Posted by Don MacPherson on July 23rd, 2011
Captain America: The First Avenger movie
Actors: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Toby Jones, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke & Kenneth Choi
Director: Joe Johnston
Screenplay: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Studios: Paramount Pictures/Marvel Studios
It’s amazing how much expectations can affect the perceived quality of a piece of entertainment. When I saw Green Lantern, it had been panned so much, I went in with low expectations but left thoroughly entertained and satisfied. Now, Captain America was clearly a better constructed film, boasting a more focused vision of what it wanted to be. The positive buzz and early reviews of Captain America raised my expectations, and when I left the theatre, I didn’t feel quite as dazzled. In retrospect, I enjoyed Cap a great deal, and it offered some interesting surprises. There are a couple of thoroughly clever moments throughout the movie, and members of the supporting cast do a wonderful job with their roles. But as I watched the film, I was always aware of its construction. There was a greater emphasis on myth-building here, as Cap serves as a direct launching pad for Marvel Studios’ Avengers movie. While entertaining, Captain America unfortunately never lets the audience forget that it’s taking in a product, not a story in and of itself.
A benevolent German scientist working with the U.S. Army selects 90-pound weakling Steve Rogers for a super-soldier experiment because of the goodness and heart he sees in the young man. Once he’s transformed into the perfect physical specimen, politicians put him to use as a symbol to drive up sales of war bonds, but when his best friend is captured by the enemy, Captain America takes bold action that reveals him to be a combat asset. Soon, he and his hand-picked squad of soldiers set out to take down Hydra, a science-driven offshoot of the Third Reich that worships its leader, Johann Schmidt, the twisted Red Skull.
When it was announced that Chris Evans would portray the title character, I was worried, as I felt the wise-cracking, personable actor wasn’t a good fit for the stoic, serious star-spangled super-hero. I’m pleased to report that I needn’t have worried, as Evans tones down the charisma and jester-like qualities he’s exhibited before to become the wholesome and determined Steve Rogers. Mind you, that successful portrayal comes at a price. The character, along with an equally stoic love interest Peggy Carter (portrayed by Hayley Atwell), comes off rather stiff at times, even boring. Their scenes together really slow the movie down. In fact, the romantic subplot just isn’t all that interesting. There’s never any clear reason why these two people are drawn to one another romantically. The tension that arises briefly as a result of the introduction of nameless, would-be rival for the hero’s affections doesn’t ring true at all, and the scene is painful to watch.
On the other hand, Evans and Atwell are tasked with being in a different movie than the other cast members. While the others are in an action-packed, witty romp of a movie, the male and female leads are in a 1940s serial, uttering cheesy but cute lines and staring off in reflection. It’s charming in its own way, but then again, it slows the movie down sometimes. Don’t get me wrong… I wasn’t checking my watch during the flick. In fact, it didn’t feel as though the running time was a little more than two hours, yet it was. Of course, Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull plays the part of the old-school serial villain fittingly as well, further reinforcing the decades-old approach to cinema storytelling.
Fortunately, the supporting cast members provide a lot of the personality needed to make this a fun viewing experience. Tommy Lee Jones steals every scene he’s in, not just with funny lines but with quick facial expressions. Jones is as good in this minor role as the colonel heading out the super-soldier project as he was in his Oscar-nominated role of Sam Gerard in The Fugitive. He sets the bar incredibly high, which is unfortunate for some of the other actors. The only other player who comes close is Dominic Cooper, who does a great job as civilian consultant Howard Stark. He mirrors Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark role from the Iron Man movies perfectly, and he even looks the part. Stanley Tucci makes for a touching, wise father figure as Dr. Erskine as well.
You have to give the filmmakers credit for not falling into the trap of over-the-top patriotism. There’s no stirring speech about American ideals, about forefathers, the Constitution or the notion that America is the greatest country on the planet. There’s no introspective staring off into space as an American flag flutters in the background. The story focuses on doing what’s right. It’s about believing in the underdog and about the downfall of the arrogant. In fact, a key scene in the middle of the movie mildly denounces the use of blatant propaganda.
Conversely, the movie also sanitizes the Second World War for the purposes of a somewhat family-friendly super-hero movie. While there are plenty of references to Hitler and the Nazis, Cap and his allies don’t fight them. They fight the Red Skull and Hydra, both of which have splintered off from the Third Reich. There are no swastikas to be seen, and most of the weapons causing the chaos are rayguns. I understood those choices, but that’s what made a violent and bloody death of a nameless antagonist toward the end of the film so shocking and disconcerting. It was unnecessary and felt like it belonged in a different, harsher movie.
One of the biggest problems with Cap is that it opens with the ending. There’s never any real tension because the audience already knows the protagonist’s final destination. The script isn’t so much a story in and of itself, but a means to introduce Cap and then guide him along the path to join the Avengers eventually. The movie’s title defines Cap first and foremost as an Avenger, not as an individual hero in his own right. Furthermore, this Marvel Studios flick plays up the connections to the other Marvel movie properties moreso than any other before it. With this movie, the audience is repeatedly reminded that this is only a part of a larger whole. That being said, there’s a wonderful Easter egg early in the movie, acknowledging the original Human Torch — but alas, the plot here precludes any chance of an Invaders or All-Winners Squad spinoff.
Mind you, there were a couple of plot developments that surprised me and some writing that struck me as particularly smart. Bucky has been completely retooled here. He’s no longer a sidekick but instead is Cap’s best friend and equal, and his fate was the only hint of real consequence for any of the protagonists. Furthermore, Cap’s initially cool reception when he finally “joins” the troops overseas was a completely logical and compelling moment. Cap’s time as a war-bonds huckster actually reminded me of an element from the classic Spider-Man origin. I like that the ever-dedicated and innately good Steve Rogers actually loses his way for a bit.
When I watched Green Lantern and X-Men: First Class earlier this summer, I found it incredibly easy to just give myself over to those films, to immerse myself in the wonder, campiness and sometimes sheer chutzpah of the story and characters. That wasn’t the case with Cap. I was always aware of the decisions of the director, writers and producers were making from scene to scene. I always had one foot in the movie and one foot back in reality. The movie never beckoned me to completely commit to the premise. That doesn’t make it a bad movie (and conversely, the opportunity to let go with those other films doesn’t in and of itself make them good movies). More than with Marvel’s other films (with the caveat that I haven’t seen Thor), Cap is really just a stepping stone, meant to take the audience to another, bigger and hopefully better movie next spring. 6/10
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