Captain America is not on fire

The patriotic superhero of the 1940s doesn’t stand a chance

Centre to right: Chris Evans plays Captain America and Sebastian Stan plays James "Bucky" Barnes in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios)

IN TEN WORDS OR LESS: Captain America saves the day, but not the movie.

Hollywood seems to be grasping ever further into the past to dredge up superheroes to reinvent, and it’s becoming clear that the fad has run its course. Captain America: The First Avenger feels like a clichéd blast from the past, lacking the spunk and grit that has made other comic book movies successful. Captain America—the comic book character—was first sketched in 1941 to capture the patriotic imagination of Americans on the homefront. The revenge fantasy let readers watch our boy in red, white and blue smash Hitler’s various super-villain incarnations to pieces. Director Joe Johnston’s (The Rocketeer, Jumanji) big screen adaptation of the classic story is, in a way, too classic. The sepia-toned cityscapes and throwback accents take us back in time, but they also serve to separate us from the action.

Set during WWII, Captain America is the tale of Steve Rogers, a scrawny, sickly kid from Brooklyn with a heart of gold who desperately wants to serve his country. He’s so persistent that he tries—and fails—to enlist in the army at five different recruitment offices in five different cities. Finally, a military scientist by the name of Dr. Abraham Erskine takes note of the boy’s tenacity and offers him the enlistment opportunity of a lifetime. One explosive lab experiment later, we have ourselves an invincible, square-jawed superhero with a jaw-droppingly chiseled torso. His mission: take down Hitler’s supernaturally powerful former second-in-command, Johann Schmidt.

As a hero, Captain America just doesn’t stand a chance with today’s movie-goers. He’s a goofy jock who seems impervious to real danger. He lacks Spiderman’s edge or Batman’s mystique. These days, we like our superheroes to have flaws—at least one trait that makes them relatable. Steve Rogers’ only flaw, if you can call it that, is that he’s small. But the super-serum he’s injected with appears to be permanent, along with his invincibility.

Rogers (Chris Evans) is nonetheless a likeable, albeit underwhelming hero. He’s good, but not great. His transformation from wimp to hero was a chance to inject some psychological depth into his character. Instead, he seems to take it all in stride. Same goes for his romantic interest, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). She underplays her role as tough-as-nails troop commander, and the restraint falls flat. Her hard-to-get routine feels too formulaic, and she ultimately comes across as a bit of a bore. The memorable moments were the dominion of the strong supporting cast. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and crusty Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) offer pitch-perfect comic relief, and both seem to be quite at ease inhabiting their comic book archetypes. Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), who resembles the offspring of Hellboy and Voldemort, is a standard evil Nazi-cum-super villain whose purpose is to destroy all that’s nice and good in the world. It’s a fine performance, but I can’t help thinking he modeled his accent on Werner Herzog’s.

Ultimately, Captain America just doesn’t have enough modern elements to resurrect the comic book’s glory. If this particular story was already passe in the 1950s, I’m not sure why Hollywood thought it would stand a chance with audiences today. The story is old, the fight scenes are nothing new, the characters are two-dimensional and the 3D is, well, just pretty standard.

Audiences want complex heroes fighting against complex foes, high stakes, and real drama. [Well, a lot of us do, especially those of us who aren’t fans of the original comic or comics in general. But alas, we’re not the target audience.] If there’s a sequel (and when I say if, I mean when), I’d want to see the American hero dismantling IEDs in Afghanistan, overthrowing North African dictators, or helping his bunkmates in Iraq cope through PTSD. The Captain America of the 1940s should never have left the funny pages.

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