True story. A few years ago now when I was getting ready to move out of my parents’ house, I was clearing out my stuff from my bedroom, the bulk of which was pretty much every issue of SFX magazine published between 1997 and 2004. And I found myself with two copies in my hand, one from August 2001 and the other from October 2001. I idly flicked through the August issue and found myself reading the comic reviews, one of which was a little quarter-page panning of Captain America # Fifty Bajillion drawn by Who Knows and written by Who Cares. The review was scathing; the art’s terrible, the writing’s appalling and worst of all, the main character’s just not interesting or relevant anymore. The review finished by noting that Marvel had been dropping hints that one of their oldest characters was going to be killed off and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that Cap was not long for this world. I then flicked through the October 2001 issue and again turned to the comics section. And there was a full page review of the new Captain America #1, with a top tier art and script team and a story about Steve Rogers defending Muslim New Yorkers from racist attackers while trying to track down an Al Qaeda cell.
Cometh the hour. Cometh the man.
For a character whose entire schtick is being a man out of time, when he was originally created Captain America was actually ahead of his time. In America in 1940 public opinion was firmly against become involved in another European war. In New York however, many of the men working in the comic book industry were the children of Jewish immigrants who often still had family back in Europe and felt a personal connection to the horrors being committed by the Nazis. One of those men was Joe Simon who conceived of a patriotic, Nazi-battling character named “Super American”. Deciding that the name was a little too similar to a certain other superhero, he changed it to “Captain America”, a name so instantly iconic that nowadays you just have to put the word “captain” in front of any random noun and it sounds like a superhero name. Simon pitched the idea to his editor Martin Goodman who liked it so much that he ordered him to create a solo Captain America series, a big gamble to take on an untested character. Simon’s usual partner was artist Jack Kirby but Simon wanted to bring in two additional artists to deal with the workload of creating an entire book’s worth of stories based on one character. But Kirby was so invested in the character of Captain America that he insisted on drawing the entire book himself, which he did, and on time.
The first issue sold as well as any comic that features Hitler getting punched in the face should. The character was an immediate hit, becoming the first genuine superstar character of Timely comics (which would later become Marvel). Not all the attention was positive, however. American Nazis began sending threatening letters and one time even called the offices of Timely challenging Jack Kirby to come down and fight them in the foyer. Kirby ran down only to find they’d run off because it was Jack Frickin’ Kirby and they may have been Nazis but they weren’t crazy. Regardless, for a while the city of New York actually had to provide police protection to the building. After Pearl Harbour, Captain America became even more popular, with his comics distributed to American service men to boost morale. Many of the Timely artists and writers were drafted during this period. Stan Lee, for example, who got his break in Timely writing Captain America prose stories (he was the one who came up with the whole “throwing the shield as a weapon” thing) was put to work making propaganda. One day he was found breaking into the army post office, trying to mail a script off to Timely. He was told he’d be court-martialed, only to be released the next day when the editor of Timely rang his commanding officer to point out that jailing the writer of Captain Frickin’ America might be bad for the army’s morale.
Jack Kirby also joined the army but opted to serve on the front lines, becoming one of the few American soldiers who had experience fighting Nazis as a hobby before going pro.
Unfortunately, America won the war…I mean obviously not “unfortunately” in the grand scheme of things but unfortunate for Captain America. You see, Captain America was very much a reaction to the Nazi menace, which is what made the character so timely (pun!) and important. But of course, once that menace was defeated, Captain America didn’t really have a purpose anymore. In fact, the same could be said for the vast majority of superheroes who had followed in his wake. The superhero boom pretty much died with Hitler, with only a few characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman surviving the decade. Timely tried repurposing Cap as a commie fighter, but it just wasn’t the same. Timely changed its name to Atlas, dropped the superhero genre entirely and started focusing on sci-fi and monster tales.
It wasn’t until the sixties that Cpatain America got his second origin story. The third issue of The Avengers had the newly formed team finding Captain America floating in the Arctic Sea in a block of ice having gone missing near the end of WW2 (all the stuff about him fighting communists was retconned as actually having…you know what, fuck it, no time). Captain America then joined the team as a man out of time, a morally pure Rip Van Winkle trying to adapt to a confusing and complex modern world, and that’s pretty much been his niche ever since.
