Monday, July 25, 2011

Movie Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger *** ½  
Directed by: Joe Johnston.
Written by: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely based on the comic books by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.
Starring: Chris Evans (Captain America / Steve Rogers), Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), Sebastian Stan (James Buchanan 'Bucky' Barnes), Tommy Lee Jones (Colonel Chester Phillips), Hugo Weaving (Johann Schmidt / Red Skull), Dominic Cooper (Howard Stark), Richard Armitage (Heinz Kruger), Stanley Tucci (Dr. Abraham Erskine), Toby Jones (Dr. Arnim Zola), Neal McDonough (Timothy 'Dum Dum' Dugan), Derek Luke (Gabe Jones), Kenneth Choi (Jim Morita), JJ Feild (James Montgomery Falsworth), Bruno Ricci (Jacques Dernier), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury).

I was surprised how much I liked Captain America. I was fully prepared to hate the film, as more often than not, I get annoyed with gung ho, pro-America films that allow for no real subtly to come into play. I’m not against patriotism, but more often than not, films like that eliminate all grey areas, and become boring. But Captain America pleasantly surprised me. Yes, it is certainly a pro-American view of WWII, but surprisingly the two films that entered my mind while watching Captain America were Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers. No, Captain America isn’t quite in their league, but it does share some similarities. It has some of the same glorious, alternate history of the Tarantino film, and some of the same questions of American patriotism and heroism of Flags of Our Fathers. Yes, it remains steadfastly a superhero film, but it is certainly one of the best in recent memory.

The film stars Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, a skinny, 90 pound weakling, who in the days of after Pearl Harbor tries again and again to enlist in the army, and is continually rejected. He is too small, too weak, has too many ailments. And yet, he wants to fight. He considers it his job to lay his life on the line to help protect the country he loves. He gets his chance when Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) sees him on his fifth attempt to enlist. Erskine is a German scientist, who sickened by the Nazis, came to America to offer his services. He has come up with a serum that could create an army of super soldiers – it apparently amplifies everything inside the person. He sees Rogers as the perfect man for the job – because he has heart and class, and isn’t just a bully. Of course, when Rogers gets the serum, he turns into Captain America.

The enemy is Johan Schmidt (Hugo Weaving, doing a killer Christoph Waltz impression); a former colleague of Erskine’s, and the first test subject for what was still an unstable serum. He has his own unit within the Nazi science system – Hydra – and dreams of world domination. Not for Hitler or the Reich, but himself. He is developing a weapon that will allow him to do just that. And Captain America is the only one who can stop him.

As superhero origin movies go, Captain America has to be one of the best. I liked what director Joe Johnston did with the movie (he is now forgiven for screwing up The Wolf Man last year). He gives the film a wonderful, desaturated color palette, and I quite liked the art direction and costume design, which looks straight out of a 1940s movie. Surprisingly, the special effects in the movie fit in nicely with the surroundings – the blend is seamless. And Johnston also perfectly cast the film. Evans is quite good as the square jawed Rogers, who he makes a little more human than most superheroes. I loved Tommy Lee Jones as his superior officer, who is even more square jawed, and is hilarious in his humorlessness. Hayley Atwell is smart and sexy as the British agent, who functions as his love interest and more. And Hugo Weaving has a blast playing Schmidt. The supporting cast – Dominic Cooper as Iron Man’s dad, Toby Jones as Schmidt’s weak willed underling, and all of Captain America’s Allied underlings, are in fine form as well.

Oddly, I liked many of the earlier scenes – before Captain America becomes battle tested – a lot more than the actual special effects driven fight sequences that end the film. At first, the Army doesn’t know what to do with Captain America, and make him into a marketing tool – which gives us a great, comedic sequence of him travelling around the country selling war bonds, and heading to USO shows. These are the scenes that reminded me of Flags of Our Fathers, which offered a complex look at what heroism in war is all about. The special effects sequences are well handled, but I’ve seen them before. The rest of the movie was more intelligent than I was expecting.

I must say I am somewhat saddened that Captain America is now simply going to become a part of The Avengers is modern day America. I didn’t like the finale of the movie, which is essentially a trailer for next summer’s superhero extravaganza. The weakest moments in most of these Avengers themed films have been when they push too hard to set up next year’s movie. But what really bothers me is that we will never again see this Captain America in the time period – WWII – where he makes the most sense. Some superheroes update effortlessly. Captain America is not one of them. He makes sense in the 1940s, and I wish I could see him in further adventures in that time period, rather than simply bringing up to date. Oh well, at least we got this movie.

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