Why the 2011 adaptation of Captain America may be the most important superhero film yet.

“Do you want to kill Nazis?”
“I don’t want to kill anyone.  I don’t like bullies.  I don’t care where they’re from.”
–Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Captain America (2011)
With that one exchange, the filmmakers behind the recent screen adaptation of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America showed how Steve Rogers was a better hero than David Goyer and Zach Snyder’s Superman would ever be…in a single bound.

(While the focus of this article is a three-year old film, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least grant those who have not seen it respect enough to warn them of SPOILERS.)

 

Captain America is an amazing character.  Created at the close of 1940 and debuting in his own Timely (now Marvel) Comics comic book with a now iconic cover, Captain America began as an embodiment of American jingoism.  Captain America (“Cap”) soon became one of the most popular of the myriad patriotic-themed heroes that quickly cropped up after Hitler’s troops invaded Poland.

However, what makes Cap such an amazing character is not his apparent use as propaganda tool, but the very resistance to such politics.  Several times over, Cap, or his alter ego Steve Rogers, has resigned his Captain America guise in favor of alternative identities whenever he found himself at odds with a presidential or governmental edict.  In recent years, Cap was even arrested after leading a super hero resistance group when the government mandated that all “supers” must reveal their identities publicly.

Despite the roots behind his creation, Cap has morphed into something greater than a spokesperson for a country: he exists as a vanguard for people…all people.  Cap is a model soldier, but hugely aware of the absolute need for fairness and justice.  Cap is an imperfect hero, but as a soldier even he must make decisions and act in ways that he might not be proud of.

With Axis spies wreaking havoc on American shores, a group of desperate military leaders joins an FBI agent in traveling to a strange curio ship in an unknown city.  In the basement is a secret laboratory where a group of people, including the men from the military and FBI, sit in a waiting room and watch a procedure through a large window.  On the other side is a doctor and a frail young man.  The young man drinks a mysterious serum, and miraculously changes into a virile, muscular man.  The doctor dubs him “Captain America,” just as a spy shoots the doctor through the glass, killing him.  The young man grabs the spy through the glass and punches him into some of the lab equipment, which electrocutes the spy.

Although he will be the only super-soldier, Captain America becomes the country’s greatest weapon against spies and saboteurs.  In his guise as Private Steve Rogers, he befriends camp mascot “Bucky” Barnes, who hopes to meet Cap one day, and fight bad guys just like his idol.  One night, Bucky walks in on Steve as he changes into his Captain America costume.  Steve tells Bucky that he cannot reveal this secret to anyone, and he agrees to let Bucky be his partner, and a comic book legend was born.

As is customary in comics, Cap’s origin has been retold and expanded countless times.  What began as an eight page introduction to the character in the first issue of his own comic book has been fleshed out, reimagined, and lengthened to well over one hundred pages.  Steve Rogers was given a backstory that included growing up in the Great Depression era neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, dreaming of making a difference, a difference that could not be made with his original 70-pound asthmatic frame.

Rogers was made a Private in the army and assigned to Camp Lehigh.  In order to preserve his secret identity he adopts an affable, yet bumbling, persona.  It should be noted that this type of secret identity adoption was a status quo begun by Siegel and Shuster’s Superman / Clark Kent, and would remain the industry standard until the “Marvel Age” began with the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Spider-Man, etc, where the secret identities were flawed characters before becoming heroes, and not the disguises heroes adopted to preserve their privacy.)

In recent years, as Cap’s origin has been reshaped, so too has Bucky’s.  Barnes began as a camp mascot, and recently was smartly reimagined as a black-ops specialist and assassin who would do the dirty work while Cap remained the clean and supposedly unsullied reputation and representative of a nation.

After years of fighting his enemies, including the Nazi agent and assassin known as the Red Skull or leading Nazi scientist Baron Zemo, Bucky and Cap perished as they tried desperately to defuse a bomb attached to a new experimental plane.  Or…so we thought.