Since then, Captain America has had his share of classic runs and great stories, but there’s no denying that he’s a tricky character to do right. Like Superman and Wonder Woman, it takes a writer with skill to make him work (though it’s a truly wonderful thing when he does). For a long stretches of the twentieth century it often seemed like Marvel didn’t know what to do with Captain America, often giving him to creators who really had no business writing the character, which is how we got Rob Liefeld’s godawful Heroes Reborn Captain America.
I’d say “We do not speak of the Sentinel of Libertitty” but let’s be real. We never stopped.
Since the beginning of the 21st century however, Cap has once again become one Marvel’s top tier characters, attracting industry leading talent and the kind of popularity he hasn’t really known since the time of his creation. Part of that is, well, yeah, obviously…
“9/11 changed EVERYTHING Brian!”
But as well as the natural impulse to rally around such a patriotic symbol in troubling times, Captain America is simply a character whose time has come again. In the forties, Cap was popular but he was by no means unique. The stands were overflowing with patriotic, square jawed do-gooders. Hell, Captain America wasn’t even the first superhero to wear the American flag and carry a shield. But the superhero genre has changed so utterly since those days that what once made Captain America almost generic now makes him almost unique. Nowadays, a superhero who’s just a genuinely decent person is refreshing and almost edgy. He may be old fashioned, but these day? Like the man said, people need a little old fashioned.
2011’s Captain America, the first movie featuring the character that fans will actually acknowledge exists, works and works so damn well, because it gets that.
So our movie begins in the present day with a SHIELD team investigating a massive ship that’s just been unearthed in the ice. Instead of doing the sensible thing and running the hell away (c’mon, the odds that The Thing is in there is like 97%) they light-sabre drill their way inside and find a frozen corpse that’s considerably more star-spangled than is the norm.
Flashback to Tonsburg, Norway in 1941. The Nazis raid an ancient Norse temple looking for occult artifacts which of course was pretty much their entire strategy for winning the war. It was like “Oh, the Eastern Front is collapsing? Welp, better head to the Middle East to find a genie in a magic lamp or whatever.” These particular Nazis are HYDRA, the unit in charge of occult monkeyshines. Their leader is Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) also known as the Red Skull. I’m…kinda torn on this. Weaving plays the Skull very restrained and clipped. It’s a great performance, menacing and darkly funny but I can’t help feeling that an opportunity was missed here. The Red Skull has been Cap’s arch-nemesis since 1941 and it’s accepted comics tradition that he is if not the most dangerous or powerful Marvel villain, then certainly the most purely evil (with the possible exception of Mephisto who is literally the God of Evil). Many Marvel villains are layered, complex, often tragic individuals. The Red Skull thinks that’s shits for pussies. He’s just pure moral repulsiveness. Even other villains hate him. The Kingpin refuses to work with him. Doctor Doom and Magneto would happily team up with the good guys to defeat him. In one Marvel/DC crossover the Joker, THE FUCKING JOKER, breaks their team-up short when he learns just how awful he is. And I can’t help but wonder what might have been if the movie had just embraced that, given us a real moustache twirling, cackling madly, Jack-Nicholson-as-the-Joker-there-is-no-top insane Red Skull. I can see why they didn’t. It’s risky, especially when he’s up against a hero as vulnerable to the charge of being “boring” as Captain America but…goddamn it could have magnificent if done right.
Speaking of magnificence, the movie is directed by Joe Johnston, the director of the criminally underrated Rocketeer. I’m not being hyperbolic. If you do not think The Rocketeer is one of the best movies ever you belong in jail. With that movie Johnston proved that he was just about the best fit for this kind of material that it’s possible to find without going back in time and throwing a bag over the head of eighties-era Steven Spielberg.
Anyway. The Skull finds a hidden box containing “the jewel of Odin’s treasure room”, the Tesseract. Or possibly Marcellus Wallace’s soul.
