The summer season of comic book film adaptations slows now with this final installment by Marvel (there aren’t any upcoming that I’ve missed, right?). We settled into the theatre with much anticipation for Captain America, an iconic character from the Marvel Universe that represents the classic Golden Age of comics as no other character can, at least not from Marvel’s side. The idea of the super hero began, at least in part, with Captain America, and it is that story that is told here in original and riveting form (that is, right after you survive all of the trailers…are they really re-making Spider-Man???).
Captain America: The First Avenger begins following a modern day crew recovering the wreckage of an old aircraft frozen in ice in the Northern nether-regions of the planet, and, within that aircraft, the discovery of the familiar shield. We are then thrown back in time to World War II, following the attempts of a brave but physically inferior Steven Rogers to enlist in the military in order to serve the cause of the Allied war against Hitler’s Nazi regime (and we are treated to snappy military dialogue from Tommy Lee Jones when Rogers finally makes enlistment). When exposed to a “super-solider” serum, Rogers is physically enhanced to incredible physical prowess. With costume enhancements by Mr. Stark (that would be Tony Stark’s father), Rogers eventually assumes the identity of Captain America, motivating the country to victory over Hydra, a special science division of the Nazi empire that has now gone rogue (the screenplay took some liberty here). Of course, the villain of the film is the Red Skull, because any comic book fan knows that you really can’t make a Captain America film with any other villain. This is because Captain America represents everything that is the USA, while the Red Skull embodies everything that is not.
Visually, the Red Skull looks fantastic, and Hugo Weaving turns in a great performance. I thought I would have difficulty accepting Chris Evans as Captain America (some fans remember him as the Human Torch, a character with a completely different personality) but he plays the role flawlessly. The costume designers have taken the classic Captain America uniform and made it just edgy enough, right down to some battle scars on the shield. The red, white, and blue aren’t cartoonish, and brown holsters and other gear accent the costume well.
What the movie does superbly is capture the time period. The period of World War II is one studied to exhaustion in U.S. history, because the character of the country was honed there. The use of media as it existed brought nearly every citizen to passionately pursue the cause of the war, and the concepts of patriotism and American exceptionalism were forged in those years as in no other since the country was founded. The film not only manages to make you feel the sentiment of the era, but actually manages to get the viewer caught up in the desire for Rogers to be able to fulfill his passion to serve his country. This was something that the movie had to do well, because that is what Captain America represents in the history of comic book literature: he embodies the national pride of America, and is the hero that personifies everything great and wonderful about the country. As an aside, I’d be curious to hear reactions from audiences in other countries to this aspect of American history as presented in the film.
Interestingly, however, the film contains at least two back-handed commentaries to American exceptionalism. First, the super-solider serum is developed by a German scientist who defects from the evil of the Nazi empire (this would be a historical nod to the Nazi scientists who defected to help the Allies during the war). More obvious, however, is the fact that the British girl is the one who really knows what’s going on throughout the movie.
The action sequences are balanced well, and focus on hand-to-hand, close quarters combat that befits the character, while not shying away form epic battles in the sky and flame-drenched fields when necessary. Character development is emphasized throughout the film. We leave knowing Captain America, especially in the poignant and very human ending to the film as he experiences his profound shock and disappointment (no spoilers from me, though!), in addition to knowing his role in forging the beginnings of the Marvel Universe. Other Avengers characters show up in the end, of course, with the proclamation as we saw in Thor that “Captain America will return in the Avengers.”
Which leads me to my greatest conclusion about this well-done movie. Marvel is handling the Avengers in the right way, the way that they should have handled the X-Men franchise (and they undoubtedly have learned from their mistakes here). When the Avengers film releases next summer, almost every character will have already appeared at least once in a feature film (often their own film), and will have been developed. The screenwriters will need to waste no time with backstory in the Avengers, but can build on the character development that has already taken place. If Captain America serves as any example, the Avengers will be the iconic film for Marvel, a title befitting the “world’s greatest super heroes.”
Until then, however, we have been introduced to the First Avenger, and how he becomes who he is. This is an outstanding film, possibly the best since Thor earlier this summer. Perhaps Marvel intentionally saved the best until last for the ambitious summer super-hero undertaking. In any case, make time to see Captain America. Perhaps more than once. And stay through the credits for a teaser for the Avengers that drew applause from our audience. I already can’t wait.