There are twenty-seven sequels being released this year. The fourth of Spy Kids, the fifth X-Men, the eighth Harry Potter.
Studio executives are trying to mitigate risk, the way a hedge fund manager might. This results in the investment in pre-existing products like books, graphic novels, comic books, now even board games (look out for the upcoming films Monopoly and Candyland).
Despite the complaints of a not insignificant portion of moviegoers, execs cannot justify (to their share holders, to themselves) the backing of a film without a proven track record. Comic books are an ideal starting point because they have a built-in fan base, one that represents the largest demographic of movie audiences, males between twelve and twenty-five.
Captain America is not a sequel. It’s better than a sequel; it is part of a series, The Avengers. Instead of growing tired of the same super powers, the same catch phrases, the audience can bounce from super hero to super hero, from blockbuster to blockbuster. Thor, Iron Man (which itself has a sequel), The Incredible Hulk (made badly twice by two different directors with two different Hulks) and now Captain America will all convene in next year’s The Avengers, a film that itself will likely spawn its own band of sequels. The most recent in this troop is Captain America, a film totally in line with its predecessors in its depiction of cartoon-like heroes and villains, though with the luxury of setting it against real-life horrors, in this case WWII.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a pipsqueak. He longs to join the war, to represent his family and his country but is turned away time and again due to his size. We see this miniscule Steve standing up to a bully in a New York movie theatre, only to be pummeled to the ground in the alley behind it. A glutton for punishment, Steve will not quit and so continues to get up only to be knocked down again. It is only his much larger best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) who can stop the fight, both saving his friend and humiliating him.
Rogers is a hero in mind and spirit but not in body. Chris Evans refused to allow a body double to act out this portion of the movie and instead asked that they digitally shrink his body in post-production. The result is a confusing one, not least because Evans’ voice is that of a much larger person; his tiny frame early in the film does not match his commanding baritone. However, soon enough a German scientist, Dr. Erskine(Stanley Tucci), comes along with a magic elixir, and elicits Rogers due to his heart of gold. As Erskine and Rogers become more acquainted, Rogers learns more about the Nazis, specifically Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a maniacal tyrant, whose views are even too extreme for Hitler. That notion in and of itself is wildly problematic.
The name-dropping of atrocities and mass murderers is what complicates the moral weight of films like Captain America. The first scene in this summer’s X-Men: First Class shows a brutal scene in a concentration camp where a son is separated from his mother and shortly thereafter a Nazi official murders her in front of him. Similarly in Captain America, the Nazis—the names, the symbols, the images—are re-appropriated to ground a cartoon/comic book in reality, legitimizing it to teens, defaming their grand parents.
Captain America is guiltier than its precursors in obscuring history to bolster an innocuous narrative. Schmidt is pure evil. To him, “Heil Hitler” is not extreme enough; Schmidt insists on disbanding and calling his new army Hydra, and their salute is with two fists raised, instead of one outstretched hand. What is the endgame in suggesting that the villain in a super hero movie is more evil than a real person responsible for the deaths of 60 million real people? The two fists raised references the Heil grotesquely, without any consideration of the cultural implication of lessening the potency of a deadly salute. Marvel Studios Micky Mouses history in fictionalizing it, and so defames it. This may have framed the war effectively for young people at the time, but, in retrospect, more attention and care are needed.
The little-guy-with-the-heart-of-gold Rogers is picked for the experiment and the result is Captain America, a man with exceptional, near super-human strength and physical ability, retaining his personality and level of intellect. The girl-who-never-doubted-him, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), is at once amazed by his bravery and taken with his new physical casing. Their romance is tolerable if only because that comic book convention translates well to the screen, having a long-lasting tradition. Their love is one of near misses, of awkward glances and unspoken feelings. The fact that they remain unspoken is what makes them work.
When people do speak in Captain America, it’s in a stilted, manufactured way. People flocked to see both Iron Man films partly because Robert Downey Jr. played Tony Stark; he portrayed the title character with his signature cynical swagger. Captain America is as dry as Captain America, all blind patriotism and bland locution. “Hey, let’s hear it for Captain America!” and “They have bigger guns but we have more spirit!” are indicative of the overall level of sophistication.
Here good and evil, us and them, are without nuance. Good is pure good, and evil pure evil. There is no explanation, no motivation, only destruction for its own sake and the trusty allies, there to save the world, again. This monosyllabic explanation of war is acceptable, should it be depicted in a fictional manner, but the inclusion of real names complicates this.
After Bucky dies, after Captain America has completed the first few levels of this video game-like plot, it is discovered that Schmidt (now the Red Skull) is planning on dropping something like a nuclear bomb on the major American cities. Again, history is re-written in a frivolous way. In the final showdown, Captain America leads the American troops into enemy territory where, despite their smaller weapons, they assume control chasing the Red Skull out into the open sky. As the car with Carter, Rogers and a lethargic Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Phillips chases after the Red Skull, Captain America finally gets to kiss the girl. Rogers then looks over at Phillips who says, “I’m not going to kiss you!”
Many actors do films like these for the payday, though in the case of Jones, it is almost as if we see the pay stub labeled to his jacket instead of a medal, his level of boredom is so blatant.
In the nick of time, Captain America leaps from car to plane and soars into the sky to defeat the villain on the last level. Before he can get to the Red Skull, he needs to go through his henchmen. Falling out of the sky onto another plane, Rogers dukes it out with a soldier while standing atop an airplane. Deftly maneuvering while going five hundred miles per hour, Rogers throws the man into the propeller quickly turning him into shreds of blood and guts. The only thing adult about Captain America, as with other super hero films, is its depiction of violence, which doesn’t omit the gruesome—just enough to bring in the teens, just too little to avoid an R-rating. Finally Captain America and the Red Skull are face to face and that plays out the only way it can: Schmidt’s Satan-like obsession with power consumes him. This leaves Rogers with an airplane full of warheads and the Jesus-like duty of sacrificing himself for the good of humankind.
This is not the first super hero movie to employ religious motifs; Superman Returns was particularly chastised for its Christ-like imagery. Rogers crashes the plane into an iceberg, saving the day. He then promptly wakes up seventy years later with a one-eyed Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury) staring back at him. All of The Avengers
lead-up films end this way, in the present somehow or other, with Jackson leading them by the hand into next summer’s blockbuster.
Captain America is no different than other films and that is its main detraction. Studios have stopped even trying to make super hero movies different from each other. This newest rendition is Marvel Studios at its most formulaic. Captain America doesn’t have a dark side, the Red Skull has no good in him. With a black and white moral framework, the audience is unable to relate to either character. And so, we find ourselves rooting for no one, indifferent to a war that defined the last century. Indeed, the greatest crime committed was not of a fictional villain but of a juggernaut like Marvel Studios fictionalizing the past.