Movie Review: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
WARNING: SUPER-SOLDIER SPOILERS (WITH VITA RAYS!)
Steve Rogers: Why me?
Dr. Carl Erskine: “Why me?” The only question that matters.
Superhero movies used to be embarrassments, sketchy shadows of the comic books they were based upon, but slowly—in part because of CGI, in part because a generation of comic book readers landed in Hollywood—the movies actually began to improve upon the source material. Take Superman. In the comic book he put the “S” on his chest because he was Superman. Duh. In “Superman: The Movie” (1978), that thing on his chest is his Krpytonian family crest. It’s Lois Lane, after her “Can you read my mind?”-reveried first date with the dude, who thinks up “Superman”—thus saving us all the embarrassment of watching this modest man give himself that immodest name.
The first issue of Captain America was published in March 1941, a fertile period for superhero creation, but hardly a time when a lot of deep thought went into origin stories. Make the dude strong and get him out the door, basically. Captain America’s origin was eight pages—about seven and a half pages longer than Superman’s—but Steve Rogers was almost an afterthought in it. We get Nazi subterfuge in “peace-loving America”; then FDR introduces Army officials to the head of the FBI, J. Arthur Grover, who drives these officials to a curio shop run by an old woman—no, wait! A beautiful young woman—who takes them through a maze of doors until they find themselves in a modern laboratory, where, a caption tells us, “A side door opens...and a frail young man steps into the laboratory.” That’s our hero. Page 4. Prof. Reinstein inoculates this Army reject with “a strange seething liquid,” which turns him superstrong, which leads a Gestapo agent to kill Reinstein, which ... etc. Thus Captain America, the only super-soldier, is born.
But who is Steve Rogers and why did they choose him for this all-important experiment?
The question that Joe Simon and Jack Kirby didn’t care about in 1941 is the question that’s central to “Captain America: the First Avenger,” written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (“The Chronicles of Narnia”) and directed by Joe Johnston. And the way they answer it is why the movie is as good as it is.
I wasn’t holding out much hope, to be honest. Johnston has directed quite a few busts (“The Rocketeer,” “Jumanji,” “Jurassic Park III,” “The Wolfman”) and Chris Evans usually plays snarky hotshots rather than stolid boy scouts like Steve Rogers. Marvel Studios, meanwhile, which started out so well with “Iron Man” and the second version of “The Hulk” in 2008, has since given us “Wolverine,” “Iron Man 2” and “Thor,” none of which was great and one of which—sorry, Logan—was downright awful.
It’s March 1942 and Steve Rogers (Evans) is trying to enlist in the Army but keeps getting rejected—four times now—for chronic ailments, like asthma, not to mention his stature. He’s the “before” part of a Charles Atlas ad: five-foot nothing and 98 pounds of weak. Ah, but he’s scrappy. At a movie theater showing newsreel footage of Nazis marching through Europe, he tries to quiet a rude dude and winds up fighting him in a back alley. Knocked down, he keeps getting up, only to be punished again. “You just don’t know when to quit, do you?” the rude dude says. As it is with American heroes. Our guys tend to have no specialized knowledge—we don’t know no kung fu, man—we’re just able to take a punch and keep coming. Think Rocky Balboa and John McClane. Think Indiana Jones and Cool Hand Luke. Steve is like that; he just doesn’t look like that. Yet.
In the midst of a double-date with his friend James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) at the World Expo ’42, he spots yet another Army recruiting station and goes for his lucky fifth. Lucky for him, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), the Silver Age renaming of Dr. Reinstein, is listening in the wings. He likes what he hears, and, over the objections of Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), OKs the skinny kid for the experimental super-soldier program.
Why Steve Rogers? Erskine is a German scientist, Jewish one assumes, who developed a prototype of the super-soldier serum back in Germany but was forced to use it on a bully, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), who is turned into the Red Skull. Erskine realizes that the serum not only makes a man stronger but amplifies what’s inside him. A bully becomes a megalomaniac. A weak man like Steve Rogers? “A weak man,” he tells Steve,” knows the value of strength, the value of power.”
I could raise an objection here, and did so, silently, in the theater. I thought of a line from college: “The worst taskmasters are former slaves.” I thought of myself, a skinny Steve Rogers-type most of my childhood, and of my many subsequent resentments. Did Steve have none? Was he that good?
Let’s face it: the real reason Steve Rogers is a small, skinny kid is because that was the comic-book-buying demographic in 1941, and those kids wished to thrill—a la Shazam—at the magical transformation from meek to masterful. The real reason Captain America has a boy sidekick, Bucky Barnes, is because every superhero had a boy sidekick back then—because, again, that was the comic-book-buying demographic. The real reason the Red Skull is a villain is because villains with heads like skulls were a comic-book carryover from the lurid pulps of the 1930s.
The goal of the movie, then, is to update these 70- and 80-year-old tropes for the modern age. Thus Schmidt turns into the Skull because the super-serum prototype wasn’t quite ready. Bucky Barnes is no longer a boy sidekick but Steve’s friend: the big kid in the neighborhood who rescued him; the soldier in Europe whom Captain America rescues. And small and skinny? “A weak man knows the value of strength.”
