SUMMER MOVIES: Captain America: The First Avenger

After years of waiting, the wait is over.  Captain America is here.  The only question now is; was it worth the wait?  Well…let’s come back to that.

First, my obligatory trip down memory lane, only with a lot less gayness, which is so prevalent in one red-bearded fatty’s website.  Okay, so there will be SOME gayness, but not a lot.

I have been reading Captain America comics since the 4th Grade.  Sounds crazy, right?  Most people who know my nerd habits well would attest that my favorite character is The Punisher.  That would be a well-informed assumption, however, the fact is Captain America has always been neck-in-neck with ol’ Frank Castle.  I see the two characters as a dualistic pair, each having been to war and each coming away with something very different.  They are both uniquely American characters.

It is arguable, and probably very accurate, that comic books like The Punisher and Captain America helped lead to my own decision to enter a recruiting station and sign up to fight in a war.  My own idealism, patriotism, and naiveté in deciding to join were surely influenced by these iconic characters (amongst many other things).  That being said, I get these characters very well.  We could tell war stories together.  However, they’re fictional and that’s not gonna happen and the truth is, war is a lot more ugly and lot less exciting than these characters typically portray it.

It’s those characteristics, though, the “fighting American,” the dutiful citizen who answers the call to war that make up a large chunk of both Cap and The Punisher.  And that’s where my draw always was.  These weren’t just icons, but American icons.  Although there are many Americans today that are fraught with cynicism and even hatred toward their own country, I have never and will never lose my patriotic spirit or my dedication to the red, white, and blue.  And there are many (hopefully more) who feel the same.

Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941, Steve Rogers is the embodiment of that fighting spirit.  Indeed, he was created to emulate that spirit, that heart, and that call to fight the enemies that would oppress the world, and do so with the valor of an American Soldier.  Steve was born a physical weakling, but a spiritual powerhouse.  He is a kid from New York who struggled with bullies and inadequacies and sickness, yet yearned for nothing more than to be “normal” and fight like every other able-bodied man who answered the call to war.  It wasn’t just a duty, it was the right thing to do.

When given the opportunity to be a part of Project: Rebirth, the name given to the Super Soldier Serum experiment, Steve jumped at the chance.  Even though he wasn’t storming the beaches of Normandy, he was still part of the fight, still in the Army, and doing his part.  Suddenly graced with the gift of the Serum, Steve is transformed into all he’d ever wanted to be and more.  His spiritual strength was finally matched with physical prowess and Captain America was born.

So, that’s how the tale goes in the comics, more or less.  And in Captain America: The First Avenger, it follows that lineage to a tee.

Now, before I dive into my thoughts on the film, be forewarned.  I spoil shit.  I do it to myself well in advance of seeing movies and I’ll do it to you here, too.  By spoil, I mean I’ll be talking details.  Now, this isn’t an M. Night Shyamalan movie (thank, God) so you don’t have to worry about me revealing some great big mystery.  However, if you wish to remain oblivious then you are most definitely in the wrong place (even if it feels SO right).

Captain America is directed by Joe Johnston, whose body of work exudes the underdog spirit and good old-fashioned adventure films of an era long passed.  His earlier films include Jumanji, October Sky, Jurassic Park 3, Hidalgo, The Wolfman, and most importantly, The Rocketeer.  I say that, because it is another comic book adaptation of a character who exists in the WWII era and seemingly induces the spirit of the charming underdog character given great power that could either corrupt with evil or inspire with good.  In that sense, Johnston really was the perfect director for Captain America.  In many ways, his career has led straight to it.

I wouldn’t call Johnston and auteur or even a visionary.  His work feels like someone who is genuinely passionate, almost giddy, but a little light in his step, never trudging into any kind of territory that would make you have to think or feel too deeply.  The term “summer popcorn movie,” often induces the feelings of a fun ride, but nothing that will take you out of your comfort zone.  This can be both good and bad.  In this instance, I think it plays out that way exactly.  Johnston is so good for this film that it actually hinders him a little bit.

Captain America never gets too deep or too dark and the truth is it would be totally cool if it would have.  That doesn’t mean it’s ultra light, either.  It’s exactly middle-of-the-ground thematically, which I personally felt, given my knowledge and investment of the character, that it deserved just a smidgeon more of depth.  That’s me nit picking, but I’ll explain more as I go.

Ultimately, Johnston delivers that “summer popcorn movie” in spades.  Rest easy on that.  And while he doesn’t knock it out of the park, he definitely hits a home run.

