The Age of America

Last week I suggested we were living in the Age of X – at a time when the X-Men are the dominant heroes of our culture, and X-Men movies are coming thick and fast.

I’ve now seen the new Captain America movie – Captain America: The First Avenger.  Clever title huh – you see the way they sneak in the fact this is the first in a long-running  franchise?  Imagine if they’d called the first Harry Potter movie:  Harry Potter: The First of Many Adventures Which Will Allow Lots of British Actors to Buy Conservatories.

Anyway – it’s fab.  It’s fast, funny, delicious, and the 3D action is the best I’ve seen – lots of scenes in the Alps, and the Cap swinging through the air, and hurling his shield at the audience.  I’ve been getting bored with 3D of late, but here it’s used with genuine finesse, and with a shallow focus effect I’ve not seen in 3D before  - ie when the main character is in focus, but the background is slightly out of focus – which is true to the way our eyes work and gives a lot more texture to an image.

The director is Joe Johnston who did the under-rated The Wolfman, in which Anthony Hopkins exudes Gothic menace in a Port Talbot accent. The writers are Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who worked on the Narnia screenplays.  Chris Evans plays the Captain;  the Brit actress Hayley Attwell is superb as the British agent who befriends him; and Hugo Weaving is suitably evil as the Red Skull. My pal Priscilla John did the casting.

I don’t think it’s any kind of a spoiler to reveal that the film takes place in the 1940s, with weedy Steve Rogers turned into a hunk by a super-soldier machine.  It’s a brilliant concept, which so far as I’m aware doesn’t feature in any of the comics (but to be sure of that I’d have to ask Mike Carey…)  And it immediately makes me love the central character; Captain America is no longer a jock, he’s an underdog, the ‘ little guy’ who gets beaten about but never gives up.  Briliantly, Bucky who in the comics is a kid sidekick now becomes a hunk (played by Sebastian Stan) who is appalled when the girls start ignoring him and talking to STEVE.

There’s another clever plot twist which I won’t reveal, which explains the costume and made me smile; and a ‘fondue’ joke that delighted me.  It’s a clever and witty script that allows us to love the good guys and hate the bad guys without checking in our brains at the popcorn franchise stall.  And when Hayley cries…boy, I was lost.

The genius of the film is that it never made me feel uncomfortable about enjoying a movie about an icon of American imperialism which, ahem, this actually is.  Because there’s no doubt that in real politics and in the real world this is the Age of America.  And Captain America exemplifies that spirit, not always in a good way.  The shameless and admirable liberalism of the Marvel Universe has for me always sat uneasily with a superhero who is defined by the American flag – especially now, in the age of  Guantanamo Bay.

Look, I know – it’s only a movie!  But I would argue  that the myth of American rightness and American virtue and the belief of some Americans that they have a (literally)  god-given right to  kick ass whenever they  feel like has become one of the most dangerous follies of our time.  Balanced against that is the fact (or rather, opinion, ie mine)  that in certain arenas, and at certain times, America has used that power for good, and has acted as a stabilising factor in world politics – and I’d support that totally. But the growth of the Tea Party with their zany ideas and their absolute commitment to protecting the privileges of the billionaire elite shows how dangerous it is when people start believing their own lies.

And the makers of this movie are savvy to all that – and being children of the Marvel Empire, which  for generations has created kick-ass superhero stories with moral integrity, in a world where racism, sexism and Other-ism are never on the agenda, they have taken care to make us love Captain America without waving the American flag in our faces.  The period setting helps in that; and the fantastic closing credits, with 40s poster images, adds to the message; this is a movie ABOUT the myth of America, it’s not a movie which is peddling the myth of America.

Having said all that, Captain America has never been my favourite hero; and I would love to see some different myths out there.  Buffy was a Myth; a Zeitgeist-defining creation who pioneered the idea that cute ditsy girls can also be super-smart AND kick ass.  Storm (Ororo) in the X-Men has for me a similar Zeitgeist-defining feminist quality to her; though the movies have shamelessly used her as no more than eye-candy.  But I am starting to yearn for new Mythic Characters – not Captain America, not Conan, not Professor X, but a genuinely new icon for the age.  As Indiana Jones was in the 70s – a retro creation, but (in its time) an original one.

Still, for now, do go and see the Cap..it’s a great ride.

Now some photos….

Hayley Attwell as Agent Carter; how to hail a taxi in New York

Captain America, after being injected with loads of muscles

Captain America wondering why he's the only one wearing a ridiculous uniform that makes him an easy target for snipers

The Red Skull wearing his Hugo Weaving Mask, wondering why his Rubik's cube doesn't have any coloured squares

A stand in with his back to the camera, killing time while Chris Evans goes for a wee

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