Captain America: The First Avenger
Film review by: Witney Seibold
After having sat through exposition-heavy superhero nonsense like “Green Lantern,” and being increasingly assaulted by films preoccupied with creating a cross-movie superhero “canon” like “Thor,” and “Iron Man 2,” Joe Johnston‘s “Captain America: The First Avenger” is something of a refreshing break. Here, finally, is a film that seems to be more about the clear-eyed adventure and blind heroism that used to come with action movies, and is in unfortunate short supply these days. It’s hero, while not necessarily a huge-hearted altruist, is at least an innocent in over his head, as opposed to a broody wimp or a sullen thug. Most superhero films these days seem religiously devoted to the idea of what the films represent, rather than what they are, i.e. They are high on the fact that they’re covering their fanboy bases without bothering to make themselves compelling as a narrative feature. Call it context over content. “Captain America” does still have a few scenes of this type (especially with the rushed epilogue, which was, presumably, originally intended to be the post-credit cookie, but was awkwardly included in the final product), but is more interested with its atmosphere and heroic tone than most of its recent peers. Indeed, it’s so fresh-faced and refeshingly old-fashioned, it invites comparison to Johnston’s previous superhero effort, 1991’s “The Rocketeer,” another period piece about a superpowered everyman fighting Nazi bad guys. “Captain America” will likely not be as fondly remembered as that film, but that the comparison to a well-beloved cult flick is promising.
Sadly, the film is not free of sloppy storytelling moments, and has the faint whiff of a missed opportunity. The original comic book character was, after all, born in the mid 1940s, out of the jingoistic and good-natured propaganda that America was embroiled in. It was bare-face patriotism, unadulterated, and free of modern irony. Johnston does drape his hero in the red, white and blue, but has no patriotic rhetoric, nor direct American symbolism. We do see the good Captain acting in propaganda shorts within the context of the film, but that’s more a comment on WWII marketing than it is on the way wartime patriotism works. Indeed, even though Cap fights bad guys, and is designed to fight Nazis, we do not see any Nazi soldiers (save a single American actor who is playing a fake Hitler), and there are no swastikas. Marvel studios seemed to be playing it so safe, that the idea of actual jingoism is left by the wayside. Indeed, the actual war is so shunted off to the side, that “Captain America” isn’t even really about the war at all. It uses WWII as a backdrop for superhero mayhem.
Which would be a bigger problem if the mayhem weren’t so much fun. We see Captain America and his multi-culti band WWII soldiers (including an Asian and a black guy who would not likely be fighting alongside the white soldiers) swinging down ziplines, jumping over tanks, and stealing phasers from the bad guys. It’s all in that warm, period photography, so it feels a bit more classical.
Oh yeah, about those phasers. So the film’s bad guy is Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a Nazi soldier who was disfigured after trying an experimental steroid that made him super-strong, but left his face a bright red skinless mass. His nickname is The Red Skull. At the film’s outset, he steals a magical Hellraiser cube from a church in Norway, and finds that it is essentially a limitless battery. Luckily, his mad scientist doctor friend (Toby Jones) has invented phasers and phaser tanks (in the 1940s!), and all they needed was power. I wish that the mad doctor had invented more practical weapons, but whatever. He is working for the bad guys. Gotta make him capable. Anytime the bad guys were on screen explaining their pot to conquer Earth, I was mildly incredulous.
Meanwhile, an ex-pat German Jew (Stanley Tucci), a gruff army general (Tommy Lee Jones), and a gorgeous British MI-5 agent (the gorgeous Hayley Atwell, who looks and feels a lot like Jennifer Connelly) who is working with the Americans for unspecified reasons, all gather to recruit the skinny recruit Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) into a super-secret training program. Steve is a 90-pound asthmatic who is so devoted to his country, that he’s lied on his volunteer application several times in an attempt to serve. To make Chris Evans look small and sickly, digital effects placed his head on another actor’s body. The effect is mostly successful; there are a few shots that are just eerie. Steve Rogers proves himself to be brave, and he is given a series of steriods and is exposed to movie radiation, and he emerges from these experiments much stronger and about a foot-and-a-half taller. As soon as he emerges, the good doctor is killed, and hopes of repeating the experiment are lost.
Cleverly, Steve, who is too valuable an experiment to waste on a battlefield, is then employed as a war bonds salesman. The people love him, but the soldiers, once they see his goofy blue outfit, feel he’s a joke. It’s not until he rescues a cadre of captured peers that he is considered to be an asset as a soldier.
Phew. All that exposition, and we’re only about halfway through. There is a little bit (but just a little bit) too much movie in the movie. Eventually, of course, Cap’n must square off with the bad guy, and have some chases, close calls and escapes in the interim. Like I said, though, these action scenes (for however compulsorily I just described them) don’t have that same cynical compulsory feeling that so many action flicks possess. It is a film that is proud to be fun, and revels in pulp novel conceits and old serial boldness. Captain America seems to have a bit of character and a sense of fun and goodness about him which his peers (in “Thor” and “Green Lantern”) sorely lacked.
This is another one of Marvel’s lead-ins to next summer’s “The Avengers,” where the lead characters of several other films will come together. I am very apprehensive about this idea, and I’m not sure how these characters will play off one another, despite their comic book history, or the openly-touted presence of the fan-beloved cult TV director Joss Whedon. If it feels like “Captain America: The First Avenger,” we’ll be in good shape.