The Nouveau Retro of The First Avenger

At first glance, Captain America seems ridiculously out of date. The hero’s outfit is essentially a slightly modified American flag and his mask inexplicably includes decorative miniature wings. He’s completely missing the swagger that has made characters like Wolverine and Tony Stark’s Iron Man iconic household names. Plus, he’s just so gosh darn idealistic. That may be why the producers of Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger chose to set the film in the early 1940s, in a simpler time. Director Joe Johnston, whose The Rocketeer film was similarly bursting with World War II-era nostalgia, gives fans old-fashioned heroics with Captain America. In the film, Captain America is in his heyday and it all works quite well. Still, with his star-spangled patriotism and optimism, Cap might seem out of touch today, which is why we now need the character the most.

The film doesn’t try to be hip or tongue-in-cheek and neither does its central character. Captain America is genuine and courageous.

In the early moments of film, Steve Rogers, admirably played by Chris Evans, attempts to fool army recruiters so he can go fight overseas. Yet, the young man is rejected because of his unfit, scrawny condition. The 97-pound weakling from Brooklyn is beaten up in an alleyway shortly afterward, but nothing seems to get him down. He refuses to give up on himself or his country. He refuses to back down from a fight even when it would seem foolish to bother trying. Viewers quickly find out that the wimp has tried to join the military around half-a-dozen times, changing his name and/or place of birth on the application, just for a chance to fight the enemy. At best, it seems admirable on screen. At worst, it seems like something to chuckle at today.

Colonel Chester Phillips, one of the recruiters for the experimental “super-soldier” program, played by the reliable Tommy Lee Jones, is the movie’s only good guy with any sort of edge, which may explain why Jones gets all the good lines. He, like no doubt many viewers, isn’t so sure about Rogers, who’s by far the runt of the group of potential super-soldiers. However, in a telling scene, after Col. Phillips throws a fake grenade to see how the soldiers react when under attack, all of the strapping, seemingly-heroic recruits scatter while the pint-sized Rogers jumps on the device in an attempt to save his comrades. It’s in this moment that we see what really makes Captain America so strong: his character. Dr. Abraham Erskine, the scientist who developed the amazing life-changing formula, said it best in the film, “Why someone weak? Because a weak man knows the value of strength, the value of power…”

If asked to find a flaw in Steve Rogers prior to his transformation, you’d only point to his physical attributes. After he gets the only dose of the Super-Solider serum, he’s a foot-taller and muscle bound. Then, you won’t find any weaknesses at all.

At the same time, he has no superpowers; he’s just working at the peak of a human’s capabilities. His outfit and origin technically make him a superhero, but he’s really just a man who gets to an extraordinary and timely push toward his true potential. He immediately becomes the best in every way. Even Marvel Comics’ Peter Parker made some big mistakes after being endowed with new abilities, but Steve Rogers as Captain America immediately starts giving his all for the good of his fellow man.

He believes in the power of democracy but he also discourses about it often. Maybe too often. To be fair, he’s been doing it in the comics for decades too. In 1964’s “The Avengers” issue #6, in the middle of a fight with Baron Zemo, he said, “Look into my eyes, tyrant! They’re the eyes of a man who would die for liberty!” But it’s stranger to see and hear that sort of thing on the big screen. In our postmodern culture, you’d probably be a little disillusioned or shocked by such babble about freedom and virtue. In more ways than one, Cap is an Eagle Scout on steroids.

It’s rather fitting that Cap’s only weapon in the majority of this film is his trademark shield. That’s good because the man hates bullies, but doesn’t believe in killing. While it was surprising to see him use a gun, more often than not, there’s no offensive weapon. Captain America’s shield is unbreakable, representing the strength of America’s intentions to project the people of the entire world. He’s a defender of democracy and fairness. And he’s doing the right thing to the point of being a little square if need be. Even when he throws the shield, which makes for an awesome visual effect, the analogy holds: Cap is expanding the strength and protection of America to defend the helpless.

There’s very little gray area in the 125 minutes of running time. The line between good and evil has perhaps never been more clearly drawn, even in a comic book movie. Good is unbelievably good. Evil is pure evil, thanks mostly to the legendary villain the Red Skull who’s played in an over-the-top way by Hugo Weaving. The Red Skull controls his own private army, HYRDA, and he even has evil schemes that surpass Der Fuhrer.

Sure, the fight with the Red Skull that the movie had been building to wasn’t fully realized. And that’s okay perhaps, because it serves as a reminder that big problems don’t always have easy solutions, despite the most admirable of heroic efforts to thwart them.

Besides, it gave us the Cosmic Cube and an excuse for Cap to be frozen in time, both of which must be important later in the upcoming sequels. You could even argue that subtitle, The First Avenger, even hints that the movie to some extent is a feature-length commercial that seems to say, “We know you’re curious about ‘The Avengers’ movie, folks. This guy will be in it”.

The film itself ends abruptly with our hero waking up in modern-day America. Sure, it doesn’t end as suddenly as No Country for Old Men but it feels like a cliffhanger that didn’t have time to build. And while it was obviously to set up “The Avengers” film, perhaps it was in part so audiences wouldn’t notice how much the character wouldn’t fit easily in a contemporary setting. Patriotism, wholesome character and simplicity aren’t the heavily embraced virtues that they were in the Captain’s prime days of the 1940s.

It raises all sorts of good questions that don’t have easy answers. Why get so patriotic about things? Have Americans wasted our potential as a country? Did we really have that much potential seven decades ago? If so, what happened? Why might we have to fight the urge to snicker at this guy whose purpose is to wholeheartedly stand behind his convictions and by doing so, fight for his country?

Just a few months after DC Comics made headlines when Superman renounced his American citizenship in Action Comics issue #900, Marvel puts the spotlight on its only hero who radiates nationalistic pride. Truth, justice, and the American way have always been Captain America’s. They seem outdated, but they shouldn’t be. Those things give the film heart and make it about something more than just saving the day or defeating the villain. The film is about recognizing your potential to do good and about believing in something worth fighting for, above all else and against any bewildering odds.

Cap has always been about potential. He was punching Hitler right in the jaw on the cover of his first comic book in 1941, months before America actually entered World War II. Obviously, his costume has always been bad camouflage for a war hero, since there’s no terrain out there made of stars and stripes. But, he’s always been a symbol of the good in people, a reliable champion whose character more than his abilities makes him superhuman. Here’s a man who has reached his potential and then is doing something worthwhile with it, even if he looks a little corny in the process.

The Marvel films that haven’t worked as well could learn something from the setting of The First Avenger; for heroes to be seen as timeless, perhaps they should be placed in an earlier time frame where they don’t just seem like the latest thing out there. Seeing Cap in this context makes his legacy all the more understandable. Like the movie demonstrates so well, Captain America remains pure in his convictions. And that’s something that’s more heroic today than ever.