA base. Culminating in a final confrontation with the Red Skull, every fanboy starts to realize that it’s going to end the way we expect. Captain America dies in battle with his best friend Bucky Barnes.
Another prominent feature note of this film is Steve Rogers use of a shield in battle. While many people believe that America’s role in world conflict is compounded by the military industrial complex, Captain America is most comfortable fighting with a shield. The red, white and blue shield works as a metaphor in the iconic patriot costume. A shield is a primarily defensive weapon. Captain America is defending the American way of life.
I have to salute the creative team for writing and directing this film to instead give Captain America’s origin story a new fresh twist. It wasn’t with a single rocket poised to destroy the United States, but a huge airplane with many deployable planes targeting every major city.
The final battle between Captain America and the Red Skull is an epic one. The movie stays true to comic book literature by giving more dialog to Hugo Weaving and Chris Evans to impeccably define who they are and why they are fighting each other. It’s a vast contrast between the megalomaniacal Red Skull and the humble soldier Captain America. It’s exemplified in Captain America’s response to Skulls taunt where Captain says “Nothing [makes me special]. I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.”
But as we see the tragic end to Captain America’s duty in battle and his final contact with his “right partner”, we are treated to one more scene to which he is introduced to the 21st century. I’ll admit, I got a little weepy at the end when it finally dawns on him that he’s now 70 years in the future and missed out on a promise to go on a date.
The story of Captain America is about what makes true heroes. I’ve read from a lot of the movie’s detractors echoing Hollywood’s politics that Captain America is not popular and not marketable to a worldwide audience. That’s why they had to tag line his movie title with “the first avenger.” His old fashioned appeal doesn’t resonate with the modern progressive young adult audience. What I’m trying to say with this movie review is that they are all dead wrong. Steve Rogers continues to fight with idealism as a sentinel of liberty.
It will be interesting how he is treated in the follow up sequel to this film. Internet scuttlebutt reports describe another stylized costume for Captain America – one that de-emphasizes the red white and blue to make him more marketable to non-domestic audiences. If the rumors are true, then I will be very upset.