The Greatest Conservative Films: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
“You start running, they’ll never let you stop. You stand up, you push back. They can’t say ‘no’ forever, right?”
All righty then—I haven’t added a superhero film to the list for a while now. So in honor of July, let’s go head-on to Capt. Steve Rogers.
Now, just to get this out of the way: Chris Evans has gone pretty anti-Trump, lately. It’s sad, actually—he used to be pretty apolitical, and then The Don came along, and suddenly Evans goes I Feel I Must Speak Out Because This Is Too Important.
Which would’ve been fine, if he weren’t so ignorant about it.
Well, whatever. I’m not the sort who boycotts a movie because of an actor’s politics, per se. As an artist myself, to paraphrase Andrew Klavan, I play the long game. And if the movie itself undercuts an actor’s Leftism with Conservatism, well, so much the better.
Here, whatever the actor’s politics, Cap as a character is wholly Conservative, with Libertarian leanings. And it isn’t just what’s on the surface.
Yes, this’ll be another “series within the series”. Next week, I’ll look at The Winter Soldier, and then…as promised in my Spiderman review, a special look at Civil War. Brace yourselves, because I’ll be doing that one a bit differently than normal. Maybe even with a bit of help….
For now, ladies and gentlemen…Captain America: The First Avenger!
WHY IT’S A CONSERVATIVE FILM:
I admit, I had to think about this specific film for a short while. The obvious element, of course, is the clear, simple, unapologetic patriotism. But remember in my introduction, I noted that that doesn’t necessarily mean “Conservative”. And the setting is WWII—fighting Nazis (and also HYDRA, as it turns out). That was The Good War—and “Progressives” were just as gung-ho about that as anyone. After all, they had the excuse of “Well, the Reds were with us against Hitler, so…”
So the question is…what’s there beyond “mere” pro-America patriotism?
Why He Fights:
Dr. Abraham Erskine, Strategic Scientific Reserve, is responsible for Steve finally getting in—provided he takes part in a secret training program. But first…a simple question, after noting how often Steve’s refused to take “4F” for an answer: What’s the reason for his motivation to fight? To kill Nazis?
He’s against bullies. There’s no attempt at moral equivalency, here—as far as he’s concerned, America is not the bully, nor has it ever been. Nor will it ever be, if the later movies in the MCU are any indication.
Rather, as far as Steve’s concerned, America fights bullies. And that’s why he wants to serve.
But of course, this is WWII—the “good war” that even the Left (for the most part) approves of.
And yet…there is more, as Dr. Erskine explains.
Hitler’s “Hope” And “Change”:
When Steve is finally selected to be the first super-soldier, Dr. Erskine makes it a point to inform him on exactly what and who he’s up against—starting with Hitler, leading to Schmidt. And notice something, in the beginning:
Hitler appealed to Germans wanting hope for the future—change.
The best part is: This film, again, came out in 2011—so there’s no chance of the filmmakers trying to link that line to Trump or MAGA. No…then, the charismatic type promising “Hope” and “Change” to an America weakened by the 2008 crash and divided over Iraq was…
All right, enough reading into things. For all we know, that was just about Hitler. Still, as it turns out, National Socialism isn’t the biggest threat Steve’s up against. For as Dr. Erskine notes, Johan Schmidt is a True Believer in the “occult power” he researches—even more so than Hitler himself.
And that leads Schmidt to dreams beyond Hitler’s own. This isn’t an issue of American and British Nationalism vs. German and Italian Nationalism anymore. To HYDRA, it’s about something “more”.
Captain America affirms more than “mere” patriotism. And as the film goes on, the enemy is more than the Nazis. Johan Schmidt, aka the Red Skull, has a vision transcending nations; as he explains to Cap, he deems himself superior to all that:
“You are deluded, Captain. You pretend to be a simple soldier, but in reality, you are just afraid to admit that we have left humanity behind!”
To Schmidt, nationalism is irrelevant. And yet he is still evil—arguably more evil that Hitler himself. And his “dream”—his vision of transcending nationalism—is flatly rejected by Cap:
“You could have the power of the GODS! Yet you wear a flag on your chest and think you fight a battle of nations! I have seen the future, Captain. There are no flags!”
“NOT my future!”
As far as Cap’s concerned, Nationalism as a concept can indeed be a good thing. You just have to be fighting for the right nation.
Besides, it’s better than the alternative.
Rodgers And Wayne:
There’s an interesting historical subtext with Steve’s constant attempts to serve, somehow. He keeps getting denied in the beginning, getting 4F after 4F for his long string of ailments. And even after he gets his super-strength, all those roadblocks behind him…he now faces another one: They just want him to be a showman, getting support for the troops.
