"Imagine there's no countries . . ." So sings John Lennon in the secular humanist anthem "Imagine," and so schemes the villain in Marvel's latest superhero movie, Captain America: The First Avenger.
"I've been to the future and there are no flags," Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) taunts the steely-eyed, lantern-jawed Captain (Chris Evans). "Not in my future," our hero replies before attacking his foe with red, white, and blue fury (as I don't want to be accused of spoiling, I won't say who turns out to be right).
It's a strangely philosophical statement in a movie that is mostly made up of gratuitous action and cheeky fun. You could argue that it wouldn't be possible to make a Captain America movie without full-throttled patriotism, and that's true. But it would be easy-even expected-to stick to the comic book's script of Nazi-crushing rather than include a villain with designs to erase all national boundaries. Only months ago Superman proved his intellectual growth by throwing off the shackles of country and becoming a citizen of the world.
Other, almost imperceptible, bits of dialogue cast a disorientingly Reaganesque light onto the proceedings. Early on, Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), the scientist responsible for Captain America's super strength, explains that by taking up the American cause in war, his test subject will become a force for peace. Later an Asian GI growls in a flat California accent, "I'm from Fresno, idiot." The implication: The strength of the melting pot comes from the melting.
Am I making too much of fleeting comments in a movie packed with cartoonish costumes, elaborate set design, and things that go bang in the sky? Maybe. But to see the "I Want You" Uncle Sam poster used in a major studio production in a non-ironic way is so remarkable, it bears reflection.
Also remarkable is the character of Steve Rogers, Captain America's scrawny-but-scrappy alter ego. Courageous but meek, thoughtful but unconflicted, charming but virtuous, he bears almost no resemblance to his current caped colleagues. There have been plenty of naïve superheroes of the Superman ilk, but Captain America isn't naïve (how can he be, he's a Brooklyn boy), he's humble, and there's a canyon of difference between the two.
Even when called on to dance in tights to sell war bonds, Steve never arrives at "how dare the government use me" cynicism or "I'm too good for this" egotism. He feels a little silly, but he does his part stalwartly until someone convinces him his abilities would be better applied elsewhere. There hasn't been a superhero like this in a long time. And when the boys of 1940s America run off with trashcan lids painted in star-spangled colors to emulate their idol, we hope the boys of 2011 will feel similarly inspired.
While the Captain's admirable qualities carry through till the end, the movie's energy does not. The first half, where skinny, asthmatic Steve Rogers finally achieves his dream of being admitted to the Army, is full of heart, wit, and nostalgia. The second half falls victim to typical comic-based monotony. A series of battles and victories flashes by so quickly, there's no time for tension to build but plenty of time for boredom to do so.
Secondary characters who are apparently significant to the comic's world are introduced, yet we're given no reason to care about them. And the love affair, squeezed in between the action and special effects, is so underdone it can't help but come off cheesy. That said, half the audience for this genre pays the ticket price for precisely this same old ride, and they'll walk away feeling they got their money's worth.
Also part of a tiresome pattern-a smattering of language that makes an otherwise perfect dad-and-son day at the movies a little questionable and gives the film a PG-13 rating. Still, parents of comic book fans could do much, much worse. In a genre where alienation, self-doubt, and torment have replaced loyalty, bravery, and duty as the markers of heroism, Captain America stands as a new beacon of pride in the American way.