Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Review: Captain America (2011) saves best pre-Avengers film for last, offering wonderful characterization and old-school adventure.

Captain America: The First Avenger
124 minutes
rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

Joe Johnston's Captain America is a gloriously old-fashioned bit of shoe-leather adventure. While there are plenty of elaborate special effects, the emphasis remains on character and narrative. Like the best of the recent comic book films, this is a genre film first and a comic book adaptation second. It is, at its core, a genuine World War II action picture that happens to be based on a comic book. It is filled with terrific actors doing wonderful character turns. It is filled with colorful heroes and dastardly villains, plus dames who have more important things to do than stand around and look pretty. It has a wonderful score, a variety of exciting locations, and a number of solid action sequences that feel real even when we can see the strings. It is, to put it simply, a real movie, a genuine piece of pop-art that is the kind of comic book film built for those who generally aren't in to comic book movies.

A token amount of plot: World War II is raging, and everyone is doing their part to beat back the Nazis. But Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) finds himself unable to enlist, due to well, the fact that he's really short and not very strong. But fortune smiles as his fifth attempt to enlist is witnessed by Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who is searching for suitable candidates to test out a new 'super soldier' formula which he developed before defecting from Germany. Rather than looking for the biggest, strongest, and toughest soldier that he can find, Erskine is looking for someone who will not take this newfound power for granted, someone who is a genuinely good man. Rogers ends up fitting the bill. When tragedy strikes, Rogers soon finds himself as the one and only 'Captain America', which leaves the US government unwilling to put their prize possession into actual combat. But the machinations of Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) and his Hydra organization soon put not just the Allied forces but the entire world in immediate peril and the would-be Captain America may be the only man who can stop him.

What makes the film work is the genuine affection that Joe Johnston has not just for the character but for the whole World War II film genre. The picture walks a fine line between acknowledging the horror of global war and remaining a relatively fun movie. Of course, the movie does cheat a little bit by having Schmidt's Hydra organization morph into something more resembling Cobra in the latter half of the film, which allows Rogers and his fighting friends to eventually kill faceless super-villain goons as opposed to scared German soldiers. Being a war picture, the film goes out of its way to emphasize the random and arbitrary peril of war (it's quite violent, if relatively bloodless) and the off-the-cuff courage of those who fought in this particular conflict. Steve Rogers is not an all-powerful superhero, but merely another brave soldier who has a few physical advantages that he uses to help his fellow freedom fighters. We follow not just Rogers, but several other colorful soldiers, played by the likes of Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Kenneth Choi, and Sebastian Stan. Aside from giving the film several colorful characters, this ensemble army gives weight to the action sequences, as they are never just 'Steve Rogers and a bunch of faceless soldiers do battle'. We always have someone familiar to cut to during the major set pieces.

Speaking of Captain America himself, Chris Evans is pretty terrific in the lead role. Yes, he is aided by special effects in the opening act, as Benjamin Button-ish effects are used to make Steve Rogers very short and very, very skinny (impeccable fx work, by the way). But Evans brings a lack of cynicism to his genuine do-gooder. He is not naive about what fighting overseas would entail, but merely believes that he should not be forced to stay home while his fellow countrymen go off to die in an unquestionably righteous conflict. What is refreshing about Rogers is that he starts the film as a man of kindness and morality and remains a genuinely good and decent human being throughout the entire picture. In an age where our big screen heroes are tormented and guilt-ridden souls or arrogant, narcissistic jerks in need of intervention, in a world where even Superman is plagued by demons, it is refreshing to see a big-budget superhero film where the main hero is actually a genuine role model and an honest-to-goodness hero on the inside and out. He is so compelling a character in the initial act that is was almost disappointing to see him running after bad guys wearing a t-shirt and tight pants to highlight his new muscles (it looked a bit generic). But the character's selfless quality takes front and center at all times. It is his answer to the question "Do you want to kill Nazis?” that truly makes him a representation of America at its best.  If it needs to be said, the film is strictly apolitical, and I suppose partisans on both sides will find ammunition for our respective ideologies.

Also doing well for the side of good is Stanley Tucci, who plays the defected German scientist who creates the super soldier serum. Tucci is flat-out fantastic with his limited screen time. His Dr. Erskine is easily the acting highlight of the film, as Tucci gives a performance that is so good, so layered, and so endearing that the film genuinely loses something when he departs (almost by default, the first character-driven act is arguably superior to the more action-packed 2/3 that follow). Like Gary Oldman in The Dark Knight, Tucci grounds the potentially campy material with a genuine low-key gravity and gives it weight and morality. Tommy Lee Jones provides able support as the commanding officer. While one could argue that it's mostly Jones doing his shtick, it's been awhile since he's been in a major movie like this. And who else could deliver a line promising to 'personally escort Hitler to the gates of hell' and make it completely credible? Hayley Atwell plays Peggy Carter, technically 'the love interest', but mainly existing as a fellow commanding officer who happens to be an attractive woman. She has a number of solid action beats (she is a crack shot) and a number of fine dramatic moments that have nothing to do with her role as a would-be girlfriend for Mr. Rogers. Although the romance actually works by unspooling over a decent period of time and letting the two form a real relationship). She is only let down by a brief moment or two when she becomes jealous after Steve is kissed by another woman, but even that is paid off in a moment that elicits a great look from Tommy Lee Jones.

