“Did you know there was anyone worse than a Nazi?” I whispered to my media-savvy teenage companion yesterday around a third of the way through Captain America. He admitted that he had not known this, but we discovered to our mutual amazement that it was so. Here’s the deal: “Cap” (as we used to call him back in the day) and his best friend Bucky enlist in World War II to fight the Nazis. They discover, however, that there is a conspiracy to dominate the world that is far worse than Fascism, and no, Michele Bachmann it isn’t Obamacare. It turns out that this evil entity is Hydra, a science conspiracy led by the cruel and indomitable Red Skull (pictured above), a villain who is determined not just to defeat the Allies, but to destroy the Nazis too! (Caution: spoiler below the jump.)
In director Joe Johnston’s revival of the Captain America origin narrative, Red Skull (Hugo Weaving of Matrix and Lord of the Rings) makes Hitler, Stalin and Tojo look like the Three Stooges. This is not just because an early experiment with the process that makes wimpy Steve Rogers into the hunkalicious Captain America has transformed most of Red Skull’s external features into a shiny, crimson baked chicken. In fact, although he is clearly bitter about getting roasted, he made the best of a bad situation by designing a collection of super hot leather uniforms that are a cross between the SS and Darth Vader, and which complement the texture and tone of his face nicely. By contrast, Captain America (played by Chris Evans, formerly the Human Torch in The Fantastic Four) looks a tad silly, except for his undeniable resemblance to cult sci-fi star Steve Reeves‘ super-gay physique photos.
But how little, it turns out, the world really had to fear from the Nazis, except of course for their incompetence and naivete in recruiting psychotic, monomaniacal killers like Red Skull. Having nurtured his evil world domination project in the heart of a totalitarian police state, and wiped out an entire Norwegian village to obtain the Power of the Gods that he believes will render him invincible (not!), Red Skull then vaporizes an inspection crew of high-ranking Nazi officers that has come to check up on his progress. This leaves him free to launch his plan to take out London, New York and Berlin.
Okay, this is where I will admit that the plot of this movie is pretty dull. The pyrotechnics also get ho-hum — even if you are watching in special 3-D glasses, which we were (best effects in 3-D? Cap’s super shield spinning straight at our faces, and the evil Red Skull appearing to march right out into our laps.) Other than that, it plays out pretty much as expected, and thanks to Captain America, the Allies get to just fight the Nazis which, as we know, was easy-peasy.
I bet you want analysis don’t you? Forget it. I’m on vacation. But here are the funky down sides to Captain America as you are choosing 3-D, 2-D or STA-HOM:
A World War II narrative that positions the Nazis as the possible victim of an even greater attempt at world domination is problematic, and something that the original Captain America series never would have proposed. This critical shift strikes me as a morally dubious re-branding of a war that had already been evacuated of much political and historical content through Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” marketing campaign. In the case of Brokaw’s endless homage to the elderly, you would have thought that World War II was fought because all of these awesome guys had been born in the 1920′s and made the confrontation with evil foreign doctrines inevitable. In the case of Captain America, no reason is given for World War II except one: when bullies appear, good guys stand up to them. But the bullies who Steve Rogers resists are ubiquitous, not specific: they are in Brooklyn, in Manhattan, in Norway. When a movie implies that an S.S. guard at a concentration camp is really no different than any other bully…well, you do the math.
So you have to ask: what’s the investment here? My guess is that it is the narrative survival of Hydra beyond the Nazi era and into the sequel (which, by the way, will star the raffish Samuel L. Jackson, appearing in a cameo role at the end when we realize that Cap has been frozen for seventy years!!!!! Now that’s awesome.)
The weaponry is mixed up. Let me just begin by reminding you that no one can kill Captain America because he has a shield that is impenetrable. DUH! That said, as my young friend pointed out, Cap leads a cadre of troops into action who have no shields or super powers, and are armed with machine guns, shotguns, pistols, etc. These guys aren’t killed either, even though they are being shot at with rays so lethal that we had seen a bunch of b@d@$$ Nazis completely vaporized by said rays. Only one American soldier dies, and that is Bucky, who plunges to his death from a moving train. (N.B.: if you are my age, you already know that Bucky died in the war.)
Where are the Jews of Europe? Red Skull, we discover, is running his factories with prisoners that are captured in battle — what battles, and how he is roaming Nazi battlefields with his special units, is not clear. Is he still faking the Nazis out? Did Hitler not notice that the inspection team did not return? Is Hitler punishing Red Skull by not sending him Jewish slave labor? Perhaps so, because as we all know Nazi factories were staffed by concentration camp inmates, and yet — there isn’t a hint of the Holocaust in this film. This is a particularly interesting twist, because if you had asked Hitler if there was a conspiracy that was capable of toppling the Reich and dominating the world, he wouldn’t have said Hydra, he would have said the Jews. In fact, Red Skull alludes to Hydra’s ubiquity, power, and relentlessness in ways that are not dissimilar to the anti-Semitic conspiracy narratives that were a critical ideological link between the Party and der volk.
Now that we’ve covered that, how cool is it that the United States had a racially integrated military in World War II? Umm….we didn’t? Units were racially segregated? Really? Not in this movie. Here, Captain America follows a trend that plagues the last fifteen years of so of film production about the war. Nobody knows how to deal with racism in the U.S. military unless they are making a film about how wrong it is, such as 1995′s The Tuskegee Airmen (“They Fought TWO wars!”) Saving Private Ryan (1998) was historically accurate in the sense that the first combat soldiers who landed in Europee were all white, but the filmmakers made no attempt to explain why that was so: showing the black troops that landed on D-Day scraping up body parts and transporting them for burial would have been an important statement about how the U.S. government degraded black people as a class in its war for global democracy. So the Japanese guy and the Black guy in Cap’s unit? They wouldn’t have been fighting alongside white guys (although, as my pal Richard Slotkin would point out, there’s always got to be a soldier from Brooklyn in the platoon, and you will be glad to know that this convention remains unbroken.)
If we are throwing historical accuracy to the winds in the interest of role models and contemporary ideas about diversity, this leaves me a little annoyed in retrospect that Cap did not have an openly gay soldier in his platoon as well.
But forget the Holocaust; how was the air conditioning? Priceless. Why do you think they call them summer coolers?