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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Captain America is not on fire

  1. So you know what audiences want, do you?

    Then explain Jackass to me.
    More to the point — explain why it got a sequel.

    • She did say when, not if, there’d be a sequel. She’s a professional movie reviewer, and this is  (for me not, but) fun trash. Of course she’s going to pan it. It looks like hokey crap and it may make hundreds of millions of dollars.

      • And if she wants to contain her comments to the technical, thematic, and for lack of a better word, filmic aspects of the movie, fine.

        The problem is when she attempts to address what “audiences” want in a way that not only seems blatantly wrong but that, given her comments on a sequel, she KNOWS is wrong, she deserves to get called on it.

        If she wants to critique the movie, fine, critique the movie. Leave the critique of the audience out of it.

  2. I gotta tell you looking for depth in a superhero movie is a waste of your time.  Audiences want to see action and explosions if they want emotional angst they watch crap like Twilight.  Not to be sexist but you seem to be more interested in his torso than the movie.  The movie is awesome and there will be a sequel..  it’s called the Avengers movie.

  3. Not a suprise a chick wrote this.  How old are you I wonder?  The ‘Greatest Generation’ was NOT passe’ in the 50′s nor is it so today.  This is EXACTLY what audiences want and need today.  Glad to see you are among the minority in your opinions.

    • A chick?

      Apparently you are an authority on what is cool in 1950 because you’re still living there.

      • I am not from that generation and I say chick – just because it bugs some people. :)

        • Interesting that you like to ‘bug’ women.

          • It bugs some men to.

          • It’s insulting yourself.

            Reason much?

          • @OriginalEmily1:disqus

            First of all, I don’t think that it is an insult.
            Secondly, even if it were, the ‘some’ in the above post would exclude me.

            Reason much?

          • @modster99:disqus 

            Women aren’t ‘chicks’.

            And I understand you’re female.

          • @OriginalEmily1:disqus

            ?????

        • Well, at least you admit you’re nothing more than a pathetic troll.

          • Yup – chick = trolling.

            Sticks and stones. . .

          • No, ” just because it bugs some people” = trolling.

            You see, previously, you could have just plead ignorance or insensitivity, which is curable.

            Instead, however, you’ve admitted you’re simply an asshat who likes to bug people.

          • I “say chick” because it bugs people, not type it. It bugs certain people that I know. Big difference.

            I have zero need to ‘plead’ anything. Just because your opinions are usually wrong, and you don’t like the truth, does not make someone who posts it a Troll. Most people who post here have some good points, even when I disagree with them. Then there is yourself and Emily. (Although I have liked a few of her comments. Almost scares me. lol)

            I imagine that this whole thing makes you feel better; allowing you to call names, but again, sticks and stones. . .

  4. Wow, to say you know nothing about superheroes or comics would be a gross understatement.  This review is just an embarrassment.  If you don’t like superheroes then don’t try to hide it behind shabby, barely cogent, faux-analyses, just come out and say it.

  5. These movies are for grown adults who don’t want to be caught reading comic books…even though that’s where their entertainment level still lies.  LOL

    ‘Superheros’ indeed.  Snort.

    • Pulitizer Prizes have been awarded to comic books. Maybe if your were a little less ignorant and close minded you’d appreciate the literary and artistic merit. But then you would be the parody of a troll you are.

      • Hiya…back again I see.  Sorry it won’t work this time either. LOL

        Comic books are for kids.

        • Tell that to the (largely adult) folks at comic con.

          • People will make money off anything that sells…that still doesn’t make comic books intelligent reading for adults.

          • If you’re narrowly defining “comic book” then maybe you you might have something there, but you can’t tell me that something like Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale isn’t intelligent reading for adults. Or Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons for that matter.

          • @Lord_Kitcheners_Own:disqus 

            A book about holocaust survival by a real person isn’t the same as fictional guys in tights who fly, and rescue damsels …no matter the format.

          • Fair enough Emily, but I think you need to make it more explicit for your fellow commenters then that you’re narrowly defining “comic book” in your criticism to a particular type of graphic literature such that when you say that comic books aren’t intelligent reading for adults you’re not including works like Maus or, presumably, A History of Violence or Ghost World for example.

          • @Lord_Kitcheners_Own:disqus 

            I think most people understand what a comic book is.

        • Emily, you can’t issue a wholesale comdemn on a large subject of which you know only a part.

          • Actually I can

            But the assumption I know nothing about it is yours.

  6. The author writes as though no one’s bought a Captain America book since 1950.  Is Ward aware that Captain America is still published and enjoyed by fans? 

    I take the points about the story seeming anachronistic and too black and white, and it would seem from the review that the filmmakers could have done a better job of adding nuance and subtly (some grey) to the character and the story (though not too much… this is Captain America… he’s SUPPOSED to be different from Batman).  Also, this is an ORIGIN STORY.  Transplanting Captain America’s creation in to the 21st century in Iraq or Afghanistan would drive fans BONKERS.  Captain America is the FIRST Avenger.  That subtitle’s not an accident.  The Avengers are supposed to find a WWII vet frozen for decades, not some guy we just saw fighting the Taliban last year.  He can’t be the “man out of his own time” in next year’s Avengers movie if he’s from the same time period as Iron Man and the Hulk.  Captain American’s anachronistic black and whiteness are part of who the character is.  You can’t set up a dichotomy between Tony Stark’s relativist 21st Century modernism and Steve Rogers’ God and apple pie WWII schtick if you turn Captain America into Batman.