In Avengers #4 from early 1964, after battling the Sub-Mariner, the Avengers were returning to their headquarters in a submarine when they find a man floating in a block of ice.  That man is Steve Rogers, wearing a tattered Captain America costume.  Cap, revived but distraught at the passing of his young friend, joins the Avengers and begins a long period of adaptation to a world that had passed him by, a world where the evils he once knew had given way to a new kind of adversary.

Along the way, his sense of justice and fairness would become even more important, and grow to be bigger and more meaningful than any color scheme dyed into his costume.

Cap’s early popularity as Timely’s figurehead character was cemented when Cap was chosen to be Timely’s first adaptation into a different medium.  In the comics, Cap fought all manner of Axis (and eventually Communist) enemies.  In his first live action adaptation, the 1944 serial simply titled Captain America, his enemy was far more…traditional.  Ask some fans, and they might even say the real villain was Republic Pictures.

Republic cobbled together failed scripts for two other properties, and made slight revisions to accommodate Captain America as the lead character.  However, because of the work that would be required to fully adapt the script to the comic book character’s origin and design, almost all of it was scrapped.  In the serial, District Attorney Grant Gardner disguises himself as Captain America (replacing the shield with a handgun) to use methods he can’t use as the D.A.  For both Gardner and Captain America the main goal is finding and arresting The Scarab, a scientist bent on…well…in true cliffhanger serial fashion, we never really know what the Scarab wants.

It would be 22 years before Cap returned to motion pictures, in the short-lived Marvel Super Heroes animated series, which were little more than loosely animated cut-outs of then-recent Jack Kirby comics.  Cap would make guest appearances in other cartoons featuring Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four, but never headline his own television series.

In 1979, piggybacking on the popularity of the live-action Spider-Man and Incredible Hulk television series, two television movies starring Cap were produced.  Captain America and its sequel Captain America II: Death Too Soon featured athlete-turned-actor Reb Brown.  While Brown did play super-serum recipient Steve Rogers, the similarities become more infrequent from there.

As the world changed around Cap, and the idea of a super hero clad in the American flag became more ludicrous than ever, Cap’s popularity waned in general.  By the mid-1980s the comic book was enjoying a mild resurgence thanks to writer Mark Gruenwald’s examination of deeper social and political themes, and a new feature film was planned for theatrical release.

However, the eventual 1989 production was a failure from the start.  While Matt Salinger’s Steve Rogers does follow the traditional origin somewhat closely, it diverges sharply in other key areas and motivations, and is basically remembered as just one of many failed Marvel movies in a dark period when rival DC Comics was winning the movie battle with its wildly successful Batman films.

After a fairly arduous process that began in the mid-1990s, Captain America: The First Avenger starring Chris Evans as Steve/Cap was released in 2011 as part of a new Marvel: Phase One scheme that would lead to Cap joining The Avengers.  The film grossed nearly $400 Million, and Evans was signed to play Cap five more times.

The 2011 adaptation opens with a modern Arctic expedition uncovering a mysterious airship buried in the ice.  Inside the cabin, they find encased in some ice an object decorated with a white star surrounded by rings of red, white, and blue.  One of the men orders a call be placed to the Colonel, because “this one’s waited long enough.”  (A statement that could also be said of the character in general and his portrayal in motion pictures.)

Cut to a small Norwegian village in 1942 where Johan Schmidt, leading a handful of soldiers to pillage a cathedral, is searching for a Norse treasure.  The soldiers are not “average” Nazis, but soldiers of HYDRA, which we learn later is Hitler’s “deep science” organization, and Schmidt is the leader.  Schmidt locates the treasure: the Tesseract, direct from Odin’s throne room (as seen in the first Thor feature).  The Tesseract is described as an object not of magic, but of science.

