Marvel Comics films have a true hero at last – Captain America – a manly man who fights bullies.
The Marvel Comics film franchise has been setting the stage for the granddaddy of all superhero films: The Avengers! But, this amalgamation of crime-fighters is made up of some “heroes” who are just a step or two above the villains they battle. Ironman, for all his bravado and cool technology, is a moral renegade, when not saving the world. The Hulk is all senseless rage and violence, more akin to King Kong than say Superman. Thor is a mythical “god” with an ego problem. Wolverine is a mutant who lives as a totally autonomous being, doing and destroying whatever he pleases. These champions of “virtue” have all turned out to be incorrigible rogues themselves, with just a tinge of morality and responsibility to set them apart from those who would hurt humanity. This kind of humanistic battling with no accountability to man or God has been the common denominator with a wide range of superhero stories, both from Marvel, D.C. and other comics.
But, Captain America stands alone as a truly heroic figure in the pantheon of “heroes”.
Director Joe Johnston, who also headed up The Rocketeer (1991) and Hidalgo (2004), brings the same “all-American” patriotism to this film as in his others. Set back during WWII, this boisterous mixture of Superheroes with Indiana Jones, Hogan’s Heroes, and G.I. Joe, doesn’t deliver anything very deep as far as character development or story, but it does have a good message, and the film delivers well on the tried-and-true stereotypes and plot devices of the action/adventure genre, and the WWII era. Still, it is a fun story and worth a watch, especially if you are a fan of the 1940s time period or of action films.
At the beginning of our story, we meet Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a small and weak young man who desperately wants to fight in the war, to aid in the cause of his country. He’s a David who is going out to fight Goliath. Being a scrawny fellow, however, he is not accepted into the military. “You’ll get yourself killed,” they tell him patronizingly. All of his friends and the other guys his age have joined the war-effort; he is being left behind. Still, Rogers doesn’t wallow in self-pity or get depressed after so many rejections. He has courage, pluck and initiative (traits that were commonly American in the past), so he keeps trying, even, unfortunately, faking information on his applications. Finally, a scientist working for the government named Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) takes notice of him, not for his physical aptitude or fitness, but for his character. Dr. Erskine sees beyond mere appearances to the man Rogers is: someone who will protect others and is willing sacrifice himself to do so. Rogers is signed up into a special unit, much to the chagrin of Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), the head of the experimental program. He shows himself to be different from the other men, and catches the attention of the beautiful British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Erskine advocates for Rogers over the others, because he knows that only he has the courage and integrity to do what they need him to do. To prove his point they throw a fake grenade into the ranks of candidate soldiers. All of them but Rogers scatter in cowardice. In contrast, the weakest and smallest throws himself on top in heroic would-be sacrifice. That settles it, Rogers is to be the military’s first “Super Soldier”. He undergoes an excruciatingly painful operation, of sorts; lead by Erskine and brilliant inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), the future father of Tony Stark or Ironman. This transforms him, making him taller, giving him super strength and other abilities. No longer a weakling, the now Captain Rogers becomes the military’s secret weapon against the Nazi’s “deep-science” unit, HYDRA, who’s leader, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) is seeking to takeover the world through a magic source never fully explained in the film. The threat in this comic book adaptation is not the Third Reich, but the evil force HYDRA, an organization chasing after the unnatural powers of mythology and the occult. This is due to a serum created by Dr. Erskine, which has only been used once before, when he was in Germany, by Schmidt, with disastrous results. As Erskine explains it, the serum amplifies and intensifies whatever is inside a person: evil or good. Here is perhaps the film’s biggest theological error because, in the film Schmidt is evil therefore he is mutated into the beastly Red Skull, but Rogers is good and so he is enhanced and his physical appearance is heightened to match his character. While is true that Captain Rogers is good in an outward sense, this completely ignores the sin nature that is in us all. We as human beings, no matter how seemingly good we may be, are wicked at heart, and so we would all end up like Schmidt if we took that serum.
But this is the premise of the film.
