“Star-spangled man with a plan”
Not having been someone who read comics as a kid, I am definitely in the dark on the inner-workings of the Marvel universe. Everyone has a cursory knowledge of DC’s greats and I’m not quite sure why that is. Batman and Superman are household names, their powers and origin tales part of pop culture lexicon, so why is it I knew nothing about Stan Lee’s equivalent to man’s favorite Kryptonian? Why do we intrinsically know an alien savior, but not the red-blooded American donning our flag’s colors? If you’re like me, you no longer have to be in the dark because Captain America: The First Avenger is here to educate us about out first homegrown superhero of mind, body, and soul.
More a war film infused with super soldiers and a bit of science fiction—let’s call it revisionist history—director Joe Johnston has created something to remind us of his 90s adventures full of intrigue and heart. Personally, Indiana Jones kept coming to mind throughout with action shots and stern close-ups, the stirring score swelling with pride in the hero at its center. Recently involved in more gruesome fare with The Wolfman and Jurassic Park III, Johnston’s entry into the Avengers saga harkens more towards The Rocketeer and Jumanji in its sensibility, the broad strokes of morals and lessons learned just as important as the bloodshed and carnage depicted in the midst of World War II. Definitely a PG-13 rating, you still can’t help but feel a warm familiar touch, a true heart at the core to resonate for the whole family.
Because while Cap—I mean Steven Rogers (Chris Evans)—exists in a reality with drunken geniuses like Tony Stark, mutants, and the Gods, his image is wholesome. Even after Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) and German scientist Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) transform this scrawny kid from Brooklyn into an elite specimen who has literally left humanity behind, this courageous young man is underestimated. After a mishap in the lab and the unfortunate news Rogers would be the only American injected with a formula that enhances ones true self, rather than receive the training to put his new abilities to use, Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) tosses him to the curb. A senator looking for increased war bond sales is the only one to offer a hand, turning the most powerful man in the US into a glorified cheerleader. It’s here, while donning blue tights, a winged cap, and a flimsy metal shield that he is allowed to punch out Hitler over and over again. His only shot at war is to become a parody shill. Not quite the heroics he dreamt.
But like all origin stories, it isn’t the acquisition of power that makes the man; it’s how he uses them. Embarrassed by the reaction from soldiers on the front towards his act, a retreat into camp reunites him with the colonel and Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), the latter of which never stopped believing. Finally sick of the caricature he has become, Rogers decides to let loose his aggression and bravery on a mission to recover over 400 men lost behind enemy lines—including best friend Bucky. It was time to see exactly what he was capable of, his never ceasing will to save the world shining through, this time with the tools to make good on his intentions. With nothing but faith and honor to guide him, Captain America uses his, until now worthless, title to charge through Nazi territory, smashing down all in his way and refusing to leave a man behind.
These aren’t your regular Nazis, however. No, this offshoot, named Hydra—‘Heil Hydra! Cut off one head and two are born in its place’—is led by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a villainous tyrant with grandiose plans to takeover the world. With Hitler a means to an end, a scapegoat to occupy the world while he finds Odin’s Cosmic Cube, possessed with a power the Earth has never seen, Schmidt makes his move. An old acquaintance of Dr. Erskine as well, before the doctor turned to the Allies, this monster is more similar to Cap than one may assume. But while the kindness in Rogers heart amplified to make good into great, the darkness of greed within Schmidt transformed him into Red Skull. His burning desire for power overtook him, giving immense strength and intellect while destroying all remnants of humanity. A monster wielding laser weaponry created by Dr. Zola (Toby Jones), able to disintegrate all in its path, this supervillain is shrewd enough to conquer, his mirrored foe his only adversary.
And thus goes the adventures of Captain America—a simple man discovering the hero inside. Along with Red Skull and Stark’s high-tech toys of the future, they are the anachronisms in an otherwise true to life retelling of Germany’s quest for world domination. With its fair share of action, whether a fight atop a moving train, multiple montaged raids of Hydra plants capped by a couple Machete-like motorcycle jumps ahead of explosive flames, or the final battle flying through the sky, the filmmakers never stop playing up the action to angle Steven Rogers as the country’s mascot, spokesman, and hero. The 1940s aesthetic plays a huge part in creating a realistic depiction of the past and propaganda is a main piece to the puzzle. The world looks forward into the Age of Tomorrow, yearning for something to believe in and rally behind. Cap is all this and more—invested, fearless, and unwavering in his belief in himself to never quit.
The film is still very much a prelude to The Avengers—now looking more and more like it could be a disaster as way too many storylines come together—but also stands on its own. It’s a refreshing feeling after Iron Man 2 and Thor proved to be glorified prologues instead of complete works. Acted nicely by a large cast with many given very little to do, (and even less once the ending is revealed), despite higher profiles like Neal McDonough and Derek Luke, the real success comes from Evans’ rare, non-sarcastic depiction of the titular hero and the resonate story arc behind him. You will want nothing more than to see this guy victorious, both in the war and with the girl (Atwell). So we watch his fight against Weaving’s stirring depiction of evil, invested in the human tale running parallel. This first chapter in his life is an appropriate one full of heartbreak and sorrow, turning the page towards a future of hope.
Captain America: The First Avenger 8/10