“While the Fuhrer digs for trinkets in the desert…”
Skull orders the neighbouring village massacred because that’s how he likes to rewind after a stressful day and we cut to New York. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is trying to join the Army despite the fact that he has astigmatism, scoliosis, partial deafness, arrythmia, angina, high blood pressure, rheumatic fever and something here that oozes. Plus he’s so skinny he looks like someone tried breeding a human with a ferret. The army doctor takes one look at him and says “yeah, when all the other soldiers are dead you’ll be the first one we call.”
Despondent, Steve goes to the movies and ends up getting in a fight with a loud mouth who keeps yelling at the projectionist to quit it with the inspiring news reels about “Our Boys in the Fight” and just show the cartoons already. And…okay, the guys is being an asshole, no question, but c’mon. It’s the forties. Do you have any idea how good the cartoons were back then? I’d probably be yelling too.
Mouse don’t get his Fleischer Superman, Mouse gets punchy.
Anyway, the gentleman with the deep and cultured appreciation for classic animation proceeds to beat the snot out of Steve behind the theatre. This scene establishes two of the most important things about Steve’s character. One: He never backs down from a fight he believes in, no matter how badly he’s outmatched and two: he likes using round things as shields.
Anyway, Steve is rescued by his pal James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastien Stan) who turns up in uniform because he’s just been made a Sergeant in the 107th Infantry. This was the unit that Steve wanted to join because his father served there so obviously this is another kick in the teeth for poor Steve but he’s not bitter because he’s Steve Rogers and that emotion does not exist in him. To cheer him up, Bucky takes him on a double date to see the first Stark Expo.
The Expo is full of neat little details and call backs to Golden Age comics lore. My absolute favourite is the display of “Phineas Horton’s Synthetic Man” who, in case you don’t know, if actually the Original Human Torch, Marvel’s first superhero.
“Well, while it’s true that he appeared in Marvel Comics #1 as the main feature, the SubMariner also appeared in that issue in a reprint of an older story from Motion Picture Funnies Weekly thereby making him the oldest Marvel character…”
Dummy up you. Also it behooves me to mention that the Human Torch was the one who killed Hitler. No really. Burned him alive. That’s canon.
Tsk. That Hitler. Always fibbing.
Also present at the expo is Howard Stark who demonstrates his amazing shiny red flying car while surrounded by beautiful dancers because I’m pretty sure that’s on the Stark family crest.
Steve sees another recruiting booth and decides to apply again under a false address. Which yes, is technically lying, but it’s lying for LIBERTY. Bucky tries to talk him out of this, saying that the Army doesn’t like being pressured once they’ve said “No” and that he may end up in jail but suggests helping the war effort by working in a factory. Steve says he can’t take the safe option while men are laying down their lives but to be honest, given the working conditions in American factories at the time an asthmatic might actually be safer on the front lines.
Steve is overheard by Doctor Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucchi) who takes him aside and asks him one very simple question: “Do you want to kill Nazis?”
When I began reviewing the Marvel movies I decided that instead of just naming each review after the movie, I’d take a line of dialogue from the film that I thought best summed up the character in a wonderfully original touch that I in no way blatantly stole from Antagony and Ecstacy
you shut your lying mouth. Steve’s response to Erskine’s question is the reason I wanted to take that approach. It just perfectly sums up everything that Steve Rogers and Captain America should be. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He’s not driven by revenge, or rage, or bloodlust. He is someone who has suffered all his life and doesn’t want anyone else to. He fights for those who can’t fight for themselves. He is a protector. It’s why his weapon of choice is a shield.
Also, I just love Tucci in this role. His Erskine is a gentle man who is visibly uneasy with militarism and violence. In the original comic, the scientist who gives Steve the super soldier serum is named “Doctor Reinstein”, an obvious reference to Albert Einstein. Later comics would explain that “Reinstein” was a codename for Erskine, a conceit that the movie discards. But, if anything, the movie leans even harder into the Einstein connection than the comics ever did. Tucci is visibly made up to look quite similar to Einstein, and like the real life scientist he is a pacifist who nevertheless works with the US military to defeat Hitler.
