Friday, September 9, 2011

Captain America: A Movie of Movies

In film, a cliché is a device purposefully employed to manipulate the emotions of the viewers. Clichés lack sincerity even as they attempt to forge a bond between the main character and audience. Captain America: The First Avenger manages to avoid clichés while still being a Marvel comic book. There are two ingredients that make the United States what it is, and they are skillfully intertwined in Captain America: World War II and filmmaking.
Before the United States entered World War II, we were an impoverished country suffering the ravages of the Great Depression which had stunted our growth. When the “boys” were returning home from war-torn Europe (even amidst the devastation) the great monuments to history and culture awakened a sense that we were a very young and un-cultured country. This translated in films as the story of young girls (the U.S. prior to World War II) to whom something happens and they then become elegant and sophisticated (post World War II): Breakfast at Tiffany’s (come on, before moving to New York she was married to Jed Clamped of the Beverly Hillbillies); Annie Get Your Gun; Calamity Jane, All About Eve, Gigi and Disney’s Cinderella, to name a few. Captain America stays in this film tradition with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) being a weak and skinny kid (the impoverished United States) who then becomes a total beefcake (the War build-up).
Captain America knows America, in its exploitation and love of movies.
In this time of political rhetoric about America's destiny, or even whether America has a destiny, Captain America reminds us, through the voice and sufferings of a German-Jewish doctor, what America is about: heart. The serum Dr. Abraham Erksine offers to Steve tends to accentuate what is good, or what is bad, so a good person becomes better and a bad person... rotten. It's not the serum he's talking about, he's talking about "power" itself, and as Americans, we have to remember that in respecting the power that we have (or, rather, as the unfortunate case may prove to be, the power we once had).
Dr. Erksine talking about the procedure with skinny Steve on the table.
The reason it's important to remember that we love freedom and we want to insure the freedom of all people in the world is so we don't buy into a myth of America's right to superpowerism. In Captain America, Nazi Captain Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving, translation is "John Smith" in English, so he's potentially an everyman character) seeks a source of power from a Teutonic myth based on the inherent right of a people to rule over the world. The humility of Steve Rogers and his dedication to saving others with no regard for himself is what gives him the "true power" to defeat Schmidt who took the same serum Steve was given but it worked on his "bad qualities" to make him worse, and the same could happen to us.
Hugo Weaving as Johann Schmidt holding the Tesseract of power.
The second important aspect of Captain America, is the numerous movies it references (when I was taking notes in the theater, my pen ran out of ink, so I wasn't able to finish my notes; I'm real bright, aren't I?). The movies are to America what the Louvre is to France: it's our primary means of expression and entertainment, our deepest understanding of who we are as Americans and individuals comes from our primary artistic resource, films.
Hugo Weaving played Agent Smith
The first movie reference I noticed was Johann Schmidt played by Hugo Weaving who was villain Agent Smith in The Matrix (how many films before The Matrix can you name with Hugo Weaving?). It’s an artful connection Captain America bridges with The Matrix because, just as Agent Smith didn’t want Neo (Keanu Reeves) to fulfill his destiny, so Schmidt doesn’t want Captain America—or America—to fulfill their destiny.
Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark
The second film referenced is Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark twice: “The Fuhrer digs for trinkets in the desert,” Schmidt says, and because the viewer has seen Indiana Jones we know that “trinket” represents the Ark of the Covenant. The importance of this reference lies in the mythology of Teutonic heritage Schmidt searches for against the Ark and it’s relationship to the Jewish and Christian religions. Bringing the Ark into Captain America reminds the audience of all the dimensions of the (pagan) Nazi regime and why it was so important that they be defeated, as well as reminding Christians of that madman Adolf Hitler’s attempt at getting the Ark of the Covenant.
Sallah and Indy remove the Ark from its resting place.
But there is a second reference to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark: towards the end, when Captain America and one of the enemy soldiers are fighting on one of the “planes” which are going to bomb a major city, the enemy falls into the blade of the plane and gets… shredded, like when Indy fights the large Nazi German and the Nazi turns as the plane comes around and … it spews his face over everything. Invoking this scene is no surprise: Indy was as “out manned” by that big German as Steve is “out manned” by everyone in Captain America, but the reason why both Indy and Captain America are able to win that battle is not because of muscle or fancy gadgets, but because of the heart put into the fight and the stakes of the fight.
Beware of idols
I’m pretty excited about an upcoming post on Iron Man, and I don’t want to give away all my thoughts right now, but when Captain America sees a man named "Howard Stark" (Dominic West) demonstrating a flying car, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) immediately came to my mind: not only was Tony always working on his cars in the comic-strip-turned-hit-film Iron Man, but the sharing of the last name is a dead-hit.
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark as Iron Man.
There may also be another reference in the name "Howard Stark." Howard is a civilian pilot, and as such, references another famous Howard, Howard Hughes, who was an avid pilot (think of the film The Aviator).
The Hughes H-4 Hercules plane with Huges at the controls.
In the last scene, when Captain America wakes up and runs out onto the street of modern-day New York City, he’s confronted by Samuel L. Jackson of Pulp Fiction fame (how many films can you name that Jackson was in before Pulp Fiction?). I understand how someone could be saying, “Can an actor only appear in one movie their entire life or be forever linked back to that one role? Where does this position end?” and that’s a very legitimate question, however, with Captain America, a film wherein there are other films, and where (I hope) I have already demonstrated that there are many worthwhile references being made to many films, that this, too, is intentional.
Captain America and his international team fighting the world's evil.
Why? What’s to be gained for the narrative in “hooking up” with Pulp Fiction through Samuel L. Jackson?
As Jules Winnfield, Samuel L. Jackson represents a character who has undergone conversion (please see Pulp Fiction: A Study In Plato and Aristotle). Just as Pulp Fiction, first and foremost, is a story of conversion, so Captain America is a story about an awakening, because when the movie starts, Captain America has been asleep for 70 years, i.e., since the end of World War II. It's very telling that the plane which wrecked with Captain America in it (and where he's been "asleep" all this time) has an "empty captain's chair," signaling an absence in leadership in America now.
Howard Stark and Steve Rogers discuss costume in Captain America.
Why are these outside film references important? It's not important, it's imperative: Captain America exhibits self-awareness, and this self-awareness keeps it from becoming like all the films; instead of becoming a wad of cliches, a redundant super-hero comic book turned movie, it reflects on the status of problems, solutions and identity in America now
Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, the British training officer.
Lastly, just like Cowboys and Aliens, Captain America reaffirms the British-U.S. alliance, defiantly in the face of the U.S. President, Barack Hussein Obama (please see my post Cowboys and Aliens: The US-British Alliance). While President Obama takes every opportunity to hack away at the friendship of our most steadfast and dearest ally, Great Britain, Americans defiantly hold fast to it and refuse to succumb to his bizarre ideas.