    I hope this movie is better than the review here implies, but even if it’s not that great I’m willing to suspend judgement a little bit until the REAL show comes next year.  IMHO Thor and Captain America are just setting up the backstory for The Avengers, and as a fan of comic book movies I’m willing to let the set-up be a bit banal if it leads to a good payoff in 2012.

    • Wholeheartedly agree that you would have a fan revolt on your hands if you put Captain America in Afghanistan – as you would if you re-made Captain America into an angsty teenager.

      One thing the review does say is that he is portrayed as ‘invincible’. If that’s the case it raises some alarm, because Captain America’s not supposed to be Superman, either.

      • I presume she meant “invincible” in a “never gets hurt” sense not a “CAN’T get hurt” sense.  I wouldn’t read too much in to that line.  After all, this is a review of a Captain America movie from a reviewer who thinks the Captain America movie could have been improved by not including Captain America in it, and who seems to be completely unaware that this movie is basically a prequel to next year’s giant Avengers flick.

  7. Well said. Although these comic books are absolute classics in their own right, their modern recreations lack the depth needed to really make a modern day blockbuster. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight series is certainly a notable exception. All others seem doomed to appear as daytime television movies. The Green lantern, Rise of the Silver Surfer, Fantastic Four, Hulk, Spiderman (okay, with the exception of the first), Thor, Superman and the Watchmen are not movies I would be interested in adding to my collection. I do hope the Avengers is different. But from what I’ve seen, an amazing comic book story does not mean an incredible film.

    • Can’t really disagree with any of that (except that I’m a bit surprised to see Watchmen in that company, and I hold out hope that Man of Steel starring Henry Cavill from The Tudors as Superman, Amy Adams as Lois Lane and Russel Crowe as Jor-El might do for the Superman franchise what Batman Begins did for the Dark Knight).

      What do you think of examples like 300 or V for Vendetta or Sin City?  Or what about something less traditionally action-packed like A History of Violence or Ghost World?

  8. Yes, the reporter is a girl. That might explain some of the review. Also, you can tell by her picture that she is quite young (and pretty). She is not the desired demographic for this movie. (They are looking for old and ugly – kidding :) )

    I haven’t seen the movie, but I would imagine that the people who read the comics will like it. The ones who didn’t, will not ‘get’ the whole movie.

    Just my two cents.

    • The writer is a woman….’fully growed’.

      • I noticed that, otherwise it would have been sick of me to say that she was pretty.

        • No, it’s just irrelevant

          • I thought it was chivalrous. I’m sure she would appreciate the compliment.

          • Calling a grown woman a girl, is neither chivalrous nor a compliment.

            Try calling a grown man a boy, and see how he likes it.

  9. So, your core objection to the movie is that the main character is, in fact, Captain America, not somebody else.  You know, that just might have been obvious from the title of the movie.

    I look forward to your criticism of a production of Hamlet on the basis that the main character is a medieval prince.

  10. Well I doubt I’ll ever see this, but the (gay) teen-boy in me certainly is impressed with the beefcake. That’s the stuff that gets females to go see this with their boyfriends!

  11. Sorry but..that’s just shit. i think we’re all tired about this whole story ‘Captain America’ i really laughed when i saw this on theatre.. couldn’t they be more creative..

    Plain boring

  12. Having seen this film, I agree with this review’s observations.  It felt as though Evans’ portrayal was as plain and delivered as if he were a cardboard cut out from the comic book itself.  There was not one point at which I felt the ‘superhero’ in the movie.  It took all the same ABC notes and turns as any of these comic movies do.  Which is fine, if it works and you feel like cheering or the adrenaline moves through your veins.  Instead this movie went by with all the visible ‘movie’ strokes.  
    I also dont’ think the modernisation note needs to be taken literally.  This film could be a period piece (and is) but at least make the people humanly relatable.  That is exactly why Tommy Lee and Tucci are successful.  They aren’t trying to play it like they are from an era that we aren’t in.  But let’s be honest, Jones and Tucci actually have acting chops and not just a gym membership.

    Movies ruin books.  And Movies can ruin Comic Books too.  It just seems as though the fan base is reluctant to admit to it.

    • I think you’ve stated your objections more effectively than Ward did hers though.  From your post I got a succinct sense of how the filmmakers may have failed in bringing this story to the big screen.  Your comment essentially mirrors the fourth paragraph in the post above, and is a fair review of the film it would seem.  The problem with the post above is all of those other paragraphs which seem to suggest that Ward’s biggest problem with the Captain America movie was that it turned out to be a movie about Captain America.  In a way, your “review” is even more scathing than Ward’s is, but taken as a whole it also makes a lot more sense, imho.

      I also think this whole comment thread is reflected in the film’s rating over at rotten tomatoes where I see that it’s 73% fresh according to “critics” but 85% fresh according to the “audience” (i.e. regular people) which suggests to me that a film critic likely has a much different set of expectations for this movie than the people going to see it do (like most comic book superhero movies I’d imagine).  For one, I’d imagine most “fans” going to see this (or Thor) are fully aware that these movies are really just the set-up to next year’s “The Avengers” film, a fact that many critics might be unaware of.

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