Rogers, through the widespread patriotism that was the war-effort of WWII, soon becomes known to the public as Captain America. More of a symbol than a soldier at first, Rogers proves himself on the front line as well. With his newfound powers, and the help of his friends and a motley crew of Allied soldiers, Captain America battles evil in the European Theatre of War. The movie contains a lot of action, as one would expect from a Marvel movie, but it is definitely not the special effects and action, most of which are rather cheesy and clichéd (though there are some good action moments); nor is it the iconic 1940s feel that makes it stand out; it is the character of the heroes that makes this film work. Like the real WWII generation, the protagonists have a sense of honor and morality, which, though imperfectly carried out – as with everyone – is often missing from other superhero films. We really have someone to root for in Captain America. Rogers upholds virtues of courage, loyalty, valor, faithfulness and honor. Where modern heroes are womanizing and promiscuous, Rogers kisses only one woman in the film, his love Peggy, except for when a smitten secretary catches him off-guard and kisses him. When Peggy sees this she is upset, and Rogers tries to explain things to her. It is made clear that unfaithfulness is wrong and that commitment is valuable (or at the very least it’s about as close as a Hollywood film has come in saying that for quite some time!) True manliness, duty and self-sacrifice are portrayed throughout the film with Howard Stark ironically being the closest thing to our modern hero archetype.
This romp through Captain America’s valiant adventures is not without problems however. The theological misunderstanding of Sin and the nature of man, which we talked of earlier, are present but do not drive the message of the film. Also, feminism, embodied in the character of Peggy was almost inevitable. Still, there is a difference here as well. The times that you see her in battle are surprisingly few, and, though high up on the chain of command, she adheres to Rogers and the other men, letting them lead. Unlike the take-charge warrior women of today’s films, Peggy doesn’t sit on the sidelines, but she doesn’t overpower the men in leadership over her either. She does disobey a command by the Colonial once, on behalf of Captain America, in order to get him behind the front lines, but since it was with Rogers and Stark, the fault of disobedience cannot be laid at feminism’s feet alone. However this is a reoccurring problem with American cinema and culture and one that we should be aware of, even in comparatively insignificant films like this.
On the technical side of things, the bad-guys are rather cheap looking for a production of this magnitude. Aside from Schmidt, and his right hand Dr. Zola (Toby Jones) the rest are all nameless, faceless soldiers in black leather uniforms, which look like plastic, and were portrayed as less threatening and cheesier than was expected. Instead of fighting these G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra spin-offs it would have been better if the villains had simply been the Nazis (they’re perfect stock villains anyway!) under Red Skull’s leadership. Other than that, the action is mostly well done.
Then, back to the theological aspects of the film, there is also the problem of human autonomy that comic books, and cinema in general, can’t seem to escape. Rogers and Red Skull go head-to-head, larger than life, and nearly immortal. They’re above the rest of mankind. This might have been fine if weren’t for the theological inferences made by the villain. He claims to be a god, with the powers of “Odin”, the Norse mythological god, at his fingertips. He also makes the claim that Rogers has become a god as Captain America. Though the film itself seems to put this to rest, as Rogers denies Red Skull’s wild ideas, and puts an end to his mad lust for power, the collective witness of the Marvel films affirm the concept by including Thor in their ensemble and communicating this false autonomy in their other films. Man is not a god, no matter how strong or capable he becomes. He will have to answer for his actions to the One True God at the Final Judgment. Though Rogers never professes faith in Christ, it is quite possible that the character (within this film at least) understands that.
I won’t tell you how the film ends because it is a twist, and not necessary to this review, but I will say that you will want to wait until the end of credits.
Though stereotypical and cheesy at parts, Captain America: the First Avenger is a film that captures the essence of true heroism, and in spite of the flaws that are part-and-parcel with comics, it leaves you singing with patriotic pride, and glad that there are still brave men in movies. Like David in the Old Testament, God will always raise up His mighty men to battle the giants in life!
Reviewed by: Isaac R. Arthur, filmmaker and student at Blue Banner Media
Click here to go back to “Movie Reviews”.