Review: Captain America

You’ve Probably Already Seen This, But…

I have a few things to say about Captain America: The First Avenger.

The Avengers is scheduled to come out sometime in the spring of 2012. The director is Joss Whedon, so the film is highly anticipated, sure to be full of fast-paced, quippy dialogue, and unlikely to be picked up by Fox for a second season. The Avengers is a superhero team-up movie and will feature Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man, Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk (no, really!), Chris Evans as Captain America, and Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson as some people I’ve never heard of. In anticipation of this great big mash-up, I’ve been watching some of the Marvel properties that are involved in tying this whole thing together.  Last up on the list is Captain America. 

For the most part, Captain America is a pretty standard superhero movie.  It starts off with puny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) desperate to join the World War II war effort, but he keeps being declared 4F.  After catching the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a government scientist , Rogers is declared 1A and sent off to train as a part of Col Tommy Lee Jones’s special unit. (I’m sure Jones’s character has a name, but this is pretty standard Tommy Lee Jones stuff here, which is not necessarily a complaint.) Jones predictably wants someone larger and stronger than Rogers for a quasi-mysterious project (assuming you didn’t see any trailers for the movie), but after seeing him display smarts and guts, Jones yields to Dr. Erskine and they head off to a secret government lab located, for some reason, in Brooklyn.

At the lab, Rogers meets Iron Man’s father, Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), and completely unnecessary love interest Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).  Peggy is the screenwriter’s attempt to inject some emotion into a film that didn’t really need it. As a result, her scenes mostly end up being painfully clichéd, like when, later in the film, an amorous secretary steals a kiss from Captain America at the exact moment Peggy turns the corner and sees them.  At the lab, Rogers is shot up with some of Dr. Erskine’s serum and bathed in Stark’s magic light and emerges as tall and buff Captain America.   After showing off his new powers, Rogers is turned into a PR tool by the Army.  Performing for troops in Europe, he commits some heroic acts, assembles a ragtag band of soldier sidekicks, and takes the fight to the rogue Nazi scientists of Hydra.

As I said, this is all fairly standard stuff.  What’s interesting to me about Captain America is how it succeeds where Thor failed.  Thor tried to be both a superhero movie and a movie about conflict in a mythical Norse space kingdom.  The former was fun and charming; the later was an airless CGI mess.  Captain America tries to be both a WW II movie and a superhero movie, and for the most part it succeeds.  It succeeds by melding its two genres into one movie rather than dividing the movie into two parts. The origin story works for both the plucky unlikely hero of a WW II movie and for the Everyman-becomes-superhuman hero of a superhero movie. Captain America is drained of color and bears a quasi-sepia tone something like Saving Private Ryan, but still feels unmistakably like a superhero movie.  The ragtag group of multiethnic sidekicks that Rogers  surrounds himself with would fit right in – in either genre.

Even when the movie swings heavily into one genre or the other, it does so successfully.  When Johann Schmidt (a menacing Hugo Weaving, back doing what he does best after being hilariously miscast as Elrond in Lord of the Rings) reveals himself to be the Red Skull, the garish and ghastly nature of his true visage, situated in the story of WW II soldiers, makes him that much more sinister.   On the opposite side, Captain America  has a shockingly high body count for a PG-13 superhero tale.  Soldiers are frequently mowed down by machine guns in numbers that are unheard of in standard superhero fare. All of this bleed over is to the movie’s benefit; it makes it a superhero story with more gravitas, and a war movie with more fun.

The CGI is handled better in Captain America than in Thor.  Sure, it’s occasionally clunky and obvious, but for the most part it is deftly employed.  The movie’s central effect gives us Steve Rogers as a tiny 90-lb weakling but bearing the face of huge, ripped Chris Evans.   It’s a pretty remarkable effect that never screams out the fact that it is CGI, and it is marred only slightly by the fact that Evans’s voice doesn’t seem quite right for the body.

One interesting thing about Captain America is that it’s a stealth George Lucas homage.  In the opening scene, Schmidt makes a crack about The Fuehrer digging around in the desert.  Later, a motorcycle chase through the woods directly mimics the speeder bike chase from Return of the Jedi.  Jedi shows up again in the final fight between Captain America and Red Skull, waged among platforms and catwalks in a flying weapons platform.  Even Red Skull’s fate is the same as those of his Nazi counterparts in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Captain America is subtitled The First Avenger. This led me to think that there would be a fair amount of content tying the movie to The Avengers, but this isn’t really the case.  Red Skull’s power comes from “the jewel of Odin’s treasure room” or some such,  a Thor tie-in.  Howard Stark is a fairly prominent character, so I guess he’ll be able to tell Iron Man he’s met his dad.  And, finally, at the very end we get a bit of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury to fill in how 1940’s Captain America will end up in the modern-day team-up setting of The Avengers.   All in all, the fun and enjoyability of Captain America has rekindled my excitement for The Avengers after the dreadful Iron Man 2.

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