ALL THIS AND WORLD WAR, TOO!
by Adam Hughes
"Captain America Theme" (A. Silvestri) - CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER score
Captain America! He’s my favorite superhero, if I have to pick a top fave. One of my earliest comics was TALES OF SUSPENSE #66, with the (terrifying to a 6 year-old) secret origin of the Red Skull. So bear with me: I have baggage when it comes to reviewing Joe Johnston’s CAPTAIN AMERICA. I think it’s important to know the person who’s review you are reading, because all art is extremely subjective. I try to make objective points to explain my point-of-view always, but one should always be aware of what personal filters they are being subjected to in a review. Knowing that Roger Ebert loathes 3-D used on films is essential to parsing the file when reading one of his extremely well thought-out diatribes, no?
One of my all-time, top 5, ‘take-it-with-me-to-a-desert-island’ films is RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Warts and all, it’s the best Indiana Jones film, in my opinion. It’s also one of the best action-adventure films ever made, while I’m at it. This is important information. One of my other beloved films is CAP director Joe Johnston’s fabulous adaptation of Dave Stevens’ THE ROCKETEER. THE ROCKETEER is to the 1990s what FIREFLY was to the first decade of the 21st century: something wonderful we tragically didn’t get quite enough of. In my alternate reality version of history, the ROCKETEER trilogy was a pretty fabulous series of films. I can dream, can’t I?
So, you can probably guess that I love action-adventure based around the 1930s and early 1940s. Was I looking forward to CAPTAIN AMERICA? And how, baby! Let me start off on a positive note: I really enjoyed the film. Johnston’s direction is always solid (when the studios aren’t messing with his final cut), and the screenplay was solid. Film versions of beloved comic characters, or any adaptation made from other media, work best when they bring something to the character you’ve either never seen before, or sum that character up in a way you never imagined.
I loved Chris Evans as Steve Rogers / Captain America. Cap can be a bit of a cipher in the wrong hands, coming across as a one-dimensional super-patriot with a lantern jaw. Evans, like Chris Hemsworth in May’s THOR, made the titular character come to life as a real human being, and I appreciated that. I especially liked how the film switched the archetype of the meek alter ego and the stalwart hero. Evan’s skinny pre-Super Soldier Serum Steve Rogers has “Little Man’s Disease“: he’s overcompensating for his small stature by trying to be tough. After he becomes Greek god Steve (thanks, Stanley Tucci!), he gains a soft-spoken quality that makes his Cap a sort of modern Gary Cooper: the quiet American who steps up to the plate to get the job done.
The action scenes were fun and easy to follow, the second thing being something of a rarity in today’s modern action-adventure film. Bucking the trend of visual style-over-substance, CAP had an old-school film quality which I found refreshing. The character-driven moments in the film were, almost without exception, well-handled and dimensional. Alan Silvestri’s score was excellent; Cap’s main theme was nice, reminiscent of the music from the MEDAL OF HONOR videogames, MOH: RISING SUN, in particular. Not a bad thing, mind you! My one recurring gripe about MARVEL superhero movies is the lack of memorable music; it’s the one area where DC COMICS’ films still reign supreme, GREEN LANTERN notwithstanding. SUPERMAN has the all-time greatest superhero film score (that’s not subjective, I can prove it with algebra and charts and stuff) and BATMAN, ever the attention whore, has had multiple great scores. All-in-all, an enjoyable trip to the cinema, for newbies as well as old fans like myself.
Cap toys - 1
any old fan, I have minor peccadilloes. The nerdy sort of stuff that
usually gets your opinions disregarded. When JJ Abrams’ STAR TREK came
out, any negative opinions I voiced were, without exception, dismissed
with the retort “Well, I was never a fan of the original series, so none
of that bothered…” even though all my beefs were about plot, common
sense, and story logic. My minor gripes about CAP are small beans.
least-interesting character to me was Peggy, because I’m frankly tired
of the cliché of constantly putting tough, ‘I can do anything a man can
do and give birth while doing it!’ 21st century women in period pieces.
Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE strong women. Check out my artwork; I’ve
been drawing strong women in comics for over 20 years. I don’t think
there’s anything as interesting as a woman who can take care of herself.
But thanks to Princess Leia and Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley, every
single female lead in any kind of genre film is "warrior-woman",
virtually without exception.
Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter
I don’t have a problem with that, per se; I just get tired of seeing it done poorly. Peggy was your typical, run-of-the-mill DISNEY princess stereotype: a forward-thinking woman ahead of her time … and nothing more. I don’t care about role models (I’ve no time for them), I just want interesting characters. Princess Buttercup in THE PRINCESS BRIDE was a strong & interesting female character without having to be the film’s 3rd swordmaster. As female bad-asses go, Peggy is pretty forgettable, and therefore not really worth the main character’s (or more importantly, OUR) interest.
I had some problems with the film’s depiction of ‘advanced technology’. There’s a fine line between positing what super-science might have come up with in the 1940s and MEN IN BLACK gadgets that appear to have fallen through a convenient wormhole; and the film crossed, no, HURDLED it. When the US Army storms the Red Skull’s fortress in the film’s climax, armed mostly with era-accurate tommy guns and grenades, how are we supposed to believe the Skull’s HYDRA forces lost? The HYDRA guys had weapons Imperial Stormtroopers would envy. I felt the film went too far with the high-tech gadgets in a period setting; it was SO advanced, it didn’t feel like it was World War 2 most of the time. For every amazingly cool Nazi submarine there was an unnecessarily souped-up motorcycle straight out of MEGAFORCE (I’ll wait while the kids in the audience Google ‘Megaforce’).
Woman kicks Nazi ass:
WONDER WOMAN Vol.2 # 185 (Nov. 2002)
But these are all minor gripes, the sort of geek list of grievances every nerd has, which I feel keeps the film from achieving some sort of unattainable perfection. They aren’t deal-breakers in any sense of the word. As much as I hate the Christopher Nolan Bat-suit, it doesn’t prevent me from loving THE DARK KNIGHT. No, it’s my major problem with CAPTAIN AMERICA that’s the deal-breaker. It’s keeping me from falling madly in love with this film. They made a World War 2-era Captain America film, and Cap doesn’t fight Nazis. It’s so big, I feel it bears repeating, with the judicious application of Caps Lock: THEY MADE A WORLD WAR 2-ERA CAPTAIN AMERICA FILM AND CAP DOESN’T FIGHT NAZIS!
Am I the only who is bothered by this? I seem to be, because everyone else I talk to doesn’t seem to mind. Cap’s shield is awesome wicked cool, and that’s all they seemed to want or expect from a WW2 Cap film. Making a 1940s CAPTAIN AMERICA film with no Nazis is like doing a Passion Play but electing to not have Christ crucified by Romans but by, say, the Wicked Witch of the West’s Winkies from THE WIZARD OF OZ. It boggles my mind. They went through all the effort of making a period CAP film and then had Cap exclusively fight fictional HYDRA agents. I felt like I’d driven all the way to DisneyLand then just decided to sit in my car in Goofy parking lot. I think it hurts the tale. “Cap vs. the Red Skull & Hydra” could take place any time, any where. There’s nothing about the film other than set design that says it takes place during WW2.
