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Captain America

 

As a child of the 1970s, I remember Captain America as the type of guy who becomes misty eyed singing the national anthem before a football game.

Simultaneously endearing and over sentimental, he didn’t quite fit in with the mutants, misfits and street-edged crime fighters that were then emerging in comic books. In significant ways his real arch enemy was the moral and economic malaise of the decade and his real goal was the renewed confidence and nationalism of the Reagan era.

 

Captain America was the sort of man no longer produced in the ’70s – a patriot who put himself completely in the hands of the government, someone who believed in the dream so much that he became the dream.

 

Fast forward 40 years to the new release Captain America: The First Avenger. As the nation stumbles economically and faces a crisis of confidence, it’s once again the World War II generation that epitomizes the American dream. And once again the age old story of a weakling who is able to transform himself into a symbol of American ingenuity and exceptionalism through belief in the country is what captures our imagination.

 

Captain America: The First Avenger doesn’t stray far from the comic’s original material. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is unfit for duty during War World II – he’s small, flat footed, the atypical “little man,” whose heart is bigger than his fists. He’s reject by the Army, chased through city streets and beaten by bullies, and finally in desperation signs up for a top-secret military project trying to produce super soldiers.

 

Injected with super soldier formula which gives him superhuman strength, speed and healing, Rogers is still unable to prevent the murder of the serum’s inventor. The formula is lost – what, they didn’t have pens and pencils in the 1940s? – and what was intended to be a template for a modern military force is reduced to an Army of one.

 

Captain America is then put on the PR circuit to sell war bonds. The internal paradox that begins with America creating a superman to confront Nazi belief in superior eugenics continues with the hero as manufactured product. Captain America entertains audiences by singing and dancing his way on stage, cold clocking a Hitler lookalike, and in general pretending to be what he is – a super soldier.

 

It’s really only when a suitable foil appears that Captain is able to enter the conflict. The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) has also been injected with a serum, but instead of amplifying his inner patriotic purity, it has turned him into an absolute nightmare.

 

After harnessing an unknown power source that seems to blur the distinction between magic and science, the Skull and his evil band of terrorists called Hydra then plan to march across the globe literally vaporizing everyone else. This looks like a job for… woops, wrong franchise. Captain America!

 

Rather than drawing on previous comic hero movies such as Spider Man, Dark Knight or Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger goes all the way back to the cliff hangers and pulp comics themselves. The CGI is less patently absurd (although just as unbelievable) as in recent films, and the nostalgic adds weight to the film. Drenched in sepia and relishing black-and-white footage, the movie feels less tinny somehow.

 

Weaving is creepy as a Red Skull who tears of riffs of existentialism reminiscent to Werner Herzog in Grizzly Man and Tommy Lee Jones plays a convincing Colonel Phillips, a hard-nosed soldier with little use for superfluous men in tights.

 

Although it’s clear that Captain America: The First Avenger is just a segue in a series of Avengers movies, it stands very well by itself. And I can’t help but think there are other reasons Captain America is suddenly on the scene again.

 

Thawed like a TV dinner at the nation’s darkest hour, my Captain of the 1970s  struggled with what it meant to be a hero in post-Watergate America. Facing a similar economic and moral malaise, I wonder if this new Captain America still has what it takes to make us believe in heroes again?

 

 

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