When I was kid growing up in the eighties, there were two things I knew with absolute certainty:
(1) I was fat and awkward
(2) America was the good guys in the world
The first truth was hard to ignore. Pudgy, wearing coke-bottle glasses, sitting in my room all day and reading, I didn’t exactly develop first class social skills. Like most kids in the same situation, I was drawn to comic books. Marvel Comics, specifically. Unlike its competitors, Marvel’s heroes lived in the real world. Sure, it was the real world with Norse Gods and giant alien planet-eaters, but the stories still took place in New York or Washington as opposed to fictional places. They touched on real events. And, especially with characters like Spider-Man, they dealt with real problems. My childhood memories of Spider-Man comics include web-slinging and wall-crawling, but they also include poor Peter being rejected by the hot secretary at the Daily Bugle, struggling to pay rent while balancing his college course load (and crime fighting), and dealing with his Aunt-turned-Mother growing increasingly sicker. These were characters I could relate to. If geeky Peter Parker could be a hero, could rise above the hand that life dealt him, why couldn’t I?
The second truth was all around us. We were in the height of the Cold War. The Russians were increasing their nuclear arsenal daily. Spies were everywhere. The newspapers and television and movies told us it was just a matter of time before all-out war occurred between our countries. It was Good versus Evil on a grand scale, the themes represented in those comic books played out live on the nightly news. If we weren’t vigilant, the Red Menace would take freedom and independence away from the entire world.
Or so we were told.
We needed a hero. We needed CAPTAIN AMERICA.
Captain America was a scrawny teenager who was classified 4F by the Army and couldn’t enlist. Instead, he became a part of a secret government experiment that turned him into a brawny, athletic, Nazi-fighting machine. This appealed to my ten-year old self on every level. All pistons were firing and I loved reading new stories about Cap fighting the Commies or old ones about Cap teaming up with Sgt. Fury and his Howlin’ Commandos to go toe to toe with Hitler’s army.
So, needless to say, it was with some excitement I sat down to watch an early screening of CAPTAIN AMERICA: FIRST AVENGER a couple of weeks ago.
The film is pretty faithful to the comic. The first (and most important) thing that director Joe Johnson did right was setting the film during WWII. Not only is this true to Cap’s story but, thematically, it’s the only way it works. We do not have the patriotism in this nation that we did in generations past, for good or ill (after all, some would have called our unquestioning loyalty during my childhood “blind” and “naive”). Setting the film during the modern day would have been disastrous and would have been what most idiotic producers would have pushed for. Luckily, Marvel is behind their own films these days.
And the WWII setting plays out almost perfectly. While there are a few silly things I could have done without, for the most part CAPTAIN AMERICA plays in the sandbox that Spielberg and Lucas built with STAR WARS and INDIANA JONES. Those two films sought to hearken back to the old serials the directors loved growing up, the space operas and adventure shorts that played in the theaters between features. CAPTAIN AMERICA reminds me of those serials as well. Of course, Cap had his own serial in the forties (brilliantly referenced in the movie), so it’s not much of a stretch.
One of the first “WOW” factors that you’re hit with in this film are the effects. Chris Evans is made a foot shorter and about a hundred pounds lighter as the scrawny Steve Rogers and it is seamless. As opposed to the clunky effects of that over-hyped clodding BENJAMIN BUTTON, the effects are so realistic that I’ve heard people comment on how amazing it was that Evans lost a hundred pounds for the role.
Speaking of Evans’ physique, it’s very impressive after his transformation to Captain America. He worked his ass off to look like a superhero and it shows. This is a trend I’m all behind in the action films from this year. For the past few years our screen heroes and sex symbols have been scrawny, effeminate looking men. But with stars like Evans and Chris Hemsworth, we’re seeing a return to masculine physiques. Not the overly muscled caricatures of eighties films, but legitimately MALE builds. As an athletic nut and someone who worries about where this nations testosterone has gone, this makes me very happy.
And, as for his performance, Evans does a great job. In other films, he’s shined with a comic wit. In Captain America, he captures the seriousness and pathos of the character while keeping a certain boyish-charm. He feels like the quintessential WWII hero.
The rest of the cast is equally as good. Tommy Lee Jones turns in great performance as a tired but determined General seeking any edge we can get on the seemingly unbeatable Nazis. Stanley Tucci’s performance is funny but he’s a little too over-the-top, while Hugo Weaving is as menacing as one would expect from the man who gave us Agent Smith in THE MATRIX.
The sets vacillate between amazing and CGI backgrounds. I was willing to forgive some of the CGI (though I hate CGI so much) because they did use several practical effects in the film. There’s one particular scene where a Nazi munitions factory is eaten with a series of explosions that was done with miniatures and real pyrotechnics. Not only is it done very well, but it’s refreshing to see in a climate where films are dominated by shitty effects that look like some teenager did them on his I-Mac.
Most of the action is a refreshing turn away from what we’re used to, especially in superhero movies. Motorcycle chases, gun fights, fist fights, jumps – this is more of a classic action film than any other superhero movie I’ve seen recently.
And the film recognizes the genre it’s in. It seeks to feel more like a WWII adventure film than a superhero movie. There are moments in the film that recall “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Great Escape,” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Even his iconic shield serves the character in the same way Indy’s whip does.
There are great set pieces with a government neutered Captain America traveling the country with USO Showgirls selling war bonds and scrawny Steve Rogers watching news reels of soldiers fighting in Europe. I’m a sucker for a good World War II film and this was one.
I had a few complaints. While it’s true to the comic books, the Red Skull defects from the Nazi party early on to form his own organization called HYDRA. Captain America (along with the Howlin’ Commandos) fights HYDRA more than they do the Nazis. I would have rather seen them up against actual Nazis.
The Red Skull also gets hold of an ancient Norse artifact (the mysterious cube Loki is interested in after the end credits of THOR) and uses this to create some rather high-tech weaponry. While being both true to the comics AND really driving home the feel of those nineteen-forties serials, I would have preferred that this remained WWII era weaponry. (I will say that these ties to THOR, while obvious to any who have seen the film, are subtle enough not to bother anyone who hasn’t. And the Nazis were big on Norse occultism, so it does work).
Overall, though, I only had minor squabbles with the film. Again, I’m a sucker for movies like this and a big Captain America fan, but this was such a fun and light-hearted ride that I couldn’t help but push it into my top five superhero movie list.
So I highly recommend going to see CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER. Stick around after the credits, too, for a look at 2012’s AVENGERS, which sees Cap, Thor, the Hulk, and Iron Man together in what is sure to be one crazy ass movie.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER opens nationwide today, Friday, July 22nd, leaving us with only one question:
Why the hell didn’t this movie open on July 4th?
For more information, check out http://captainamerica.marvel.com/Brad C. Hodson is a writer living in Los Angeles. His stories have appeared in anthologies alongside Neil Gaiman, Chuck Palahniuk, George RR Martin, and many more of his literary heroes. For a listing of his literary and film work, please check out his Bibliography at https://brad-hodson.com/bibliography/
Category: Satire, Parody, and Other Things I Use IncorrectlyTags: Apollo Creed, Avengers, Benjamin Button, Brad Pitt, captain america, captain america review, chris evans, chris hemsworth, Cold War, first avenger, Hitler, Howlin' Commandos, hugo weaving, Indiana Jones, loki, Lucas, Marvel, Nazis, Obama, Reagan, Red Dawn, Red Skull, Russia, serial, Sgt .Fury, Spider-Man, Spileberg, stanley tucci, Star Wars, thor, tommy lee jones