There is a great line uttered by Schmidt in this scene that makes me think it’s a nod (or a “dig”) towards Belloq and his crew in Raiders of the Lost Ark: “…and the Fuhrer digs for trinkets in the dessert.”  Once he has obtained the Tesseract, Schmidt orders the village destroyed.  The camera pans, as cannons explode in the background, to the HYDRA pin on Schmidt’s coat, the skull now stained red with blood.  It isn’t at all a subtle foreshadowing, but it is still effective.

At the same time, in New York City, a very frail and slight Steve Rogers is volunteering for the armed forces.  He is rejected despite his desire to join the 107th Infantry (where his father died).  He takes in a movie afterward, and during the newsreel on the war effort, a man in the audience yells for the cartoons to start.  Rogers tells him to shut up, leading to a fight out in the alley behind the theater.

One of the nice moments in this scene is not the obvious synching of the voice over from a newsreel about not backing down from a fight just as the bully rises to face Rogers, but the other filmgoers around them.  As the newsreel plays footage of the war, and of homefront efforts to help the cause, the faces of the filmgoers reflect a number of emotions, from angst to sorrow.  Some of the ladies in the audience are in tears, and some of the older men are nervous.  Most filmmakers might not bother with much direction for extras, but director Joe Johnston does a nice job with this scene in presenting a broader canvas of emotions over the whole crowd, and not just letting the hero be our only guide.

(This isn’t really a surprise.  Johnston is a fine filmmaker, but this level of attention to detail comes from years spent in visual effects, his biggest job being to bring giant four-legged walking tanks to life on the non-existent planet Hoth.)

In the alley, Rogers is bravely standing up to a fairly nasty beating at the bully’s hands.  At one point (again, not subtly) Rogers picks up a trash can lid and wields it like a shield.  The bully asks him why he doesn’t know when to give up, and Rogers replies “I could do this all day.”

These are not great lines in the history of cinematic dialogue, but they are delivered in a convincing manner.  This is the essence of Johnston’s direction: no matter how hokey or tongue-in-cheek something might be within the story, the actors are directed in such a way that it never feels like someone on the production is rolling their eyes, or winking behind the camera at the audience.  The sincerity behind the characters and their actions comes across as entirely genuine and unforced.  It adds to both the credibility of the story and the enjoyment of the film.  That sincerity was carried over very well by Joss Whedon for The Avengers, and I hope to find the same with Winter Soldier.

Rogers’ best friend Bucky Barnes arrives in the nick of time to easily dispatch the bully (“I had him on the ropes,” Rogers tells Bucky) and collect Rogers for their double date celebrating Bucky’s orders to join the 107th.  We get a brief glimpse into the friendship between the two, and it is a nice change for the mythos to have Bucky be the protector in the relationship, a reversal of the nearly 75-year history of the characters.

Rogers and Bucky are headed to the “World of Tomorrow” exhibition, which presents two examples of Marvel’s “shared universe” theory that has served it well in the comics, and now again in the films.  First, and most obviously, the presentation of a flying car by Howard Stark, who we know from the Iron Man series is Tony Stark’s father, and the inventor of the repulsor technology used by Tony to develop the Iron Man armor.

The second link, and one missed by many who saw the film, is a nod to the Invaders, the anti-Axis team of heroes led by Cap during World War II.  Cap’s teammates in the Invaders varied, but the core group was himself and Bucky, the Sub Mariner, and the Human Torch, and Torch’s sidekick Toro.  The Human Torch was actually an android who burst into flames on command, and could also control those flames as well as fly.  The Torch was the creation of Dr Phineas Horton, who was considered a failure when his android burst into flames upon activation.  As the camera pans to Bucky and Rogers with their dates as they run up to Stark’s exhibit, we pass over an exhibit labelled “Dr. Phineas Horton Presents ‘The Synthetic Man’.”  I can only hope that the Invaders (my favorite super-team) are at least mentioned in an upcoming Marvel film.