But just because Erskine approves doesn’t mean Steve is a go for the project. Col. Phillips is a soldier and wants a soldier—a real soldier, not some 98-pound asthmatic—to be the first super-soldier. The back-and-forth between Phillips and Erskine is wonderful—particularly in the scene where Phillips lets loose a dummy grenade amid the candidates and only Rogers falls upon it—because Jones and Tucci are so good. The amused warmth in Tucci’s eyes; the hardened authenticity in Jones’ face. We should, in fact, pause to contemplate Tommy Lee Jones for a second. Time and again, he is asked to play the guy tracking or getting in the way of the ostensible hero, yet we love his character all the more for it. Because his character has character? Because he’s a man with a strict adherence to his job but not to his point-of-view? Because if you give him enough evidence, he’ll change? Worth an essay, one day.
Another trope in constant need of update is the convention of the superhero costume, which goes back to ... who knows? Some element of the strong man in the circus, with his outside undies, along with the tights of Hollywood’s Robin Hood, which inspired the comic strip “The Phantom,” which inspired everyone else. It’s a convention that hasn’t aged well. If you acquire superpowers, why would you put on a brightly colored, skintight outfit? What kind of freak are you? So modern cinematic superheroes, playing to a cooler crowd, either get rid of the outfit (X-Men), give it utility (Batman) or provide a comic version as a bridge to the final version (Spider-Man).
“Captain America” goes the “Spider-Man” route. After injection and transformation, and the subsequent death of Dr. Erskine by a spy from Hydra—the deep-science wing of the Third Reich, run by the Red Skull—Phillips, still not on board, rejects Steve for an overseas mission. But a visiting Senator, impressed with Steve’s heroic run through New York to nail the Hydra spy, and, more, with the subsequent positive press from his heroics, puts him on a tour to raise war bonds, a la the heroes of Iwo Jima in Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers,” where, flanked by dancing girls, he wears a star-spangled outfit and decks an actor playing Adolf Hitler. A comic book is even created: “Captain America.” Same one created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Nice touch.
And that’s the costume he’s wearing, trying to entertain the troops in Italy, when he leaps into action to save the 107th and Bucky Barnes. Bonus: the Howling Commandoes come along, led by the moustachioed Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough, “Buck” Compton from HBO’s excellent “Band of Brothers”). No Sgt. Fury, of course, who, in the comics, led the Howling Commandoes. Sgt. Fury became Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D., and, while that chronology worked in the ’60s, a mere 20 years after the end of WW II, it’s more problematic 70 years removed.
Interestingly, we never see Captain America battle the Nazis. He and the Howling Commandoes are always fighting Hydra—that Marvel Comics organization promising that if you cut off one head, two more will rise to replace it—and these scenes are super fun, with Captain America leaping off tanks in the Mighty Kirby Manner, riding his motorcycle over fences like a super Steve McQueen, and flinging his shield, that great shield, so that it banks off walls and takes out robots and armored men, then flies back to its master’s hand.
More important, we never lose sight of the skinny kid beneath the muscles. Cap is successful not just because he’s superstrong but because he’s always trying harder than anyone else. The dialogue with the rude dude at the beginning is even repeated with the Red Skull at the end. We never lose sight of the fact that Dr. Erskine’s serum may create the power, but it’s the man he chose who creates the hero.
“Captain America” does it all well: from the death of Bucky Barnes, to the final battle with the Red Skull, to Cap’s inevitable immersion in ice. They take their stolid hero and surround him with vibrant character actors like Jones, Tucci and Weaving—does his German accent remind anyone else of Werner Herzog?—as well as Hayley Atwell, who makes a lovely, tough Peggy Carter, Steve’s eventual love interest, with whom, before the final battle, he shares a soft, first kiss. (Suggested title for the sequel: “Captain America: 90-Year-Old Virgin.”)
But does the ending work? Cap commandeers the Red Skull’s plane, heading to bomb New York (giving us 9/11 overtones), and ditches it in the Arctic. He and Peggy share good-byes over the radio. They talk of a dance the following week. “I’d hate to step on your ...” he says, followed by the crackle of static. “Steve...” she says. “Steve...” she says. We get shots of VE-Day celebrations. We get the Howling Commandoes drinking a pint to the Captain, followed by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Tony’s father, finding the Red Skull’s cosmic cube. We get a shot of kids in Brooklyn playing Captain America with a painted garbage can.
Should it have ended there? It could have. “Avengers,” next year, could thaw him out.
Instead Steve Rogers wakes up in a neat bedroom. A nearby radio broadcasts a game between the Dodgers and Phillies at Ebbets Field, while a woman, looking WAC, enters to check on him. We know something’s amiss before he does. Ebbets Field? The Dodgers left there in ’56. He figures it out because the game being broadcast (or rebroadcast) is a game he actually attended back in ’41. So he breaks out of the room, out of the building, and into modern-day Times Square, where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) informs him he’s been in suspended animation for 70 years. “I had a date,” he says, trying to fathom all he’s lost.
But wouldn’t the above have worked better solely from his point-of-view? He’s piloting the plane, talking to Peggy, ice and snow appear before him, a crash. Then white (with echoes of her voice) ... followed by white (and silence)... followed by white. Then waking up in the room to the Dodgers game.
What would we have lost that we needed? This way, the movie could’ve ended with a visit to the grave of Peggy Carter (1920-2001). She’s British, but a soldier, and let’s have her buried in Arlington Cemetery. And that’s where you end your movie about World War II's supersoldier: Cap, at her grave, kneeling, then standing and looking around; and the camera pulling back and showing us the white markers of all the fallen soldiers.
“Captain America: The First Avenger” is a top-tier superhero movie, reminiscent of the first “X-Men” or “Spider-Man” in the joy it provides. Its ending, though, should’ve been a little more like its hero. It should’ve tried just a little harder.