Monday, November 21, 2011

Movie Monday: Captain America

This week's movie is the blockbuster superhero adventure Captain America: The First Avenger!

Last Summer, I managed to see Thor, X:Men First Class, and Green Lantern in theaters, but never got around to see what was supposedly the best of the bunch, Captain America. So I was really excited when it hit DVD to have the chance to sit down and catch up:
The movie opens up in the present day, with two representatives from SHIELD (one played by Clark Gregg, who has essayed the same role in almost all of these Avengers tie-in films) as they are called to a scene in the arctic of an amazing discovery:
We then flash back to the 1940s, and find brave but hopelessly inadequate Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as he tries yet again to be accepted into the nation's armed forces, hoping to sent overseas to fight:
Rogers, who has a host of physical ailments, is rejected again. He goes out on a double date with his best friend James "Bucky" Barnes, who is in uniform, having been accepted. Despite being set up with a beautiful woman, Steve is depressed, feeling left behind.

While trying again to get drafted (using yet another alias), he is spotted by a doctor named Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who takes him aside and asks him some questions about why Steve wants to fight. To kill Nazis? No. To serve his country the best way he knows how? Yes.

Erskine sees something in this young man, and signs him up. Shortly thereafter, Steve finds himself part of a unit run by Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), where he again shows grit and smarts, far beyond that of his fellow soldiers. Against Phillips' suggestion, Erkine picks Rogers to be the guinea pig of their new "Super Solider" experiment.

Before you can say Secret Origin, Steve is transformed from a skinny, asthmatic kid into a beefy, muscled man of action. Case in point: when a Nazi spy tries to blow up Erskine's lan--shooting Erskine in the process--Steve chases after him on foot, through the streets of New York:
Meanwhile, a Nazi known as The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) is, with his partner Arnim Zola (Tony Jones), developing a super weapon that can annihilate anything that crosses its path. We learn that the Skull is also the result of Erskine's experiments, which he deemed as a failure before moving to the United States. Harnessing the power of what we'll come to know as The Cosmic Cube, the Skull plans to take over the world--and that even includes Hitler's Germany!

Back in America, Steve is put into a gaudy costume and used as a symbol of propaganda. As Captain America, Steve shills for war bonds, entertains the troops, stars in movie serials, and punches out Hitler every single night, live on stage:

America falls in love with the good Captain, and he becomes a national symbol, even getting his own comic book:

(The book seen above is the actual Captain America #1 from 1941 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, a nice touch)

While the U.S. Government loves Cap, Steve feels like a clown, like he's not really contributing anything of substance. After getting jeered by some troops, he sneaks off to rescue Bucky's unit, who has disappeared somewhere behind enemy lines.

He finds Bucky, as well as a bunch of brave fighting men who we recognize as the future Howling Commandos (save Nick Fury, of course):
With his new vibranium shield (developed by genius Howard Stark, father of you know who), Cap and the guys take on the Red Skull's army, known as HYDRA. Its here that Cap and the Red Skull meet for the first time, and Cap is shocked to see that the Skull seems as powerful as he is.

Cap does get a good shot in on the Skull, and immediately he--and we--see something's more than a little off with the guy: his whole face seems to sag, like its going to fall off, and there's a shock of red underneath:
Arnim Zola is captured during a daring mission aboard a moving train, and Bucky is killed. Using info from Zola (during a nice, tense scene between the two Jonses, Tommy Lee and Tony), Cap goes after the Skull at his secret HQ. The Skull tries to escape via his souped-up war plane. but Cap climbs aboard.

During their fight, the Cosmic Cube gets loose of its container, and when the Skull touches the Cube, it seemingly immolates him. Cap, left aboard a damaged plane headed straight for America with WMDs aboard, sees no other option than to purposely aim the plane to crash in the Arctic. Over the radio, he says goodbye to Sharon Carter (Hayley Atwell), the British agent who has been his guide--and sometimes more than that--throughout this whole adventure:
The plane crashes, and later Howard Stark finds the Cosmic Cube, but can find no trace of Steve or the plane. Where did they go?

Cut to: a short time later, and Steve awakens in a small hospital room. There's a radio playing a baseball game from 1941, and when a young woman enters he knows she's lying: he was at that baseball game!

Steve bursts through the door, and learns that the room he was in was merely a set, all fake. He runs onto the streets of New York, and sees a whole new world. He's stopped by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, of course), and is told he's been asleep for almost seventy years. Steve is bewildered, but mostly sad: if he survived the plane crash, he had a date with Sharon:
...The End!

I went into Captain America with pretty high expectations: I had seen a lot of reviews calling it the best superhero movie ever, as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark, etc. Now, I knew neither of those things could really be true, but after being generally disappointed with last summer's superhero movie crop (I liked Thor, thought X-Men: First Class was okay, despised Green Lantern) I really hoped Captain America would be the best of the bunch. And, overall, I would say it is.

Chris Evans does a solid job of evolving from plucky kid to plausible man of action (although I found CGIing his face onto a shrunken version of himself a bit off-putting), and of course he looks the part. The inclusion of the Howling Commandos I thought was great--to me, the best scene in the movie is Cap's rescue and subsequent escape with them, and I wish I could see a whole movie of just them kicking Nazi butt.

The romance with Hayley Atwell as Sharon Carter was kind of eh, it I didn't feel a whole lot of chemistry between Evans and Atwell so when they made a tearful date that they both knew would never be kept, it doesn't have the emotional resonance it would supposed to. That said, I thought ending the film on a melancholy moment--Steve realizing that Sharon is long dead--was gutsy and a welcome change to the usual bom-bom-BOM! crash-bang finale most superheroes have, to set everyone up for the inevitable sequel.

The film looks great (I'm a sucker for 30s and 40s Americana), but the film does make the mistake of making all period detail--the rooms, the cars, etc.--all gleaming and clean, like they were just built, which of course they were.

By far the weakest part of the movie is The Red Skull. Hugo Weaving is decent in the role, but he never gets one line of dialogue that isn't of the "...and I vill rule the vorld!" variety, and he never for once seems like a real person (compare that to, say, Raiders' Paul Freeman as Belloq). Tony Jones does better, in the very Peter Lorre-esque role of Arnim Zola; there's a shot of him running for his life, hunched over, that reminded me a bit of Lorre in M.

I guess my main complaint about the overall approach the film took is, ironically enough, also one the big problems that the ultra-lame 1990 Captain America movie had (among its many): its in such a hurry to put Cap on ice (literally) that he barely gets to become this towering, legendary heroic figure before being yanked off the scene and wakes up in modern day. I guess movie studios just don't believe an all-period action movie is commercial enough (that doesn't bode well for my hopes of there ever being an Ace Kilroy movie), so they just rush him through the WWII stuff so he can wake up in modern times.

But I still liked Captain America quite a bit: the performances are pretty good, the action well staged, and it moves quite well: it gets the central conceit of Steve Rogers pretty well, and manages to not make him look hopelessly square. Post credits, there's an additional scene with Cap and Nick Fury, leading to a preview of The Avengers, out next Summer.

Growing up reading comics in the 70s and 80s, I didn't think I would ever be able to say such a thing!

1 comment:

Robert M. Lindsey said...

I thought the CGI when he was chasing the guy who blew up the lab was off-putting and distracting. He's just running down the street for Pete's sake! Why does that need CGI?

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