Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Captain America: The First Avenger

(Movie Review)

A couple years ago, back when this movie was still in production, I was eating pizza with some Canadian and Australian friends when we got to talking about upcoming movies, and the production of this movie came up.
One of the Canadian girls must not have been very into comic books, because she had never heard of Captain America before. When she heard that the American film industry was making a movie about a superhero named Captain America, she didn’t know whether to find it funny or be outraged, and so she alternated between the two emotions as she grilled me on what we Americans were thinking.
“Captain America? CAPTAIN America? Captain AMERICA?” Each inflection of her voice showed increasing incredulity. “You guys actually had to go and make a superhero called Captain America?”

Being a comic book geek, I tried to stick up for Captain America. “Well, look, you’ve got to view these old superheroes as kind of time-pieces from a different era. He was created during World War II. It was fashionable back then to have all sorts of patriotic themed superheroes fighting the Nazis. You had Liberty Belle (W), Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters (W), the Star Spangled Kid (W) ….”

“Yes, but you’re still making movies about Captain America in the 21st century? World War II is over.”

“Well, Captain America went out of fashion for a time after the war ended. But then during the 1960s he got thawed out from the frozen ice he was trapped inside, and …”

“What? Did you need to thaw him out for the Vietnam War then?” she said sarcastically.

I never did succeed in winning her around to the side of Captain America.

I’m probably going to lose all my hip, liberal, credentials for saying this (not to mention all my Canadian friends) but I actually like Captain America. I don’t agree with the jingoism of all the 1940s patriotic superheroes, but I recognize them as relics from a former era. And as a comic book geek I think they have their charm in a cheesy kitschy way. And a certain part of me thinks comic books are all the cooler for keeping these outdated superheroes going. That’s what makes comic books such a unique medium. Every generation creates its own superheroes which match the sensibilities of the time, but the superheroes from previous decades are never discarded. The old superheroes are just interwoven into the new stories and so both Marvel and DC have found ways to keep alive their superheroes from the 1940s, the 1960s, and the 1980s all together in the same interwoven story. Some people may call me a geek, but I think that’s kind of cool.

What Stan Lee did with Captain America in the 1960s was particularly interesting. Instead of just modernizing Captain America and dropping him off in the 1960s as if he had been there all along (like DC did with some of their 1940 Superheroes), Stan Lee decided Captain America had been trapped in ice for 20 years. When he was finally unfrozen, he had a fair amount of angst about being 20 years behind on the world, and finding out how much had changed in his absence.
Stan Lee also decided that Captain America’s kid sidekick Bucky had been killed in their last mission right before Captain America got frozen in ice. So in addition to being disoriented by the time skip, Captain America had to deal with the guilt of his dead sidekick.
(This was in keeping with Stan Lee’s standard practice in the 1960s and making sure each character had some sort of angst to keep them interesting for the reader.)

So the character has some interesting history to him.
I also like how Captain America has been used as the liberal voice at Marvel Comic Books over the past 50 years. The fact that his very name is Captain America allows the writers to get away with putting a lot of liberal views into his mouth in an “Only-Nixon-Can-Go-to-China” type way. After all, who is going to accuse Captain America of being anti-American?
So during the 1960s, Captain America was sympathetic to the hippies. During the lead up to the Iraq War, he spoke out against all the anti-French sentiment going on in America.

However, at the end of the day, all of this doesn’t change the fact that Captain America, as he was originally created in the 1940s, was propagandizing kids into supporting war. Which ought to disturb us.

And so I go into this movie with mixed feelings. The comic book geek in me loves Captain America. The anti-military side of me is ambivalent about what sort of political message this movie is sending.

Ordinarily when I walk into Hollywood action movies, I try and turn the political side of my brain off, and just focus on the entertainment value and try and ignore all the politics I disagree with. But how much is this movie going to let me do that, and how much is it going to hit me over the head with its patriotic message?

The Movie Review

Let’s start with the easiest questions first, and work our way back from there: How did this movie work just as a mindless action flick?

Okay, I guess. I mean it wasn’t bad or anything.

Although it did have kind of a long slow boring start. And then even once the action did start, it seemed a little bit episodic to me. There are various little mini climaxes, but the movie didn’t do a good job of keeping the tension or the momentum going between action scenes, causing me to get a little bit bored. The final confrontation with the Red Skull was really a disappointment. Here was someone who had the same strength and ability Captain America had—it could have been a great fight scene, and yet it really just fizzled out with a resolution that seemed way too borrowed from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Also, the cool thing about Captain America has always been that he fights all his battles with his own strength, agility, and his special shield. So I think it was a mistake that in some of these action scenes he’s shooting bad guys with a gun. Whose idea was it to give Captain America a gun?

Bucky Barnes
Also, the character of Bucky really felt pointless in this movie.
I know what a large role the death of Bucky plays in Captain America’s story in the comic books, but in the movie he didn’t really justify his inclusion.
Also, as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to agonizing over Bucky’s death, once is enough.
Such a big deal is made out of the fact that Bucky might be dead behind enemy lines. Captain America goes in for a heroic rescue attempt. And then there’s relief when Bucky is found alive and well.
And then, after all that, Bucky is killed off a second time, so Captain America can feel sad for Bucky all over again.
All of this for someone who (at least as he is portrayed in the movie) is just the generic buddy character and never developed beyond that, and consequently someone the audience wouldn’t really care about except that we’re told we have to care about him because Captain America does.
Well, I can just about manage to maybe make myself care a little bit about Bucky the first time he is M.I.A. behind enemy lines, but when we lose him for the second time, I just couldn’t be bothered caring anymore.

