Captain America: The First Avenger Dir. Joe Johnston

[Paramount; 2011]

Styles: action, comic book, superhero, science fiction
Others: X-Men: First Class, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Inglourious Basterds

Although not at all obvious from his name, Captain America is propaganda. Superman, in spite of his immigrant status, may have stood for the American way and even personally apprehended both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin in a 1940 mini-comic entitled “What If Superman Ended the War?” but Steve Rogers, alias Captain America, was born and bred by creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for the sole purpose of fighting Nazis for his country (to be fair to comics history, both the Man of Steel and Cap entered the war before the United States did). As a comic book character, Captain America has always dealt with the dilemma of outliving his Golden Age usefulness. For those of you who actually went on dates in high school and are too lazy to look up the term, the Golden Age of comic books refers to the 1930s through the post-WWII era, which due to the country’s troubled times, often skewed the work towards aw-shucks, can-do patriotism. In later incarnations, Captain America was depicted as a man out of touch with the times, and in this past decade, he was even subject to a death story arc, the superhero’s version of jumping the shark. Director Joe Johnston, saddled with this innate problem in making Captain America: The First Avenger, opts to navigate a course between Spielbergian Greatest Generation nostalgia and Quentin Tarantino’s meta-cinematic take on war propaganda in Inglourious Basterds.

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a wimpy young man from Brooklyn who dreams of enlisting to fight in the war, despite his puny size and abysmal health. He’s given a chance when German refugee scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) chooses him as the ideal test subject for a super-soldier serum. The experiment succeeds, but rather than being shipped to the front lines with Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and love interest Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), the government uses Rogers’ newfound hero status to promote the war effort via fundraisers. Despite his stardom status, Rogers still longs to engage the enemy. When he discovers his best friend has been taken prisoner by deformed Nazi occultist/scientist/Nietzsche fan Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), he disobeys orders and stages a daring rescue, thus becoming Captain America.

Johnston’s pedigree from the Spielberg/Lucas school is fairly obvious: he started out working for George Lucas, inherited the Jurassic Park series from Spielberg for the third installation, and may have borrowed a piece here and there from the Indiana Jones films for this outing. Like his “teachers,” Johnston is clearly enamored with cinematic history. In that regard, the most compelling aspect to the film is not Rogers’s relationships to his friends, love interests, or sense of duty, but to the movies themselves. His dream of being a war hero stems more from watching the propaganda reels of soldiers on the march than an actual notion of what war is. As if a devious genie were granting his wish, he attains all this: he is given superpowers, hailed as a hero, and even becomes the main attraction in those reels he once gazed up at in starry-eyed wonder. Yet the irony is that Captain America is stuck playing Captain America, unable to break the fourth wall. In a subversive jump cut at the end of a montage, Rogers goes from adoring crowds to battle-worn soldiers, who start to heckle him. With this one shot, Johnston poses a real challenge to war and action cinema.

The film’s big shortcoming, however, is more in finding an overarching theme for the heroic plot. Captain America stands for his country, certainly, and against the world domination of Shmidt/Red Skull. But what are we really supposed to take from this? There are some muddled ideas about remaining the little, ordinary guy rather than embracing the temptation of being the big power. Considering America is the big power in this day and age, a hint of awareness could have taken this film to the next level. Moreover, the film also engages in some seriously revisionist, politically correct history, with Captain America assembling a rainbow coalition of crackerjack troops for his raids. Stan Lee made Marvel great by pushing the boundaries of social themes, yet this film tries to whitewash the mistreatment of African-Americans and Japanese-Americans during the time period by letting them join the gang.

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