Captain America & World War II

The best part of the latest Marvel film, Captain America, is the end credits. Bold propaganda posters with bright, 1940s colors, jumping out of the screen in the best display of three dimensions in the entire film, the credits capture everything that’s to know about the entire film. Fun, splashy, with more than a little propaganda splashed in there somewhere, it’s everything that America remembers broadly about the Second World War: a classic fight against unmentionable evil, where the good guys win in the end.

Captain America as a superhero film felt like a mixed product for me. One part advance marketing for the 2012 Avengers film, helmed by Joss Whedon, another part superhero origin story and the last bit war film. On the whole, it’s a fun ride: Chris Evans is spectacular as the titular character in Red, White and Blue, with one of the better origin stories set to celluloid (or gigabyte as it were), up there with the original Spiderman and Iron Man films. Yet despite that, the film is torn between missions, and fell pretty far from my expectations, which surprised me, given the praise that the film has garnered from a lot of outlets that I generally trust.

One of the film’s strongest and weakest points was its setting of the Second World War. It’s a fantastic place to place a superhero origin, given the near supernatural nature of the war itself, not to mention accurate to the character’s origins. World War II has taken on a mythological status within the United States, as it’s arguably the one point where the country displayed its absolute best, and absolute worst (necessarily – I’m not being revisionist!).

The movie is good – great even – when we’re introduced to a scrawny Steve Rodgers getting booted from his physical, and given the opportunity to prove himself with some medical experimentation that turns him into the only super soldier that the United States is able to create. Johnson sets up a good arc for Rogers as he’s selected not for his physical strength, but for his purely American character of being a well rounded individual: good of heart, smart, resourceful, all traits that live up to a supposed ideal American that the modern right wing would point to. It’s an admirable goal, to be sure: Steve’s a nice guy, and he saves the entire Eastern seaboard, but it’s a simple vision for how the United States and her allies collided with the Axis powers in Europe. (Japan is barely referenced.) The film builds as Rogers is put onto promotional detail, and it’s not until he reaches the front that he realizes his full potential as a soldier. Once there, he gets one awesome costume / uniform that I love.

It’s the wartime action part of the film that drags the film down. Full of tired action scenes with the all-token American team, the film never really materializes as any type of war film: it’s a collection of sequences against a faceless (literally!) enemy who serves as a stand-in for the Nazi and German soldiers on the front lines of the war. Part of this is from the fact that this is a comic book film in a bizzaro Marvel universe, but I can’t think that the reasons for why we didn’t see Nazis in the films: The Hydra soldiers could have hardly beat out the SS troops as ridiculously cartoonish in and of themselves, and there’s an incredible opportunity missed here when looking to set up a story of American good vs. evil. The action scenes feel as if they’re there for their own sake, penciled in by the screenwriters because they couldn’t be bothered to pick up a Stephen Ambrose story, or any one of the other millions of tomes released in the last decade about the Second World War. As a whole? It’s also pretty boring: Cap hits people with his shield, bounces around Europe to take out the Hydra baddies, and jumps over things on his motorcycle.

In a way, this feels very much as how the United States sees and views the Second World War: we know the basics: the US was attacked, went overseas to far-off battlefields against an enemy who displayed a real disregard for any type of human dignity (not that there’s much in war to begin with, but there’s certainly a line drawn at human experimentation and outright murder), where we won by the strength of our soldiers with a moral imperative to win the war. Rogers / Captain America certainly fit this bill to a T.

My argument here is that it’s just too simple, much as Captain America is, and that the film is basically a reflection of our own understanding and our collective desire to understand the war. The United States faced an enemy that really outgunned and out trained our soldiers for years on the battlefield, bound by a strong nationalistic sense of duty that bordered on fanatical in some instances. The United States largely won the war by outsupplying their armies, slowly improving the training and equipment of our GIs and keeping to a strategy that outmaneuvered the Axis powers, rather than simply outfighting them at every turn by our own prowess, strength and will to fight. This in and of itself is a bit of a simplification, but the study of World War II is akin to a complicated onion, with layers upon layers: it was truly a global war, with innumerable facets.

The Superhero archetype that Captain America displays is something that we commonly believe as a country: it’s a nice narrative, and in a way, Captain America is us, or at least, the parts that we really want to see. The conflict set up between him and Red Skull is horribly underplayed: all things equal, the only differences between the two men are their inner natures: Captain America is good, Red Skull is evil, and it’s a fight that’s set up with some real promise, but ultimately never goes anywhere meaningful, beyond action sequences. Not that the film needed much more than that: it’s designed as a fun action film, so this works, but other Marvel films such as Iron Man really demonstrated that a strong character film is possible: Iron Man succeeded wildly as a story of a self-examination and role within the nation’s character. Captain America never quite does this, although it does a far better job at it than Superman, another type of national hero, does.

Finally, I’m personally tired of the Avengers crossover that seems to be bleeding into every film. Before, we just had to content with the trailers as the beginning of the film: now, they’re in the movies themselves, and while I’m just as excited to see everything next year, I hate the amount of pandering that Marvel is displaying for the film: there’s connections to Iron Man and Thor here in this film, and for someone who hasn’t seen every film, it doesn’t feel so much like connecting stories as trying to bleed the audience dry. The film also hints rather overtly that the next main storyline will be the Winter Soldier run, with the (spoiler!) off-stage death of Bucky.

Captain America is a fun film, but it’s no Iron Man. Well acted (Chris Evans is a superb Captain America and Tommy Lee Jones has some fantastic comedic moments throughout, as well as some of the supporting cast) at points, but the film’s unable to really capitalize on the 2nd World War beyond turning it into one giant series of action sequences that does little to move the characters forward, or even make the audience care about them. The real shame is that I’ve seen people point to this as the ultimate sort of patriotic film, which annoys me because it’s not much more than a regular run of the mill summer blockbuster, just wrapped up in the flag.

Like the end credits, it’s propaganda, a self-fulfilling mythos that we perpetuate ourselves to remind us of how great we are. That bothers me, a great deal. Still, it’s fun to see quasi-Nazis get hit in the face with a red, white and blue shield. That never gets old.

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2 thoughts on “Captain America & World War II

  1. One thing that just strikes me as funny when looking at this from a child-of-the-80s perspective:

    Setting up the All-American hero as someone who uses drugs to achieve his greatness. Juicing – it’s the American way!

    • Hm, in a way, but I think that the core part of the character (the same goes for most of the Marvel line) isn’t the powers that they have, but their inner personality that makes them what they are: they all (well, not necessarily the Hulk, but we don’t hold that against him) have strong moral fiber that guide their purpose. In that way, Captain America as a film did really well.

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