Friday, May 4, 2012

Countdown to The Avengers, Part 5: Captain America: The First Avenger

Part 5 in our Countdown to the release of The Avengers, in which we make our Captain America movie more palatable to international audiences by giving it a subtitle that also conveniently ties into the next movie...

THE FILM ITSELF: Much like Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger was going to be a tricky character to pull off with a modern audience. A character calling himself “Captain America” is enough to send media pundits into a frenzy, both sides of the political spectrum having their own view of what he should be. And that’s before you take the rest of the world into account, which - in Hollywood anyway - is where the real money is. Fortunately, Marvel Studios managed to make a film that avoids both politics and jingoism - partly by setting it during World War II, but also by finding another pitch-perfect lead.

    I can’t really stress it any further - Chris Evans is fantastic as Steve Rogers, the man who would become Captain America. Tony Stark had an easier character arc by comparison, the best of both worlds: a charming prick who says and does whatever he wants that the audience secretly wishes to be, but who then turns into the selfless hero they know they should be. With Cap it’s much harder to find that identification and empathy, with a hero who’s pretty much perfect and is never really in doubt of what the right thing to do is. Evans and the filmmakers avoid this by giving us a character who is genuinely good at heart, without making him look naïve or boring, and manage to turn that into what makes the character interesting. It’s a performance not nearly as flashy as Thor or Tony Stark, but - given Evans’ measured touch - equally as compelling.

    Hugo Weaving retains his crown as the number one go-to movie villain, here playing the Red Skull with enough nastiness to ensure he won’t be dethroned for quite some time. Weaving gives another fantastic performance, a villain who doesn’t care about anything more than his own strange, occult obsessions. With his imposing skull-face ripped straight from a Jack Kirby drawing and his voice dripping in a Werner Herzog accent, Weaving provides much more than a face for Cap to punch.

    Haley Atwell plays Peggy Carter, a British Intelligence officer working with the U.S. military’s super-soldier program, getting a great introduction where she nearly breaks a U.S. officer’s jaw for stepping out of line. It’s kind of a shame that all the main female characters in these movies exist basically to be the hero’s girlfriend, but Atwell makes the best of it, turning Agent Carter into more than just a pair of lips to kiss; giving us a character just as at home in a smashing red dress as she is firing a machine gun. She also has good chemistry with Evans - their awkward, unspoken relationship here far different than any we’ve seen in the other Marvel flicks.

    The rest of the cast is filled with an ensemble that would be the envy of any stage play, one so stuffed it almost derails the movie. There are so many characters - too many - but they’re all played by great actors. As James “Bucky” Barnes, Sebastian Stan makes a fine partner for Cap, managing to leave an impression without getting nearly as much screen time. Neil McDonough gets a fun role in Timothy Aloysius Cadwaller Dugan (“Dum-Dum” for short), but he stands out mainly due to his mustache and bowler hat. The rest of Cap’s team gets even less to work with - there’s a clumsy attempt to give each some character (their dialogue never quite gets as bad as, “Hi, I‘m Gabe Jones, trumpet-player and fluent in 17 different languages,” - but it's close), but once the credits roll you‘ll have probably forgotten about all of them.

    A couple of veteran Oscar-elite show up as well, with Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones and Tommy Lee Jones filling out bit parts. Tucci’s role as Dr. Abraham Erskine is a big part of Steve Rogers’ arc, giving his German scientist the appropriate humor and genuine humanity needed to set Rogers on his path to becoming the hero. Toby Jones plays exactly the opposite, and he gives the part of the Red Skull’s right hand man Arnim Zola the right amount of weasely cowardice. Tommy Lee Jones is not the first actor you’d think of for a Captain America movie, but he shows up and plays his patented, no-nonsense figure of authority with Col. Chester Phillips. Nearly every line he has ends on a punch-line, and the veteran actor makes it look easy with his comic timing.