The casting of Steve Rogers was a big shit deal.  Names like John Krasinski, Channing Tatum and some blonde-headed dickwad from Gossip Girl were all in the running.  Then, there was Chris Evans, who had some highs (one of my all time favorite movies, Sunshine, Street Kings, London) and lows (Not Another Teen Movie, Cellular, The Nanny Diaries)in his career up to the point of Cap.  He also has the distinction of playing another Marvel superhero, Johnny Storm a.k.a. The Human Torch in both of the abysmal Fantastic Four movies.

Evans found himself typecast as the wise-cracking pretty boy for many of his roles and he seemed to have a kind of fun charm, which gave the impression that he may not have the depth and heart to embody a character like Steve Rogers, who is the very picture of humility.  Having seen Evans in the aforementioned “highs” films of his career, I had faith in him more so than any of the other hopefuls.  For all the controversy, Evans pulls through with shining colors.  Evans, like Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man and Chris Hemsworth in Thor, makes the character and the role his own.  And that’s exactly what it takes to make any of these superhero roles succeed.  Each of those actors creates a voice, a presence, and a connection that makes you associate them with their superhero role without hesitation.  (Witness Ryan Reynolds LACK of connection in Green Lantern to see how NOT to do this).

The establishment of actor-to-character in terms of their respective Marvel films is crucial, given that The Avengers is putting them all in one movie together for next summer.  More on that later.

The supporting cast of Captain America is thankfully stacked with some outstanding players.  Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Chester Philips provides both weight and humor with his presence, Hugo Weaving delivers a solid cartoon villain performance as The Red Skull, and Stanley Tucci delivers the most important performance next to Evans, as Dr. Abraham Erskine, who is the creator of the serum that gives Rogers his powers.  Tucci has been a staple supporting actor for years and is no less here.  His Erskine provides the films center, its message, its heart, and both injects it into Rogers and pulls it out of him at the same time (please, no sexual references…okay, I did say SOME gayness).

Sebastian Stan portrays James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, who is Captain America’s sidekick (a la Batman’s Robin) in the comics, but takes on a stronger presence in the film.  Bucky is seeped in Captain America lore right up to the current run of Captain America comics and has even donned the Cap mantle, if even for a short while.  The history between Bucky and Steve Rogers is very strong and it’s not ignored here.  In fact, Johnston drops numerous hints at things to come in the future (of the comics anyway) with their relationship that really had me appreciating the amount of research he did in preparing this film.  Kudos for that.

I felt the Howling Commandos, a group of Soldiers that are assembled to serve as Captain America’s squad, were the weakest link of the film.  Neal McDonaugh as Dum Dum Dugan, a classic Marvel character who is typically seen with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson in the Marvel films…a very white dude in the comics…yes, it’s confusing) is kind of fun, but he ultimately has very little to do and the supporting squad is a bunch of actors you’ve seen in other places, but can’t quite remember where and it just doesn’t matter.  I could’ve done without them, but they don’t really hurt the film.  They’re just kind of there.

And let’s not forget the absolutely stunning and sultry Haley Atwell as Peggy Carter, a special Army agent assigned to Steve’s division.  I don’t recall seeing her in anything else, but she absolutely embodies the curvy, vivacious 1940’s “dame” with a tough attitude.  I was surprised at how well she pulled it off and found her blossoming romance with Captain America to be genuine and heartfelt.  Thankfully, the chemistry between Atwell and Evans worked.  (Interesting comic nerd note: Steve Rogers is banging special agent Sharon Carter, agent of SHIELD, in the current comics, who is the granddaughter of Peggy Carter).

I’m sure you’re thinking by now: “For fucks sake, Paul, is it good or not?  We don’t need a Goddamn nerd history lesson on Captain America.”

Well, I’m here to tell you that, yes, you do need a nerd lesson.  In case you haven’t noticed, we nerds are TAKING OVER THE MOTHERFUCKING PLANET.  So, sit back and get educated.

Johnston, who worked with Steven Spielberg early in his career, has said that he wanted to model Captain America after Raiders of the Lost Ark, a fast-paced adventure yarn, seeped in cartoonish villains and outlandish characters.  In many ways he succeeds and in many ways he doesn’t.  This is no “Raiders,” which isn’t to say it’s not good.  Let’s end the suspense.  Captain America is very, VERY good.   It’s even great.  We’ll call it great.  What holds it back is the lack of suspense in the action sequences.

The action is solid and fast and cool, but it’s paced so unevenly and with very little suspense, that you often find yourself getting all excited and then, boom, it’s over.  It’s every man’s worst fear.  The action blows its proverbial load WAY too soon in nearly all the action sequences, with a few exceptions.  In creating a montage of Cap fighting Hydra (a branch of Nazi’s dedicated to scientific “research”) in WWII, Johnston takes all these great iconic Captain America moments and relegates them to snapshots, rather than building them up, giving them the suspense they deserve.

