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Captain America: American History Pecs

American history texts often display World War II as a time of rare moral clarity, where the bad guys were bad and the good guys were good. The bad guys were so bad that they took on the fatalistic qualities of “pure evil” villains generally only seen in the bombastic pages of comic books, and it was up to the earnest stock of American farm boys to grow into the heroes on the front line. Captain America: The First Avenger brings this equation from the comics to the screen in a straightforward story of good versus evil, and the would-be emblem of America.

Captain America follows Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a young man whose dreams of joining the army are snuffed out by his small stature and laundry list of medical conditions. When a government scientist (the charming Stanley Tucci) inducts him into the ranks for the purpose of a super-soldier experiment, Rogers undergoes a massive transformation to become Captain America.

Hugo Weaving plays Red Skull
While Captain America’s corresponding villain could have simply been the historically portrayed evil “Axis Powers,” the film pits him against his traditional antagonist, Red Skull. Originally named Johann Schmidt, the Nazi scientist is played by the rare talent of Hugo Weaving. The casting alone gives the character a shade of dark intelligence behind his superior physical strength, and the true scope of his terrorist plan involving a tesseract energy source is artfully handled so as not to appear too silly or outrageous. It is important to note that Schmidt’s association with a clandestine group called Hydra separates him from the Nazis; the film skirts the stickiness of appearing a U.S. versus Them equation while still pulling off the appropriate propagandic arrangement of siding America with the cause of “good.”

Beyond this, the film acknowledges the propaganda inherent in a film called Captain America with a winking sense of humor. When Rogers first receives his new physique and powers, he doesn’t plunge into the fray at the front lines, but rather steps on stage to perform for a lengthy PR tour intended to sell war bonds. In addition, the character of Captain America is played with a careful humility by Evans, who does not bring any of his standard playful arrogance to the role. His American is quietly confident, sincere, and devoted to aiding those in need. This is the American that doesn’t stand for bullying, the friend of the underdog. By poking fun at the historical examples of propaganda, the film establishes a far more flattering image of America.

This effect is further developed with the over the top action. The action scenes are simultaneously expansive and intimate--while we often see Captain America in true-superhero action, equal time is spent with him fighting at the forefront of an army, more like a King Arthur before his knights than a lone Superman figure. The more excessive scenes, like a shot that frames Captain America on a motorcycle, soaring in front of a massive explosion while military planes pass in the background, are just excessive enough to be tongue in cheek.

Hayley Atwell shines as Peggy Carter
Perhaps the American sense of confidence is too pervasive; there is not a moment where the viewer fears for the hero. Generally, superhero films pose an endangered female counterpart to generate the sense of risk and suspense, whether it’s Batman’s Rachel, Spiderman’s Mary Jane, Superman’s Lois Lane. The fact that Captain America’s leading lady is not so weak may decrease the film’s tension, but Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is a breath of fresh air. Captain America trades a damsel in distress for a military officer who is by turns brave, sassy, and discerning.

Atwell’s is not the film’s only noteworthy performance. Captain America is joined by Colonel Chester Phillips, played by the surly Tommy Lee Jones who plays a pit bull military officer with seasoned humor. Dominic Cooper also brings his suave wit to the cast as Howard Stark, with his arrogant genius a cheeky gesture toward the later events of Iron Man.

In the end, Captain America’s great strength is in its simplicity. The hero has no otherworldly powers or props, the character behind the shield is guileless and likable, and the story is clear. Captain America is a straightforward superhero movie that calls back to the history of American action to create something new and exciting. Let’s hope The Avengers follows suit.

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The best superhero movie of the summer - good acting, good special effects, good storyline, and a heaping dollop of patriotism. Whoever thought Evans could have made such a great Captain America too! Good Review! Check out mine when you can!

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