Captain America Hits Most of the Right Notes

by | August 18, 2011
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

New York Captain America Set

For the comic book fans out there, I’ll include the disclaimer that I’ve never read a Captain America comic, so I’m not qualified to comment on breaks from canon or character. I’d love to hear your thoughts about these things in the comments below!

It’s been a pretty good year for retro superhero movies. After mostly enjoying X-Men: First Class earlier this summer I thought I’d try Captain America this past weekend.

If you haven’t seen the movie or are a comic story noob like me, it focuses on the story of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a scrawny young man who’s obsessed with standing up to the bullies that have tormented him his whole life, pummeling him in a variety of Brooklyn alleys. He tries repeatedly to enlist in the army to fight in WWII but keeps being refused for health reasons. His big break comes when Army scientist Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci, because it’s not a movie if Stanley Tucci’s not in it these days) decides his goodness and honour make him the ideal candidate for an experimental serum that will make him bigger, stronger, faster, and just…more of everything he already is, character-wise.

*Spoiler alerts from here on in*

Unfortunately, Roger’s stated need to fight for a cause and stand up to bullies also seems to be about proving his masculinity. While it praises Rogers for his good character, it doesn’t do that much to challenge the idea that without physical strength, you’re going to get left out.

The arch-nemesis is Dr. Johann Schmidt, who received an earlier version of the serum treatment and is also pretty powerful. Schmidt (who becomes Red Skull) is leader of the German scientific team HYDRA, a group that starts to be too evil and extreme even for the Nazis. Unfortunately he’s played pretty poorly by Hugo Weaving, who puts on one of the most inconsistent German accents I’ve ever heard and just doesn’t have the evil arch-nemesis je ne sais quoi that I was looking for. Comparing to X-Men, I think Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw wins this summer’s arch-nemesis portrayal war.

I have no complaints about Evans’ and Tucci’s performances, but the bright lights of the film are really Tommy Lee Jones as a grumpy Army General who doubts Rogers, and Hayley Atwell as British Agent Peggy Carter. I really enjoyed Atwell’s acting in Pillars of the Earth and she didn’t disappoint in Captain America. Part of this is due to the writers, who were able to make the character fairly dynamic.

Zoe at The Mary Sue took issue with Atwell’s first scene in theĀ  movie, in which she punches out an Army recruit who insults her authority, because it seems like a bit of a stale idea. But I think it was necessary in order to not totally ignore the sexism of the time. The only other acknowledgement of it was a brief comment Carter makes to Captain America about how she knows what it’s like to fight to get where you want to go. These two incidents show that sexism existed, Carter knew it, but she could stand toe-to-toe with any man. Unfortunately it does not make it clear why in the battle at Red Skull’s compound near the end of the movie, she’s the only one who runs into battle without anything protecting her head. Presumably her hair was too awesome to mess up.

And the scene where she catches him being kissed by an Army staffer (played by Natalie Dormer) is pretty great. Instead of running off and crying she gets angry and gets through it.

Overall, I was pretty surprised I liked a movie even called Captain America, but there was enough satire in it (the time Rogers spends working for the Senator selling war bonds) to cut through some of the mindless patriotism. Instead of almost glorifying the sexism of its period as X-Men: First Class did with Moira and Emma Frost, Captain America acknowledged it yet let the women characters have agency.


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