"Hydra Train" (A. Silvestri) - CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER score
"CAPTAIN AMERICA, WWII, AND THE 'GOLDEN AGE OF COMICS'":
Excerpt from COMIC BOOK HEROES UNMASKED (2003)
Narr. - Keith David / Dir. - Stephen Kroopnick
Hitler, Goebbels, Hess, Goering & members
of the Reichstag: Berlin Opera House (April 28,
The film makes it seem like the world hinges upon the outcome of Cap vs. Hydra, as no other mention of the catalytic global conflict occurs or even seems to matter. Just Cap and the Red Skull and his 6 Hydra factories. D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Tarawa, Wake Island… none of that mattered, because the REAL danger was the Red Skull and his "even scarier than Hitler" plans. You could’ve told the EXACT SAME STORY and set it in 1980 or 2011. There was nothing about the actual event that SPAWNED Captain America in the film. Just lip service. And since they make a big BIG deal about how Hydra is a RENEGADE "Nazi" group disavowed by Hitler and the rest of the Nazis, then Cap fighting these Hydra guys with their own evil scheme means: Cap fights not ONE SINGLE NAZI in CAPTAIN AMERICA.
Reich's shadow looms over CASABLANCA (1942)
Can you imagine Indiana Jones racing against HYDRA to get to the Ark of the Covenant first? Would that have made RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK a better film? Would Cliff Secord trying to keep the Cirrus X-3 rocket pack from HYDRA agents made THE ROCKETEER more believable than the Nazi agents the film actually employed? I don’t think CASABLANCA would’ve had quite the eternal impact it’s enjoyed if Rick had said "... the agents of HYDRA will at last be just a minor annoyance". No. The greater a reason for a hero's origin, the greater that hero becomes. And to take away Cap's reason for existing - to combat the greatest evil the world has ever known, is far worse than taking away the murders of Peter Parker's uncle or Bruce Wayne's parents as the reasons for their existence. The characters may still exists, but they sure as hell won't be the same characters".
I’ve had several people try to explain to me, obvious dolt that I am, why DISNEY/Marvel Studios elected to leave the chocolaty bits out of their famous chocolate chip cookies. I like to think I have a pretty good grasp of how Hollywood and big business functions, and I know how the game is played. Every reason I’ve been given doesn’t excuse the absence of the reason for the creation of Captain America, but let’s go over them…
1. Having ‘cartoon’ Nazis and their swastikas in modern movies is bad for business, especially in certain countries, like Germany.
THE BLACK GESTAPO (U.S. - 1975)
I’ve had people try to say that the world has changed, and people are more sensitive about blatant Nazism and the use of swastikas, so studios shy away from that stuff, especially DISNEY (even though DISNEY made THE ROCKETEER). They say only accurate historical fiction like VALKYRIE is the only way people will tolerate movie Nazis; that "people won’t tolerate cartoon Nazis any more". I point out that INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS did great business (in Germany, too) and won Oscars as well. Cartoon Nazis didn’t hurt HELLBOY’s box office, either. So, that ends up being a fallacious argument. Hollywood has been using Nazis as ready-made bad guys since before World War 2 even officially started, and it continues to do so with great success.
While we’re on this subject, why exactly are we so sensitive all of a sudden to movie Nazis? The people who fought in and lived through World War 2 came home to make every type of filmed entertainment involving Nazis, from THE LONGEST DAY and JUDGMENT AT NUREMBURG to THE PRODUCERS, HOGAN’S HEROES, and ILSA: SHE-WOLF OF THE SS. Why are the grandchildren of the people who experienced the Nazis suddenly allergic to seeing swastikas on their movie screens? Is it political correctness run amuck? Did it take us 70 years to suddenly realize there was actually something offensive going on? Get out your yellow highlighters and discuss.
NAZI LOVE CAMP (Italy - 1977)
2. It’s hard to sell toys with swastikas on them.
This is, I believe, the real reason. CAPTAIN AMERICA toys might fly off the shelves of Target and Wal-Mart if kids take to the property. You can even sell the hell out of HYDRA toys. But you can’t sell swastika-covered toys. t’s simple commerce, and I understand completely. I don’t LIKE it, but I understand how the game works. But I think the line is drawn when the actual property suffers for the sake of ancillary merchandising, regardless of how profitable that merchandising might be.