Captain America has a brief sad scene with a bottle of alcohol after Bucky dies, and then after that he promptly forgets about Bucky as well and no one ever mentions him again.

(It’s possible this is all set up for future dead Bucky angst in the sequels, and I’ll have to wait and see how the writers develop this in the future movies. But as far as this movie goes, Bucky was completely pointless.)

Okay, so much for the entertainment value of the film. Now we get to the more sticky questions.

The Jingoism
I’m a bit conflicted on this, because (and again I say this as a comic book geek) there really is something to be said for authenticity.
It’s all too easy to imagine a movie studio wanting to update Captain America or put him into the 21st Century.
So this movie gets some credit from me for following the original comic books, and putting Captain America back where he belongs in the 1940s.

The angsty man-confused-because-he’s-in-the-wrong-time period Captain America of Stan Lee might be more interesting than 1940s war hero Captain America, but you can’t have the one without first setting up the other. And from the way this movie ends, it’s clear that they plan to follow the Stan Lee storyline in the future.

If you are going for authenticity, then I think there’s a fine line to be walked here. You have to show that Captain America came from a more jingoistic period of American history, but you don’t want to make the movie itself jingoistic. I admit, it’s not an easy task. Had I been one of the writers, I’m not sure I would have done any better.

There’s another consideration as well. Whatever your views are on the military, you don’t want to trivialize the suffering that the soldiers went through by making World War II look like just one big fun adventure.
On the other hand, there’s a long pulp comic book tradition, dating all the way back to the 1940s itself, of making World War II look like just one big fun adventure.

I think part of the key is that Captain America doesn’t exist in the real world—he exists in the comic book world. As long as things stay firmly in the pulp comic book world, it is kind of okay.
The comic book world is not concerned with the serious side of the war. Instead it’s filled with killer Nazi robots, evil Nazi doctors, Nazi spies who have secret submarine boats located just outside New York that nobody notices for some reason, and fights with Nazis on speeding trains, et cetera. You want the heroes to not be fighting real people, but mindless evil Nazis. And, in fact, if you can do one better than mindless evil Nazis, and make them into HYDRA, an even eviler cult within Nazism, then you’re doing one better.
This movie has all these elements, so it is somewhat on the right track.

But it also has scenes of Steve Rogers (Captain America) scolding people in movie theaters for not showing proper respect to newsreel footage of American soldiers. It has an overly long introduction where we are repeatedly hit over the head with the theme of a pure-of-heart ordinary American kid who just wants to join the army so he can stand up to foreign bullies.
It shows Steve Rogers repeatedly trying to enlist for the army, and repeatedly mentioning his desire to join the war, and it makes this out as a noble trait. At times, this movie almost plays like a commercial for army recruiting.
And then even after Steve Rogers becomes Captain America, he still is obsessed with getting to the fighting.

In fact, the first time I attempted to watched this movie, I turned it off after 45 minutes and said, “Yeah, I get it. He can’t wait to join the war, and just he really loves America.”
(But, the next night, there was nothing good on TV, so I ended up finishing this movie out of boredom.)

The studio executives must have decided that these scenes would play well in America’s heartland. And they probably did. But they had me rolling my eyes. And (since all Hollywood movies are essentially international releases now anyway) I can only imagine what the reaction of the rest of the world is.
I’m glad my Canadian friend never saw this movie, because I would have trouble defending it to her.

Geek Notes

* As a comic book geek, I’m glad to see the movie found an excuse to include Dum Dum Dugan and the other members of the Howling Commandos, even if they didn’t really add anything to the story.

* In another nod to comic book fans, the movie also found a cool way to reference the iconic first cover of Captain America [See Here].

* For all its faults, this is probably the best Captain America movie comic books fans had the hope of getting. It didn’t hit every note perfectly, but it managed to include all the major parts of Captain America’s story: his World War II origin, the death of Bucky, and his being frozen in ice.
Hopefully the character will become more interesting in future movies.

Link of the Day
Obama, Campus Activism, Mexico and the Middle East. Also Lundy Khoy Barely Escaped Pol Pot's Purge; Now the U.S. Is Threatening to Deport Her for a Decade-Old Drug Charge


Whisky Prajer said...

Well, you haven't lost this Canadian friend. Captain America always struck me as similar to Captain Kirk, only with bolder lines. And those Canadian girls were just having you on. You could have quickly put them on the defensive by inquiring about Captain Canuck, or, for the purposes of comics history, Johnny Canuck, who pre-dates the Cap by almost two decades.

I thought this movie was a slog, though. Took the girls out to see it, and dozed off as he closed in on the Red Skull.

Joel Swagman said...

I was very surprised that she was just hearing about Captain America for the first time. (I would have thought him a big enough part of pop culture that everyone knew him, even before the movie). But I told myself that not everyone is interested in the same things I am.

Can't say I blame you for dozing off in the movie. And you didn't miss much. The final encounter with the Red Skull was disappointingly anti-climatic

Dean said...

Captain Hero or Captain Avenger just doesn't sound right. I am looking forward to watching The Avengers.

Joel Swagman said...

Yes, point taken. Captain America is an easy name to mock, but coming up with a similar catchy name is easy said than done.
I haven't gotten around to reviewing The Avengers yet, but I enjoyed it. Send me your thoughts after you see it.