Friday, December 9, 2011

Captain America: A Review







Some time beginning in the late 70's a change began in the genre of Super Hero/Comic Book movies.  I think in particular about the first "Superman" released in 1978.  Then I follow a trajectory that brings us to 1997 and"Men In Black".  Within this time frame superheroes stopped declaiming their lines like politicians on steroids.  They abandoned the cornball sentiments that are still heard (unfortunately) in the world of politics.  Before this sea-change a film might end with the hero giving the obligatory pretty girl an obligatory super kiss.  When the kiss is done, he looks into the sky, eyes narrowed with noble determination, and says the ogligatory closing line:"Now the world is finally safe from Tyranny."
            By the time "Men In Black" came along, the hero's lines had changed, the entire tone of movies had changed, so that Will Smith could say something like, "I hate gettin' goo on my suit when I blast those mothas!"
            The deeper truth that lies behind this change is that pop culture has entered a new psychological era, the Age of Irony.  Insofar as mass entertainment is concerned, irony is now a more common dramatic currency than is heroism.  We, the audience, see ourselves more realistically.  We are saturated in irony because we know that we are doomed.  We are doomed individually: we are all going to die.  We are possibly doomed as a civilization, because of the way we have fucked things up.
            We know, or can imagine, many dooms that were hidden before the Discovery Channel founded its empire of info-tainment.  We imagine doom by comet impact.  We imagine the coming doom wrought by global warming.  We imagine doom by the explosion of the super volcano simmering under Yellowstone National Park.  We imagine doom by weapons of mass destruction, or malignant microbes.  We are a people of a thousand imagined dooms.  
           I have devised a personal motto:  March Cheerfully To Your Doom.  Is there any choice?  Or shall we simply proceed to the Age of Despair and forget about having any fun at all?
            I was curious to see how the producers of "Captain America" would adapt to our modern ironic sensibilities.  The themes of "Captain America" hearken back to that most heroic and patriotic era, World War Two.  How could they twist this red- white-and-blue superhero into an ironic commentary that would appeal to today's audiences?
            The producers used a simple device, and it worked.  They made the film's action a flashback.  Contemporary explorers in some remote shifting glacier discover a strange artifact sticking out of the ice.  As soldiers rappel down into this artifact, it becomes obvious that it is a highly advanced aircraft.  There is a pilot's seat looking out a giant windshield.  We don't see what, if anything, is in that pilot's seat. Scraping away a shallow layer of ice, one of the soldiers discovers a round device.  Is it a shield?  It looks like a shield.  And, by god, it is emblazoned with the white star surrounded by red and blue circles: the icon of the U.S. Armed Forces during World War Two.
            This flashback device enables us to look as through the wrong end of a telescope, witnessing the Age of Heroism through the sensibility of the Age of Irony.
Captain America, played without hyperbole by Chris Evans, goes about his business
without any bodice-busting fuss.  He's likeable, modest and utterly committed.
            A top secret agency, the Strategic Scientific Reserve, is working with a brilliant scientist, a fellow who escaped from the Nazis.  He has invented a biological technology that can turn ordinary men into Super Soldiers with super reflexes and super physiques.  The scientist's name is Dr. Erskine, but we may as well call him Dr. Epstein.  We all know he's a Jew, which releases him from the taint of Germanic Fascism.  Meanwhile, the Germans have an advanced Black Ops club, run by  a rogue genius named Johann Schmidt.  Herr Schmidt is at the helm of his own organization called Hydra.  This Hydra thing is to Nazism as a Great White Shark is to a goldfish. 
            Now we throw in a pretty girl.  She is an intelligence agent who liaises with the aforementioned Strategic Scientific Reserve.  She's everywhere.  She's part of the inner circle, though she doesn't seem to do anything besides be head cheerleader.  Heck, she's the only cheerleader. She believes in Dr. Epstein.  She accepts his choice of the first human  subject to undergo the transformation into Super Soldier.  This person is Steve Rogers, a weak, skinny but indomitably plucky 4F washout. The boy weighs maybe eighty pounds in a wet T-shirt and can't lift a moth without dislocating his shoulder.  He has tried to enlist forty times under forty different names in forty towns, but he's got asthma, heart murmur, flat feet, bed wetting, 20/80 vision.  He's under weight, under height, has Recalcitrant Plebny, Feline Leukemia, and every other disqualifier for military duty.
            But he is plucky!  Dr. Epstein recognizes this Pluck as the true ingredient of a Super Soldier.  Sure enough, when Steve gets put in the machine and pumped full of the esoteric hormones, he emerges as a plucky hunk of buff manhood like whooo hooo!  Now his head looks as if it actually belongs on his body, which was a disturbing artifact of his previous digitally de-buffed body.
            Agent Peggy Carter loved him before, but now she loves him just as much
and will love him even if the hormones turn him into a gay guy with a huge body and a tiny pin head.
            Here we go, folks!  The elements are in place.  We are now ready for many chases, explosions, gun fights, grappling and swinging from the bars of industrial catwalks, plus a few romantic interludes that are always interrupted before The Kiss can happen.  The Kiss finally happens as Steve Rogers pluckily volunteers to go on a suicide mission that leads to the surprise denouement of the film. 
            I liked the film, (meaning I watched all of it) but the ending left me saying "HUH?"
            I give the film three muskrats.  One of those muskrats is for the moment when villainous Herr Schmidt tears his own face off to reveal a red-orange skull with a Michael Jackson nose.