Volume 29, Number 4, Summer 2011

Captain America

Directed by Gary Chartier

July 2011
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

As a preliminary note, this film has some neat bits for serious comics fans. I recognized one of the American soldiers whom Steve Rogers rescues on his first real mission as obviously being “Dum Dum” Dugan of the Howling Commandoes, and later Rogers puts together a multinational and multiethnic combat team that’s obviously a parallel world version of the Howling Commandoes, though without Sergeant Fury to lead them—Fury might not have been born yet in the forties in this continuity. Howard Stark is an important supporting character. There’s a brief scene with Rogers and his friend Sergeant James Barnes at the New York World’s Fair where I think I saw a blond man clad in skintight red standing immobile inside a transparent cylinder.

The World’s Fair scene wasn’t the only period reference that was done right. The villain of the story, a version of the Red Skull, heads a Nazi organization devoted to the military use of advanced science; naturally, he has very high-end vehicles. Now, some years back, I did two chapters for a GURPS supplement on fantastic variants of World War II, in which I wrote up GURPS versions of a lot of experimental German aircraft—so I recognized the Focke-Wulf Triebflügel and a saucerlike craft that might have been inspired by the BMW Flügelrad V-3 Dora, though its performance was more like what was hoped for from the Silbervogel SB-2. That actually struck me as cooler than the pure comic book technology; it showed that the designers had done some serious research.

This is a period film in larger ways, too. It’s as much a war movie as a superhero movie—but not in the spirit of a modern grim or cynical treatment of war; it has more the feel of a war movie of the time it’s set in, portraying Allied soldiers in a straightforwardly positive way. The commando force Rogers recruits fits the cinematic image of “men from diverse backgrounds brought together by a common struggle”—possibly a bit more than a 1940s film would have, with a black and a Nisei soldier, but the Howling Commandoes of the 1960s comic series included a black soldier and a white southerner fighting side by side. Howard Stark’s portrayal is partly an allusion to Howard Hughes, but partly the classic American inventor hero of popular fiction, modeled for example on the original Tom Swift. The love interest, Peggy Carter, fits the “independent woman” image of the 1930s magazine fiction Betty Friedan wrote about. She’s clearly attracted to Rogers, but just as clearly isn’t going to make the first move; he has to gain the confidence to approach her (and we see that he’s put off, not attracted, by another young woman who’s more aggressive). She only kisses him once, just before he jumps onto the landing gear of the Red Skull’s saucer plane (which leads to one of the best humorous lines in the film, Colonel Chester Phillips saying, “What are you waiting for? I’m not going to kiss you!”)—and that’s as physical as things get, which I also liked; a scene of hot sex would have been really out of place in a film actually set in the period.

What really made Captain America work for me is how straight everything is played. A lot of superhero films try to humanize their central characters, or make them more realistic. Some forms of that work; the contrast between the classic superhero outfit Rogers wears when he’s being sent out to sell war bonds, and the more functional garb he wears for actual fighting, makes a good dramatic point. But what makes a superheroic character work is that they embody a moral concept. Batman is vengeance; Wonder Woman is the utopian ideal of early feminism—and Captain America is American patriotism, in the sense not of tribal loyalty but of belief in constitutional government and the sense of independence. The film makes a point of this, with a scrawny 4F Steve Rogers getting beaten up because he won’t knuckle under to bullying, and being picked for the supersoldier program because he puts fellow soldiers’ lives ahead of his own. It’s possible to add realism, or even humor, to this ethical focus, but undercutting the focus, or a camp exaggeration of it, breaks the central structural element of the story. Captain America impressed me because it resisted that temptation.

I think the scene that worked best for me was of Rogers’ returning from his first serious mission, an unauthorized rescue of American prisoners of the Red Skull. He leads a couple of hundred men into an American base, and says two things to Colonel Phillips: First, that there are men with him who need medical attention; second, that he’s reporting for disciplinary action. At that point I felt that the character worked for me, because those were the right priorities for someone who believed in the moral concepts this character is supposed to represent.

In summary: A very good treatment of the character, done by taking the concept seriously, and a good use of history.

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