When the crowd is observing Stark’s experiment go awry, Rogers sneaks off for one more attempt at enlisting.  There is a display featuring a painting of a soldier with no head, and when someone stands on a plate in front of the painting, their face appears in the mirror to fill out the image.  When Rogers stands on it, only his hair is visible.  This reinforces the dichotomy of stature for Rogers, and foreshadows the soldier he will literally grow into becoming.  Bucky chides his friend for trying again to enlist, and Rogers states with conviction that there are men laying down their lives over in Europe, and he has no right to do anything less.

This exchange, overheard by a physician, reveals that Rogers’ desperation to enlist has nothing to do with a knee-jerk reaction to patriotic sloganeering, but a sense of honor and a desire to help tilt at the windmills of evil and do whatever it takes to make sure that those young men fighting overseas do not do so in vain.

We learn that the physician is Dr. Abraham Erskine, and he takes over Rogers’ physical and asks a simple question.  When Rogers replies “I don’t want to kill anybody,” the heroic nature of the titular character is set, and everything about him and his story simply makes sense.

An interlude between Schmidt and Dr. Arnim Zola shows a little of what they plan to do with the Tesseract, but also gives a nice nod to comic fans.  In the comics, Arnim Zola is a Nazi scientist who defies death by transferring his mind to a robot body.  That body, in a ludicrous, yet perfect, Jack Kirby design, features a giant screen on the chest, on which is displayed a video image of Zola’s head.  As this interlude begins, we first see Toby Jones’ Zola as a projection on a telescope screen.

What follows is a fairly standard series of scenes showing the hero-in-training, but thankfully Johnston tweaks the standard tropes and makes them entertaining and amusing without resorting to clownish audience manipulation.  First, a soldier who will bully Rogers frequently is disciplined by Agent Peggy Carter at the indoctrination of the soldiers into the division of potential recruits for Erskine’s experiments.  Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives to give a fairly by-the-book speech given as a voice over to more training scenes to explain the experiments and the purpose of them, and timed in such a way to provide supporting narration to those scenes.

One of the best scenes of this sequence is thankfully spared voice-over by Jones.  At the middle of a training run where Agent Carter precedes the running soldiers in a jeep, the Sergeant halts the squad at Camp Lehigh’s flag and offers a ride back with Carter to the soldier who captures the flag.  As all of the other soldiers try to climb the flagpole, Rogers hangs back, observing.  When the Sergeant orders the men back into formation, Rogers calmly walks up to the flagpole, and removes the pin keeping the pole upright.  The pole falls to the ground, and as before Rogers calmly walks to the end of the fallen pole, removes the flag, and with a kind “thank you, sir,” hands it to the sergeant and climbs into the back of Carter’s jeep.

This underscores an important theme in the film.  While a soldier’s job is to follow orders, and that is a valuable and important quality, the ability to innovate and think originally is equally important…if not more so.

The next scene reinforces this idea, when Phillips speaks highly of another candidate’s guts, determination, and ability to follow orders.  Erskine labels him simply as a bully, to which Phillips replies that you don’t win wars with niceness, but with guts.  He then throws a grenade into the squad, and Rogers is the only soldier not to dive for cover, instead diving on top of the grenade which is shortly revealed to be a dud.  “He’s still skinny,” Phillips says.

The night before the experiment, Erskine talks with Rogers, and implores to him that no matter what the future holds, Rogers must remain what Erskine believes him to be: a good man.  Erskine reminds us that the first country the Germans invaded was Germany itself, and that when someone is thrust into sudden power, it is their core qualities that are multiplied, and only a man who has never known such power will truly respect it.

The first arc ends with Erskine’s experiment in changing Rogers into a superhuman, with enhanced physical and mental abilities, shown to be a success.  However, a German spy shoots and kills Erskine before escaping with a vial of Erskine’s “super soldier” serum.  Rogers goes after him, and catches the spy, who kills himself with cyanide after declaring allegiance to HYDRA.  Phillips’ squad is changing its focus and going after HYDRA, while Rogers is made into a public relations symbol.

