Superhero movies are all the rage. At least they were during the summer of 2011. When I saw the superhero movie lineup before the summer began, I was most interested in Captain America: The First Avenger. One, it wasn’t a remake/reboot. Two, it was set in the past, World War II. Seeing a superhero’s story told within the context of a real historical setting was different. Learning how a superhero helped make history rather than exist in his own version of a world like ours was an exciting proposition for me. Don’t get me wrong, I like the comic book superhero movies. Tim Burton’s Batman, Spiderman 1 & 2, Superman 1,2,3 are all movies that I enjoyed and each existed in its own version of reality, a comic book world. But, that’s been done and done well. Then we have films like Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, which is grittier yet still set in its own world. A darker world, sure, but still not close to the one you and I live in. There’s nothing wrong with any of these approaches. But both have been done and I was looking forward to Captain America doing something different by living in and impacting a real period of time. A superhero period piece of sorts.
Maybe my expectations were wrong and that set me up for disappointment. Captain America is a rather generic superhero movie set in WWII but ignoring much of the historical significance. Apparently Nazis and the fate of the world at stake weren’t good enough. Captain America creates a replacement for Hitler in Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), who captures a mysterious glowing cube. The cube is supernatural and leads to the transformation of Weaving from a Nazi to the ultra strong Red Skull. Think Darth Maul minus the lightsaber. Red Skull creates super weapons based on the cube’s power. These weapons don’t just kill people, they make them explode and disappear at impact. With a comic book villain and weapons from a galaxy far, far away in place, we have the creation of HYDRA. Goodbye Nazis, hello HYDRA.
Meanwhile the US knows about HYDRA and has a refugee German scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) who is working on a super soldier program of his own. Dr. Erskine runs into the future Captain America, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). He discovers that the puny Rogers has attempted to join the armed forces numerous times, even going so far as to lie on his applications. Dr. Erksine decides that Rogers is the right man for his super soldier experiment. Rogers goes to training camp, shows a lot of heart but little physical prowess. Throw Rudy into WWII era basic training and you’ve got the idea. Dr. Erksine finally runs the experiment on Rogers, which transforms Rogers into a tall muscular man capable of superhuman tricks. The experiment appears to be a success and this should lead to an army of new soldiers for the US Army, but a HYDRA operative steals the special sauce and kills Dr. Erksine.
Instead of using Rogers in the fight against the Nazis, oops, HYDRA, the US government uses him as propaganda for pushing the sale of war bonds. He’s Captain America, complete with the costume and shield. That goes on for a while until Rogers takes his act on the road for the troops where he is promptly laughed off the stage. This upsets Rogers and gets him in the mood to use his powers for more than just selling government backed paper. Once he learns that his best friend, Bucky (Sebastian Stan), has gone missing behind enemy lines, he takes matters into his own hands and has Iron Man’s dad fly him to HYDRA headquarters. From there Captain America the superhero is born. We see him use his powers as he rescues a large group of soldiers, including Bucky, from Red Skull’s labyrinth.
The story goes on from there and ultimately leads to where all modern day Marvel movies lead, the birth of The Avengers. The details aren’t all that important. Some not so spectacular action sequences take place and we get to the end of the movie. WWII is ultimately rendered unimportant. What we’re left with is a solid origin story followed up by a lackluster retelling of one of the most exciting and dangerous times in (modern) world history.
While this probably makes it seem like I hated Captain America, I didn’t. I enjoyed Chris Evans’ performance throughout the film. I liked his budding relationship with Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Erskine. I even enjoyed seeing how Captain America went from mere propaganda to full blown superhero. The problem became the unnecessary invention of a villain (as if Hitler wasn’t evil enough), a silly magical cube that powers unreal weapons and the wasted opportunity of WWII as a setting. The second half of the movie was only somewhat entertaining as a result and felt like it was only there to fast forward us to next summer’s big event, The Avengers. I can’t say I’m all that excited.