So last night I went to see Captain America: The First Avenger and it’s a fantastic film. It’s Indiana Jones with superheroes, which sounds dismissive until you realise that Indiana Jones with superheroes is an awesome idea. It’s also one of those films where the casting really works; Chris Evans manages to sell the clean-cut sincerity of a man who only wants to stand up to bullies, be they local jerks or super-Nazis, and Tommy Lee Jones basically plays Tommy Lee Jones in a role that really just requires someone to be Tommy Lee Jones. That’s a winner, but the real stand-out is Hugo Weaving, who turns in a quiet, subtle, layered performance of tragic dignity*.
Anyone who’s read this blog before will know that my film reviews either end up taking the mick, or using them as a springboard to waffle on about the film’s themes. This is going to be one of the latter occasions, because Captain America isn’t the sort of film you can mock. While the Red Skull is gloriously over-the-top, the whole thing is a homage to WWII comic books and pulp storytelling so it really doesn’t matter. He’s called the Red Skull, for goodness sake, saying he’s OTT is just missing the point.
Meanwhile the lead character could have come across as horribly jingoistic but the film takes time to undercut any propagandism, going on to show why everyone should feel free to respect and sympathise with Cap, regardless of whether or not you feel moved to chant “USA! USA!” at any point.
The heart of the movie is seen right up front. Steve Rogers is a scrawny seven-stone weakling with a liat of ailments as long as the film’s credits, all of which mean he’s declared unfit for the army, and therefore punching Nazis. Recognising something in the way Steve refuses to quit trying to enlist, he’s recruited for a secret experiment to turn him into a peak physical specimen – a ‘super soldier’. The experiment is successful but can’t be repeated, with the film following Steve’s journey from being used as a propagandist laughing stock to becoming the central hero of the Marvel Comics universe, all of which is driven by his total refusal to give up or back down.
I guess that’s the lesson of the movie: never give up, never surrender (as another good film once said). I wonder how many times the same story is repeated – we’re young, idealistic, full of hopes and dreams, then as time goes on we get worn down, become clockwatchers, abandon those dreams as naive and hopeless. We give up, and even when we tell ourselved it’s necessary, it’s still an act of surrender.
Despite this, there are still times we have a choice, aren’t there? Times when we need to either speak out or stay quiet, take a stand or hide in the background. It’s interesting that the movie gives Steve these choices when he’s at his weakest, before he gets his powers, and when he’s sidelined by the army he so wants to serve – yeah, his moral code says he’s going to take on the bullies, but at key points he doesn’t have much in the way of back-up. It’s easy to make the right choice when, say, Tommy Lee Jones is growling at your side, but what happens when you’re on your own? How does that affect the ethical choices we have to make?
In the end, the world of Captain America didn’t need a colossus striding the skin of the world, or a stooge of politics, it just needed a brave and decent man to do the right thing. And I guess that’s all that can be asked of you and me as wel: do the right thing; never give up.
* Not really. He plays a skull-headed loon weasel. But he does it beautifully.