Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

What a difference a couple of decades makes!  When I was growing up in the 80s, the concept of a super-hero movie just didn't make sense to me; I actually refused to see Tim Burton's Batman in the theater because the only Batman I knew was Adam West, and I didn't want to see that on the big screen --- of course, that was long before I discovered the joys of shark repellant.  The 90s didn't help matters much, with Batman and Robin, the Dolph Lungren Punisher, and all the douchebags in my age group that dressed up as The Crow every damn year for Halloween.  Perhaps the least impressive super-hero movie of the time was the never-released-in-American-theaters and filmed-in-Yugoslavia Captain America.
Two words: rubber ears.
So, when it was announced that Captain America would get another chance at a movie as Marvel Studios builds up to The Avengers in 2012, I was a little nervous.  Sure, I liked the last few Marvel Studios movies --- Iron Man 2, Thor, and X-Men: First Class --- but a patriotically-themed super-hero movie could easily get hokey.  Oh, and I wasn't too impressed with director Joe Johnston's last movie, either.  Can Captain America: The First Avenger beat the odds and be yet another fun and successful comic book movie in the summer of 2011?

World War II is in full swing, and every able-bodied American man is joining the armed forces.  Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is not able-bodied --- he's been deemed 4F and is the personification of the old Charles Atlas ads --- but he keeps reapplying for the Army in the hopes that he will allowed to squeak through and risk his life, like all the other men.  After all, if every man he knows, including his buddy Bucky (Sebastian Stan), has the right to go to war, why can't he?  This perseverance catches the attention of Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who selects Rogers for an experiment.  He is allowed to train with some elite soldiers for the right to receive a highly experimental treatment and (possibly) become a new breed of soldier.  Through his positive attitude, bravery, intelligence, and perseverance, Steve Rogers was selected for the experiment, which took a man that looked like this:
...and turned him into a heaping bowl of hunk:
Judging from that scientist's gaze, Rogers grew more than muscles.

While the experiment was a success, Erskine was assassinated by a sneaky Nazi, taking his secret super-soldier formula to the grave.  I wouldn't have thought that a government-funded program would allow one person to keep all the secrets exclusively in his noggin, but origin stories are funny like that, sometimes.  Seeing that he is the only result from a very expensive military program, Rogers is not allowed to fight in the war; instead, he is forced to put on a gaudy costume and promote war bonds as Captain America. 
Captain America: sellout
That can only last so long, of course, since there is a war going on and there are bad guys to fight.  And I'm not talking about your average, run-of-the-mill evil Nazis, either; the bad guys in this movie want to destroy everything and create a new world order.
Is this the future?
Obviously, that can't be allowed to happen.  Despite the strength of the Allied Forces, it is ultimately up to Captain America and his new Army buddies to save the world from destruction at the hands of the nefarious Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).  Why only them?  Apparently, saving the world is a lower priority than you might think.

A lot of people were skeptical when Chris Evans was cast in the iconic (and fairly humorless) lead role of Captain America.  Since nobody has ever seen Sunshine, where he has a dramatic role, the fear was that Evans would be his goofy, sarcastic self, a la Ryan Reynolds.  I am happy to say that Evans did a good job in the lead role.  He was brave, earnest, and loyal; he basically took all the heroic parts in a war movie and rolled them up into one character.  Hugo Weaving was suitably dastardly as Red Skull; I don't know if I would say that he out-eviled the Nazis in this movie, but he came close.  His character's grand scheme didn't make a ton of sense to me, but everyone agreed that he was insane, so I'll let that slide.  I wasn't the biggest fan of his red-faced makeup --- I would have gone for a bumpier, burn victim look --- but I thought they did a good job with the makeup that implied that his Hugo Weaving face was a mask.
Odd...why didn't Weaving have a romantic interest?
The rest of the supporting cast was fine, but those two set the standard.  Hayley Atwell was pretty good as Roger's rough-and-tumble love interest, Peggy Carter, and she was happily never a damsel in distress.  Tommy Lee Jones was very good as the tired, crotchety colonel in charge of the super soldier experiment.  I was surprisingly moved by a look he gave of utter despair toward the end of the film; maybe that's just his sad face, but you rarely see tough guy actors look that vulnerable.  Stanley Tucci did a good job making the selection of Rogers seem rational, which was a bigger hurdle than you might think.  Sebastian Stan was okay as Rogers' buddy, but I thought Dominic Cooper was surprisingly likable as genius industrialist Howard Stark.  There are some other recognizable actors in the movie --- Samuel L. Jackson, Toby Jones, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, and a few others --- but they played relatively small and generic parts, with the exception of Jones (an evil scientist) and Jackson (reprising his Nick Fury role).

Director Joe Johnston has a tendency of making movies set in the past, oftentimes romanticizing the idea of heroism, which actually makes him a pretty good fit for this film.  The goal of this movie was to make Captain America look cool and give him a grand enough task to make him a legend in this prequel to theMarvel super-hero movies that are set in modern times.
Hmm...that's a good start, but too subtle.
Johnston keeps a good pace throughout the film, wisely choosing to focus on pre-transformation Steve and a few choice, defining battles for Captain America, instead of bogging him down in a number of lesser battles.  I like a lot of choices he made here, especially the chaste romance between Cap and Peggy.
...although, the chaste bit might have been her doing.
Heroes that are squeaky-clean boy scouts can be tough to sympathize with or care about, because they're not terribly realistic.  Johnston chose to portray Captain America as less of a do-gooding patriot, instead focusing a lot of time and effort on Steve Rogers hating bullies.  I thought this movie handled all the typical war scenes well and had several moving this-is-a-war-movie-and-men-don't-cry-but-seriously-OMG-I'm-tearing-up-here moments.  I am generally a sucker for moments like those, but this movie was surprisingly good at them.

As much as I liked a lot of this movie, I had some small complaints.  First of all, this movie has a metric ton of CGI, especially with pre-transformation Steve Rogers.  While I think this was done pretty well, there were some moments where the head of Chris Evans didn't seem to fit the body, or where his height seemed inconsistent.  Not a huge deal, and it was impressive overall, but I still noticed it.  I also wasn't a huge fan of his costume.  It looked better than the 1990 movie version did, but I preferred this getup:
I realize that a super-hero with an established colorful costume needs to wear it at some point, but I just thought the blend of costume and practical clothing was a cool visual.  Perhaps my biggest gripe with Captain America: The First Avenger was its use of minor players.  This movie is filled to the brim with characters that are clearly meant to reference important characters in the comic character's history.  Unfortunately, since they are so many and time is so limited, these characters wind up being largely charmless.  Even Bucky, who plays an important role in the development of our hero, is not particularly likable.  They weren't bad actors or characters, they just never felt important.

But those are minor complaints.  This movie is filled with action that, while not terribly plausible, is very entertaining.  This film had heart and character, and it made Captain America look cool while fighting with a shield.  Oh, and the teaser trailer for The Avengers after the credits was a geeky thrill.

While I was researching pictures for this post, I stumbled across a brilliant blog, titled Hitler Getting Punched.  I like when a title explains everything I need to know about a website.  Check it out.

I also happened across this officially commissioned painted poster that was given to the cast and crew of the movie:
 I love retro movie posters.  The artist maintains his own blog about his comic art, called The Self-Absorbing Man.  Pretty cool stuff.

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