In short, this film is great. It’s certainly my favorite of the summer so far, and since we’ve only got a few weeks left, I can’t imagine it’ll lose that distinction. (Both Cowboys & Aliens and Rise of the Planet of the Apes look pretty good, but we’ll have to see.) It’s funny, exciting, romantic and ties in nicely with the mythology that’s already been presented in other Marvel films, with references to Iron Man and Thor.
But, after seeing it, I was struck by the remarkable number of parallels between this film and Joe Johnston’s other period super hero film from 20 years ago, The Rocketeer. Let’s review:
The Period: The Rocketeer takes place in pre-WWII Hollywood. References to the Golden Age of movies abound, along with precursors to the war, like newsreel footage and Nazi spies. In Captain America, the war has begun, and the newsreels are about Cap and his exploits against those same Nazis.
The Hero: Bill Campbell played the hometown boy with a heart of gold, Clifford Secord, who happens across a rocket pack and uses it to defeat Nazis. And he has a really cool jacket. Chris Evans plays a hometown boy with a heart of gold, Steve Rogers, who really wants to fight the Nazis, so he ends up in a super soldier program and is given superhuman abilities. And he has a really cool shield. (Quick note about the first act special effects that make Evans look like a 95 lb weakling: astonishing. I thought it was face replacement, but I’ve since learned it was body replacement. Wow.)
The Villain: Timothy Dalton played a metaphorically two-faced actor/spy who wanted to use the rocket pack to defeat America. Hugo Weaving plays a literally two-faced Nazi who’s so bad, he’s actually worse than the Nazis (or at least, that’s the implication).
The Love Interest: Jennifer Connelly played the curvaceous Jenny, a hopeful actress. She looks like a 1930’s movie star. Hayley Atwell plays the curvaceous Peggy, a British officer. She looks like a 1940’s pinup girl. (But one who could kick your ass.)
The Mentor: Alan Arkin played the wise, grizzled, bespectacled Peevy, who understands and improves upon the rocket pack design. And he has a hammy accent. Stanley Tucci plays the wise, grizzled, bespectacled Dr. Erskine who develops then improves upon the serum that grants Cap with his strength. And he has a hammy accent.
The First Act Obstacle Who Comes Through in the Finale: Paul Sorvino played the mob boss, Eddie Valentine, who starts the film trying to get the rocket pack from Cliff, and ends by shooting Nazis to help him. Tommy Lee Jones plays Army Colonel Philips who starts the film unhappy with Rogers, and ends by shooting Nazis to help him.
The Technical Genius Named “Howard”: The awesome Terry O’Quinn played Howard Hughes, the genius and pilot (with a thin mustache) who invented the rocket pack and helps to save the day with some aviation daring-do. Dominic Cooper plays Howard Stark, the genius and pilot (with a thin mustache) who invented the really cool shield and helps to save the day with some aviation daring-do.
It’s actually kind of amazing how deep into the cast list you have to go before there are no reasonable comparisons to make. For example, the cartoonishly enormous Lothar, Timothy Dalton’s helper in The Rocketeer is not really comparable to the cartoonishly tiny Dr. Zola, Hugo Weaving’s helper in Captain America. (Or maybe they are comparable!)
Even the action beats are similar. In both films, the hero, his new powers just installed, is forced into an action sequence unready and, while he makes a few mistakes, he’s ultimately successful, and is thrust into the limelight by the newspaper media. In both films, the finale takes place on doomed flying machines and both villains are hoist by their own petard.
Now, I’ve never actually met anyone who saw The Rocketeer and didn’t love it, but it wasn’t a huge success by any means. Hopefully Captain America will be seen by more people and be seen for what it is, a fantastic comic book movie, and a worthwhile predecessor to The Avengers.
(FYI, when you see the film, you should stay past the credits. [wink])