O Captain? Not My Captain

Captain America: the First Avenger—henceforth abbreviated to Captain—is a fairly entertaining film that illustrates both the advantages and disadvantages of applying real-world verisimilitude to comic-book superheroes.

It’s axiomatic that comic books, particularly in their mode of juvenile entertainment, have ignored or erased verisimilitude as they pleased.  When Amazing Fantasy #15 was crafted, none of Spider-Man’s creators thought twice about asserting that high-school science-whiz Peter Parker could possess the technical wherewithal to devise his web-shooters, which so perfectly complemented the spider-powers he’d received by accident.  In adapting the property to film, Sam Raimi and his scripters didn’t think their intended audience, comprised of both juveniles and adults, would credence that origin of the web-shooters, so the filmmakers elected to make Spidey’s web-powers biological in nature.

The setup for the original Captain America comics of the Golden Age—designed to appeal to juvenile desires for a Nazi-busting hero—has similar continuity problems.  The character’s origin posits that after 98-pound weakling Steve Rogers is rejected for regular military service, the government invites him to be a guinea pig for a scientific experiment.  The experiment succeeds, transforming the weakling into a prodigy of strength, but a Nazi spy infiltrates the project and kills the only scientist able to reproduce the transformation.

At this point the original comic books conveniently drop the matter of the government’s involvement in the patriotically clad superhero.  Some Golden Age stories may have shown Cap reporting to or seeking counsel from the American military.  But there’s never a sense that the hero accounts to any military superiors, at least in the identity of Captain America.  Steve Rogers, no longer a weakling, successfully enlists in the army as a private, but there are no indications that anyone in the military chain of command knows that he’s also Captain America, despite the fact that everyone involved in the experiment knows his identity.  Moreover, Captain America, accompanied by his youthful sidekick Bucky Barnes (barely explained as some sort of “army mascot”), doesn’t just oppose military evils, but any sort of public menace ranging from counterfeiters to Gothic monsters.  Such was the continuity with which the adaptors of the Captain film had to cope.

Following an introductory “flashforward” setting up the premise that this WWII superhero is destined to be “reborn” in the modern era, the filmmakers attempt to make the incredible somewhat credible.  A few tropes are entirely reconfigured: in this iteration, Steve Rogers still knows Bucky Barnes, but Bucky is a strapping fellow who’s the same age as Rogers, as well as a successful enlistee in the army.  Rogers, a sketchy character in the Golden Age comics, is given a degree of psychological depth.  Because both of his parents died in war-related circumstances, Rogers desperately wants to fight against fascism, so much so that he repeatedly tries to enlist under fake identities, only to be repeatedly rejected because of his weakness.  He hates violence and bullying, but he refuses to back down from confrontation.  His courage is witnessed by Doctor Erskine, creator of the super-soldier project. Over the objections of military liaison Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) Erskine gets authorization to use Rogers for the experiment.  Later, when Rogers asks why Erskine wanted him, Erskine gives a better justification than any of the comics ever did:

“there were other effects. The serum was not ready. But more important, the man. The serum amplifies everything that is inside. So, good becomes great. Bad becomes worse. This is why you were chosen. Because a strong man, who has known power all his life, will lose respect for that power. But a weak man knows the value of strength. And knows compassion.”

In this reconfiguration, Erskine reveals that he performed the same experiment back in Europe, on one Johann Schmidt.  Schmidt became Hitler’s right-hand man, the Red Skull, as well as the head of the Nazi science division, known as “Hydra.”

The first third of the film works perfectly, and even enhances Rogers’ transformation into a superhero by including an exciting sequence wherein the not-yet-costumed Captain America must chase Erskine’s assassin through the streets of New York.  However, it’s at the point where the filmmakers must figure out how to make Cap into a superhero that the film begins to stumble.

The filmmakers’ logic is understandable.  Since Rogers is now the only superhuman of his kind, rather than being one of a hypothetical division, the military and the government relegate Captain America to a shill designed to get citizens to buy war bonds.  I understand that the filmmakers could not ignore the continued involvement of the military in shaping Rogers’ life, but the film’s second act diminishes the hero’s stature by putting him through the ironic paces of a pitchman.  Of course, the second act also provides the trial of fire by which Rogers realizes his heroic destiny. He disobeys Phillips’ orders, taking off on an unsanctioned mission to rescue a party of American soldiers from the clutches of Hydra and the Red Skull. Some of the captives include the stars of Marvel Comics’ 1960’s war-adventure series, Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos.  The sight of Dum Dum Dugan, an infantryman clad in a derby hat, provides a welcome vacation from all the verisimilitude.

From that point, though, plot-points begin to be ticked off in desultory fashion.  The Red Skull tries to convert Cap to evil. Cap fights the villain, but the Skull escapes.  Bucky, like his comic-book counterpart, falls in battle.  After Cap helps the military capture the Skull’s number-two man, Arnim Zola (another name culled from the comics), Zola betrays his master’s apocalyptic plan, which is based in his having gathered super-powerful weapons from another world (that of Thor, thus setting up a plot destined to tie together that film and Captain with 2012’s The Avengers.)  Aboard a massive “flying wing” Cap contends with the Skull, who apparently perishes, after which the hero must crash-land the craft into Arctic waters.  This sets up the final coda, in which the protagonist emerges from a frozen sleep into the brave new world of 2011.

Captain America has many enjoyable moments, but there’s never the sense that the parts contribute to a greater whole.  A few of these are related to the setup for the Avengers film, and many are enjoyable recapitulations of the Captain’s Marvel Comics mythos (the origin of the round shield, Cap’s romantic interest Peggy Carter). All that said, the second and third acts lack the mythic power of the first act, which is the only plot directly derived from the comic books.  The rest is efficient, but the film as a whole is never as inspiring as it intends to be.

Even a genre as way-out as that of the superhero needs some verisimilitude. But for superheroes, reality is a seasoning, not the main course.  Captain America, though far better plotted than Thor, proves untrue to its own potential as a fantasy-film. 

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Also by Gene Phillips:

Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen


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