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There’s something about alternate history that fascinates us. Those who considers themselves lovers of ‘un-improved’ history can appreciate the drama and awe inspiring scope of the journey man has experienced, but more often than not the glamorized romance of the impressions we have of ages past give way to dark bitter realities. How comforting it is to sink into fantasy, to believe that our past was indeed as magical as we imagine, colorful and neatly partitioned into good and evil.
This may seem a bit pretentious of an opening to a review of one of the least deep or thoughtful moneymakers of the year, but “Captain America: The First Avenger” doesn’t succeed because of memorable action sequences (it has none), menacing villains (ditto), or even that big of a peek into next year’s super-blockbuster, “The Avengers.” “Captain America” is a pre-Iraq pre-Vietnam fantasy, when American values were unquestioned, American industry was unchallenged and American heroes were as morally complex as a glass of cold milk.
Steve Rogers, a scrawny bony wimp whose Jimmy Stewart-inspired moral code drives him to fustily try to enlist during World War II. Turned down repeatedly for his pathetic physicality, Rogers is discovered by a kindly scientist (always the bridesmaid; never the bride actor, Stanley Tucci) who selects him as a candidate for an experimental procedure that will reshape his body into the perfect soldier. Meanwhile an overly ambitious Nazi scientist (played by a surprisingly bland Hugo Weaving) creates a schism in the Nazi world, forming his own goose-stepping gang of storm troopers armed with props borrowed from this year’s ‘Thor.”
It may sound a bit condescending to talk about “Captain America,” but the film turned out much more positively than most expected. Chris Evans is Steve Rogers. Who would have thought that four years ago that statement wasn’t laughable? Evans, most memorable for playing snarky but likable sidekicks, a lady-killer with a self satisfied smirk, is unrecognizable as the bastion of patience and goodness that Rogers embodies.
Playing wholesome without feeling ironic, Evans as Captain America is a hero you can believe in fully, using a natural charisma and surprising subtlety to make up for the cardboard script characterizations. In fact, if it weren’t for Evans, the film wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. Director Joe Johnston wrangles the bright lights and Colgate smiles of pre-Vietnam patriotism respectably, but the only connection to the story comes from Evans’ performance.
A fistful of secondary characters play their meager almost disposable parts admirably, but the film is so thin that even veteran villain Hugo Weaving can do nothing more than fill the mustache-twirling seat, completely bland and flavorless. From Haley Atwell’s entrancing but personality-less love interest, to Tommy Lee Jones’ grumpy catchphrase vending-machine, the other characters keep you entertained but painfully aware that nothing they do or say really matters.
Then again “Captain America” seems designed to be popcorn, eschewing any of the weight or drama that the real WWII naturally inspires. Nazis are no longer the villains, their faceless replacements wielding action-figure friendly energy blasters. While 1940’s sexism is hinted at, Atwell’s character still ridiculously charges into battle alongside male soldiers, and anti-Japanese sentiment is deflected by the inclusion of a Japanese/American character.
The responsibility of the period piece is stripped away, as inoffensive and unrepresentative of the actual time as the script will allow, leaving only the trappings we remember from black-and-white pictures and propaganda posters that weren’t horribly racist behind. “Captain America” can’t be accused of being blatant jingoism or criminally rewriting history because it takes itself and its subject matter with such a lack of seriousness and depth that the film really does have to be taken at face value.
And what is left? An amusing hour and a half, some clever one-liners and a fetishist fascination with vintage imagery. People were initially worried that “Captain America” would have a hard time playing overseas due to the cartoonish patriotism and possibly insulting parallels to modern American foreign policy, but the fears ended up being unfounded. Simply put, “Captain America” is very aware and perfectly content with the reality that the America that exists in the film never really existed to begin with.