I had predicted back in January that, of all the comic book movies coming out this summer, the one most likely to triumph would be Captain America: The First Avenger. After a $65 million opening weekend, I’m glad to know that I was right.
How could I consider that when, all things considered, Captain America has the hardest road to travel? After all, it is a character that was specifically created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1940 to be a pro-American, political statement. It’s a character whose personality can be only described as a “boy scout” – which modern audiences hate (see also: Superman). It’s a movie being directed by Joe Johnston, the director of Jurassic Park 3, Jumanji and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and he was going up against the likes of Kenneth Brannagh (Thor), Martin Campbell (Green Lantern) and Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class). And it was starring Chris Evans, who, while a likeable guy in lots of movies, hadn’t ever been the central lead in one – much less a major one like this one. (And, from many accounts, Evans was the second choice to play Steve Rogers).
Yet, Evans has shown a range of abilities across his various movies: comedy (Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Not Another Teen Movie), science-fiction (Sunshine), action (Street Kings, The Losers) and, of course, comic book movies (being the best part of the Fantastic Four duopoly of crap). He turns a performance as Steve Rogers that highlights his entire character – a person who believes in good, who wants to do the right thing in spite of any hardships it might bring and who can rise to the moment. And Johnston channels the sensibilities that made The Rocketeer and Hidalgo such fun, popcorn rides. Hugo Weaving is picture perfect as Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull as he gets to chew scenery like only he can. Hayley Atwell channels The Rocketeer’s Jennifer Connelly in Agent Peggy Carter; a classic dame who kicks butt. The rest of the cast fits their parts to a tee – I mean, getting Tommy Lee Jones, Toby Jones and Stanley Tucci helps give each of their characters’ gravitas and makes the movie easier for Evans to lead. Making Bucky an older friend of Steve’s as opposed to a kid sidekick helps avoid questions about Captain America’s common sense – Sebastian Stan of “Gossip Girl” does a good job as Bucky, both before and after Steve’s transformation.
I’m somewhat surprised at people who found this movie boring because it is well made, classic entertainment. Yes, Steve Rogers/Captain America is a boy scout, but that’s part of his charm and of his make-up. He’s from a world that’s pre-cynicism/pre-snarky attitude. His character is not one that’s into being the coolest in the room or the most badass in a fight. He’s more Odysseus than Achilles – even though he bears a closer resemblance to the demigod. In many ways, Captain America is a modern take on Nietzsche’s “ubermensch.”
The “ubermensch” (in English, the “overman,” the “super-man” or the “hyper-man”, depending on what reading you go for) was a concept introduced by German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche in his 1883 work, Thus Spake Zarathustra. In short, it spoke of humanity stepping beyond the “herd/slave mentality” of Western, egalitarian, Christian thinking and becoming a “judge and avenger and victim of one’s own law.” An “ubermensch” was someone who was not bound by the rules of others, but rose above it all to establish a world where you didn’t seek redemption or salvation in another, greater world. Instead the focus would remain on building and improving this world and making it in the fashion that one thought best. The “ubermensch” would lead and others would follow. (Aside: this reading is speculative. There is much, much debate on Nietzsche’s works and his meanings. Was his intent to show how impossible being a man detached from one’s cultural values was? Or did he mean that becoming an “ubermensch” was a goal for humanity as a species to strive for as opposed to being an individual goal? So much of his work has been co-opted and re-analyzed time and again. Most notably by the very people he hated so much: the Nazis).
But if we go by this reading, then it’s The Red Skull who most closely fits the description of the “ubermensch.” At the movie’s start, Col. Johann Schmidt is the head of the Nazi’s secret science division, Hydra. But he quickly grows beyond his masters’ control and rebels at what he sees as their small-mindedness and their meddling in his great works. The Red Skull and Hydra, unshackled from the Fuhrer’s demands and Nazi ideology, grow and expand. They co-opt ancient technology (the Cosmic Cube from Thor) in order to power new weapons and armies. Before long, The Red Skull becomes a greater threat than the Nazis, with his goal revealed to be that of establishing a world order in which he rules. While the majority of the Allies focus on defeating Nazi Germany, it is down to Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and his men to stop him…because Captain America is too busy doing USO shows to raise war bonds.
From the start, Steve Rogers is selected not because he’s the best man for the job, but because he carries sensibilities and attributes that make him better suited for the role he’ll step onto once transformed. Dr. Abraham Erskine (Tucci), the creator of the “Super-Soldier” serum that will turn 90-pound weakling Rogers into the Star-Spangled Avenger is desperate for a second chance to get his work right. He explains that the serum will not just enhance physical abilities, but will also augment the internal qualities that a person may possess. Having originally used his serum on Schmidt, he feels that his earlier “failure” can be rectified if he picks a different sort of man than Schmidt. Someone who respects power, but isn’t afraid of it. Someone who does the right thing because it is the right thing – not just to get off on beating an opponent. “A good man” as he tells Steve.
These are qualities that are in direct competition with an “ubermensch”. Steve’s first mission as Captain America is to infiltrate enemy lines and rescue men captured by Hydra – many of whom would become his Howlin’ Commandos. He’s someone who cares for his men and that what they’re doing is the right thing. What’s more impressive is that Captain America refuses to consider himself greater than anyone around him. He remains insecure about his place in the world, even when he’s granted the capacity to take whatever he wants. Meanhile Schmidt thinks that the only man anywhere near his equal in the world is Captain America. When confronting one another, Schmidt asks Steve what makes him so special. Steve answers in an off-handed manner: “Nothing. I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.”
That rejection of ultimate power is a quintessentially American characteristic of our superheroes. Most classical heroes – whether mythological or written – were often eager to define themselves as unique and different in order to prove their greatness. Beowulf swam leagues and hunted demons because he wanted to prove himself greatest. Achilles fought because he wanted to be known as the greatest warrior ever. King Arthur embraced his position and power in order to build the perfect society. Compare them to Batman, who refuses to kill his enemies or take over Gotham. Or to Spider-Man, who gave us the modern Marvel mantra of “with great power comes great responsibility.” Captain America is at the core of this idea. He’s a pinnacle that humanity can create and yet doesn’t think that this excuses him from being a “good man” first and foremost.
So yes, I liked Captain America: The First Avenger a lot. For me, it’s only behind the first Iron Man for the title of “best modern comic book adaptation” – I’m excusing Nolan’s Batman films from that list as they’re a whole another beast unto themselves. The movie is great fun, the designs are wonderful and, at its core, it’s the story of good against evil. How can you not dig that?