Captain America: The First Avenger finally gives the titular hero a stellar representation on the big screen. While it has its drawbacks, it is a great film, and my favorite Marvel Studios movie (before The Avengers took its place).
Cap has always been my favorite Marvel character. He was a hero worth looking up to when I was a kid. His confidence, character, bravery and humility were always things I tried to emulate. What made it even better was that he started out as a less-than-ordinary man, which gave hope that a skinny kid like me could do those amazing things. I just needed to find that Super Soldier Serum.
The First Avenger is a love letter to the World War II era, a time period of which I am quite fond. It’s because of my fondness for the era that I had some quibbles about the film in places. I know it was not supposed to be like Saving Private Ryan, but I hoped it would have been at least a little like that.
Since his beginning in the comics, the story of Captain America has been a microcosm of the clash of ideologies in World War II – a conflict that shaped the 20th century and beyond. The evils of the Nazi regime can be traced back to the original sin of pride, resulting in hatred, brutality and terrible ideas about one human being’s “superiority” over another. As God has shown many times in the Bible, true power, strength and righteousness come from humility – subservience to others and our Creator.
We’re going in… SPOILERS AHEAD
Joe Johnston was the perfect choice to direct Captain America. He is a chameleon, having directed many different genres of film. He also has a partiality toward period movies, and takes great care with depicting the particulars of the era.
Johnston directed The Rocketeer, another period film and one of of my favorite films of all time. Both The Rocketeer and Captain America share a similar spirit and style. One can tell with every frame of both of those films that Johnston has a romantic affinity for the early 20th century.
And best of all, there was no shaky-cam. Johnston shot the film like a regular movie!
In no better way was Johnston’s care and respect for the World War II era showcased more than in the USO / War Bond Rally sequence. It was a sheer joy to watch. It really captured the times, helped brilliantly explain Cap’s costume origins, and showed just what kind of entertainment the general public went for during the war. To the filmmakers’ credit, it was done with sincerity – no parody or making light.
The song “Star Spangled Man” (written by legendary Disney alumnus Alan Menken and Glenn Slater) was absolutely priceless, and very nicely complemented the USO sequence. Here again, the filmmakers opted for sincerity instead of parody.
The rest of the film’s music, scored by the incomparable Alan Silvestri, was also wonderful. The “Captain America March” is one of the best superhero themes ever written. It is reverential and powerful, fitting very well with the time and the character. I love a good, brass-filled fanfare!
I must also commend the special effects crew for their amazing work, specifically the effort to transform the strapping Chris Evans into the scrawny Steve Rogers early in the film. The effect is quite convincing. The makeup artists that created the Red Skull’s look also did a spectacular job. They took something that could have been goofy and made it believable and unsettling.
Despite some of the more fantastical elements of the story, I expected this movie to be more realistic. Like Johnston’s The Rocketeer, Captain America took place in a real time, and I expected all of it to respect the period. Being a World War II aficionado, there were some aspects that took me out of the film, and left me grumbling a bit.
My complaint is not leveraged at the depiction of the Allies per se – they were pretty good, for the most part. Cap’s uniform could have been more subdued (the bright blue, while very cool in the comics, would easily give away his position to the enemy in the field). I also had a problem with Howling Commando Jim Morita and his modern emo attitude and haircut, which was completely out of regulation.
In fact, my biggest cavil with the Allies is that I really wanted to see more of Captain America and his Howling Commandos in action. They were relegated to a two-minute montage that, while it served a purpose to keep the story moving, was way too short. I wanted to see more camaraderie. That should have been the heart of the movie, and would have made Bucky’s death a harder punch to the audience. And though it may be a bit hammy to some, I would have loved to have seen Cap in real newsreel footage with actual World War II heroes, as alluded to in a deleted scene from The Avengers.
My main complaint with the movie was with the portrayal of Red Skull and the Axis/Hydra forces. They were still evil, of course, but I would have preferred that they would have had more connection to history in terms of motivation and design.
I did think that Hugo Weaving was the best choice to play Red Skull, but there were some surprising character choices made that really bothered me. First off, there was no real need for him to have a fake human face for a quarter of the film, and there was no reason for him to pull off said face when he did. The effect was anti-climactic. I have a feeling that Weaving’s ego had something to do with it.
Reading the comics as a kid, I had always envisioned Red Skull as Hitler’s Darth Vader – an evil, merciless enforcer whose mere presence would strike fear in the hearts of his victims. Red Skull’s reveal would have been much more intimidating and frightening in the beginning of the film had he had his crimson visage from the start.
I felt that there was an effort on the part of the filmmakers to substitute Hydra for the entire Third Reich. Though Hydra was credited as Hitler’s R&D division (which was a very clever way to insert it into history), this “division” had its own uniforms, weapons and vehicles – complete with Hydra insignia – which is something the vain and paranoid Hitler would not have tolerated. The flags on the battle maps had American and British colors, and an “H” marking Hydra’s forces. Col. Philips’ line, “We’re taking the fight to Hydra,” (emphasis mine) also didn’t help.
Why would they do this? I don’t know – possibly for the sake of not offending the European film market (the film was called simply The First Avenger in some countries overseas).
The Hydra vehicles and weaponry themselves also took me out of the movie. Some looked really ridiculous (like that ginormous tank that looked like a kid’s toy), others looked too advanced in design to be of the 1940s. The Tesseract-infused uniforms and suits looked more Iron Man than Wehrmacht. And what was the deal with those very futuristic (for the time) closed-circuit TV cameras?
A trailer for the Captain America: Super Soldier video game was released a few weeks before the film, and it got me very excited about the design possibilities that the movie could bring:
The game’s design of the Hydra troops, weapons and vehicles were outstanding. They looked like they had been augmented from standard German uniforms, lending to their period authenticity. It was unfortunate and disappointing that the film’s designers didn’t go this route.