Erskine is impressed with Steve’s conviction and accepts him into Project Rebirth. Steve is sent to a secret SSR base for training under the command of Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Jimminy Christmas but I’d forgotten just how good the supporting cast is in this thing. Atwell is phenomenal, I mean, they gave the woman her own series for a reason. And Jones is so perfect for this part I’m not even sure you could call it acting. True story, a friend of mine actually played one of the soldiers in this movie (he didn’t make final cut unfortunately) and he has recounted the following scene on set from when Tommy Lee Jones met his personal assistant for the first time.
PA: Hello Mr Jones, such a huge fan. The studio sent me and if there’s anything at all I can do for you, please let me know.
Tommy Lee Jones: Peel me a grape son.
Phillips is less than impressed with Rogers, and wants Erskine to select another soldier named Hodges who’s a buff asshole who never had to peel a grape in his life because he has people for that. But Erskine is adamant that Rogers is the right candidate and he’s proven right when Phillips tosses a fake grenade onto the range and all the other soldiers run except Steve, who throws himself on the grenade to take the blast thereby proving either that he’s completely selfless or that he’s had all he can stand of army food.
The day before the procedure, Erskine tells Steve that he chose him because a weak man “understands the importance of power”. Erskine explains that the serum has a moral aspect, it makes good men better, but turns bad men into monsters which is exactly what happened to Schmidt. Erskine tells Steve that he was chosen not because he was a perfect soldier, but because he is a good man. The next day Erskine gives Steve the super soldier serum and bathes him in Vita Rays and suddenly Steve is crazy swole brah. Also, the special effects used to transform scrawny Steve into Olympian God Steve are unshowy, barely noticeable and absolutely flawless. Everyone’s really stoked that they’re going to have a whole army of super soldiers except this one Nazi agent who’s all “yeah, about that” and shoots Erskine dead. Carter and Rogers both give chase and Carter shows why she’s the Queen of Tumblr by icing the Nazi’s getaway driver from half a street away with a frickin’ handgun.
Cap tracks the guy down on foot, outrunning his car and rescuing a kid that he took hostage along the way. Steve finally catches him but he takes a cyanide breath mint and is all “Hail Hydra, peace out.” Philips says that Project Rebirth is a bust since Erskine kept all his research memorised and tells Steve “I needed an army. All I got is you. You are not enough.” and orders Steve back to the lab for tests. However, one of the politicians present at the test decides that Steve might be more useful elsewhere: On Broadway baby!
I gotta say, having the character of “Captain America” created as a way to sell war bonds is just pure genius (since that’s exactly what the character was used for in real life). The montage of Steve travelling across the country to raise support for the war effort is set to The Star Spangled Man With the Plan, a fantastic, rollicking show tune by none other than Alan Menken (which is probably why Mini-Mouse used to make us play it around as often as frickin’ Let it Go). Also, back when I started these reviews I said that I wouldn’t be giving points for music because none of the Marvel movies had particularly memorable scores. Yeah, so, I’m a fool and a cretin. Alan Silvestri’s soundtrack for this music is just superb all around. Anyway, Captain America quickly becomes a bona fide cultural icon, with comics and movie serials featuring Steve. One of the reasons why I think Chris Evans is just so perfect for this part. There’s a scene where he’s watching one of his movies and he gives this smile that shows that he’s half mortified and half kinda thinking this is the coolest thing ever.
Anyway, Cap eventually finds himself facing a much more unfriendly crowd, the tattered remnants of the 107th Infantry who’ve just been put through the ringer by Hydra. After he gets booed offstage Steve is approached by Peggy who tells him why they were a little less than amenable to his patriotic charms. Realising that this was Bucky’s battalion, Steve runs to Colonel Philips and demands to know if Bucky’s alright. Philips tells him that Bucky and a load of other soldiers are being held thirty miles behind enemy lines and that any rescue mission would lose more men than could be saved. So instead, Steve stages a one man jailbreak, frees all the prisoners, rescues Bucky and blows up the Hydra base like it ain’t no thang.
“Peel me a grape, Colonel.”
