Don’t Touch Me, Captain America

Fra Angelico's "Noli Me Tangere"

Noli me tangere, gripes Jesus to Mary Magdalene as she reaches out for him shortly after his resurrection in John 20.  From the Latin, “Don’t touch me!”  Now, I’m sometimes grumpy when I wake up in the morning, but Christ’s reply to his dearest female disciple has always struck me as unnecessarily testy.  Then again, he has been dead for three days.

In the next verse, he explains why he’s so crotchety: “I have not yet ascended to the father.”  (A fun experiment: try that excuse the morning after your next bad one-night stand.)  While his explanation is a little gnomic, it advertises an obvious point: Jesus is back, but something has changed.  Post-resurrection Christ is decidedly and mysteriously different after his 72-hour stint in hell.  His friends often don’t recognize him.  He can teleport into locked rooms.  And that huge open sore in his side.  Ew.

When most contemporary films, books, and TV shows pick up on the resurrection motif, they usually get this gospel-inspired dictum: you can come back, but you will not be the same.  Return from the dead is a costly transaction.

So when Gandalf makes it back from the fiery pit, he is no longer the gray wizard; he wears a blinding white.  He is distant, and all his utterances seem barely to mask a terrifying secret.  When a witch pulls back Khal Drogo from the brink of death in the first season of Game of Thrones, his wife’s baby must perish, and his “resurrected” body is a mere shell.  Here’s the Khal kicking ass before his death:

And for my money, no contemporary piece treats the havoc resurrection wreaks better than the sixth season of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  At the end of the previous finale, Buffy throws herself into a lightning-filled tear in the fabric of the cosmos, sacrificing herself for the world. The next year, her friends use magic to bring her back, but the slow, painful revelation of season six is that she didn’t want to return. Here’s the big reveal, in musical form:

She was in paradise, and earth is rendered hellish by contrast.  Here, Whedon gorgeously echoes the medieval female Christian mystics, who relish their glimpses of heaven but dread the deep depressions that follow their descent.

Walking out of the theater after watching Captain America, I suffered no similar despair, and I have yet to find a critic willing to call the latest Marvel offering heavenly.  Like Thor, The Incredible Hulk, the second X-Men, and a couple of other super-hero also-rans, it is inoffensive but uninspiring.

It’s also very thin.  This Chris Evans vehicle feels a lot like an outline of a comic-book film that expects viewers familiar with the genre—and who isn’t, by this point?—to bridge the gaps it’s too lazy to fill itself.  Evans is a game actor, and he delivers a likeable Steve Rogers, but he isn’t given much to work with.

(Disclaimer: my wife went to high school with Chris Evans, and I sometimes see him at parties—where he nods at me genially and then searches for a more interesting person to talk with.  This has nothing to do with my review of Captain America.  Disclaimer over.)

Accordingly, the film lacks some standard set pieces that, while conventional, are totally necessary.  There’s no training montage; unbelievably, when a laughable Freudian-ish doctor (Stanley Tucci, who may or may not be in on the joke) injects the puny Rogers with super-soldier serum, he jumps off the table fully prepared to hop between cartops, dodge bullets, and punch with both precision and force.  I’m not saying I need a full “Eye of the Tiger” sequence, but couldn’t Rogers at least take a quick boxing class?

Further, in his quest to destroy the blue laser factories of his nemesis Red Skull (played by a slumming Hugo Weaving), Cap suffers no major setbacks.  The impregnable European fortresses of this super-charged uber-Hitler fall like straw houses at Captain America’s approach.  And while Rogers loses a childhood friend in a high-speed train accident, he barely mourns.  (Ah Bucky, we hardly knew ye.)  This simple pursuit of victory has a disturbing side effect: Captain America is a World War II movie that makes war look really easy.  I can’t imagine the greatest generation is too pleased.

These slippages combine, and in the resulting mix, director Joe Johnston gives us a Captain America who will brook no significant character development.  Like Athena, he springs full-formed from the bust of Stan Lee.  (I know: Stan Lee’s not dead, but he is looking awfully re-animated in his now-tiresome Marvel movie cameos.)

In a nice essay in last weekend’s New York Times, Alex Pappademas notes that Captain America is a functional film whose main purpose is to deliver its hero unharmed to the twenty-first century, where he can join Robert Downey, Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Spencer Tracy, Henry Kissinger, Mark Hamill, a Coleman ice-box, and four glasses of warm water in the super-group hero orgy—or is it a super-hero group orgy?—The Avengers.

In brief, Captain America’s re-creators can’t afford to have him change too much in the course of his film; they’re already counting the money they’ll make on the sequel.

So when this Captain America suffers his own death and resurrection, it barely fazes him.  At the end of the film, our hero crash-pilots a mega-plane carrying mega-laser-bombs into the Arctic ice, saving a handful of American metropolises from a laser-y demise.  However, the icy ground rushing up at hundreds of miles an hour does not crush the captain; it merely envelops him it its soft, icy grasp.  And when an American expeditionary force pulls him from his snowy grave sixty-odd years later, all they have to do is press “defrost.”  He’s the Lean Cuisine frozen meal of super-heroes.

And unlike Gandalf, Khal Drogo, Buffy, and the rest, when Rogers awakens from the dead, there’s no real change.  As Rogers opens his eyes in 2011, he’s wearing the exact same khakis and white tee-shirt he wore when he first got his serum shot.  And though his handlers make a piecemeal effort to convince him that it’s still the 1940’s, he is unconcerned.  Immediately seeing through the ruse, he jumps through a wall, breaks past a cadre of military guards, and sprints out into Times Square.  There, he meets Nick Fury (Jackson), who is ready to usher him to the next film.

The post-resurrection Captain isn’t changed; he’s not even hung over.  And the film suffers for it.

Perhaps if Johnston and the rest had followed the gospel template, Captain America would have been a stronger film with a more three-dimensional hero.  And who knows?  Maybe Evans will be given a character who develops and grows in his next film.  But I doubt it: we’ve got computer-animated villains to kill—and a pile of new Marvel movies to make.

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