The forces of evil don't fare quite as well, if only because they are given little shading. Hugo Weaving plays The Red Skull (although I don't believe anyone ever calls him that in the film), and while Weaving brings his usual arrogant charm, it's a surprisingly one-note character. To be frank, I almost missed Scott Paulin's shaded and tragic Red Skull from the otherwise terrible 1990 Captain America film. Toby Jones fares a little better as the Skull's chief partner in evil, as he has a survival instinct that the rest of his 'for the cause!' organization lacks. In the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the forces of evil exist mainly to get punched, shot, and blown up. The action sequences are plentiful and compelling. There is quite a bit of practical effects work, and the whole picture has a refreshing reality to its story and action mechanics. This is the rare super hero movie with actual, genuine super heroics. Captain America runs, jumps, and swings into action, doing battle on snowy terrains, in secret fortresses, and atop speeding trains. This is, quite frankly, the first Marvel Comics production that doesn't feel hamstrung by budgetary concerns. Despite being the cheapest of these films thus far (around $140 million), you won't feel the least bit shortchanged in terms of popcorn spectacle and genuine adventure.

Equally refreshing is the extroverted nature of the main conflict. By that, I mean this isn't another comic book film where the main villain is primarily concerned with killing or tormenting the hero, where the hero is somehow 'responsible' for the death and destruction at hand, and where the climax is merely a highly personal battle with little at stake. This is arguably the closest thing we've seen in the modern comic book genre to a 'day in the life' movie. There's a diabolical villain who wants to kill a bazillion people, and only the hero (who is not at all responsible for this villain and who is not the target of the villain's wrath) jumps into action to stop him. By keeping the film relatively free of the complex comic book melodrama that infuses these films (for better or worse), Captain America positions itself as a comic book adventure that can be enjoyed by those with no knowledge of the character or even comic books in general. There are plenty of tidbits for fans of the character (including many that I missed, I'm sure), but the film is entry-level action cinema all the way. Well, almost all the way...

The core flaw of the film is going to involve basically the last scene of the film. So while I'm going to try to be vague, if you're one of 2% of those reading this review who don't know what I'm going to talk about, you might want to skip to the next (and final) paragraph... NOW. Okay, it's no secret that this film is the last film that precedes next summer's The Avengers.  Unfortunately, the film is book-ended by a pair of sequences that basically gets the Steve Rogers story into a place where he can join the 'superhero boy band' that exists in the present day. Like X-Men: First Class, the film shoots itself in the foot by rushing the character into a place where he exists in the current status quo. And doing so again robs the characters of storytelling possibilities. Since the incident that puts Steve Rogers on a crash course with the present day could have occurred anytime before the end of World War II, there is absolutely no reason why we couldn't have had one or two more Captain America films set in the 1940s, with Rogers continuing to do battle with Nazis. The finale feels arbitrary and shoe-horned in, robbing the film of a stand-alone finale and awkwardly ending the film with a quasi-cliffhanger that will please hardcore comic fans but will likely confuse and/or annoy general audiences.

Aside from problems with the finale, Captain America: The First Avenger is a genuinely terrific piece of popcorn cinema. It reminds us that even the pulpiest of 'movies' should still pay attention to character development and strong plotting. It brings on heavy hitters like Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones, who basically up everyone else's game while grounding the film in a quasi-reality. Chris Evans makes a perfect Steve Rogers and everyone around him serves the story. The special effects are as strong as they need to be, even if the 3D conversion does little more than darken the screen (it's good 3D work, but see it in 2D anyway). Joe Johnston has crafted a satisfyingly pulpy adventure and a genuinely respectful World War II action picture. That it happens to be based on a classic comic book is almost beside the point. I mean that as a high compliment.

Grade: A-


Liam_Ho said...

Very well written review and I would have loved to hear more what you thought about Hayley Atwell. From those couple of sentences its clear that she isn't just the obligatory love interest...she actually kicks ass in the movie. Some thing I am very looking forward to see.

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corysims said...

With this ending Scott and Thor's, there's almost no reason to watch a sequel with those two characters in the future because of the Avengers. After this, it sounds pretty possible that you could skip the eventual Captain America 2 and Thor 2 and just go straight from Avengers to Avengers 2 and not miss a thing.

Aden Jordan said...

I really enjoyed your review, and am now very excited to see this film. I forgot that Johnston made "The Rocketeer" which also takes place during the same time period and has an excellent sense of that moment in history combined with the fun popcorn aspect.

Pete B. said...

Actually Scott, the name "Red Skull" does get mentioned when Schmidt is visited by representatives of Hitler. The line is something along the line of "Tell the Red Skull to blah blah blah."

As for Haley Atwell, I haven't see a star making moment of this magnitude since Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny. She's great and the camera loves her.

Diane Lowe said...

Haley Atwell's character seemed relatively one-note to me; it would have been nice if she actually answered the question of what a British woman was doing in the American army in the first place.

The ending also irked me; Steve Rogers deserved much better than that. It also pretty much threw away the supporting cast.

I was also slightly annoyed by the 'nostalgic', soft camera lighting in pretty much the entire movie.

All things considered, it was a decent popcorn flick. :)


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