“I do not know how it is that you are here, or how you remain so unchanged, but it does not matter, my brother. Today, you will die. Fifty years ago, you were Doctor Vaselli’s ridiculous idea. You remain a clownish symbol that no one cares about.”
Cap replies, “I care.”
“You care. Then come to me, my brother! Let us see if this heart of yours is stronger than my hate!”
That line from the last, failed attempt to tell Cap’s story encapsulates the greatness of his story and why the new film gloriously succeeds. At its heart is . . . heart.
To comics fans, at least, the story is quite familiar: During World War II, serial recruit-reject Steve Rogers, played here by Chris Evans, becomes the first and only American super-soldier. He fights with the troops; battles his arch nemesis, the Red Skull; and, near the end of the war, falls into a state of suspended animation to awaken in our brave new world.
The story may be old hat, but the execution of it here is brilliant. Rather than leaping immediately into the fray, this time Steve Rogers is given his familiarly garish costume and told to play a character called “Captain America” onstage to sell war bonds.
Nobody but us fanboys would know from or care about CAPTAIN AMERICA #1, the cover of which depicts Cap decking Hitler with a right cross. Here, that cover becomes the inspiration for Rogers’s evolution from propagandistic tool to true hero. The sequence wherein the gaudily garbed Steve, whom his Colonel calls a “chorus girl,” attempts to rally the scornful troops from onstage is marvelously conceived, the perfect impetus for his emergence as the real Captain America. First, make him an object of ridicule, and then reveal his power as a symbol. (In this regard, the plot device reminds me of the cross of Jesus -- from object of scorn to symbol of love.)
Some reviewers consider the movie a bit long. I didn’t think so. In fact, I appreciated that it was long enough to develop the supporting characters’ roles. They used to do this in movies, long ago, before it all got to be about the overpaid, overblown Star. By contrast, take the scene between Steve Rogers and Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) as the two sit facing each other on Army cots. It’s unhurried, meditative, quietly humorous -- and tells us more about the scientist responsible for Rogers’s eventual transformation than any medium to date.
Of Evans’s performance, some have said he’s not much more than earnest. Granted, Evans isn’t the flamboyant Tony Stark, but then neither is Steve Rogers. I found his portrayal believable and quite sympathetic. Here’s a guy who’s simply good. He plays a young man who’s weary of being bullied, but who refuses to give up. Contrary to what some of us might like to believe, there really are people like that out there. What’s more, there are lots of people who still want to be.
Director Joe Johnston, who directed another period piece, The Rocketeer, has done a great job of evoking the New York of the early 1940s. He obviously loves those big ol’ cars and chattering machine guns. And just as obviously, he has great respect and affection for the heroic tradition.
That respect can’t have been realized at a better time with better tools. You can’t do a superhero flick without special effects, of course, and CA’s are superb. Using the same technology that allowed Benjamin Button to age backwards, Chris Evans starts out the proverbial 98-pound weakling. I was startled at how short and scrawny he looked (as someone says just before he undergoes his legendary transformation, “Somebody give that kid a sandwich!”). He doesn’t just convey frailty; he is frailty. Yet the effects serve the characters and the story, not the other way around.
I thrilled to the scene wherein Rogers, a leader at last, strides with the men of the rescued 101st Airborne back to camp. He dispenses with his tights in favor of more practical gear, but retains the flag-motif. He says it’s grown on him. Yet he also recognizes the power of the stars-and-stripes to inspire. More importantly, Captain America doesn’t fight independently, like Superman, but with the boys he’d always wanted to fight alongside. Cap’s humility shines throughout.
Of course, there is no story without conflict. I suppose it’s necessary, in these politically correct times, to play it safe and rely on good old Nazi-villainy. Everybody, presumably even Muslim extremists, agree that these were truly bad dudes. The film does not therefore explore too deeply the nature of evil or prejudice, or the complexities of war. In fact, it sugarcoats history a bit, not only placing black Gabe Jones among the commandoes with whom Cap fights but a Japanese-American as well. (As a sad matter of fact, during WWII, African-Americans were segregated from white troops, unless you count their white officers. And I seriously doubt that Japanese-Americans, many of whom were placed in internment camps, would have been let anywhere near a rifle.)
Anyway, I thought that the ultimate conflict with the Red Skull was, unfortunately, the least interesting thing about the movie. Although Hugo Weaving does a fine job with the part, he’s more believable when he wears a supposedly lifelike mask. When his disfigurement is revealed, it’s almost laughable: Botox gone mad! (Roger Ebert says his face is the same color as the ducks that hang in Chinese restaurants.) He’s all but a cartoon, consumed with mere lust for the power of the Cosmic Cube. Regardless of the many flaws of the 1990 CA, I think the Skull there was better conceived.
What I found compelling about Captain America was the story of a young man’s struggle simply to do his part in the war-effort, who won’t let his limitations stop him, whom wise observers like Dr. Erskine recognize as heroic long before he becomes Captain America. His philosophy is simple: “I don’t like bullies.” The dreams of his heart are equally simple, but profound: “There are guys dying out there. I should be with them.” The action sequences are well-done, the acting pitch-perfect, the effects excellent, and, best of all, all these are but handmaidens to the story of how a young man’s good dream becomes reality.
It’s fashionable these days to write patronizingly of goodness, patience, and endurance in modern pop heroes: The movie’s great, but the hero is Dudley Do-Right. We forget that in real life, there really are people who do good, who live life simply, honestly, and courageously. There really are people who’ve been given power -- a gun and a badge, an office and an expense account, a personal computer -- and, far from becoming destructive, that power becomes but an extension of their righteousness. We couldn’t get along without them, the salt of the earth, the light of the world.
As Jesus said, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good” (Luke 6:45). That’s why Captain America is more than a popcorn movie. It may lack that great line about a heart stronger than hate -- but it’s a film with a heart for a good heart.
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