Red Skull killed his Nazi handlers very early in the film, intending to not operate “in Hitler’s shadow.” While that was a great plot point (too evil, even for Nazis), I felt that it was a great disservice to history to just sweep the Nazis away very early and so quickly. It was as if writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely had to come up with some way to quickly move past the historical context so they could do their own thing. There was no reason to do that, and it caused the whole scene to feel rushed and out of place. Perhaps the turn would have been better in the third act, when Red Skull’s master plan was finally revealed?
All of this lack of historical consideration both disappointed and surprised me because Joe Johnston had been so good at it with The Rocketeer. In that film, the rocket pack was far-fetched as a concept, but designed in such a way that made the audience believe it really could have existed in that time.
Themes and Thoughts
The stories of Captain America have always been a microcosm of the larger struggle in World War II. In fact, that is the whole reason why the character was created in the comics (Cap punches Hitler on the cover of his first issue, for Pete’s sake).
Red Skull: “What makes you so special?”
Captain America: “Nothing. I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.”
Not since Batman and the Joker have two comic book arch-enemies so solidly encapsulated their opposing philosophies. Cap and Red Skull not only personify the two sides of the Second World War, they also represent the two sides of the morality of the war.
World War II was more than a struggle between nations; it was probably one of the most morally unambiguous conflicts in world history. What the Nazis did while in power was evil, even to the most cynical of historians.
The Red Skull is the Nazi ideology – an “Übermensch” who believed in the superiority of certain men, or more specifically, himself – for only a man as “superior” as he would be able to handle something as powerful as the Tesseract. The Norwegian cleric warned Red Skull, as he basked in the Tesseract’s glow, that the power contained within was “not for the eyes of ordinary men.” To which Red Skull haughtily replied, “Exactly.”
Captain America, however, is the polar opposite. Cap knows himself to be an ordinary man – and acts with certain righteous might to overcome all obstacles. It is very ironic that Captain America was, in fact, what the Nazis were looking for when they strived to obtain human “perfection” through the evils of eugenics and ethnic cleansing, because the power that they so desired was used against them by a man who does not think himself superior.
The conflict between these two ideological symbols boils down to pride and humility, which is really the original sin in God’s creation.
The entire Nazi philosophy was predicated on pride, which bred hatred and contempt for life itself. Obsessed with power, and blinded by arrogance, the Red Skull is a very prideful man. The proud man will stop at nothing to achieve his goals, putting himself before others. Red Skull displayed his contempt for those he found to be “lesser than” many times – especially toward Cap, a man he thought undeserving of the power given to him.
This pride eventually became Red Skull’s downfall when he realized in one fell swoop that his plan was undone by an “ordinary” man, and that even he was not “superior” enough to withstand and control the Tesseract.
“‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God. I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.'” Isaiah 14:13-14
Lucifer the archangel thought himself better and wiser than God. It was Lucifer’s pride in himself that caused him to rebel against The Lord. Lucifer continues his battle against God to this day, striking blows at His creation. Now called Satan, he comes “to steal, kill and destroy…” (John 10:10). However, even he will not be able to withstand the power of God, and will eventually be cast into hell and defeated (Revelation 20:10).
The humble man puts others before himself. Captain America continuously put himself in harm’s way for the sake of others. From throwing himself on a (dud) grenade, to sacrificing his life to save millions from the destructive power of the Valkyrie, Cap exemplified the humble, righteous man.
Cap knew his place as an ordinary man, and that drove the Skull crazy. How could a man that powerful humble himself to the level of others?
It reminded me a bit of the contest between David and Goliath in 1 Samuel. Goliath’s pride came from his power and size, mocking and intimidating the Israelites and their God. David, a small shepherd boy, went out to face Goliath alone. Though he was also mocked by Goliath and the Philistines, David knew he had the power of God behind him, and made quick work of the boastful brute – taking him down with a stone and a sling.
“I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.” Captain America
Though his religious beliefs are not overtly addressed (in The Avengers, he proclaimed there is only one God), Captain America is a good parallel for a man striving to be like Christ: humble, confident in spirit and righteous in action. He isn’t a perfect example of a righteous man, however. In fact, no one is. In the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon wrote, “Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins” (7:20). Even someone as good and just as Captain America cannot achieve righteousness through good works and deeds alone.
In our world’s story, the One True Story, Jesus Christ is the ultimate and perfect example of humility. Here is the most powerful Being in the universe, both fully man and fully God, humbling Himself to become human, showing us how to live and love each other – eventually suffering a death he did not deserve for the sin in all of us.
God sent Jesus to be our example and show us how to live. And the most important reason He came was to save us from a fate even worse than anything that could have been dished out by the Valkyrie: an eternity away from our Lord, with no hope of reconciliation. Jesus is the Way, the only Way, to God. Whereas Satan comes to steal, kill and destroy, Jesus said in the same verse, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
Captain America: The First Avenger is an excellent movie. It’s exciting, fun and nostalgic – despite its playing fast-and-loose with history. The film’s themes parallel not only those of World War II, but the struggle of the entire fallen world.
We often think that we know better than God. We sometimes either do not understand or agree with His plan for our lives. Others don’t even believe there is a God. That pride can sometimes lead down dangerous paths. Many men have thought themselves gods, and have snuffed out millions of lives in the process. While our own individual struggles may not have as grave consequences, they can still lead to sin and death. Only God, through the Holy Sprit, can temper our pride and keep us focused on Him and His will.
“When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” Proverbs 11:2
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Marvel Studios / Paramount Pictures
Starring Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell
Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke and Stanley Tucci
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Based upon characters appearing in Marvel Comics
Directed by Joe Johnston