Our original review of Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger. “Want to kill Nazis?” is one of the central questions in the movie. In 2020, we no longer do that sort of thing (lest one is called a ‘domestic terrorist’ who ‘murdered in cold blood’ someone ‘who came to maintain order’. No, we don’t kill Nazis. Be careful with punching them. But make very sure to vote the Nazis out!
Captain America may not have the same popularity over here as Spiderman or Batman, but he’ll have to win over audiences worldwide, because next year he’ll play a big part in the superhero team-up movie The Avengers.
While comic book giant DC puts the occasional Batman movie out, launched a disappointing Green Lantern and has been dithering over a new Superman, Marvel keeps the superhero movies coming thick and fast. Most of these feel like all the Saturday morning cartoons from your childhood rolled into one, and you might expect its newest offering also to be a big, fun and dumb film. If so, you’d be in for a surprise: Captain America: the First Avenger is big and fun, it is also surprisingly subtle. Not bad for one of the oldest superheroes around, who has been killed off, resurrected and mothballed repeatedly during his 70-year long career.
After a prologue in the present, the movie quickly goes back in time, to the early ‘40ties. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a typical little guy like those who appeared in the Charles Atlas weightlifting cartoons in comics of yore. He’s bullied, probably gets sand kicked in his face too, but is determined to join the army and do his bit. But he is rejected time and time again, until he’s taken under the wing of refugee scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and military officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Against all odds, they feel Steve is perfect for the top-secret Super Soldier program that is engineered by inventor/aviator Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), father of Tony “Iron Man” Stark, and lead by gruff Colonel Philips (Tommy Lee Jones).
“Want to kill Nazis?” asks Dr. Erskine. But instead of the expected anti-German sentiments, Steve answers that he doesn’t want to kill anyone, just wants to stand up to bullies, no matter where they’re from. If it’s true that WWII was the last morally unambiguous war of the 20th century, then Steve’s character embodies this idea: he wants to fight not for glory, but because it’s the right thing to do.
All actors have choice parts written for them and convince as people from the 1940s; a time which may not necessarily have been better than our own, but certainly wasn’t any worse. Even quickly sketched characters are believably human, and they’re far more than the boring bits between the explosions. We care for them and feel their pain – of which there is plenty; no character makes it out of this war unscathed.
One hideously painful dose of serum later, Steve finds himself – even quicker than Charles Atlas could promise – of beefcake proportions. However, the Super Soldier project gets cancelled by Colonel Philips, and the now somewhat redundant Steve finds himself on a tour of propaganda, not duty, shilling for war bonds. The film’s production design soars as the bemused Steve takes stages across the US as “Captain America”, complete with a hokey costume, a groan-worthy spiel and a musical number with feathered dancing girls and an irritatingly catchy tune.
This reinvention makes it possible for the filmmakers to play with Captain America’s history in the comic books, the first of which was published in March 1941: the USA was just preparing to enter the fray of World War II and Captain America was designed, by writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby, to be its number one patriot. Captain America even gets to sock Adolf Hitler in the jaw, as on the star-spangled cover of the first issue of the comic. For obvious reasons, this doesn’t quite happen in the movie, but it’s alluded to in a very clever way.
Just as Steve gets comfortable, and starts to believe that he is the People’s Hero he portrays, he is sent to entertain the troops in Europe. There he encounters real soldiers, and they are not impressed with him. Steve realises he’s merely gone from lab rat to performing monkey. However, there’s no time for self-pity: He learns that his pal Bucky is among a platoon feared captive or dead, and goes to the rescue. Can Captain America prevail?
Proceedings take an explosive turn due to the Red Skull, a rogue Nazi general who wants to put Hitler in his shadow, and won’t let a Super Soldier get in his way. He too was injected with Dr. Erskine’s serum, but it magnified his evil, just as it did Steve’s goodness. “We have left humanity behind,” he tells Captain America on their first encounter. As comic villains go, he’s more intriguing than many of the traditional variety, because the genesis of his powers makes him more than just a foil to our hero: in a way the Red Skull and Captain America are brothers, and such familial rivalry is the stuff legends are made of.
All in all, this is a movie with heart, sincerely approached 1940s values, and a production designer to watch. Director Joe Johnston is no stranger to period fantasy; in 1991 he directed The Rocketeer, which made him a favourite for this gig. Historical war movies such as Doctor Strangelove and A Matter of Life and Death get apt, unforced references, and there are enough allusions to the comic book history to keep fans happy.
The film alternates action sequences with slow-burning romance, and 21st century effects with mid-20th century aesthetics. Most importantly, Captain America is played straight and avoids the irony and jokeyness that would ruin it as a period movie. Real emotion is chosen over stock 1940s characters, and incorporating details like the Teutonic myth and occultism that fascinated the Nazis also helps to ground the film in real history, however fantastical its premise.
The film may be a tad long, and flags a bit after a climax halfway in, but ultimately keeps its end up through sheer charm, and the well-handled surprises and shifts in tone that keep it from getting predictable.