July 22, 2011
Get ready to wave your flag and give three cheers for the good old red white and blue. Captain America arrives in theaters today, filled to the brim with so much patriotism and WWII propagandizing that it often plays like an ad for the Department of Defense circa 1941. Yet this is very much a superhero movie, a comic book swath bathed in the kind of origin story situations that either work wonderfully or fail miserably. In this case, the former is definitely at play. Though directorial non-entity Joe Johnston sits behind the lens, this is a spectacular entertainment, a forward moving bit of movie magic that stumbles on occasion, but ends up delivering what has to be the Summer of 2011’s most satisfying experiences.
Following the original funny book set-up fairly closely, we learn that young Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans) is desperate to enlist in the military. He wants to fight the Nazis and serve his country. Of course, being a 98 pound weakling with various medical issues doesn’t help his cause, and he is rejected everywhere he goes. Then, while visiting the Future Expo with his GI buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan)m he runs into a scientist named Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) who promises him a chance.
Before he knows it, Rodgers is part of an experiment to create a race of super soldiers. Under the guidance of Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and SSR officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), he is given a special serum and bombarded by Vita-Rays. As a result, Steve Rodgers is transformed into ‘Captain America,’ a formidable fighting force whose main mission becomes the destruction of Nazi madman Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), otherwise known as “Red Skull”, and to stop him from using an alien technology to destroy the entire world.
In a no muss, no fuss kind of way, Captain America becomes one of the best comic book movies of all time. It’s not out to rewrite the genre like Christopher Nolan or rework the source like so many other Marvel/DC titles. Instead, Johnston, digging deep into his well of Rocketeer inspiration, brings out the best in this material, lacing it with the kind of stars and stripes sensationalism and gung-ho Americana it demands. All throughout the first 40 minutes or so of the movie, a small, insignificant Steve Rodgers (Evans thanks to some of the most convincing body morphing CG ever) makes it very clear that fighting for the USA is more than a calling or a duty. It’s a mad determination from which nothing will stop him. Even as he is getting beaten to a pulp by unsympathetic bullies, Rodgers resolve is never in question.
Perhaps this is why he comes across as so heroic during the later action sequences. Because we know Rodgers will do anything, including giving up his life, for his country, he becomes the best kind of champion – one without the arrogance that acknowledges – and therefore, mars – his obvious greatness. Captain America is just one of the men, albeit one that’s a tad more capable that the others. During these moments, when we expect Johnston to put on the warrior headdress and hype the hell out of his center, he doesn’t. Instead, we get battles and hand to hand confrontations that play like real life combat, war without wise guy complications or geek adolescent buzz.
The casting couldn’t be better. Evans, enhanced greatly by attributes both technological and purely personal, doesn’t try to turn Rodgers into some kind of quirky question mark. He’s true, level, not one to add a silly one liner to his accomplishments. This could be deadly dull, but Evans finds a way to make it iconic. Luckily, he has co-stars like Jones, Tucci, Atwell, and Weaving around. No one does grizzled old sarcasm better than the talented Tommy Lee. He steals almost every scene he is in. Tucci, while limited in time, sells his science wares with nobility, while Ms. Atwell positions herself perfectly between the splash and the romance. But it is Weaving who really impresses here. Utilizing an accent that’s more complicated than the standard German growl (very similar to Werner Herzog), he oozes menace, and a means of making his outrageously evil plans sound even more sane…and sinister.
But it is Johnston who really surprises here. Looking over his resume – Jumanji, Jurassic Park 3, the abortive Wolfman update – his presence shouldn’t inspire confidence. Yet someone, he syncs up with the ra-ra rationalizations of the era, making the sequences where Captain America becomes a shill for war bonds blister with both visual and satiric spark. Similarly, he seems very comfortable within the period piece dynamic. When our hero wakes up to discover its 2011 (as part of a bookend device bringing Captain America into the modern Avengers mythos), the moments within our glittering plastic world don’t have the same strength. It’s almost as if Johnston needs a completely fabricated backdrop in order to make his vision work, though it didn’t seem to help him much in the past.
And yet, for all its superficial flag waving, for all its good vs. evil as personified by the Axis and Allies, Captain America: The First Avenger, delivers. It draws on our love of right over wrong, measures out said tolerances in tricky little stunt set-pieces, and then uses the actors within to both tingle our spines and tickle our ribs. It all comes together so well that it’s almost impossible to not look for flaws – and there are a few. Captain America is never seen as a defeatable hero. Even the Hulk has his off days. Similarly, his sidekicks come in late and exit prematurely. Finally, the last act battle aboard a flying wing seems slightly truncated, as if a longer cut of the film would see more Rodgers/Red Skull action.
Still, these are minor quibbles in a solid set-up for the rest of the Avengers adventures. Marvel may not have something the caliber of The Dark Knight, but it does have one of the more complicated and complete onscreen mythologies in all comics. During his time, no one could defeat Captain America. For this particular Summer, the same sentiment applies toward his own personal piece of popcorn entertainment.