Saturday, July 23, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

Boy do I hate that costume, but man did I love this movie.

The summer of 2011 might go down in film history as the summer of the comic book movie, with Captain America maybe being the best of a pretty stellar lot. Out of the plethora of comic book movies that hit theaters this summer (with maybe more to come? I can't remember), I think I was most excited to see this one, because I'm a huge fan of the character and the comics. However, this was also the film I was most dreading, because I'm such a huge fan of the character and the comics. I'm happy to say director Joe Johnston and pulled it off and did the character justice.

More than any other comic book film in recent memory, this almost completely captured the spirit of the character I grew up reading. Captain America is a hero like no other, and he should always be portrayed as kinder, better, more admirable, and just plain heroic than any other super hero, and this film made great pains to ensure they got all of that right. In the comics and in this film, Captain America isn't a hero because of his costume or his great strength or his outstanding agility, but because his alter ego Steve Rogers is such an honorable man. People who see this movie are going to see one of the best portrayals of a true hero in maybe any comic book based film since the original Superman film way back when.

A lot of that has to do with the script, but credit is also due to the wonderful performance by Chris Evans. Frankly, Evans isn't a great actor, but he's not a bad one either, but he managed to really knock this one out of the park, creating a fantastic and fascinating character that is larger than life not only because of his physical stature, but because of his charm and good nature as well. When I saw Thor, I came out of the theater wishing I had arms like actor Chris Hemsworth. When I saw Captain America, I came out of the theater wishing I was friends with Steve Rogers. That's an important distinction about Captain America, since he is one of the few heroes nobody really wants to be, we just want to be around him.

Astoundingly, Evans played the character both before and after his transformation from the 90lb weakling to the strapping behemoth with the body of Greek god. I honestly don't know how the special effects people pulled this off, but it was seamless and completely believable. I've read a few reviews where people said the puny version of the character looked like a bobblehead, but I didn't see it. I thought it was amazing and stood out as one of the best and most incredible special effects I've seen in years. Too bad some of the other CG in the film hadn't been as well done, like the scenes where Captain America is jumping through the sky or tossing bad guys around.

One of the reasons Chris Evans gave such a good performance was because he had such an amazing cast to act against. Tommy Lee Jones was as great as you'd expect as the gruff Army Colonel who gives Captain America his orders, and Stanley Tucci was fantastic as the genius scientist Dr Abraham Erskine who developed the serum that turned our main character into a super soldier. Hayley Atwell was very good and very charming as the love interest, and it was great that she was given more to do than just stand around and look pretty. And we even got fairly substantial roles for the Howling Commandos, although they are never referred to by name in the film, the best of which was Neal McDonough as Dum Dum Dugan. I nearly jumped out of my seat when that character came on screen.

And then there was Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull. I'd be interested to hear what non-fans of the comics think of his look and manner, but, personally, I thought he was incredible. Hugo Weaving's performance was perfectly menacing with the right mixture of subtly and over the top histrionics, and the visual design of his face looked just like a Jack Kirby drawing. I really enjoyed Chris Evans and the rest of the actors who portrayed the allies, but Weaving's Red Skull nearly stole the entire film. I'm going to go ahead and say that this was the best comic book villain ever put on film.

There was also the prerequisite cameo by Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee, who is given maybe his funniest line yet. I'm pretty sure his joke got the biggest line in the theater when I saw it, either because it was funny or because it was Stan Lee. This raises an interesting point: Was this the first time Stan Lee had a cameo in a film about a comic book character he didn't create? Stan Lee's contribution to Marvel in general and to Captain America in particular can't be overstated enough, since he wrote some of the best Captain America stories ever and should be credited (or, at least, co-credited) with bringing him back to the public eye in the sixties by reintroducing him in The Avengers, but I do think it's important to note that the character was actually created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. I just wanted to mention that.

It wasn't all great, however, and there were just a few weird odds and ends that kept it from being a truly perfect comic book movie in my opinion:

I already mentioned the costume, but boy was it terrible. To begin with, it's unfaithful to the comic with needless "updates" intended to make it look more realistic or fit to actually wear into battle. Why doesn't Hollywood understand that any attempt to make a comic book outfit more "realistic" only serves to make it look more silly and strange? But even forgetting the fact that it isn't exactly like what we've seen in the comics, it's just downright ugly. I also didn't understand why the felt the need to shoehorn the character into that USO act, as though they needed to explain why he was wearing a costume at all. He's a super hero from a comic book. Just have him wear a costume.

Another odd thing was how this was maybe the first WWII period piece in which we never actually see any swastikas or Nazis. The enemies are actually a group called HYDRA who are presented as an off shoot of the Nazi party, but who have their own insignia and plans for world domination. They look and dress like Nazis, however, and speak in German accents, they just don't have swastikas or talk about genocide. This isn't a criticism, however, just an odd detail than I found strange, since Captain America was supposed to have fought in WWII against the German army. I'm guessing they changed this so they didn't have to sell toys to kids that were covered in swastikas, which is good thinking all things considered.