    Though overstuffed, the script provides a wonderful framework for director Joe Johnston to work with. Johnston seems to be finally scratching the period adventure itch that bugged him on The Rocketeer, here filling the movie with snow-capped mountian lairs, motorbike chases, supersonic subs and every other kind of scene you’d want to see in a WWII superhero film. Johnston has always been a solid (if unremarkable) director - from the Spielberg school of filmmaking, in that action and special effects are used to evoke wonder and awe - and it serves him well here. This is easily the best-looking Marvel movie we’ve had in the cycle thus far. Johnston has an affinity for the era that shows through in every scene - freeze-frame any shot from the movie and you’ll have images evoking either classic propaganda art, a Norman Rockwell painting, or the cover of an old pulp magazine. Captain America is a beautiful-looking movie, through and through. The movie is also the first to not completely fumble the ending, instead building to a big, natural finish, one that wraps up the story and character arcs while also leaving room for future installments.

    The only real problem besides the overstuffed nature of the cast is that the movie has no real middle. We follow Rogers all the way from becoming Cap to his first real mission, and then we cut almost immediately to his last - much of what would be considered the film’s middle act takes place in a rather haphazardly put-together montage, cutting together a bunch of action scenes that could have been great set-pieces on their own, but instead get lost in the clutter.

    Captain America: The First Avenger is far too rushed and quickly-paced to really flesh out the rather large cast (largest yet of any of the Marvel films), but I suppose being overstuffed with a good thing is better than getting nothing at all.

OTHER THOUGHTS: The film ends on a credit sequence animating classic pieces of WWII propaganda. Fitting, as Captain America was created at the height of WWII as propaganda himself. It’s not a coincidence in the film that Cap at first exists only as a tool to sell war bonds and stamps, as that’s exactly what the character in the comics was created for in the first place.

    Alan Mencken contributed the tune “Star-Spangled Man” that plays during the propaganda shows, a song that captures the era so perfectly it could be placed in an old movie from the ’40’s and no one would notice.

    Both the Jones (Tommy Lee and Toby) have a wonderfully acted interrogation scene together, but one that really shouldn't be in the film. It just drags everything to screeching halt, and gives us information that we already receive elsewhere.    

    The flying wing that The Red Skull uses at the end is almost identical to the one in the old movie serial Spy Smasher. Disposable as a Saturday morning cartoon in their day (Captain America had his own serial, even), the serials have since gone on to be probably the biggest influence on modern blockbusters, going back to when George Lucas borrowed their breakneck pace for some little space movie you may have heard of…

    Steve Rogers’ physical look is remarkably similar to Hitler’s ideal ubermensch: the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryan superman. A clever reversal of making Hitler’s ideal his enemy, or the hidden desire for fascism inherent in all western societies? You decide!

THE MARVEL CONNECTION: Taking place mostly before the events of the other movies, Captain America doesn’t connect to the other films as much (very little SHIELD, thank god), but it can’t be a real Marvel Studios movie if it didn’t have any connective tissue...

    The most obvious being Dominic Cooper as Iron Man’s dad, Howard Stark. This is a far younger version than the one we saw in Iron Man 2, and Cooper plays him not so dissimilar to his son, a genius inventor who has a way with the ladies. If Robert Downey, Jr. ever gets tired of playing the part, it would be easy to see Cooper filling in for ol’ Shellhead.

    The main thrust of the plot has the Red Skull acquiring the Cosmic Cube, or as it’s called here, the Tesseract. Skull acquires it in Norway at the film’s beginning, referring to it as “the jewel of Odin’s treasure room” - a nice link to Thor.

    Nick Fury also makes his obligatory appearance at the end, in a scene clearly meant to play after the credits, but pushed up in favor of a sneak trailer for The Avengers instead. It kind of drags the film a bit after it‘s already ended, but is a nice scene overall - especially Rogers as he runs through modern-day Times Square, allowing the audience to feel as overwhelmed as he must be.     

STAN THE MAN?: Stan appears here as a general at an award ceremony, again getting an actual line of dialogue. Before you know it, he’ll be starring in his own Marvel movie.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Captain America: The First Avenger proves that too much of a good thing isn’t so bad at all.


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