Love It or Leave It, by Scott Nye
There’s an awful lot worth liking about Captain America: The First Avenger, but it never quite coalesces into a whole piece, never quite finds the perfect groove, never quite gets to that one, defining moment that every summer blockbuster needs. It has several iconic, draw-dropping shots (you’ve seen many of them in the trailer), but they’re mostly trotted out in montage. Sure, it makes for a fantastic montage, but it’s throwaway filler, lacking in the lasting resonance that would be granted to it at the culmination of a fight or some other dramatic confrontation. Deep down, Captain America lacks bite.
I know, it’s supposed to present a more innocent, straightforward hero, whose only motivation is self-sacrifice at the service of his country. And don’t get me wrong, I am completely okay with that. After a decade strewn with characters who apparently hate the fact that they have awesome super powers and the capacity to do some real demonstrable good, Captain America finally gives us a hero with no reservations about his newfound role. In fact, he jumps through goes through some pretty big (or would they be small?) hoops to get there. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) applies five times under different identities in an attempt to serve the American armed forces in World War II, rejected each time due to a long list of illnesses and family medical history, before getting picked to be a candidate for the Super Soldier Program (capitalization might be mine, but it just seems right). There, he sets himself apart even further and earns the favor of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who picks him to be the test subject for his new formula, which grants the subject tremendous physical strength, but moreover amplifies the subject’s character (there might not be scientific backing for any of this).
Erskine had previously tried the formula on Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a Nazi who uses Germany’s resources to build an army devoted solely to him, but the results were catastrophic. Sure enough, Schmidt gained tremendous strength, but it revealed his true nature, stripping away his skin and giving him a red skull. Then he called himself the Red Skull. Eventually he and Captain America will fight, don’t worry.
But this isn’t a very straightforward superhero story. The tired origin is sidestepped while Steve, who has failed to convince Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) that he deserves to go into combat, goes on tour with the USO to sell war bonds. It’s one of the more fun bits in the film (and gives us an unexpectedly great song!), but more surprisingly, it takes over a year for Steve to find a way out and towards the front lines. When he does, you can feel that truly, things are really ready to take off. His breakthrough moment, rescuing 400 prisoners of war that the military was ready to write off, makes for a pretty thrilling scene, if only the rest of the film was up to the same task.
What follows is a series of scenes depicting Captain America’s trek towards taking down Hydra, and at first it sort of works in a rollicking, two-fisted adventure way, but again, it never quite lands into a groove. Director Joe Johnston executes some of the finest single shots in action movie history (and I swear, that’s only a slight use of hyperbole), but has no capacity for stringing them together and building a real movement. He’s like a composer who creates a few seconds of dazzling notes that hint at something grand without ever really realizing its potential. It’s a bad sign when I’m sitting there thinking that an action scene unfolding in front of me is “pretty well-conceived,” when instead I should be caught up in breathless anticipation.
The romance, as is often the case with superhero films, is a complete wash. Given the 40s setting, they could have easily gotten away with giving Steve and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) the kind of snappy, fun banter you can take for granted in classic cinema, but instead they fall into the same modern tropes of people who just kinda look at each other and occasionally offer such gems as “I care for you” and “it wasn’t your fault.” They’re both attractive, certainly, but they seem to mostly fall in love by being in the same room. Moreover, they each lack definition. It’s fine for Steve to be a total straight arrow, but Peggy should then be his counter, constantly out to prove herself – a little more cynical about the war machine, but never unwilling to put up a fight. Instead, she falls into the almost genderless role bestowed on women in modern action films, never making it unique. Besides the rather fetching femininity Atwell naturally lends the role, there’s little to define her as a woman. More filmmakers would do well to remember that it’s not sexist to let women be women, rather than bland sketches of potential romance.
Evans comes off much better, totally selling the boy scout in a way few can. His inherent goodness rivals even Christopher Reeve in his motives being beyond question and projecting total confidence. Hugo Weaving is, of course, Hugo Weaving – relishing every second of his villainy – and the two provide very amusing and suitable contrasts. Forget the blurry lines between good and evil that most comic book movies wallow in, this is the hero/villain relationship done right. Mirror images that couldn’t be more different.
In spite of its many flaws, the film works much better than it should due largely to the very earnest nature of its spirit and assuredness of its execution. The characters are stereotypes, certainly, but they’re strongly defined and the type we see too few of these days. I can’t tell you how overjoyed I am to finally get a hero who’s an honest-to-God HERO onscreen again, and I have nothing but admiration for the fact that they realized that this is a guy who doesn’t need an “arc.” He can simply be heroic from start to finish. The tone of the film follows suit, and even if I think they’re kind of watering it down by making the Red Skull a Nazi defector (what, are we afraid of offending NAZIS now?), I appreciate the very clear delineation of good and evil that isn’t solely about national origin. Granted, the lines are a little more blurred on Cap’s end, but remember, the army didn’t even want him until he went out and saved the day. Dude’s a hero regardless of his country.
Do I wish it were a little bit more lively? Certainly. But it’s a perfectly solid entry in the Marvel enterprise, a bit more workmanlike than the other installments (it doesn’t have Iron Man‘s biting wit, Thor‘s operatic insanity, or The Incredible Hulk‘s relentless carnage) but much more streamlined, and it absolutely nails the fundamentals of the character. I just wish its mise-en-scene were as thrilling as its spirit.