Not a bad kind of “service”…but it frustrates him to no end, that he could do more—that he could actually serve, on the battlefield, if they’d only let him.
Any of that sound familiar?
It’s the real story of John Wayne, during World War II. The self-righteous types keep painting him, to this day, as the quintessential “chickenhawk”—and as is always the case with the smear merchants of the Left, that narrative ignores the real story, in favor of convenience.
To be clear, The Duke wasn’t sickly, per se. But he’d suffered a dislocation while playing high school football (along with a series of injuries from doing his own stunts)—a possible origin for that famous swagger of his, as a way of making what was technically a limp look actually kinda cool. Regardless, by the time he’d “recovered” enough, the studios demanded that the military “let” him stay in Hollywood. After all, most of the Golden Age leading men were serving, and they needed someone to stay behind, and…
Wayne didn’t like it, and kept looking for whatever opportunity he could. But alas, all he could really do was make whatever pro-military films he could, like The Sands Of Iwo Jima. And to be honest, it meant he actually did do his part—keeping the home front motivated to support the war effort, via the power of cinema.
Still…Duke clearly wished he could’ve done more. Like Steve does.
And soon enough, Steve does do more.
Pilgrim…that’ll round about do.
By The Way…
The HYDRA agent who kills Dr. Erskine and sabotages the super-soldier program poses as a member of the State Department. Why bring this up? Well…the first time I saw this, I couldn’t help but remember the part of the McCarthy investigations that actually proved to be valid. Namely…there were Soviet operatives in the State Department.
Unsurprising, as HYDRA could get in.
WHY IT’S A GREAT FILM:
With all the constant big bombast of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—not to mention just how long it’s been since it all began…it can be pretty easy to forget just how special the original batch of Phase One really was.
Hollywood had done it before—a big shared cinematic universe. Twice, really—the Universal Monsters Universe of the 1930s (Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman, etc.), and the “Kaiju” Universe headed by the Japanese Godzilla and the American King Kong. But…that was a long time ago (and both, incidentally, are being rebooted as we speak). The MCU was the kind of special experiment that hadn’t been done since the old days: a giant crossover of multiple movie franchises.
And easy as it looks for the more militant Marvel fans to gloat about the DCEU “playing catchup”…keep in mind, while Iron Man was kicking off the whole thing, DC and Warner Brothers were smack in the middle of the Dark Knight trilogy. And like it or not, the way Christopher Nolan had conceived that Batman, it would’ve been really hard to crossover with other superheroes. They had to finish that series before DC could start something of its own.
The Dark Knight Rises came out in 2012—a year after this first Captain America, the fifth entry in the MCU (after Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor)…and of course, the same year The Avengers brought everything together on the Marvel side, the experiment a rousing success. Meanwhile, with the Dark Knight trilogy over, the DCEU could actually begin—and did so with a bang, the beautiful Man Of Steel.
All right—enough with the history lesson. Let’s focus on the aptly-named First Avenger.
Chronologically, at least. Not production-wise.
Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, aka Captain America:
Putting the actor’s political behavior aside, Evans is perfect as Cap. His Steve Rogers is a classic all-American guy, idealistic yet authoritative—motivated to do the right thing. We connect to him—his heart’s on his sleeve, yet he’s strong enough to not look weakened by it. He’s “boyish”, but there’s something mature about it.
We believe when he’s a scrawny little “kid”—and we believe when he’s a big, buff super-soldier. We believe, in the end, that he’s a man who knows the value of strength—for he was always strong…on the inside.
“I could do this all day.”
And yet, he’s always the right kind of vulnerable—and this leads to moments of heart…and moments of suspense, like the last time he applies to serve. It’s a great moment, where a nurse comes in and whispers to a doctor, and they leave the room…causing poor Steve to focus his gaze on a certain sign on the wall saying, “IT IS ILLEGAL TO FALSIFY YOUR ENLISTMENT FORM.”
But that, of course, enhances his bravery. He does what he does because he has to. It’s the kind of man he is. A hero.
“So. What made you so special?”
“Nothin’! I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.”
The Magnificent Hugo Weaving as Johan Schmidt, aka Red Skull:
That presence. That charisma. That…magnificence.
Is there any wonder MCU fans keep begging Kevin Feige and Company to bring back Red Skull?
Let’s be honest. For the longest time—until Guardians 2 and Spiderman—the MCU had only two villains that really stood out as particularly great: Loki and Red Skull. A couple would have come close, but…well, Ultron was well-characterized, but not as much a threat as he should’ve been. And Baron Zemo of Civil War was absolutely a threat…but characterization-wise? Well…say hello to Just Some Guy.
