Sunday, July 24, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger Review

Captain America: The First Avenger
Directed by Joe Johnston
Released in 2011

When the good guy is a little guy, you know he will use his wits to defeat the big bad guy and win in the end. When the good guy possesses such mindful tactics and is still jacked up with super soldier serum, the bad guys have no chance. Once comic books were recognized as more than just pulp entertainment but a tool for propaganda, Timely Comics (precursor to Marvel) bolstered Captain America as a hero for all of us, especially the little guy. With his red, white and blue tunic and indestructible shield, Captain America - whose real name is the comfortably normal Steve Rogers - was an incredibly effective symbol of patriotism in tough times. It is not so much the "punching Hitler in the face" gambit that maintains the Captain's image today, but his bravery when forces beyond his control hold him down, as well as his substantial, though not ordinate, powers. He can throw a punch like no other, but he is ultimately mortal and modest with his powers. The 70 year old hero finds new life, and a new audience, in this satisfying, polished 2011 reboot. 

The Nazi menace threatens the freedoms of all in the world, and millions are enlisting to help. Unfortunately, short, sickly Steve Rogers cannot make the cut. Asthma is just the first of his ailments. But determination runs through his blood; he would rather spend the night volunteering for what surely would be another failed inspection than spend a night on the town. Stanley Tucci, as Dr. Abraham Erskine, takes notice, running Steve through a training course where he and Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, never more grouchy or entertaining) pick the worthiest soldier for an experimental enhancement procedure. Steve's selflessness and gallantry wins out, and what was once a gaunt, petite "boy from Brooklyn" transforms into a buff, nimble symbol of American offense and science. Nazis are not even the main enemy; that would be the anarchic branch, HYDRA, within the Third Reich in charge of weapons so powerful its leader, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), deems der Führer unworthy of harnessing the might of the gods. 

Preparing for the role with an exercise program fit for the gods, Chris Evans balances his action star looks with genuine down-to-earth humility. Captain America has the strength that perhaps his entire country is relying on to bring peace, but he remains likable by never abusing it and always looking out for others. It makes for an almost too perfect protagonist:  there are little flaws in the Steve Rogers' character, leading him to remain about the same throughout the film. Same can be said about the love interest Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who sees an admirable figure in Rogers before the transformation and only likes him more as he proves his abilities (and sports washboard abs to boot). It is better than a woman only interested in the protagonist's newfound looks and power, but it makes for a rather uncommon arc for romance. All that aside, it takes painfully long for "the kiss" so the payoff manifests in typical, overdue fashion. 

The numerous actors filling the supporting roles are talented and well-suited. Tommy Lee Jones channels not No Country for Old Men's solemn meditation but more Men in Black's deadpan. Never content and always discouraging the risky route (read: the right route), Col. Phillips gradually gains respect and confidence in the Captain over the course of the film. Jones has winning lines but it is his worn, grizzled mug and demeanor that bring wit and charm to a archetypal character. Stanley Tucci excels, as always, whether he regales through clever banter or cautions Rogers to never lose the charity he so embodies. While the time on-screen is awfully brief, Dr. Erskine does not create as so secure the ideology Captain America sees the world through. 

Dominic Cooper is a young Howard Stark, looking nothing like the John Slattery middle-age version that is seen in Iron Man 2. However, it is an excellent character, one I found to be a great, rather unlikely addition that does not only tie together the Marvel universe but sheds light on some truths the movie aims to reach. With short-skirted dames beside him, he unveils a prototype flying car at New York's World Fair early on for an eager, scraggly Steve Rogers to see. The playboy persona appears untouchable, of another lifestyle and class. But as he affixes his (stylish) lab goggles by the super soldier machine, little Steve Rogers' mouth drops that such an illustrious figure would help him reach his potential. Stark's aid does not end there, for he flies, experiments, builds, scavenges, fabricates, does science, fondues, and so forth throughout his generous tour. Such a character comments on the idealistic image of the most privileged sacrificing so much for the cause of war. Very admirable, and unfortunately not too true, Howard Stark's benevolence certainly carried over to his like-minded son and champions such figures.

The rest of the crew alongside Captain America, as seen through a well-placed kick-ass montage, looks out for one another and can inflict some serious damage, even when beside a cellularly enhanced beast of a man. Rogers' best bud throughout, Bucky Barnes, played by Sebastian Stan (most likely remembered as "that guy from the bar" in Black Swan), strengthens the heart of his friend and reveals in the mighty Captain what matters most. Band of Brothers' Neal McDonough sports a classy bowler and burly mustache as Dum Dum Dugan, a soldier who clearly revels in enacting revenge upon his former captors. And there is clever social commentary with Kenneth Choi's character Jim Morita. An Asian-American, Jim exasperatedly sighs "I'm from Fresno" when he receives a few skeptical glances from the others in his squad. That is all they need to hear.

Heath Ledger spoiled us, for we expect so much from our comic book villains now. Remember that it was our own Tommy Lee Jones who played Two-Face before The Dark Knight. But when expectations are higher, quality must improve as well. For this reason I found the antagonist here underwhelming. Not Toby Jones' Dr. Arnim Zola, however. A brilliant scientist aiding Johann Schmidt out of fear more than loyalty, Zola is given gravitas by Jones. He watches from the sidelines as what he creates destroys so much, perhaps an analogy to Einstein. But Hugo Weaving's Johann Schmidt aka Red Skull chews the scenery relentlessly, and with a faux German accent. Weaving's greatest success was at a villain who purposely embodied a flat stereotype in the Matrix films; that is not to speak down on the actor but only that his bad guy persona is fairly one-dimensional. He brings menace to the megalomaniac but not much more. The blame can be pointed more to the visual effects department, for he suffers a Hulk effect in which, no matter how good the actor is, once the face morphs into CGI, a human connection is lost. 

The connection between the audience and Captain America, however, never falters. Chris Evans always stole the show in other action flicks like Fantastic Four and The Losers, and in his first title role he leads with reserve and revelation, as a man in many ways adolescent discovering himself and the world around him. He does not instantly jump into the battlefields of Europe, but tours the country first in a War Bonds promotion, gaudy tights strapped on and shield in hand. The story flows with an easy energy, not rushing to get to the next set-piece, and certainly absent of any kinetic editing that we are used to with Zack Snyder and Guy Ritchie's wacky fare. It is deliberately old-fashioned, with an old-fashioned aesthetic and old-fashioned characters. They kick and punch in impressive action scenes with special effects that do not override the human story at the heart of the film. Director Joe Johnston does not possess gifts to prevent the choreography and action, however, from getting stale in the final battle, nor do he or screenwriters Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely provide much of a journey for the characters, where they learn, adapt, convert. But in that sense it is fit for the serialized comic book influence it so directly aspires to be (and tailored for sequels no doubt). It is an underdog story with extreme modifications, slick and built to please.

Final Verdict:
3 Stars Out of 5

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