...shining light on the media, one review at a time
I greeted the news that Captain America: The First Avenger was to be made with a mixture of anticipation and foreboding. I love a good superhero adventure, but dreaded what contemporary Hollywood might do to the character who, by his very name, is the iconic face of America. The casting of Chris Evans, the big screen’s go-to for immature playboy characters, did little to assuage my fears.
Yet despite the undeniable evidence of secular influence in this film, Captain America survives the modern reinvention surprisingly well. Though the movie offers little story sophistication or depth, it works hard to promote positive values and packs in plenty of action fun in the process. The film has enough negative content to rule out young, less discerning audiences, but for mature viewers looking for a light, popcorn-popping summer blockbuster, Captain America is the ticket.
Though this film starts with a brief sequence in the 21st century, the bulk of the story takes place during WWII, when a sickly young man named Steve Rogers seeks to enlist in the Army. Thanks to CGI, the muscular Evans is transformed on-screen as Rogers, so that he appears to be a diminutive soldier wannabe. This technological “magic” doesn’t play flawlessly in every scene, but it’s good enough to convince without too much distraction.
As a result, Steve’s transformation into Captain America is indeed dramatic when he is chosen by an Army scientist, Dr. Abraham Erskine, to serve as the subject of an experimental drug that is purported to create a “super-soldier.” The test works wonders on Steve, turning him from comically puny to comic-book superhero material.
But while this process strengthens Steve physically, it doesn’t have to change his character qualities to make him heroic. By the time we see Steve’s outer transformation, his bravery, perseverance, compassion, and self-sacrifice have been repeatedly illustrated. In fact, these are the very qualities that lead to his selection as the subject of the “super-soldier” experiment. In a demonstration of the value of inner character over physical appearance, the wise Dr. Erskine looks past Steve’s outward puniness and sees the makings of a true hero.
The mark of heroism most emphasized in Captain America is that of self-sacrifice for a just or compassionate reason. No one exemplifies this trait better than Steve, who consistently and willingly puts his own life at risk to save others. But while Steve sets the standard for such compassionate selflessness, the theme is further illustrated through the other “good guys” in the film, who readily lay down their lives for their friends and country.
For Steve, the antithesis of this quality is bullying, which he sees personified in the Nazis. As a lifetime victim of those with greater strength than he had, Steve professes a resolve and desire to fight bullies wherever they are found. His ultimate target becomes the film’s villain, a super-bully Nazi called Red Skull, who kills ruthlessly while trying to dominate and destroy most of the world.
Though not as strong as Captain America, Red Skull has exceptional power thanks to the same gifted scientist who transforms Steve into Captain America. Before Dr. Erskine’s “super-soldier” concoction was perfected, he was pressured to test what he had on Johann Schmidt. The process went terribly wrong and resulted in Schmidt’s permanent disfigurement, giving him a skinless, red head. It wasn’t just the physical effect that turned Schmidt into the Red Skull, but also the fact that the super drug magnifies whatever internal traits a subject already has. Thus, an evil person becomes “worse,” while a “good” person becomes even better.
While this side effect results in a dastardly villain with Schmidt, Dr. Erskine’s careful selection for upstanding character the next time around leads to the creation of a superhero in Captain America. Red Skull, then, is the antipode of every positive trait we see demonstrated in Steve. The contrast and development here of protagonist and antagonist are fairly one-dimensional and a bit heavy-handed, but at least this simplicity enables the espoused moral values to shine through with unadulterated clarity.
The built-in comparison also enables viewers to distinguish between acts of indiscriminate murder and war casualties—a useful distinction given this film’s high body count. While Red Skull obliterates anyone who stands in his way or gets on his nerves, Captain America only ever hurts or kills enemies within the context of war. However, though Captain America’s actions are defensible on those grounds, he does still harm and take the lives of a great number of German soldiers. In addition, the superhero shows no hesitation to use his powers for the destruction of these human lives, nor does he exhibit even a trace of remorse or emotional disturbance over the men he kills.
Despite the bodies dropping in droves, most of the violence involved is not highly graphic. The majority of the soldiers drop at a distance from the camera, quickly and without much blood and gore. There are a few notable (more graphic) exceptions to this rule, but the bulk of the deaths are depicted without the amount of drawn-out, gruesome detail that has become so common in action movies. Nevertheless, there is still the undeniable presence of frequent, thoughtless and casual killings of which even the film’s hero is guilty. Viewers should be alert when watching this film to guard against desensitization to such carnage.
The other significant negative element of, and perhaps strongest reason not to watch, Captain America is the plethora of offensive language. Actual profanities are kept to a few, but “h---” sullies a ridiculous amount of dialogue, while other words like “b----,” “d---,” and others are also used. As with the violence, the type of language and amount used saves this film from being unwatchable for some audiences, but is definitely enough to set off warning bells and should put viewers on their guard.
Other negatives that should be mentioned include excessive drinking alluded to, but not graphically depicted, in a couple scenes. There is also some sensuality, as an ardent female admirer grabs Captain America and gives him a passionate kiss. Most of this interchange takes place off-screen and is cut short.
With the unfortunate exception of this scene, Steve actually conducts himself well in relation to women, neither dominating nor objectifying them. Steve’s respectful treatment of women is what attracts the attention of Peggy Carter, an agent in the military. In the relationship that develops between Steve and Peggy, there is a refreshing amount of physical and even emotional restraint as each of them assesses the other, taking their time to discover the true nature of each other’s character and personality. Neither of them is interested in a casual fling, because, as Steve says to Peggy early on, they are waiting for “the right partner.”
For the most part, Peggy is a laudable choice on the part of the filmmakers for Captain America’s love interest, as she is not the flirty, oversexed female that too often plays the blockbuster heroine. Peggy’s biggest fault may be trying too hard to assert that she is as “masculine” in her abilities as the male personnel that surround her. While it is unrealistic that a female would be allowed to fight on the front lines during WWII, at least Peggy’s commitment to the military war effort gives her a focus and greater purpose than catching a cute guy.
Likely due to the constraints of time period accuracy, Peggy’s clothing is also reasonably modest. Some of her blouses, as well as a dress she wears in one scene, are more form-fitting and lower-cut than they’d have to be, but seem quite tame compared to more recent precedent. The most immodestly clad women are dancers who are shown on-stage in several shows, clad in leotards with low necklines and super-short skirts. Yet for better or worse, today’s standards make even these costumes, which might have been scandalous in the 40’s, seem more cute than sensual.
Thus, Captain America somehow hedges around some of the biggest moral pitfalls that have plagued the country that is its namesake. And those moments when the film does stumble at the edges are mostly balanced by the positive portrayal of the qualities that make a true hero. Even my fears about the casting of the film proved to be needless, as Evans turns in a skilled performance, showing some real acting chops. None of the performances in this film are remarkable, but the lack of story and character complexity in the script would lead one to expect nothing outstanding.
The result of this film, however, is much more surprising. Amid the beautiful actors, elaborate CGI, and profuse explosions, Captain America somehow survives the secularization of 21st-century Hollywood to emerge as a hero whom we need not be ashamed to have as a representative of our country. Bold, smart, strong, and compassionate—the Captain’s still enough to make me proud to be an American.