Comics don’t stay in comics. For better or worse, most comics are produced in the hopes they will lead to films, cartoons, action figures, video games, backpacks, beach towels and bubble baths. Extra Medium is my column about all these things and more.
I didn’t like Captain America: The First Avenger and I don’t like that I didn’t like it. My girlfriend liked it. My friends liked it. Roger Ebert liked it. I bet even Oscar the Grouch liked it and he suffers from a consistently negative outlook.
I was wrong about a couple of things when it came to Captain America: The First Avenger. First, I was wrong about the costume. I thought it looked dumb in the TV spots and production photos, and I assumed it would drag the film down. But the filmmakers cleverly de-corn-ify Cap’s get-up by contrast. Before Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) and his buddies supply Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) with his final outfit, he tours the U.S. selling war bonds. Cap wears a silly looking version of his costume – one more accurate to his pre-Ultimates outfits – and just about anything in comparison looks cool and dynamic, including the padded costume Stark makes for him later. Second, I was wrong about my reaction. I thought, and hoped, my reaction would be similar to my response to Thor. I thought Thor looked horrible and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I thought Captain America looked horrible, but I didn’t love it. I didn’t hate it. I was just underwhelmed. I just thought, ”well, that was a super-hero movie.”
I understand why others enjoyed it more. There’s a lot to like about Captain America: The First Avenger. The film enjoys a great, pulpy atmosphere. It was easy to imagine it as another installment of Indiana Jones (in fact, the Red Skull mentions Hitler ”digging for trinkets in the desert”). In spite of the pulpy feel, director Joe Johnston kept a good balance between elements of cartoon and realism. The American soldiers’ initial reaction to Cap, for example, is perfect. When Rogers first appears in front of the troops, they boo him off stage and mock his costume. The idea that battle-hardened soldiers would accept a guy in red-white-and-blue tights always bothered me. Still, as a longtime Marvel reader, listening to soldiers boo Captain America was almost jarring. As much as it makes sense, when you grow up on Marvel you get used to any character over 60 treating Cap like he steps off a cross every morning.
The bigger names in the film – Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones – don’t disappoint. I enjoyed Jones’s performance in particular. As Colonel Phillips he’s perfect as an authoritative figure, a conscience, and occasionally comic relief. Any Marvel fan familiar with the hordes of Hydra (and what Marvel reader isn’t?) will love Jones’s response to the old ”Strike one of us down…” line toward the end of the film.
The wimpification-CGI worked well on Evans. It couldn’t help but look a little creepy, but part of what made it look so creepy was that it looked real.
I also appreciate that the various Marvel filmmakers are doing a fine job connecting the various films without overselling those connections or making it necessary to see one film in order to understand or enjoy another. Captain America’s version of the Cosmic Cube, for example, is clearly connected to Odin and the Norse gods. The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) repeatedly brings up a notion that was recurrent in Thor: that what other people consider magic is actually misunderstood science.
So what was there left to not like? Well, let me say first that as a guy who regularly writes about comics, and tries to be thoughtful and considerate when speaking of comic book adaptations, I get pretty ticked when someone suggests I disliked a movie ”just because” the movie wasn’t similar enough to the comic. But I have to cop to it this time. I didn’t like Captain America: The First Avenger mainly because of the gaps between comic and film.
Evans does a fine job with the character, but he’s missing something important: leadership. At no point in the film did I get the sense of Captain America as a leader. I realize this is his origin story. I’m sure Joss Whedon has a how-Cap-learns-to-be-a-leader arc ready for Avengers. But this is the Captain America movie and if there is one thing that stands out as a constant in all of the different incarnations of Steve Rogers in the comics, under the care of every writer, it’s that he’s a leader. Whether you’re a thunder god, a savage killer, or a smart-ass webslinger, when Cap talks you shut up and listen. I never got that sense from Evans’s Captain America. His qualities are no more than the generic virtues you expect in just about any super-hero: courage, dedication, loyalty, and honesty. But Evans’s Cap is no leader. At least not yet.
I wasn’t a fan of how Cap’s abilities were portrayed visually. I’ve always considered Cap’s physical prowess to be like Batman’s: pretty much the best you can possibly be before crossing the line into Super. Evans’s Cap clearly crosses that line. He’s not Hulk-strong or Flash-fast, but he’s clearly super strong and super fast. Regardless of whether or not that differs from the comics, I don’t think the computer-generated realization of those abilities looked good. A lot of it looked fake, fast, and jerky. The filmmakers relied too heavily on CGI for the action scenes. It seemed like if Cap did so much as clock a guy and nothing more, it was computer generated.
Just as I felt Cap’s most distinguishing characteristic was absent, I thought The Red Skull came off as too generic a mastermind villain. I mean, I know Red Skull pretty much is a generic mastermind villain, but this is Cap’s Big Bad. It’s the closest thing Cap has to a Lex Luthor, but he comes off as a throwaway Indiana Jones bad guy. In fact, his death scene is reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark’s famous climax.
I have a few minor beefs. That Arnim Zola was included but not a super-villain disappointed me. Next to Modok, Arnim Zola is one of the freakiest looking characters in comics. To not utilize that freakiness is practically criminal.
I hated the Hydra soldiers’ chunky black masks. They looked dumb and it didn’t seem they were designed to look functional.
My final comic-geek-specific beef is targeted at the part of the film when Cap tours the country selling war bonds. The filmmakers go out of their way to make Cap’s stage costume look similar to the basic costume design that endured from the dawn of World War II to the 21st century. Since we’re supposed to believe Cap’s public relations tour is beneath him, the costume is designed to look ridiculous (and also to make the later, padded costume look better by comparison). Part of the p.r. montage is the unveiling of the character’s actual first appearance: piles of copies of Captain America Comics #1. As the montage unfolded, I was reminded of Mister Glass’s theory in Unbreakable; that super-hero comics were a cartoonish, commercialized version of real history. I got the sense that’s what was being sold to me, that those stupid comics I read were commercial and disingenuous while the movie was giving us the ”real” story. Strangely, I noticed the montage didn’t include any commercials for Captain America themed Coolattas.
I guess I’m just tired of the comic industry’s self-flagellation for the sake of mass appeal. It’s not that I don’t have a sense of humor about my childhood icons; it’s just that it’s old, it’s easy, and it doesn’t impress me. I won’t lie. I laughed. It was funny, clever, and it accomplished a lot in a short period of time. But it also left a bad taste in my mouth.
I really wish I didn’t find myself in the role of contrarian. I would much rather enjoy the movie versions of the stories that filled my childhood. Ironically, while I wasn’t Captain America: The First Avenger’s biggest fan, I’m happy for its success. I’m a Marvel kid and always will be. I can’t help but cheer when they score a win.