Telling the story of an icon can be a daunting prospect, and while some might find the proposition that a comic-book hero can be an icon to be hyperbole, I would respectfully disagree. While the short story has long been considered an “American” contribution to literature, I think that as comic books came into their own in the 20th Century, they embodied a form of storytelling that was uniquely American as well, and in terms of mytholigical significance in American society, there are those characters that occupy the loftiest heights in this rich pantheon of characters. Captain America is one of those characters, second only to Superman in terms of what he has meant to generations of boys in this country.
For me, Captain America is the character on the cover above, as drawn by one of his two-creators, Jack Kirby, during the 1960s, known to comic book collectors as the “Silver Age” of comics. Having spent as much as my youth as I did seeking out the 60s and 70s Marvel and DC comics, I consider myself a bit better acquainted with the mythology than most, which means that I set the bar very high for these modern film adaptations of the characters. Some times I’ve been disappointed (The Incredible Hulk), sometimes I’ve been underwhelmed (Ghost Rider), sometimes I’ve felt cheated (The Fantastic Four…yes, Jessica Alba in a skin tight suit was fun, but over all, I wanted a story.), and then there have been the times they got it right (Iron Man, Thor). I can say that they impressed me this time.
First, there is the matter of casting. I wasn’t sure that Chris Evans was the right choice for the star-spangled Avenger, and without the magic of CGI animation making him a 98-pound weakling, he wouldn’t have been. I also realized that the rewrite of Nick Fury in the movies would create an issue with Howling Commandos, but seeing Dum Dum Dugan (played by Neal McDonough) on the screen was like seeing an old friend. Likewise, Stanley Tucci as Dr. Erskine and Tommy Lee Jones as the grumpy senior officer in charge of the Super Soldier Project was inspired.
While the screenwriters did make some changes to the story (a Bucky who knew Cap before the war, and who was the same age and bigger than the pre-experiment Steve Rogers, a Red Skull who was head of Hydra during the war and more loyal to himself than Hitler, how Bucky died, and how Cap took his 70 year nap), they were deftly handled, and as a fan, I found I was not offended by them.
As the story unfolded, I found myself impressed with how the story drew me in, and how it showed the clear difference between good and evil, as represented by Cap, the former little guy who would not abuse the great power he’d been given, and the Red Skull, a bully made stronger by the early incarnation of the Super Soldier Serum. Cap became an inspiration to anyone who’d seen him in action. The Skull inspired fear through his cruelty and sheer brute force. And as Cap gained the respect of those who knew him, his legend grew, where the Skull was a shadowy figure to a world that never knew the extent of the threat that he posed to them.
At its heart, this film is the comic book brought to life, showing the spirit of a skinny kid who never let the bullies beat his spirit, even as they sometimes brutalized him physically, and sometimes won by using his head instead of his body.
I only regret that Jack Kirby never got to see it.