Captain America: The First Avenger is a serviceable movie that captures the feeling of a 1940's and 1950's Saturday morning serial and its director's previous cult hit The Rocketeer.
In terms of narrative quality, one can forgive Captain America: The First Avenger's casual disregard for the character of Bucky and how he just drops out of play halfway through the movie. I can also overlook the uninspiring action scenes that do not really feel like a Captain America film ought to, as normative and imprecise that phrase is, until the motorcycle chase in the last third of the movie.
But when viewed in total, it is hard to overlook how Captain America: The First Avenger lacks any real weight and is missing the intangibles that separate great comic book fare (The Dark Knight; Watchmen; Iron Man; Spiderman 2) from that which is merely run of the mill (The Punisher; Ghost Rider).
To this ghetto nerd comic book fan, Captain America: The First Avenger's deepest problem is how problematic, even by comic book standards, its romanticization of the past and the recycled mythos surrounding "The Greatest Generation" really is.
The movie's story is familiar. Captain America is Steve Rogers, a puny recruit who during World War 2 volunteers to become a super soldier by taking an experimental serum that will give him enhanced strength, endurance, speed, and other amazing abilities. With his childhood sidekick Bucky and the Howling Commandos, Captain America wreaks havoc on a group of high-tech Nazis named HYDRA, and their occult obsessed leader the Red Skull.
Captain America: The First Avenger applies a heavy whitewashing (or is that a "brownwashing?") to World War 2 that is distinguished by a deep commitment and dedication to an insincere multiculturalism and a childish flattening of historical events. More than simple dishonesty, the movie's keen attention to a forced quota of black and brown faces in a Jim Crow era was a distraction that took me out of the frame: rather than watch the film and be caught up in a World War 2 serial adventure, I found myself counting the conspicuous black folks in the foreground and background of almost every scene.
Just as X-Men: First Class also presented a lie of history that ignored The Civil Rights Movement, and the rich narrative possibilities those decades presented for storytelling given the comic book franchise's core themes of diversity and tolerance, Captain America: The First Avenger trips and falls into the same trap.
In a Jim Crow military there are black soldiers fully integrated as equals in fictional white Army units without a mention of tension or conflict. There are African Americans as equal partners in the most secret Allied spy programs of World War 2. Black and white folks sit side by side in integrated recruitment centers in New York City. Black and white kids play together in the streets of Brooklyn, a Nathan Glazer ethnic melting pot dream, all the same, united in childhood and rooting for Captain America and the good guys to win The Big One.
An important qualifier: As a viewer who is both a comic book fan and has more than a passing knowledge of the Black Freedom Struggle, I am not expecting, nor would I want, Captain America: The First Avenger to offer a treatise on the Double V campaign for African American freedom and full citizenship at home, and winning with the war against Nazism abroad.
Rather, my hope is for a film that works with these realities in order to enhance storytelling by adding richness and depth to a project--moves that make a movie more entertaining and not less. These are challenges and opportunities to be embraced, not run away from.
Playing script doctor:
1. There could have been a throw away line by Tommy Lee Jones' character that "his unit is the Army we need to beat the Nazis, every man and woman is the best, without exception. This is a war. We have no time for the trivialities of race bigotry in my unit!"
2. Peggy Carter, a female spy for the Brits jokes that she has had many doors shut in her face and thus has learned the value of persistence. Push that element harder by showing some WAVES or WACs in the film who are foregrounded in roles other than those of secretaries, dancing girls, and nurses.
3. When Steve Rogers comes upon the soldiers Gabe Jones (an African American) and Jim Morita (who is an Asian American) in a HYDRA prison, the film could go beyond the cheap joke about the latter being from California. The former could have said he was part of the all African-American Triple Nickels paratroopers, the famed Tuskegee Airmen, or the 761st Black Panthers Tank Battalion; the latter could explicitly state that he is a member of the legendary 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
4. Digging into comic book esoterica, Captain America's iconic shield is made of the rare mineral Vibranium. This sci-fi cousin to "unobtainium" is mined from the African country of Wakanda, a nation that successfully resisted a Nazi invasion in the Captain America comic books. Who is the leader of this small, yet highly advanced country? The one and only Black Panther.
Filmmakers more generally, and white filmmakers in particular, are often caught between a rock and a hard spot on these issues. They are often condemned if people of color are not shown in their films. They are also criticized by conservatives and others if they go "overboard" in such efforts.
My suggestions and appeals are rooted in a desire for sincerity and honesty. One need not make up history to satisfy the political correctness police, to broaden the commercial audience for a film, or to preempt complains that a movie is not "inclusive" enough. Likewise, and although for different reasons, we should be mindful of how the intentional omission of the diversity that is the human experience supports highly problematic conservative racial politics.
For example, the great HBO series "The Pacific" showed the African American marines of Montford Point without much fanfare or heavy handed evangelizing. The brothers were simply "there," albeit in the background, at the battle of Iwo Jima. Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" by comparison--a movie that is quite jingoistic despite its superficial pleadings to the contrary--chose to omit black and brown folks from The Normandy Invasion, lest their presence disrupt the whiteness of memory and the nostalgic lie that is "The Greatest Generation."
The Captain America comic book, in both its Ultimates, and Ed Brubaker run, has been great precisely because of the sophistication with which it approaches the issues of race and gender and how Steve Rogers, a metaphor for a changing America, grapples with a world that is quite different from the one he left behind in the 1940s.
Captain America is a living anachronism. The ways that he reconciles his nostalgic memories with the country's post-imperial present is one of the true joys of the character, and why Captain America has been one of the most compelling reads in recent years.
Captain America: The First Avenger throws that richness into the rubbish pile. By doing so, the movie missed a great opportunity to be a compelling story that solidly leads the audience to the upcoming Avengers film. Moreover, Captain America: The First Avenger insulted the intelligence and maturity of viewers by playing a lazy game with serious history, and hoping that its sleight of hand would go either unnoticed, or its faux history embraced by those either too young (or ignorant) or drunk on colorblind hallucinations of the past to know any better (or perhaps even to care).
Captain America: The First Avenger also commits one final, unforgivable sin. In a movie about a war against tyranny and genocidal evil, even within the rules of comic book fare and their requisite suspension of disbelief, Captain America doesn't even fight real Nazis. The crooked swastika present only for a seconds in the movie. Moreover, while Jewish folk are coded for and signaled to by Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Roger's "mentor" Dr. Abraham Erskine being the most prominent example, there is no mention of the Holocaust or the death camps.
Politics is popular culture. Popular culture is also one of the ways that history and politics are taught to, reimagined, and understood by a people. Both do serious ideological work.
I am deeply familiar with the standard objection, that fantasy should be just that--"fantasy"--and that "the real world" should be replaced in our popular culture by an America as it "should have been"...and not the America that was and is.
The Captain America character deserves better than such a flat and dishonest depiction of history...even in a comic book universe. The audience deserves better as well.