Whenever I go to a superhero film, beyond my comic book fan sensibility of wanting to see fidelity to the source material, I always want to be invested in the main character. Not just in their heroic abilities, but also in their personalities, their perceptions of the world, and their morality. Marvel Studios had given me very few opportunities to have that kind of belief. Like (seemingly) everyone else, I enjoyed the Iron Man films, and the exploits of Tony Stark discovering that he can make himself more than a frivolous playboy with a fortune in both money and brilliance. I enjoyed The Incredible Hulk, and Bruce Banner’s struggle with containing the beast within before unleashing it to stop another of equal (or greater) power. I also enjoyed Thor more than the previous releases, and the evolution of a petulant God-child into a more humble, yet grandstanding leader.
The only problem is that in those films, I was never given someone to truly believe in. I was given plenty of characters to root for, but that’s a far different feeling than one of pure inspiration and hopefulness. Tony Stark is hardly the type of personality to inspire others. If anything, he can oftentimes be a blueprint for how not to act in particular situations, and I feel he’s far less relatable than others. He has extraordinary intelligence, but his wealth and whimsy don’t make him a very inspiring personality. Bruce Banner, while relatively moral, again is all about self-control. There’s an inherent amount of virtuousness and care in his actions, but it’s more because he’s just afraid of hurting others if he gets out of control. Hopefully, most people would behave this way.
Thor the character is closer to the standard of inspiration, but his heroism lies very much in his celestial skill and status. In the film, he is chastised by Odin for recklessly abusing his position and power irresponsibly. It’s only when Thor learns of what his true obligation is to the other realms of Yggdrasil that he rises to the occasion and lets the inherent heroism assert itself, and becomes the character we know. Still, I hadn’t had much of a reason to truly believe in the characters that will make up most of the Avengers. Fortunately, and finally, that has all changed.
Even before these Marvel Studios films began, my favorite character in their stable was always Steve Rogers. I remember the comic that finally showed me a Marvel character that I could really get behind, and that was Captain America (vol. 5) #25 by writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting. Brubaker used this high profile issue to briefly rehash Cap’s origin story, but he then summed up the reason that this character is the greatest hero in the Marvel Universe, when he said,
“He was supposed to be the first of an army, an army of super-soldiers, but it all went wrong. Project: Rebirth ended in blood and fire, and left one man to carry on in the place of all the others that might have been: one man to carry that burden. He made it look easy, even though it never was, and he never stopped fighting for what he believed in, or for what he believed his country should be.”
After this, I began to truly discover who Captain America was, and what set him apart from all the other heroes in the Marvel Universe. Beyond being the unquestioned leader of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, the Avengers, Cap was a brilliant strategist, and one that could turn the tide of practically any battle he had to participate in. His keen mind and leadership skills are even reflected in DC/Marvel crossovers, as he and Batman can never manage to get beyond constant stalemates! But beyond this, it becomes exceedingly clear the more you read about Cap that he’s just a good man. He’s truly humble and kind, because he started his life as a physically disadvantaged young man on a scrawny frame. But eventually, his desire to serve his country and his fellow man proved too big for his small body. After a chance meeting with an Army scientist that defected from Germany, he’s given a body that’s big enough to hold his will, his drive, and his desire to serve. The quintessential leader was born, and the Marvel Universe had found its beacon.
Now we arrive at the film, aptly titled Captain America: The First Avenger. Because I’m a Cap fan, I was hoping beyond anything else that they wouldn’t try and drag Steve down in an effort to make him more “believable” or “relatable.” So often, it seems as if critics and certain members of the fanbase reward creators that give characters undesirable (or even abhorrent) personality traits in order to make them more “realistic,” such as Frank Miller making Jim Gordon an unfaithful adulterer in Batman: Year One, Tim Burton turning the Dark Knight into a murderer for his Batman films, or Bryan Singer making the Man of Steel a deserting “baby-daddy” in Superman Returns. If Steve Rogers became a tortured drug addict thrust into World War II to feed his super-soldier serum addiction and his unrelenting bloodlust, then there would be a serious problem.
Much to my joy, they didn’t do this at all. The overall theme of the movie was very much rooted in the good man that Steve Rogers is, and because of this, they nail his tone perfectly. He’s interestingly naïve in matters of the heart, but this Cap takes to his training and his skill very well. When he first gains his new abilities, there’s an awesome learning curve that he adjusts to very quickly, and it’s only after the action dies down a bit that he takes a moment to look at what he’s become. This was very appropriate as he kept focused on the task at hand before taking some time to observe himself.
Chris Evans, while initially shaky casting from my perspective, nails Captain America here. While there’s a certain “aw shucks” quality that has to be maintained to an extent, Evans manages to pull it off without seeming dated, nerdy, or out of touch. Evans’ Steve Rogers just is. He does what many haven’t been able to do in other similar roles, and makes being a good man cool. When comparing Evans’ other major super hero film role in the brash and arrogant Johnny Storm from the Fantastic Four films, Evans manages to completely change his demeanor and come off as that hero and man to believe in, along with being a leader that instills the faith and hope in his men to willfully follow him to the gates of Hell and back. Because he makes it look easy, and because he thrives on being the good man that is at the heart of Steve Rogers’ character, Evans thrives in this role and makes me believe in Captain America as a good man, a capable leader, and an unparalleled hero. Mission accomplished.