The USO-tour sequence is awkward and uncomfortable, reflecting Rogers’ own uncertainty at being a “dancing monkey” in tights.  This sequence is important, however, in understanding the character.  Surrounded by dancing girls, singers and a band, or acting in action films based around the growing legend of Captain America, Rogers begins to learn that the most important battlefield in any war is not the actual, physical fighting arena.  That battlefield is within the hearts and minds of the citizens of any country at war.  Constant vigilance must be kept to remind the country’s populace about why the war must be fought, lest that populace begin to think about the war on their own.  When citizens begin to ask even the simplest questions about any conflict, and support wanes in even the slightest degree, that war is lost.

It is in this period that Cap learns that the kids in the newsreels collecting scrap metal, or the folks watching the newsreels that aren’t fighting, still need a symbol to believe in.  This reinforces a recent shift in the comics that had Bucky doing the dirty work while Cap remained a figurehead.  He was certainly capable of doing the dirty work, but people need to believe their heroes are better than that.  People need to believe that their heroes will always find a way to solve a problem better than they could ever hope to.

This sequence also helps to underscore the bright costume Cap wears.  In one later scene, Cap is in the middle of a mission when an HYDRA agent is taken out by a sniper.  Basically, Cap is front-and-center as someone else does the killing necessary to keep Cap in the fight.

This aspect of warmongering, and its disconnect from the realities of war, are nicely touched on when Cap attempts to perform his act for a group of soldiers overseas.  Pelted with fruit, vegetables, and insults, Cap retreats from the stage, replaced by the dancing girls the soldiers really want to see.  A distraught Rogers is visited by Agent Carter backstage, and when she tells him that his audience was what was left of the 107th, Rogers’ moment of decision arrives.

Stark and Carter fly Rogers behind enemy lines in an attempt to rescue the missing soldiers of the 107th and, hopefully, Bucky.  In typical trial-by-fire fashion, Rogers successfully infiltrates the HYDRA facility, finds dozens of Allied soldiers and guides them to safety.  While he goes off to rescue Bucky, Cap finds a map of HYDRA facilities, and encounters Schmidt, escaping the exploding facility with Zola.

As Phillips is dictating a letter reporting Rogers dead, Rogers arrives at the base with the missing squads, and is cheered as a hero, as Captain America.  Following the ubiquitous Stan Lee cameo, Cap marks on a map the various locations of HYDRA bases and recruits a team of men from the 107th to join him in taking the fight to HYDRA.

The filmmakers handled Cap’s squad rather well, transposing the comic book “Howling Commandos” from a Nick Fury comic in the 60s.  There is a moment when the diversity of Kirby’s creations in the Commandos is maintained and justified for the film.  As Cap releases the captured soldiers, one of them turns to an Asian-American soldier and asks “what, are we taking everybody?”  Soldier Jim Morita replies, “I’m from Fresno, Ace.”  It’s a brief but well executed reminder that not all American soldiers were white males, and that even in the 1940s there were many different peoples who could rightly be considered American.

Jack Kirby was ahead of his time as an artist, but it is often forgotten that he was also forward thinking in his social beliefs, and it was refreshing to see that part of his work not be ignored for this film.

Another moment that works quite well is in the exploding HYDRA base, after Schmidt (now revealed to be the Red Skull) has fled.  Cap helps Bucky across the flames, and has to leap across the facility.  He backs up to get a running start, and for a brief moment, shows doubt.  It works simply because it helps reinforce the idea that Cap, despite being a dominating physical specimen, is just a young kid who is thrust into the role of hero despite being unsure of himself.  As he leaps, the flames engulf him, and Johnston cuts to another scene.  This hearkens back to the cliffhanger serials of old, where the audience knew the hero would be okay, but that moment of suspense was still tense.

At the bar where Cap asks his new friends to join his squad, Agent Carter pays Cap a visit, and the tables are turned from Rogers’ youth.  Carter arrives in a fetching red dress that catches the eye of everyone in the bar.  Despite Bucky’s attempts to get a dance from Carter, she and Rogers chat about a mundane meeting while ignoring everything else around them, particularly Bucky.