Imagine if Bruce Willis didn’t go through all that shit in Die Hard in which he finds himself bloody, beaten, shot, and on top of a roof that’s about to explode.  He ties a fire hose around his waist as he’s about to be shot by a sniper from a helicopter and a rooftop is about to blow. He makes the leap just in time before everything goes up in a massive fireball.  Now, imagine that all you ever saw was the jump itself, with nothing leading up to that moment.  That’s what suspense is.  And in Captain America, Johnston goes for the quick fix, rather than the build up.  And that is my only true complaint of Captain America and the only thing that keeps it from being a “knock out of the park” (but, still a home run).

With that being said, the iconic moments are grand to see onscreen.  For the average moviegoer a dude throwing a big disc may not seem all that great, but for anyone who’s read the comics, it’s an epic moment and one that never gets old.  And the awesome part is that they got it right.  The movements and the trajectory of that shield are captured in pure comic-to-film glory.  It’s a fanboys dream to see that stupid shield fly around like a glorified boomerang.  And here, dreams come true. Captain America is a rare comic film in that it absolutely embraces its roots, rather than trying to mute them, cheesiness, vibrant colors and all.

I have to jump back to Evans for a second and talk about his journey to becoming Captain America.  For my money, they handle it exceptionally.  Some tricky CG work was done to place Evans’ face on a scrawny body for the pre-super soldier version of Steve Rogers and although it is slightly noticeable at times, it ultimately works.  We see the heart and soul of Rogers and his strength and perseverance in remaining committed to becoming a super soldier.  Evans handles the transition well, as Rogers is thrust into action immediately after becoming infused with the formula.  This kicks off a great chase through the streets of New York and I found myself getting really psyched during it.

For the first time, Rogers had the strength and ability to do what he wanted and I felt for him.  I felt for this character, the underdog, who wanted to be more, and now he could be.  This heart, this spirit, is what makes Cap such an alluring character.  You WANT him to succeed, to be his best, and to make a difference.  You want him to get the girl, to beat the bad guy, and to save the day.  Inherently, that’s what he’s there for.  It makes a difference when you genuinely want to see him be victorious.

There are a number of action sequences, but as I said, they are often hurt by the lack of suspense or tension, even if highly entertaining and cool.  Still, I’ll take it, and I look forward to watching the film again, having gotten over this initial disappointment.

Weaving as the villainous Red Skull is just fine, but doesn’t tread any real new ground.  Aside from a sharp design, he’s really not as evil as he should be and definitely not as scary.  In that sense, I think that they could’ve worked a lot harder to make Red Skull more nasty and devious (he is a Nazi after all), which isn’t to say he’s an innocent little schoolboy here.  I just wanted to hate him a little more (but, y’know, in a good way).

And let’s not forget the Marvel Easter eggs.  They are aplenty.  As Marvel continues its universe-building in the film universe, their deft touch is ever present in Captain America.  From the presence of Howard Stark (Tony Stark/Iron Man’s father) as a weapons contractor/project consultant and his “World of Tomorrow” Expo (the same seen revived by his son in Iron Man 2), the cosmic cube (seen at the end of this summer’s Thor) as well as the references to Odin and the World Tree (again, Thor) and a flurry of other tidbits, the ducks are firmly in a row for next summer’s The Avengers.

What Captain America does so well is that it captures the nostalgic and retro feel of the 1940’s WWII era with all the cartoonish fervor and newsreel flavor that was so prevalent at that time.  The comic book adventure, the cheesy fun, and Saturday morning adventure serial tone is ever present and it lends itself wonderfully to the character and universe of Captain America, who was created as a reaction to the very era he lives in.  It is, ultimately, an outstanding tribute to Cap’s creators, as it exemplifies their intent and takes it on a journey through the influences of all those who have written and drawn Cap up to now.

Some are saying this is the “perfect” superhero movie.  In my opinion, it is a great one.  However, what I view as perfection is the four-way punch of Cap, Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk.  Together, I see them as the “perfect” superhero formula, leading us inevitably to next summer’s The Avengers.  I think all of those films are great, but none of them perfect.  This is the first time anyone has attempted to tie so many films together and then pool them all together for one big film. I think the whole prospect is exciting as shit and it’s just been handled so well.  It’s a finely orchestrated operation and I am more jazzed to see it all come together more so than I have been for any other film project since the first Batman in 1989.