I couldn’t get into CAPTAIN AMERICA, as much as I dearly wanted to. Every time Cap punched out a HYDRA goon, I felt my Inner Child ask “When do the real bad guys show up?”. The exclusive presence of HYDRA, with no actual Nazis, provincialized CAPTAIN AMERICA for me. It was just a movie about a superhero, an evil madman, and a super weapon of mass destruction, just like so many other superhero tales.
One of the great things that drew me to Captain America as a lad was that his story was tied strongly to a real historic event. Cap was born out of the greatest conflict of the 20th century. At six, I had never heard of Hitler, or Nazis, or World War 2. I first LEARNED about that time in our history from the aforementioned TALES OF SUSPENSE #66.
Cap toys - 2
A comic book opened up an important chapter of history to me; it made me INTERESTED (I also once passed a science test because of something Reed Richards mentioned in a FANTASTIC FOUR comic, so, ‘yay!’ comics). When my mother told me that the Hitler fella that Jack Kirby drew in my comic was a real guy, my brain DETONATED. If Hitler was real, maybe Cap was, too! I know better now, of course, but I immediately went to my local library and asked for books about World War 2 (when I was a kid the Internet was called ‘libraries’; good times, good times…). I’ve been a history buff ever since, because Cap came from World War 2. I wonder if any 6 year-old, seeing the CAPTAIN AMERICA film today, will turn to his father and say “Daddy, why did HYDRA invade Poland in 1939?”
I think the film lost some of its potential grandeur, scope, and resonance by having Cap exclusively fight HYDRA. I keep writing ‘exclusively’ because I didn’t need it to be All Nazis, All Night Long. A simple solution for me would have been if Cap had rescued the 107th Infantry boys from a regular German factory, full of Nazi soldiers, but the first clues to HYDRA’s presence were there, and set him on his path to the Red Skull. It’s all I would’ve needed. One scene.
I think it’s kinda sad that there was more Nazi action in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. Doctor Who even threw Hitler in a cupboard last Saturday night; why couldn’t Cap have some of the same? And I know that there are 3 Nazis who show up to chew out Johann Schmidt. But Cap doesn’t fight them, so they don’t count.
Excerpt: The "Red Skull" Revealed
from CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)
Cap toys - 3
So, I think CAPTAIN AMERICA was a good Captain America film. Not a great one, but a good one. I will say this: while not a great CAP film, it was a great GI JOE film, much better than Stephen Sommers’ ill-conceived endeavor. When the Howling Commandos where firing HYDRA laser guns and the battle was on, I thought: “Wow. This is just like GI JOE!”
But I prefer to end on a positive note. CAPTAIN AMERICA came to life this summer, and I had fun watching it. The USO act of the film is a joy, as was skinny Steve Rogers sequences. The boot camp stuff especially. When Steve throws himself on the grenade, I got seriously choked up. It was pretty much the PERFECT moment; nothing better could have summed up the character more than that defining moment. I’d like to buy a drink for the person who thought up that bit of storytelling magic. Chris Evans was wonderful, as was the always pitch-perfect Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull. Evans chemistry with the fabulous Stanley Tucci was palpable, and wonderful.
I enjoyed the little tips of the hat to Marvel Comics lore, like the cameo of the Golden Age Human Torch (did you spot him?) and the intro of Arnim Zola hearkening to his comic-book appearance.
I also thought the film did the ubiquitous Marvel Studios job of setting up next summer’s THE AVENGERS nicely, unlike IRON MAN 2 which felt weighed down by its intrusive AVENGERS heavy-lifting. The teaser at the end of CAP’s credits left me very excited about seeing Cap in Joss Whedon’s THE AVENGERS next summer ...
... and it WAS pretty damn cool every time Cap threw his shield, no lie.
AH! - Sept. 2011
Chris Evans on
location: THE AVENGERS (2012)
Adam Hughes is an award-winning comic-book artist, New York Times
best-selling author, and lifelong fan of cinema. He can be found online at www.justsayah.com .