When Carter catches Rogers being kissed by another woman (Natalie Dormer in a rare fully-clothed role) the next day, she takes advantage of an opportunity to fire a gun at Rogers to “help” test a new shield.  She notes that it works, and walks away.  Rogers and Stark are left dumbfounded.  In a seemingly unimportant moment, the character of Peggy Carter is perfectly summed up: yes, she is a beautiful woman, but she is also truly a woman to never be trifled with or underestimated.

Several scenes follow that show the new Captain America and the Howling Commandos assaulting and overtaking several HYDRA bases, in a series of fun and action packed vignettes that even highlight each member of the Commandos.  One moment even provides a laugh as it is revealed that Cap keeps a photo of Peggy in his compass, and as Phillips sees this, Peggy fights to not react.  The Commandos are highly successful, suffering no casualties until an assault on Zola’s personal train.

The train with Zola was set up as a trap to kill Cap, but in the ambush, Cap is given an opportunity to save Bucky.  Bucky is trapped in a train car, pinned down by the gunfire of an HYDRA agent.  Cap breaks into the train car, and distracts the HYDRA soldier long enough for Bucky shoots the soldier.  Bucky tells Cap, “I had him on the ropes.”

Another HYDRA agent shows up, and fires a Tesseract powered cannon at them, blowing a hole into the train, and Bucky out said opening.  Bucky is unable to hold on, and falls to his death just before Cap can reach him.  Zola is captured, yielding a distraught but more motivated Rogers.

While not exactly the same fate as his comics counterpart, Bucky’s demise is handled very well, and the character of Bucky Barnes was fleshed out nicely in what is basically two brief periods in the film.  The filmmakers handle the relationship between Rogers and Barnes well, and none of it seems forced.  While the death was taken directly from the character’s comic history, the film does a nice job of making it Cap’s Kobayashi Maru moment (if you’ll pardon the crossing of nerd streams).

Motivated and emboldened by his friend’s death, Rogers leads his squad right into the main HYDRA base, not only taking the fight to the Red Skull, but shoving it down his throat.  Schmidt tries to escape in an advanced attack plane, but not before Cap gives chase, aided by Phillips and Carter.  Just before Cap jumps from a car onto the plane, Carter calls for him to wait.

She grabs Cap, and kisses him, and tells Cap to “go get him.”  While reminiscent of Leia’s kissing Luke “for luck,” this moment works far better because Cap, just like the young awkward man he really is inside, looks at Phillips with a “what do I do now” expression on his face.  Jones’ fantastic ability to deliver a funny line works to the filmmaker’s favor at this moment when he looks at Cap and says, “I’m not kissing you!”

That moment reminds us that while Cap has become a great war hero, he is still a naïve kid who, as Carter repeatedly says, doesn’t “know a bloody thing about women.”  The hero-kissing-the-girl moment is a standard film convention played for laughs, but still handled in such a way that it works perfectly within the confines of the character.

Cap leaps onto the plane, has a fairly long battle with the Skull’s minions (including a brief moment that pays homage to the infamous propeller scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark), and makes it to Schmidt and the plane’s cockpit.  The inevitable battle between Cap and the Red Skull results in the Skull’s death and Cap having to make a decision.  The plane will either destroy New York City with enough residual firepower to demolish surrounding cities, or Cap can force the plane to crash.

With Peggy on the radio, Cap asks for a rain check for their dance date, as he plunges the plane into frozen Arctic waters.  As the rest of the world celebrates victory in Europe, the Commandos toast the memory of their departed friends, and Peggy is presented with the original file on Captain America, which includes a photo of Rogers before Erskine’s experiment.  We fade out on a group of kids in Brooklyn playing Captain America, including a trash can lid painted to resemble Cap’s shield.

