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I thought about this a lot, but I don’t think you can talk about Captain America without talking about… well, America. It’s in his name, he is a symbol of our country and in the best of times is taken as such through exceptional storytelling and dynamic iconography. I’m going to get out my scholarly hat and mention a couple things that won’t have much to do with comics, but hopefully will put how awesome the new Captain America movie is in some context to simmer lightly with white wine and fava beans while I go on about explosions and punching later.
But first: smart stuff! Alexis de Tocqueville was a French historian and thinker of great thoughts back in the 1800s. In his book, Democracy in America, he spoke of this country and democracy itself having a “love of physical gratification, the notion of bettering one’s condition, the excitement of competition”, and the darling soundbite of the hour, “the charm of anticipated success.” By this last phrase, we see a condition unique to the USA considering that it was uniquely founded with the notion that “everything will be better once we’re over here.” The first settlers had to get on boats and believe that when they set down in empty, foreign and cruel new lands, they were going to be as successful and as exemplary as a early Puritan settler John Winthrop put it in 1830, “city upon a hill”, watched by the world”.
A little arrogant? Yes, but comic books by their very nature speak to that charm of anticipated success that makes us U.S.A. When know Spider-Man will win the day, but how? And to what lengths will he achieve that success? Who would win in a fight, Thor or the Hulk? The excitement of competition fuels message boards to this take on these ideas. Tony Stark was able to build his suit in a cave with a box of scraps, bettering not only his own condition, but the country and the world by taking his bettered self into fighting crime for the common good.
Best of all, Steve Rogers takes Alexis de Tocqueville’s words to heart and manages to make a action film out of them, one that speaks less to what America is, but what ideals are that simply cannot be argued against.
WARNING: I don’t think I give much away as far as specific plot details but we are gonna talk some Captain America: the First Avenger up in here. There’s one reference to something said in the trailers, a brief visual from the end of the film but the anticipation of WHO WILL WIN between Captain America and the Red Skull will charm the pants off of you. Go see the movie, have a good time!
Okay, so I don’t know if Joe Jackson had a copy of Democracy in America next to his director’s chair, but he certainly had the manual to awesome. Steve Rogers is a paragon of good. Not ridiculously successful, but good. Good in a way that makes him shy around girls, read books in Boot Camp and get pummeled outside a theater so people could watch a newsreel in peace. He’s got heart, and that’s what Dr. Ersine is looking for, above all else. In a fantastically classic MGMish montage, Erskine explains that a fellow scientist and crazy person Johann Schmidt got greedy with the first Super Soldier serum and paid a price. Stanley Tucci as Dr. Erskine (in a fantastically warm and heartbreaking performance) tells scrawny Steve Rogers that the process takes the good and makes it great. And bad becomes worse.
Thus your story has been very cleanly stated before hero and villain even meet: this is a story of the best of us as people versus the worst of us as people. They also fire tanks that vaporize people and ride motorcycles that have rockets on them. On one hand the movie is incredibly popcorn, with Captain America’s punches landing HYDRA agents somewhere in the next time zone, Cap’s great bounds normally always over something burning or exploding, his crack team of Howling Commandos being an assortment of kooky stereotypes and his blushing ‘garsh’ attitude toward woman. There’s fictional science everywhere, a magic cube that I guess is a huge battery and opens up holes into space, fast cars, dancing girls, I dare you not to be entertained by some flash of razzamatazz played excitingly on the screen. I’d be wary on taking kids to this one than say, Thor, because the violence hits somewhere around an Indiana Jones flick; there’s some shooting, there’s some punching and …. well, a plane propeller accident.
On the other hand, there is a self-awareness that I didn’t expect from a movie geared toward action figures and four-color adventure. Captain America’s war bonds tour and USO shows letting the audience know that yes, Captain America can easily be a propaganda tool for the U.S. military. Sometimes you do things you don’t want to do based on authority figures’ recommendations, but there is no oppressive political or grandstanding message. Dr. Erskine chooses him for his strength of character, and that is what drives him to live up to a set of ideals expressed years ago as the “American Dream.” There is no life for an all-America hero between selling out or living in a lab to be studied, so Cap gathers what he can and launches a gutsy rescue mission for missing soldiers, helping others do what’s right and serving along the soldiers of the 107th. They take a couple moments to remind you that war is heck and before there was a Sentinel of Liberty, there were multiple sentinels sent to fight in World War II in our nation’s fighting forces.
I love this movie. I think that with each consecutive Marvel Studios production, they are finding a way to translate all of the hard work that came before them in comics to a new medium for a whole new audience. And in this way we are just as charmed as Alexis de Tocqueville was; through perseverance, dedication, and hard work, the little guy will make it. At heart, Captain America: the First Avenger is about a little guy, standing up against bulliest and never giving up. Who can argue with that?