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Captain America: Cracking Red Skulls and Inspiring Patriots Since 1941

Marvel's great symbol of American Exceptionalism inspires in one of the summer's must-see movies.

by
Mike McDaniel

Bio

August 1, 2011 - 11:03 pm
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As the credits rolled the entire audience sat transfixed, speechless, hoping there was more. They didn’t want it to end.

Courage, unashamed and unspoken patriotism, honor, duty, the willingness to do what needs to be done, decency, true love, self-sacrifice — these are the essential elements of this movie — not a “film” and certainly not “cinema,” but a movie in the grand tradition of unabashedly American entertainment.

Captain America: The First Avenger is not a movie for those who see America as just one of many nations. It is not for people who disdain self-reliance and put their faith in the benevolence of the nanny state. There is no self-loathing, no appeasement, no abandonment of allies, no doubt about the nature of good or evil. There is refreshing clarity of the kind most recently seen in Battle: Los Angeles where American troops were depicted as good and noble men and women who prevail because they are willing to do what is necessary, even to make the ultimate sacrifice that others might live.

For those who grew up on Marvel Comics the story of Captain America is familiar. A secret serum will maximize human abilities, but there is a catch: the drug makes the good very good and the bad very bad. The first man chosen for the experiment must be very good, and Steve Rogers, who has been turned down five times for service in World War II, is very good indeed. The results: Rogers morphs into a super soldier with superhuman strength and reflexes. The special effects that allow the viewer to see Chris Evans as the stereotypical 90-pound weakling transformed into a superhero are particularly effective, as are the effects used throughout the movie, which assist in telling the story rather than becoming it.

Notably absent from this movie is the kind of whining, maximum-volume ballads that play over various brooding characters as they go about their gloomy, oh-so-sensitive, and conflicted lives. The score by Alan Silvestri does what good movie scores should do: accent and enhance the action and mood without overpowering or annoying.

Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is the tough, competent, and beautiful secret agent who believes in Rogers, even before he becomes a superhero. Inspired by her, Captain America goes behind enemy lines to rescue his best friend and 400 allied soldiers from the ultimate evil: The Red Skull, played to malevolent perfection by Hugo Weaving.

The screenplay wastes no dialogue with tortured introspection and moral debate. Steve Rogers knows what’s right and acts no matter the personal cost because evil must always be confronted and defeated. Bullies are not dealt with through intervention, self-esteem sessions, and navel gazing. Even as a 90-pound weakling, Steve Rogers fought back against thugs as best he could. As Captain America he is the worst nightmare any bully could have and not a moment is wasted on their motivations or feelings.

Howard Stark, Tony (Iron Man) Stark’s father, figures prominently. Tommy Lee Jones is Captain America’s commanding officer, playing the role with understated authority in his wrinkled, squinty, trademarked style. Even Samuel L. Jackson makes a brief appearance as Col. Nick Fury, reminding all that this is Marvel’s universe.

Captain America: The First Avenger is an enormously entertaining movie that allows viewers to willingly suspend disbelief, particularly when technological advances unattainable even today are common in the hands of demonic villains in the Marvel Universe of the 1940s. But the value of the movie is primarily in its depiction of all that makes America unique and indispensable.

The experience reminds us not of what we can be, but what we are, what Americans always have been. The citizens of this nation come to the rescue, they sacrifice themselves for freedom, and they dream the dreams of our founders, dreams for which they were willing to risk their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. The values and simple decency depicted in this movie are hardly fiction. They live on in the hearts of contemporary Americans.

That’s what the audience realized at the end of the movie. Sometimes, being reminded of what we are is all that’s necessary to make all the difference in inspiring us to defend our values. This movie is a step in the right direction.

Mike McDaniel is a former police officer, detective, and SWAT operator, and is now a high school English teacher. He blogs here.
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