After a moment of darkness, Rogers wakes up in a room in New York, a Brooklyn Dodgers game on the radio.  Rogers realizes something is wrong, and escapes into the city, only to be faced with 21st century Times Square.  Colonel Nick Fury arrives to explain that Cap has been in suspended animation since the plane crash, and 70 years have passed.  The now common Marvel post-credit sequence sets up The Avengers, and Cap’s new role as the man out of time.

In general, Captain America is fairly typical introductory superhero film, following the generally accepted three-act standard used by most, if not all, modern action films.  Marvel has done a nice job bringing in filmmakers who understand this structure but who are also capable of adding elements of characterization or atmosphere that bring a greater plausibility to what is essentially epic fiction.

Chris Evans, who portrayed another version of the Human Torch in two Fantastic Four adaptations, shows he has enough range and skill to be more than a hunky centerpiece.  His portrayal of Cap as field general while letting Rogers’ naiveté show through is handled nicely, and never feels forced.  The contribution of the many visual effects personnel who transformed the fit and superheroic Evans (or, post-experiment Cap) into a frail and small-statured young man cannot be understated, which added much needed physical believability to Evans’ early scenes.  (Unlike Matt Salinger, who in the 1989 version simply limped, making his pre-experiment Rogers comical by comparison.)

Hugo Weaving is his usual intimidating and scene chewing self, and a more than able foil for Evans’ Cap.  Once he removes his mask to reveal his countenance that gave him the nickname Red Skull, Weaving does not fall into the trap of hamming it up to match his new, seemingly horrific appearance (as Jack Nicholson did in the first Batman film).

Tommy Lee Jones (Phillips), Sebastian Stan (Bucky), and Dominic Cooper (Howard Stark) round out the lead cast brilliantly.  Jones’ now legendary demeanor lends tremendous weight to Colonel Phillips, who also has the funniest lines of the film, but delivered earnestly and not with a wink and a nudge to the audience.  Stan apparently so impressed the Marvel producers as Bucky Barnes that they signed him to a new contract that includes an 8-option extension.  While fans of the comic book know what is possible, my hope is that we get at some point we get an actual Invaders film.  Cooper’s Howard Stark is done so well that it makes perfect sense that he’d be the father of Downey, Jr’s Tony.

The father figure to Rogers is Abraham Erskine, played by Stanley Tucci, who took the role mainly because he hadn’t used a German accent in a film before.  While it’s a particularly odd reason to accept a role, his presence lends gravitas to what is usually considered a throwaway character in the mythos.  In keeping with the Hero’s Journey formula, there is no way Erskine comes out of this story alive, but in the brief screen time he has, his impact on Rogers and his lasting influence on Cap’s character is as important as any aspect of Cap’s costume.

While screen time is seldom shared, this is a wonderful ensemble cast, and in all of my viewings of the film, I have never imagined what another actor could have done with any of these roles.  I do however find myself comparing it to previous film versions from time to time, and simply being thankful that they finally got it right.

One aspect of Captain America that makes it a far greater superhero film than anything Warner Bros and Christopher Nolan have done in the past decade or so is motivation.  In the recent Batman trilogy, and Man of Steel, both “heroes” had to be constantly reminded of the fact that they were heroes.  The final Batman film even begins with Alfred all but slapping Bruce Wayne upside the head for retiring from being batman because his knee hurt.

Rogers is motivated by his desire to make a difference and to not let other soldiers die for nothing.  He wants to do whatever he can to help, but unlike characters like Bruce Wayne or even Tony Stark, the means to do what he can to help aren’t always available.  When opportunities arise to make a difference he jumps at the chance, not to be a savior but to just help…his heroism isn’t explicit, but simply a by-product of his character.

Superman and Batman relied on intimidation and behaved far more like bullies than heroes, which makes the exchange cited at the beginning of this article between Erskine and Rogers all the more important: Bullies cannot be heroes, and heroes cannot be bullies.  I also find Nolan’s Superman a disingenuous person because he laments having to kill Zod after he allowed countless other residents of Metropolis and Smallville to die in his battle with Zod.  He can’t be considered a hero because he killed Zod after seemingly having no other options to end the violence.

