And Restores Innocence to the Superhero Movie
A Film Review by WARREN DAY
If you were born past 1938, you’re a part of the comic book hero generation, for it was that year Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1, with Batman coming out in 1939. And then, in 1941, Captain America.
So almost every American alive today can’t remember a time when there weren’t costume heroes who either possessed some unusual power or had access to some powerful gadgets and machines (and had to face villains with scary nicknames).
These heroes were also stalwart examples of the classic molds formed in mythology – their character true blue, their blood valiantly red, and their reputations lily white (as were their faces). Then, in 1962, it began to change with the appearance of Spider-Man, for Peter Parker was a tortured soul both before and after he was bitten by a radioactive spider. The superheroes emerging from the 1960s on were all top candidates for the psychiatrist coach (i.e., The Hulk, X-Men, Ironman, Blade, Hellboy, and so forth). Even solid citizen Batman was reconstituted as The Dark Knight.
What’s refreshing in “Captain America: The First Avenger” is that it not only takes place in the 1940’s, but it also returns to the steadfast values and clear-eyed stance of those times. In almost all the superhero movies of recent years – and there’s been a ton of them – they’re marked by cynicism, irony, angst, a smartass attitude and existential confusion, but you won’t find an ounce of those things in this film’s 121 minutes.
There’s something charming and disarming about its unabashed sincerity, idealism, and its conviction toward values that are often made fun of in other films. It’s a rip-snorting, crowd-pleasing, patriotic fourth-of-July action movie that’s rooted in a primal fantasy that’s at the heart of so many myths and comic books – namely how the 98 pound weakling becomes a brave and brawny champion.
When we first meet Steve Rogers, he’s in the process of failing his fourth army physical. He’s a scrawny, short and sickly kid (it’s a marvel of CGI how they put Chris Evans’ face on that body), but he’s picked for an experimental procedure that turns him into a super soldier with a body any Adonis would envy, and who’s more than the equal of any schoolyard bully or wannabe world conqueror.
The script, the director and, most of all, Chris Evans, makes both Steve and his alter-ego Captain America so likeable, admirable and yet still vulnerable, that you’re willing to excuse the implausibilities inherent in any superhero movie, something we weren’t willing to do with The Green Hornet, The Green Lantern or any other green hulky thing.
The cast contains a bevy of good actors who seem to be having so much fun that it’s contagious for the rest of us. Stanley Tucci plays a German-accented scientist who’s a good and wise Dr. Frankenstein. Hugo Weaving, who’s become the go-to actor for fantasy films (“Lord of the Rings,” “The Matrix,” “V for Vendetta,” “The Wolfman”) has a field day as the super Nazi (and super nasty) Red Skull (Weaving gives him a lisp that makes him sound like a hissing snake). And it’s great camp to see Toby Jones, the Truman Capote look alike, running around as the bad German-accented scientist.
While it was inevitable to have an American as Captain America, the recent trend has been to cast British subjects as our homegrown comic book heroes, like Christian Bale as Batman, Henry Cavill as Superman, James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart as Professor X. Sarah Palin will be claiming that Paul Revere made his midnight ride to warn us, “The British actors are coming!”
My concern about this throwback-to-another-era film is that it will undergird the simplistic and history-defying notion that military might always makes right, and that what we need to do in other countries is to go in and unilaterally kick some ass.
“Captain America” is a fun movie that should appeal to those in both blue and red states, but I just hope no one tries to turn it into a rallying cry for a bushwhacked foreign policy.
Chris Evans had played the conventional wise-cracking and sarcastic superhero in the Fantastic Four films, but here, he’s the exact opposite and delivers a sincere and nuanced performance as both the before and after Steve Rogers. As we’ve seen with other actors in other films, this isn’t an easy task, for Captain America is not cool or hip, but he is unusually smart, has a pure heart and is highly principled. It’s a welcome sight to see such an old-fashioned hero back in action on the silver screen. This movie proves there’s still a lot of mythological power left in stories about the undervalued runt who turns into the leader of the pack.