Speaking of that…you are a straight up jackass if you leave Cap before the end credits have run their course.  How in the HELL could you pass up a teaser trailer for The Avengers?  Simply put, it is beyond awesome and is the perfect topper after watching Cap’s origin tale.  The audience I saw the film with was cheering and clapping throughout and rightfully so.  It looks phenomenal and even just to get a short sneak peak was worth the price of admission alone.

I can’t wait to see Cap again.  For someone like me, who is obviously biased and a major fan of the character, it will take repeat viewings to let it all soak in.  For everyone else, it’s a fun ride, a throwback to the old school adventure films with a lot of unabashed superhero flavor.  Enjoy it for all it’s boisterous cheese, loud explosions, and nostalgic action.  And if you’re so inclined, enjoy it in the context of its greater place in the Marvel universe of films.  Either way, you’re guaranteed to have a good time and maybe even feel good about being an American along the way.








5 Responses to SUMMER MOVIES: Captain America: The First Avenger

  1. Andy July 22, 2011 at 10:27 pm #

    Hey brother. Glad you loved it too. I absolutely loved the shit out of it, beginning to end. Evans nailed Cap and, as you pointed out, made him a hero you can cheer for the whole time. Johnston does a great job of setting up the story and characters so you care about them before he lets loose with the fireworks and it makes all the difference. I feel like every actor and performance were perfect. Tommy Lee Jones hasn’t been this good in years. Haley Atwell? I’ve never heard of her before but she was breathtaking and sharp and strong and I fell in love with her as Steve did. It was a rare time when I was totally invested in the superhero’s romantic relationship (I mean Natalie Portman is adorable and all but her and Thor falling in love in 12 hours was, ya know, convenient). And when the film ends, I actually got misty for what they missed out on. Yeah, a freaking comic book movie got me choked up. What you want to make of it?!?!

    I loved that the Red Skull was a real villain of real menace and a threat worthy of Cap. And when Cap goes after him, he’s saving THE WORLD (not just his own ass, like Tony Stark). I’m not trying to bag on the other Marvel movies, because I do like them. But I had my little nitpicks with them. I didn’t here. Everything just worked for me. This is my favorite Marvel film. Better than Spider-man, and X-Men, and Iron Man. I really put it up with Superman: The Movie and Batman 89. Big talk, I know. But I just loved it that much and I can’t wait to see it again.

    I understand your point about the action, especially during the montage moments and maybe the train. But I do think that the NYC chase, Bucky’s rescue, and the final action set-piece (from the motorcycle to the jet) did have the appropriate build-up and were great action scenes.

    Loved it man. Fucking loved it.

    • Paul Shirey July 22, 2011 at 11:40 pm #

      I think after all is said and done, little nitpicks out of the way, Captain America is just an absolutely terrific superhero film, and I agree completely that it has secured its place amongst the old classics like Superman and Batman. It is the definitive beginning of Caps much deserved film incarnations and I can’t wait to see where they take him in the future (Winter Soldier, Winter Soldier!).

      What’s great is that the Cap comics have just been earth-shatteringly awesome in the last five or six years and continue to be. With Johnston pulling heavily from their influence it really shows and I noticed a number of great nods to the material. In particular the scene where Bucky is trying to hit on Peggy at the bar with Steve standing there and she is ignoring him. He then says to Steve (paraphrasing): “It’s like I’m becoming you.” which is supposed to be kind of a knock, as if saying I’m becoming the weak, wussy Steve Rogers, but actually comes off as a premonition, since up until last month Bucky WAS Captain America.

      Johnston leaves it wide open to explore that avenue. I would love to see them adapt Brubaker’s initial run on Cap with Winter Soldier and Crossbones. Would be the BIZZOMB.

      Can’t wait to see this again (Sunday!)

  2. Andy July 22, 2011 at 11:56 pm #

    Ha! I’m taking the gf and the roomies on Sunday as well. I told them they HAVE to see it!

  3. Rise of bucky July 24, 2011 at 4:46 pm #

    I loved it. It’s right up my alley as a movie I could watch 100 times. The only thing I thought was missing was iron man being the one to find cap frozen…thought it would be cool to see that. Also I thought the jump to hero status was too quick, no training needed? Sort of what I dug about batman begins was we get to see him go from average boy to skilled fighter. With cap he just got ripped then started fighting withthe skill of a veteran hero. Oh well, still loved it!

  4. Paul Shirey July 24, 2011 at 6:42 pm #

    Yeah, that reiterates my only real disappointment, which was the lack of suspense. Ties in with the training as well, but I can overlook it. The Marvel powers that be are saying that the montage scene is what will tie future Cap movies together. Perhaps that will address the issues then.

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