MC(rev)U Series: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

By Martin

Nostalgia is intoxicating.  It can be disarming as we forget the parts of the past that weren’t so great and convince ourselves that a simpler time really existed.  People love to think of bygone days as the good times and use this fiction to serve as a contrast to current times.  The lack of uncertainty in the past makes it a safe place for our longing to dwell.  Nostalgia exerts a strong force on our minds; if you doubt it’s power just try to buy an original Transformer online.

Captain America is a character that nestles comfortably in this nostalgia.  He was created in the 40s for children and has a moral simplicity to match, charged by Marvel Comics to represent everything good the country wanted to think about itself.  Making this guy into someone who would work in a movie is a hell of a task, so the filmmakers kept his roots and set this story during WW2.  As a society, we tend to romanticize this era more and more as we move further away from it, and this film wisely leverages that wistfulness borne of existing media like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers.  They begin establishing Roger’s character immediately, demonstrating his strong sense of duty and determination with repeated attempts to enlist in the army after getting rejected over and over, or showing him getting beat up in an alley after standing up for what he believes in, propping himself back on his feet and uttering an iconic line that would be echoed in the climax: “I can do this all day.”  Wisely, they changed the bravado from the comics to a reluctance, perhaps learned from years of being too small and weak to execute his strong sense of duty and justice.  This change adds nuance to Rogers that increases his likeability since we get the sense that he is a bit resigned to his sense of duty, not driven by it.  Firmly establishing his personality is an important step in ensuring that we like this guy before he is transformed from a scrawny weakling to the famous super soldier.  This approach requires Rogers to be portrayed as an underdog hopelessly defending his ideals, and although this doesn’t leave much room for humor, the movie doesn’t feel lacking.  In this way it’s similar to The Incredible Hulk, but this movie manages to remain entertaining through its continuous reveal of interesting characters and their emotional intricacies.  While most of those reveals come through dialogue it doesn’t violate the classic “show, don’t tell” rule of writing since the dialogue is crafted to progressively show character and is performed by good actors.  Unlike The Incredible Hulk, the dialogue crackles with purpose as each character becomes more interesting with every line they speak.  With all that, you don’t need jokes.

Winners don't do drugs!

Winners don't do drugs!

The biggest flaw with this movie is the plotting.  Halfway through the movie, the story pauses, takes a breath, and changes direction.  It feels like two mismatched pieces glued together with montages and slow motion that evokes a feeling closer to a History Channel documentary about Captain America.  The inclusion of cartoonish villains employing magic powers and fantastic technology make this a more juvenile portrayal of WW2, but adding more realism to the war might've made this movie too somber, and could have weighed down the entire franchise.  It makes the audience more receptive to the classic good guys and bad guys story this movie wants to tell, opening the door for the diesel-punk stylings and the serialized heroics that go with it.

This is the last time I will say a character shouldn’t have worked in a movie.  Marvel Studios have proven they know how to remold their characters for a cinematic setting.  The filmmakers managed to avoid the twin traps of crafting a character too unreasonably righteous to be taken seriously, or too cynically modern to be recognizable (see Man of Steel). The movie’s sepia tone aesthetic and montages have a curious effect of causing instant nostalgia for the movie we just finished watching, feeling like a time capsule for the bygone values that personify Captain America.  Freezing him at the end to be revived 70 years later was a brilliant way to bring a character possessed of old fashioned ideals into the current world. If they tried to give him a modernized origin, the righteousness and idealism at the core of Captain America would have been too lame and campy.  If this movie accomplished nothing else, it had to make sure Captain America was a person we liked in order for Avengers to work.  Against all odds, they pulled it off.  3/5

Coming up next: The Avengers (2012)