(Warning: Movie spoilers below)
After seeing Captain America: The First Avenger, I’m inclined to say that it’s about time. Seventy years after his genesis, Cap finally has a decent movie.
Cap’s first film appearance was a 1940s serial that changed his secret identity and profession, took away his shield and had him carrying a gun.
Reb Brown starred as Steve Rogers in two dreadful TV movies from the late seventies (reviewed in my Cyborgs, Santa Claus and Satan, of course). He plays the son of the original Captain America (a name placed on him by those who mocked his belief in the American dream) who’s initially reluctant to follow in his father’s footsteps. Eventually, of course, he assumes his father’s mantle (and an ugly costume). Part of the problem was that like most TV super-heroes of the seventies, all he gets to fight are gangsters and corrupt corporate suits (though Christopher Lee does add some panache as a terrorist in Captain America II).
I haven’t seen the 1990 Captain America, and given the reviews, I have no desire to.
Part of what made the newest film work is that it’s thoroughly comic-book: We have a full, elaborate super-scientific project to turn Steve Rogers (and unlike Reb Brown, he’s a guy in desperate need of some physical improvement) into Cap. Hugo Weaving is suitably malevolent as the Red Skull, though a very Silver Age Skull (in the sixties, the Skull was played as generically evil, like Dr. Doom; it wasn’t until Steve Englehart’s turn on Captain America and Falcon in the 1970s that the idea of the Skull as a diehard Nazi took root). There are also lots of comics references, from the Howling Commandos to a shot of what’s sort of the 1940s Human Torch.
Another thing I think they got right is that the film makes it clear Steve isn’t a hero just because he got picked for an experiment: He had the heart of one all along.
We see him trying to enlist in the belief someone has to stand up to bullies like Hitler. Then he tries to take down a jerk interrupting patriotic newsreels, despite being way out of his weight class. After he’s recruited for the Super-Soldier project, Tommy Lee Jones tosses a dummy grenade into the platoon to see how they react; Steve jumps on the grenade, trying to save everyone else.
It’s easy to write a character who wins because he’s bigger, tougher and more powerful than anyone else, or because she’s gifted with special powers. If that’s all the hero has going for him/her, I have trouble caring.
Take the novel Brisingamen. It starts well, as a quiet young woman discovers the eponymous necklace of Freya, becomes beautiful, gets a life——and then has to deal with the other Norse forces unleashed by her presence. At one point, Loki steals the necklace——and the heroine sits around blubbering the rest of the book, while the men do all the heroics.
Why the heck would I want to read a book about someone that wimpy? I’m no fan of Wonder Woman’s powerless period from the late 1960s, (as noted here) but she never blubbered when danger was afoot.
The same problem afflicts a lot of Conan-knockoffs. Part of the power of Howard’s original stories is that he gave us a hero who wins because he refuses to give up. Not when he’s surrounded, wounded and outnumbered (Phoenix on the Sword). Not when he’s crucified (A Witch Shall Be Born). The knockoffs, all too often, win because they’re so much stronger than anyone else in the story it isn’t even funny. Guts and determination? Who needs ’em!
Captain America: The First Avenger gets it right.
(Bonus posts on Cap here and here).
(Warning: Movie spoilers below)