(2011) director Joe Johnston
viewed: 07/23/2011 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA
Born of WWII, when propaganda bore no irony, Captain America is in many ways an odd figure for the 21st century, an odd tent-pole action movie aimed at launching next year’s much-hyped and promoted The Avengers film, which got its first teaser trailer at the end of this film. There is no dearth of irony, however, in Captain America: The First Avenger, in fact there is a very knowing self-awareness and self-deprecation regarding both his name and his uniform. The realities for Marvel Comics/Films is that to market an uber-American product around the world is not as easy as they would like. For a number of foreign releases, the film is going by its subtitle “The First Avenger”, with little or no mention of “Captain America”.
In the film, Steve Rogers, the 90 pound weakling who is transformed into the “super solider” by crazy scientific means, even chagrins at his costume and character name because in this version of the story, they are both concoctions of a marketing team. When his first act as hunk is to track down an assassin in dramatic fashion through the streets of Queens, the military rejects him and he’s turned into a spokesmodel for the military, dressed in gaudy spandex with an ill-fitting mask, which he dons onstage with a bunch of showgirls to raise money for military bonds. When he goes overseas, the troops laugh at him, and when he finally takes up the heroics, he manages to keep aspects of the marketing costume in a more rough-and-ready, less silly-looking (sort-of) version of the outfit. And he keeps the stage name Captain America just because he likes it.
Most of the film takes place in the period of the comic book hero’s birth, and the story of the wimp’s transformation into super-hunk is told along traditional lines. And of course, his original and traditional arch-villains are the Nazis and the Red Skull. The Nazis are one group where it’s still unironic to show patriotism and American might.
The story is actually quite compelling in its way. Chris Evans, who bulked up to super-human proportions for this film, is digitally altered through the film’s beginning in which his Steve Rogers is a little, asthmatic guy who would fight til the end of time and never win. The digital effects, in this case subtle but convincing, allow for Evans to develop his empathetic hero when he’s not yet a Greek god, and so his transformation and is story arc gain weight (along with him). The film is actually quite a bit better than I had heard and expected on most counts.
Hugo Weaving plays the Red Mask, who also goes through an alteration. Of course, his makes his head look like a red skull, but it’s very effectively designed and rendered. He’s a better villain than in a lot of these comic book adaptations.
I asked the kids what they thought and they both liked it. They were a little confused about the opening sequence and the way that the film ends up in the present, so I had to explain that to them. Compared to our other superhero movies of the summer of 2011, Felix (and I agree) placed it above Green Lantern (2011) and both Felix and Clara said it was a pretty close match to X-Men: First Class (2011), which they both liked. We didn’t manage to see Thor (2011) in the theater.
Still, it does make you wonder what the present holds for a “Captain America”, an image that once cast American heroism and righteousness, which would likely not be appreciated in much of the world. Good-hearted, uncomplicated, plain-speaking American ideals were something of the earlier part of the 20th century and stood well in contrast to Nazi-ism and the other evils of WWII. But in a more complicated present, where even within America there is no clear sense of self and ideals, and in a broader world which has even more mixed senses of the US of A, it’s a real question of what this character can be, much less how he can be marketed.