On its surface, the Captain America character is pretty ridiculous. The name alone is rife with World War II jingoism that seems out of place in today’s considerably more cynical and global world. Director Joe Johnston smartly embraced the silliness that is a superhero with a giant “A” on his forehead through a mix of digital wizardry, American montages, and good old fashioned Nazi-punching.
Steve Rogers (who first appears as a digitally-altered version of Chris Evans) is an asthmatic wimp with a hero’s heart. He can’t fight for beans and he’s been rejected from the Army four times, but that doesn’t stop him. Rogers may not be popular with the ladies but he’s a moral man, a theme that will carry throughout the film. It’s his bright soul that attracts former German scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) to Rogers for a top-secret super-soldier project.
That project, initiated by Erskine under the funding of insane Nazi Johann Schmidt (played with feral menace by Hugo Weaving), is a super-soldier serum. It has one side-effect however – whoever is injected with the glowing blue stuff gains super strength and endurance but also reveals his true self. Schmidt’s face peels off, thus his moniker The Red Skull. Once Rogers becomes the hero he always knew he could be, Captain America: The First Avenger really gets rolling.
Until then, the scrawny, CGI-diminished form of Rogers is distracting. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but Evans just doesn’t look right. Evans’ booming voice betrays the deeply powerful body that it belongs to. But once Rogers is in Evan’s true form, he is a wonder to behold. The film literally hits the ground running once Rogers becomes Captain America.
Lurking around the edges of Captain America is the idea of the ubermensch or superman. It’s interesting that the film completely avoids this topic; Erskine’s genetic research was a real focus for both the German and U.S. governments. Good old Cap is the Nazi ideal realized, but the script never goes there.
The Nazi obsession with the reclamation of a Slavic identity is also missing. In part, this was the motivation behind the Ahhenerbe quest for ancient artifacts proving German supremacy – the same quests that were made legendary in the Indiana Jones series. There is mention of Yggdrasil, the Nordic tree of life, and the Tesseract, which fortunately is never actually named in the film. This cube, a boundless source of energy, funds all sorts of Schmidt’s projects and it’s not long before he turns against his Nazi overseers to launch his own splinter organization, HYDRA.
Captain America is basically a guy juiced up on super steroids that runs around with a bull’s-eye shield, and the film cleverly capitalizes on the larger-than-life comic book without disrespecting the pulp feel of an ugly war. Rogers transforms from super-soldier to poster boy for America, and his ridiculous outfit comes complete with dancing girls. This plays well in the States until Rogers is sent to the front lines to cheer up the troops, where he’s jeered as a “chorus girl.”
The film never lets us forget this: superheroes are ridiculous enough in civilian life, but in war they’re a dangerous liability. Rogers has to prove himself every day to crusty Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, with some of the funniest lines in the film) and the beautiful-but-tough British Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter). Atwell’s burgeoning romance with Evans centers the film; they’re less star-crossed lovers than two kids just trying to go out on a first date in a war-torn world.
Captain America, being a war film, has heaping measures of American optimism and personal loss. The optimism is embodied by the Howard Hughes-like Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, playing Tony Stark’s father), who is the host of the World’s Fair and inventor of Rogers’ outfit. When Rogers’ best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is captured by HYDRA, it’s propels Captain America to risk everything to rescue him. During that rescue mission Rogers gets a glimpse of a map with the locations of HYDRA’s bases, leading to the final conflict as Captain America and his soldier buddies take down the wicked organization, one technologically-advanced Nazi at a time.
It’s hard not to love Captain America. Ever respectful of its roots, it harks back to a time when America believed in the promise that anyone could be a hero at a time when the world desperately needed heroes. Although it glosses over some rough edges, this is a film made by someone who clearly loved war films. You can see the fingerprints of its pulp ancestors on everything from the lensing to the musical score to the brilliantly executed credits. Captain America may be something of an anachronism in today’s world, but this film does his reputation justice as a war hero.