But Red Skull convinces. He is truly a pleasure to watch—especially with those little, subtle flourishes, like when he casually counts the Nazi officials in the room with his finger, calculating his targets.
Schmidt is a true believer in achieving ultimate power—even more a true believer than Hitler himself. He is a monster, and in his own way he knows it. And yet, he’s got a wit all his own:
“Not a scratch, Doctor—not a scratch.”
And yes, the door is open for him to come back, both in-universe and considering Weaving’s contract. What we see happen to Red Skull in the end doesn’t quite look like death, so much as teleportation…into space….
Hayley Atwell as Agent Peggy Carter:
A classy, elegant lady who’s also a tough-gal agent of British Intelligence. Caustic in her wit, and yet soft and sweet when she’s “allowed” to be…especially around Steve. A bit of a Hawksian Woman, actually—knowing her man, and what makes him tick.
“And these are your only two options? A lab rat or a dancing monkey? You were meant for more than this, you know.”
Brilliantly portrayed by Ms. Atwell—so much that she got her own spinoff, Agent Carter, showing her and Howard Stark setting the stage for the founding of SHIELD…
…After she fights off a laughably-exaggerated, endless series of workplace/societal sexism that you just know wasn’t quite that blatant, 1940s or no.
Honestly, the show’s first season suffered from the exact same “contemporary projection of snarky attitudes about the past” that the great Camille Paglia pointed out in Mad Men…only arguably more so. It was like a sledgehammer pounding into the audience’s heads: “The 1940s were sexist!—The 1940s were SEXIST! Get it, yet, you idiots?!—The 1940s were SEXIST!!!”
Thank heaven, you don’t have any of that “anvil” nonsense, here. (Or maybe the series was written that way because some annoying pseudo-feminists whined about how “unrealistic” the movie was…?) Here, while she does give an aside remark about doors being shoved in her face, still, Peggy is highly capable and everyone with her knows it. Certainly Steve and his team know it—as does a certain crusty colonel.
But before we move on to him, I’d be remiss if I didn’t dwell for a bit on her romantic dynamic with Steve Rodgers.
At first not paying him much thought except in amusement over his eager-to-please attitude…that changes when he demonstrates true heroism over a (fake) grenade. We see a connection start to take root—and a cute moment where she can’t help gawking at his new super-soldier bod…to the point of barely stopping herself in reaching for his pecs.
When they meet again, she helps him open up to his vulnerability—his frustration at being relegated to showmanship, and their connection grows—though Steve quickly assumes, mistakenly, that she and Howard Stark…“fondue”.
And that leads to a priceless moment where he realizes he’s made her jealous, confronts her about Stark…and gets from her a quick look of sparkling-eyed amusement a la “Was that what you thought?” All’s soon forgiven—but not without an eye-roll as she teases, “You still don’t know a bloody thing about women.”
It’s rather understated, though—unlike in the future Wonder Woman, there doesn’t seem to be much of an opportunity to really acknowledge or deal with their feelings. There’s a kiss in the climax…but sadly, that’s all they can afford, as Steve Rodgers performs the ultimate heroic act…knowing full well what it means for him and Peggy. And Peggy knows it, too….
And though she has to accept it…it does haunt them both, throughout their respective lives.
“You’ve been asleep, Cap. For almost seventy years. …You gonna be okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah, just…I had a date.”
Tommy Lee Jones as Col. Phillips:
“General Patton—has said—that wars are fought with weapons, but they are won by men. We are going to win this war, because we have the best—men….”
You have to give Jones a lot of credit, for this performance. Until Steve returns with the POWs from the HYDRA camp, the colonel’s dialogue is pretty much that of a hard-nosed higher-up who looks down on the pure-hearted hero, shooting down his eagerness to Do The Right Thing. Under normal circumstances, we’d see him in an unfavorable light. Maybe even hate him.
But these are not normal circumstances…because of Tommy Lee Jones. He injects the colonel with charm and wit—with a classic demeanor of you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me. The delivery of his lines is perfect, and perfectly timed—so that every “put-down” comes off instead like a delightfully wry punch line.
“You stick a needle in that kid’s arm, it’s gonna go right through him. Look at that. He’s making me cry!”
As such, when Cap finally wins the man over…it doesn’t feel like a surprise, really. It feels inevitable. Col. Phillips isn’t a hard-case—he’s a noble soul with a crusty exterior, always ready with the perfect line to say—such as when Dr. Zola, suspecting a steak may be poisoned, asks what’s in it. “Cow!”
And of course, who can forget:
“I’M not kissin’ you.”