While for me Evans is the highlight of the cast, a very, very close second is Hugo Weaving’s turn as Johann Schmidt, aka the Red Skull. When talking about my personal discovery of this character, much the same way Ed Brubaker made me believe in Captain America, he made me terrified of Schmidt and his limitless sadism. The first real grounding Brubaker managed to give me of Schmidt was very early in his Captain America run, where Schmidt is described as, “Hitler’s strong right hand. A Nazi icon made to spread terror across Europe and the rest of the world. Like a bogeyman to send Jewish children into screaming fits at bedtime.” While the film takes a more unique literal interpretation of the Red Skull, stylistically and conceptually he is very similar to that fear-inducing maniac from the comics.
Weaving has gone on record saying that he’s patterned his accent after German filmmaker Werner Herzog, but he still goes further and manages to make every word from Schmidt come off as cold, hollow, egotistical, and self-serving. Weaving’s Schmidt is so singular of purpose and means that the threat he presents feels very palpable and real. Weaving could have made this a very generic performance, with a villain that needed to threaten freedom and have Cap stop him. Instead, he goes the extra mile here to make Schmidt truly unique and distinctive, and I certainly hope that we haven’t seen the last of him in this new franchise.
While there are roots of this in the source material, the film does an excellent job of creating HYDRA as an offshoot of Adolf Hitler’s well-documented love of the occult and belief in higher powers. It becomes plausible that something like HYDRA would have existed within the structure of the Nazi government, and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are to be commended for deft use of historical truth in driving forward a fictitious organization.
Haley Atwell as Peggy Carter surprised me. I was expecting a very “by the numbers” contribution from her, but she really had more to do than is typical of love interests in comic book films. The love story in this film is so wonderfully subtle that it gets a lot of positives in my mind. It’s only lightly added to over the course of the entire film, and by the time the credits roll becomes very poignant and resonant. Typical fare would have had a full-on resolution to the characters’ attraction, but because that’s not what we get here, it’s surprising and unique. Beyond the love story portion, I enjoyed Atwell’s character showing Steve the ropes in regards to his role in the Army and his more meek social attitudes. Suffice it to say, there’s quite a bit to enjoy from her.
Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes is a delightful update from the source material. While in the original comics Bucky is very much a sidekick and almost son-like figure in Cap’s life, the screenwriters decide to take a page from Ed Brubaker’s interpretation and turn him into a brother-in-arms for Steve. While Bucky supposedly meets his demise here (as was done in the comics), Stan is signed on for several more films with Marvel Studios. Want to know why? This is speculation on my part, but I’m guessing that you may find an answer to this in a graphic novel called Captain America: Winter Soldier.
Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Chester Phillips was the least unique from a character perspective, but the humor that Jones injects into the gruff exterior of this officer is surprisingly satisfying. Jones is typical Jones for the majority of the film, and that is in no way detraction from his performance. His use here is far more creative and satisfying than Fox’s use of “typical armed forces guys” in X-Men: First Class, yet familiar enough to give you what we’ve come to expect from an actor of Jones’ caliber.
Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine gives what is probably the best lower-level supporting performance from any Marvel film to date. While his Erskine is serious, the moment at which he’s inspired by this skinny kid from Brooklyn is exceedingly clear, and Tucci delivers his lines about why Steve was chosen for the project with a feeling and truth that makes you believe in Steve even more, if you hadn’t already.
The combat scenes were awesome to behold. While we got a hint of what the super-soldier serum could do back in The Incredible Hulk, this was merely a taste of what was to come. Seeing the master himself at work in Captain America was great, as the agility and stamina are all in your face from the moment Steve gets transformed. Whether it’s jumping, lifting, sneaking, fighting, or shooting, the film makes Cap’s skill very easy and clear to see. Seeing him throw the shield in combat was also very riveting for me as a Cap fan, and the very practical ways in which he decides to implement it in combat situations make the action stand out from the other types of similar scenes in other Marvel films.
Director Joe Johnston has really surprised me with this film, but this is also coming from a kid who watched The Rocketeer every day from ages 3-5. Maybe I’m biased, but it seems as if he’s pulling off the period very well in this film while adding new creative pieces of technological innovation where it serves the story. The aesthetic here evokes the threatening environs of Europe during the war, but also manages to maintain an impression of comic book heroism that doesn’t feel forced or unnatural given the circumstances.
One other aspect that the film manages to pull off correctly is how non-political it is. Because Captain America wears the stars and stripes boldly on his uniform, for many this is reason for ideologues to project their views and perceptions onto him. This film has no agenda other than to show you the drive and desire of a good man to become involved in a conflict taking his friends and countrymen from him. Rogers is plainly instilled with American ideals, yes, but those ideals are still relatively universal in the desires of most people. While rooted as American values, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable human rights, and Captain America is a champion of those ideals. No need to politicize that when such a great character is fighting for you.
In my opinion, Captain America: The First Avenger is the best superhero film of the summer, as well as the best Marvel film to date. I think it’s a better film than both entries in Iron Man, better than Thor, better than Raimi’s Spider-Man films, and better than the early X-Men entries. It’s a very different beast than Nolan’s Batman films and doesn’t match up to that standard, but Cap easily outmatches its Marvel brethren, and shows us the character that should take his rightful place as leader of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes next summer.
My reaction may be stronger than others, but in truth, I really don’t care. I saw the Star-Spangled Avenger in all of his glory, he inspired me, and made the wait for The Avengers that much more difficult to bear. Steve Rogers has finally hit the silver screen in a film worthy of the name Captain America, and this fan couldn’t be happier. I hope that when you walk out of the theater after watching this film, you’re just as inspired as I was.
Oh, and one last note, be sure to stay after the credits. Suffice it to say, that “some assembly is required.”