And, finally, structurally speaking, this film was oddly put together, with maybe more than half of the film detailing the character's origin. In fact, I don't even think he put on his costume until well over an hour into the movie. Again, this isn't a bad thing, but the problem was that the origin story was so brilliantly put together, that by the time the main plot rolled around and the real film started, it felt more like a by the numbers action film. I'm not saying that the second half of the film was bad, just that the first half was so much better, more original, and emotionally stirring. And I can imagine that anybody unfamiliar with what happens to the character in the comics will be confused by the way this film ends. As a comic fan, however, I thought the ending twist was pulled off as well as I could've hoped, and should lead right into next year's (?) Avengers film.

So... Captain America: The First Avenger. I really, really liked this movie, and thought it was as good as any comic book film I've ever seen. Steve Rogers was perfectly captured and many of his character beats actually made me misty with emotion. However... that costume really sucked and took me out of the film whenever it was on screen. Luckily, the costume isn't seen all that often, almost as though the director was embarrassed to show it, either because he knew it was ugly or just doesn't like comic book costumes at all. Joe Johnston is a wonderful director of action set pieces who made a great, heroic war movie, but here's to hoping that geek Wunderkind Joss Whedon embraces the tropes and look of the comics more when he directs the upcoming Avengers film.

Anyway, go see it.


Keir said...

But does he punch Hitler? I assume he fights Germans given the photo you provide (Black? check. Asian? check. Brit? check. The rest white Yanks? check), but then what is he avenging according to the poster? Apparently not Pearl Harbour. I have a couple of students here in Dachau investigate the role of the Nisei division- Japanese-Americans who liberated the camp and town. But who is the Asian in the photo? Chinese? Are they in Europe? And showing a black team member is re-writing history to ignore the shameful contempt with which blacks were treated whilst fighting fascism. Black Americans would never have been permitted anywhere near a normal army unit but were segregated. It took over sixty years to set up a memorial to the 11 black soldiers tortured to death by the SS at Wereth. Most would say this is only another blockbuster movie, but these American-made films present nonsense to people who accept at least some of it as fact as it's all they know.

Donald said...

He punches a guy dressed up like Hitler during his stint as a USO performer. It's more of an homage to the original cover of the first Captain America comic than any kind of actual plot point.

As for the mixed group of soldiers, they are a hand picked group of special operatives called the Howling Commandos. They are from the comics.

And I'm not sure if you're American or not, but I am, so you can rest assured that the notion that we get all of our "facts" from nonsensical films like this is nonsense of its own. It's a comic book movie. It's fantasy, not any presentation of reality.

Mugato said...

Total agreement. A) This movie was 100x better than I expected. I was worried about how Red Skull would be portrayed but they did a bang up job. b) That costume was horrible! c) Very annoying that the villains are NOT Nazi's.

Amazing how I never learned about HYDRA or Captain America in my history books. Now I know what really happened...

Donald said...

It was almost as though the people who made this film thought, "We need to have an awesome villain, but Nazis just don't seem evil enough."

Here's a tip for any would-be-filmmaker: Nazis are evil enough. In fact Nazis are the most evil villains ever, hands down. They could've had Cthulhu rise out of the depths of the ocean to slaughter all of humankind, and he still wouldn't be as evil or scary as Hitler.

Having said that, The Red Skull was a great villain. But he's just scarier when he's working under Hitler instead of for his own gains, no matter how nefarious and evil those gains may be.

Keir said...

Donald- A large proportion of British students thought the Battle of Endor really took place, and a greater proportion of American kids thought the Americans were breaking away from Russia during the revolutionary war.

Donald said...

I don't doubt that there are stupid people everywhere, since I've met thousands of them. However, after having lived most of my life in the United States, I've never once met anybody who said that the American revolution was against Russia. That isn't to say there aren't American's who believe that, but that those people are statistically more insignificant that you are implying.

I've also lived in Europe for seven years, and I met plenty of people who knew nothing about American history or geography. I met one girl who thought our capital was Boston. That doesn't mean all Europeans are ignorant and stupid. It just means stupid people are stupid.

Justin Garrett Blum said...

After seeing the trailer, my wife asked if Chris Evans actually lost all of that weight for the role, like Christian Bale did for The Machinist. So I guess the special effects were pretty believable. We haven't seen the film.

The one thing I will say about that effect is that it reminds me a little bit of the uncanny valley that's talked about in robotics--it's very realistic, but just weird enough that it kind of makes you uneasy.

Anyway, I'd like to see the film, but I'm sure I'll be stuck waiting on DVD for this just as I do for every other movie these days.

And for the record, I've never ever met anybody who thinks that Americans fought Russia in the Revolutionary War. And I've met some dumb people. Furthermore, I can't find any evidence for that vague claim about American students.