So Captain joins the SSR (the predecessor to SHIELD) and actually gets to be a real soldier, leading a team of hand-picked soldiers against HYDRA. Unlike certain other Captain America movies I could name, I like the fact that this movie doesn’t just have Steve going in the ice after his first mission but actually shows him spending years fighting against the Nazis and becoming a bona fide legend. His relationship with Carter also becomes more serious despite the fact that she caught him being molested by Margery Tyrell (do not trust the lords of the Reach, Steve). Carter’s perfectly reasonable reaction to this is to shoot at Steve point blank to test the new unbreakable shield that Howard Stark’s given him. I mean, sure, she knows Steve’s reflexes are fast enough to raise the shield in time, but what if he hadn’t slept well last night? What if he was distracted? Also, how the fuck is she not in the stockade for what would look, to anyone observing, like an attempt to assassinate a vital US interest? Sorry, that scene really bugs me.
Pretty soon, Cap’s team has swept most of Hydra’s bases off the map. They launch a mission to abduct the Skull’s chief scientist Armin Zola (Toby James) but it goes horribly wrong when Bucky seemingly falls to his death from a speeding train (sure, that’ll take). In custody, Zola tells Philips that the Skull’s plan is to use the Tesseract to blow up every city on Earth large enough to have a shopping centre which I love because it’s basically the same plan the Nazis had in Dead Don’t Wear Plaid except with a glowing cube instead of moldy cheese.
The SSR launches an all out assault on Skull’s base in the Alps and breach his defences but not before he launches his massive Tesseract bomber. Cap leaps onto the thing before it takes off and battles Red Skull in the cockpit. The Skull tries to use the Tesseract on Steve but instead is enveloped by it’s energy and disintegrated or possibly teleported away to be the surprise villain of Captain America 3 just placing my bets now, any takers?
Realising that the plane is on a autopilot to bomb New York, Steve gets on the radio to Peggy and tells her he has to crash land. He promises to take her dancing a week from now and she tells him not to be late.
“We’ll have the band play something slow. I’ll try not to step on your…”
Steve wakes up in a hospital bed with the radio on and an army nurse tending to him. But something’s off, and when he tells the nurse that he was at the baseball game that the radio’s giving commentary and demands to know where he is, armed guards come into the room and try to restrain him. He busts his way out and runs outside to find himself in modern day Times Square. Surrounded by police, Steve finds himself face to face with Nick Fury, who apologises for the ruse and tells him just how late he is for that date with Peggy.
Captain America: The First Avenger is, appropriately enough, a throwback in the best possible way. It evokes feelings of nostalgia for the classic Indy movies in its two-fisted Nazi smackin’ derring-do, and it channels Richard Donner’s Superman in its sweet and earnest portrayal of unironic heroism and courage.
I can’t actually envisage a better WW2 era Cap story brought to the big screen.
Our Heroic Hero: 25/25
Chris Evans has probably the hardest job of any of the main Avengers players (with the possible exception of Chris Hemsworth). He’s a revelation in the part.
Our Nefarious Villain: 15/25
Not bad. Not bad at all. But I do think the movie’s decision to give us a more subdued, sedate Red Skull was a missed opportunity.
Our Plucky Sidekicks: 20/25
Oh damn, now this is an embarrassment of riches isn’t it? First of all, Peggy Carter. How often does the love interest prove to be so awesome she gets her own series? We’ve also got Howard Stark, Abraham Erskine, Bucky, Colonel Philipps, the Howling Commandoes…Johnson really excels at giving even the smallest bit players their moment to shine.
Nick Fury approaches Cap while he’s sad-punching a punching bag. He tells him that he’s got a new mission for him; Save the World. And then we get a montage of clips from the Avengers, Loki, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Thor, Iron Man, Cap, Hulk, explosions…
Nick Fury: Gentlemen? You’re up.
And the audience went…
Infinity Gem Count: 1
Wait a minute, was that Stan Lee?!
That was Stan Lee as a general at Steve’s medal ceremony. How weird must it be acting in a movie starring characters you first wrote seventy years ago?
Hey, what’s Thanos doing?
Thanos is sitting on his chair.
FINAL SCORE: 85%
NEXT UPDATE: 28 April 2016
NEXT TIME: All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a thousand enemies.
And when they catch you? They will kill you.
But first, they must catch you.