Up until “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011), each film in the Marvel Cinema-verse Canon has played as a different genre. “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2” are 1930s screwball comedies similar to “His Girl Friday” or “The Thin Man.” “Thor” is an epic, and “The Incredible Hulk” tries to be a character-driven scifi, although really it’s just another chase movie. When this genre-mixing works, it elevates the films above mere comic book movie status and makes them more enjoyable to watch. What’s surprising, then, is that “Captain America” is simply what it claims to be: a comic book movie. Even more surprising is how well this works. The film’s affection (almost reverence) for its subject and earnest storytelling avoids the possible jingoistic traps of a character called Captain America and instead shows the audience with a twinge of nostalgia how one comic book hero created to inspire the fight against the Nazis during World War II can still be powerful in the New Millennium.
Captain America’s Second World War origins are critical to his thematic relevance and world view. Thankfully, the film preserves this. Captain America starts as Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a physical wimp with the courage of a champion who is the first volunteer for the US Government’s experiment with the Super Soldier-Serum. The experiment is a success, and Steve Rogers becomes the first and only US super soldier, a 6’2” golden boy. However, his transformation is only physical. Before the serum, Steve was courageous, honest, humble, and devoted to America, and he remains so. If it sounds like he doesn’t have much in the way of character development, that’s partially true.
Steve Rogers as Captain America is more important as a symbol of those values we as Americans treasure. In “Captain America Reminds Nation of Shared Values,” Mark D. White, a scholar who has written extensively about Captain America, says that, “Captain America offers an example to all of us by emphasizing principles over politics. Principles are timeless, the enduring ideals embedded in the foundational documents of our country, most importantly the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence… [F]ew doubt their essential role in defining what America stands for.” Captain America, both in the film and beyond it, is supposed to be an inspiration and a symbol of American Virtue.
The film understands and satirizes Steve Rogers’s symbolic status. When Steve Rogers dons the Captain America persona, it is as a mascot for the Army selling US War Bonds. He is wildly successful, if kind of hokey. In a meta-filmic nod to the audience, there are even comic books written about him. However, when he tries to entertain the troops overseas, they don’t buy into his particular brand of Apple Pie Patriotism. As modern audiences, we may have trouble buying into it as well. Those virtues that the Captain stands for and the seemingly simple morality of the film – Nazis Bad, Allies Good, Hydra Nazis Very Bad – seem more complicated in the world September 11th and Abu Ghraib. However, the film and the Captain win us over with their absolute earnestness and conviction. You may wonder what it would be like for the Captain in the 21st Century, but for the film it is enough to indulge in a little unabashed flag-waving.
However, “Captain America: The First Avenger” is not filmed in a vacuum. Part of the lovely surprise of the movie is how well it connects to the rest of the Marvel Cinema-verse. Howard Stark, Tony Stark’s father, is a major character who hosts a Stark Expo at the beginning of the film that anticipates his son’s expo in “Iron Man 2,” and who also builds Captain America’s signature shield. The Norse mythology of “Thor” plays a significant role in the film. The Infinity Cube, a source of seemingly unlimited power that Hydra harnesses, is hidden in a carving of Yggdrasil and said to be a Treasure of Odin. Thor’s assertion that science and magic is one and the same is echoed by Hydra as well.
The most interesting connection I almost missed. After the Super Soldier experiment is sabotaged and its creator Dr. Erskine is killed, they say it will be years before they can try again. In fact, the Army does try again, in “The Incredible Hulk” (2008). General Ross tricks Bruce Banner into creating a variant of the Super Soldier Serum, and Bruce’s failure (which results in the creation of The Hulk and later Abomination) is the driving motivation of the movie. What I found most interesting, however, was Dr. Erskine’s assertion that the Super Soldier Serum “amplifies the inner qualities of its taker, as well as their physical attributes. Good becomes great… bad becomes worse.” When Captain America meets Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), the head of Hydra and the first abuser of the serum, we learn how true this is. Here is my question, then: if the serum amplifies the inner qualities of the taker, then what inner qualities drive Bruce Banner to become a monster whenever he gets angry? That is a movie I would like to see. Overall, “Captain America: The First Avenger” is exactly what the Marvel Universe films should be: a smaller piece in a larger saga that’s also a damn good story.
Five down, one to go! Thanks to Eric Zipper for his help finally breaking through the writers block I was having on this one. “The Avengers” premiers tomorrow! For some fascinating reading on comic book heroes and philosophy, check out the e-book Superheroes: The Best of Philosophy and Pop Culture, which helped inspire this post. After this, I’m taking a break…