The Rest Of The Cast:
Sebastian Stan plays Steve’s faithful friend, Sgt. James “Bucky” Barnes—and there’s such a beautiful connection between the two of them. He first shows up to save Steve from a bully—leading to some comedy in the future, when Steve now towers over him. And it isn’t all laughs: I admit to blinking back tears the first time I saw this, when Cap finally finds Bucky, breaking him out of the HYDRA lab. And of course, he meets a tragic end…or at least, everyone thinks it’s the end, at this point….
The Howling Commandoes—led by Neil McDonough as Dum Dum Dugan—are all charming and witty and cool, filled with easy banter and camaraderie. Sadly, that’s about all we get from them—not that they have the screen time for much more.
Toby Jones brings to Dr. Zola a childlike eagerness in his devotion to his work…and a sliminess appropriate for someone accepting of his duties under Schmidt.
Stanley Tucci plays the good-guy scientist, Dr. Abraham Erskine—bringing world-weary wisdom and a boyish wit as he forms a bond with Steve:
“You save me any of that schnapps?”
“…Not as much as I should have.”
Dominic Cooper plays Howard Stark—yep, the father of Iron Man. And we see he is indeed his son’s father: Genius billionaire playboy philanthropist. Oh, and defense contractor. And sort of a cross between Howard Hughes and Walt Disney—as his intro at the New York World Exposition makes clear.
And of course…a cameo of Samuel L. Jackson at the end as Nick Fury…bringing it all together.
Alan Silvestri’s Score:
Sadly, with the exception of the Guardians Of The Galaxy films, memorable themes for the MCU essentially ended with Phase One—and then, mainly because Alan Silvestri wasn’t kept on for more. After Avengers, we pretty much had to wait for Michael Giacchino to score Spiderman. (Even with Guardians, great as that theme is…it’s overshadowed by the classic oldies hits filling Starlord’s “Awesome Mix”.)
For the first Captain America, Silvestri gives us a horn-heavy, all-American hero theme—powerful and pointed, military and proper. It’s the sort of theme worthy of the classic WWII films of old.
Capt. Rodgers could ask for nothing better.
By The Way…
In Col. Schmidt’s introduction, he remarks about Hitler digging “for trinkets in the desert”. Indiana Jones, anyone…?
Steve’s scrawny/sickly build in the first act of the film is actually a clever work of CGI—they put Chris Evans’s head on the body of a different actor, and made it seamless.
“Buff” Steve really is Chris Evans, though. Much to Hayley Atwell’s delight.
As I noted earlier, the 1943 World Exposition really invokes the classic events where Walt Disney seeded the origins of the legendary Tomorrowland (the Carousel of Progress, etc.). Ironic how at this point the MCU was under the distribution of Paramount….
Stan Lee’s obligatory Marvel-movie cameo is as a decorated officer in uniform, during Cap’s would-be award ceremony. He doesn’t get that Cap hasn’t shown up.
There’s a classic Wilhelm Scream when Cap and Co. ride to the last Hydra base and deal with the HYDRA guards pursuing them.
The post-credits scene for this one (yeah…remember when there was only one?) cleverly begins as a typical “set-up” scene…and then suddenly transforms into the first teaser trailer for The Avengers.
By the movie here. And stay film-friendly, my friends.
THE SERIES SO FAR:
Rio Bravo (1959)
Man of Steel (2013)
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Fight Club (1999)
The Dark Knight (2008)
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Jackie Brown (1997)
Apocalypse Now (1979/2001)
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Dirty Harry (1971)
Magnum Force (1973)
The Enforcer (1976)
Bridge Of Spies (2015)
Any recommendations for films to make this series? Read the rules, here, and let us know!
Eric was raised by Conservative Christian parents, but first became especially passionate about politics in high school, through reading up on economic theory. He also first read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged around this time, for the ARI's essay contests. He now owns a great deal of Ayn Rand's work. Also included in his library are the collected works of Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Ann Coulter, etc.
Eric is no stranger to writing commentary, as the writer of the Conservative Considerations column on CampCampaign.com, and as a film critic and commentator on FlickRev.com. He has also carried on the Conservative tradition of talk radio commentary, as the host of "Avengers of America" for the USF student radio station, Bulls Radio. In the meantime, he is practicing what he preaches: Striving to enter the professional realm of Hollywood, he has already written and directed short films for the Campus MovieFest, which can be found on his YouTube channel, Hard Boiled Entertainment.
Latest posts by Eric Blake (see all)
- The Greatest Conservative Films: Enchanted (2007) - January 9, 2018
- Critic v. Critic – Star Wars: The Last Jedi (with Christian Toto!) - January 1, 2018
- The Greatest Conservative Films: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) - December 28, 2017