By contrast, with New York City (and potentially many other nearby cities) at risk of destruction, Cap pilots the plane into the ocean and sacrifices himself in a far more heroic act.

(I must also mention the irony that the concept of a superman was developed by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and later used by Hitler’s forces as the idealized justification for their beliefs and actions.  HYDRA is the scientific wing of Nazi Germany, and is taken down by an Allied-made superman, who behaves more heroically than a character actually named “Superman.”)

As fantastic as the film is, and as much as Evans is the star, the real force behind the film may be Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter.  Atwell is a beautiful woman, but in Captain America she is far more than just the pretty love interest.

In four films, Nolan presented viewers with several female characters: Rachel, Catwoman and Miranda in the Batman films; Lois, Martha and Faora in Man of Steel.  The strongest female characters were villains, and the supposedly positive female leads were at best presented as meddling, until the male lead shows up, at which point they turned into wistful swooners.  In other words, women in the Nolanverse are afterthoughts, distractions, or plot devices.

It makes perfect sense that Captain America wouldn’t have many female characters considering its WW2 battlefield setting.  However, as any hero’s journey needs a love interest, the filmmakers bucked a trend and crafted a love interest for our hero who could very easily handle being the hero in her own story.

The moment Agent Peggy Carter is introduced, Johnston wastes no time in letting us know she is not a woman to be trifled with.  The same soldier who bullied Rogers during training makes fun of Carter, and makes inappropriate advances towards her.  She responds by punching him, just once, and flattening him.

Rogers is amused and impressed, and in a rare moment for films, Carter’s physical takedown of a harasser is verbally applauded by her male superior, Colonel Phillips.  He is neither intimidated nor concerned that a young woman can hold her own with the boys.  It was very refreshing to see this in a movie, when normally such female strength is dismissed or mocked in an effort to put ladies “in their place.”

Time and time again Carter is shown to be a formidable soldier, a deft leader, and unflappable in a conflict.  She is also not a shrinking violet towards Rogers.  When a female clerk takes advantage of Rogers by kissing him, Carter’s reaction is not over-the-top, but does remind Rogers she is not to be messed with: she shoots at him several times when Rogers is testing new shields.  Rogers (and Howard Stark’s) reaction is priceless: awe.

The courtship, as it were, between Rogers and Carter is also unforced and charming.  They are clearly interested in each other, but where Rogers is too naïve to know what to do, Carter is too professional to let romance interfere with getting the job done.

It is only when Cap decides to drive the plane into the ocean that Carter shows any sign of emotion, but even then she is hoping an alternative will present itself before it’s too late.  Phillips, showing he’s more than just a heartless soldier, clears the radio room to allow Carter and Rogers to have a private moment.

One female lead character in a very male-centric action film was more of a role model, and more of a fully realized individual, than every female character in all four of Nolan’s DC Comics superhero films.

That is one of the keys to the successful adaptation of this character to the screen.  Captain America is a seemingly jingoistic character who in actuality is a champion for equality and opportunity for all people, not just those in power.  Joe Johnston, who showed an affinity for the 1940s with his adaptation of The Rocketeer to screens in 1990, does the same for Captain America.  Not only does Captain America’s 1940s seem authentic yet modern, the emotions and characters of the era presented in a way that seems fresh and not at all old fashioned.  The action sequences are well-shot and choreographed, and homage is subtly given to the fantastic and eclectic design of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon.

Captain America may not be the most financially successful part of the Marvel cinematic universe, but it might just be the most well-made film Marvel has yet to make, and is a perfect adaptation of a character often misunderstood in the comic book world.  It should go without saying that I am very much looking forward to seeing what Evans can do with the character in the remaining four films he is slated to portray the Star Spangled Man With The Plan.

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