There are plenty of nice things to say about the most recent superhero blockbuster Captain America: The First Avenger. For starters, it’s the first of its kind breathe even a bit of fresh air into the genre since Iron Man in 2008, which, for all its failings, brought a sense of energy and excitement to Marvel’s superhero stable. Credit is due here mostly to Joe Johnston, director of perpetually underestimated adventure films Jurassic Park III, The Wolfman, and Rocketeer (the film Captain America resembles most). He brings his unpretentious vein of gung-ho heroism to this final run-up to next year’s The Avengers, but what’s more: Johnston is a journeyman director with lots of experience, who knows how to stage an action scene and how to pace a a film like this. Much of the film’s appeal hinges on this traditional sense of craftsmanship in storytelling and effects work.
The first half of Captain America is so good, its development of yet another superhero origin story so perfectly orchestrated and cleverly organized, that it feels nothing short of miraculous to witness this within the context of Marvel’s formulaic and often downright cynical movie franchise. The film’s many strengths notwithstanding, a sense of disappointment with the picture’s third act is therefore perhaps stronger than it would have been if it’s first half had been little more than serviceable.
It seems to me that the problem that plagues the film’s second half is related to its core strength: both relate back to its relationship to history, and the vein of nostalgia that permeates every scene. This type of filmmaking seems to remind most contemporary audiences of the adventure films of the 1980s, typified by the original Star Wars trilogy and the Indiana Jones films. Of course, these movies were described by Fredric Jameson as “nostalgia films” even back then, their endless recycling of the tropes and formulas of entertainments of the past fitting in seamlessly with the cultural and political conservatism of the Reagan era.
Captain America therefore firstly embodies a weird double bind of nostalgia, by updating and refurbishing the 1980s nostalgia film another twenty-five years down the road. This works well for the seemingly impossible task of re-establishing an iconic superhero character who has been perceived as outdated for almost half a century: Cap’s gung-ho idealism fits perfectly in the context of a clear-cut conflict between the Allies (well-meaningly but somewhat laughably portrayed in the film as a “United Colors of Benetton” multi-ethnic task force) and the Nazis.
Where the film goes wrong then is in divorcing Captain America’s battle from the history of World War II: at the earliest possible occasion, the Red Skull (a competent but unmemorable Hugo Weaving) turns his back on Hitler and established his own death cult within Hydra, the Third Reich’s technological division he leads. Once the Nazis and their iconography are removed from the film’s equation, the central conflict is even further removed from the gritty WWII film Captain America had once looked like it might be, while its central poster tag “Avenge” ultimately proves strangely pointless in the context of this pretty lightweight narrative. So if there’s one thing that this doubled-down nostalgia proves, it’s that it does remove us further and further from history, creating in its place these enjoyable but meaningless confections for our summer movie fare.