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Monday, September 26, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger


Cool  guys don't look at explosions.

It’s refreshing to see a film so inspired by its own patriotism. It’s also refreshing to see a film series such as these “Avenger” films that keep getting it right. Of course, they can’t all be perfect (insert Iron Man 2 jab here), but the series has what it needs; in spades. I read a few of the Avengers comics growing up, so I was a bit familiar with the story lines. However, I never knew too much of the mythology behind Captain America. I knew he was a World War II hero and he was the result of a science experiment gone right. He was the ultimate soldier, and he stood for truth, justice, and the American way. Essentially, he was Marvel’s answer to DC’s Superman. And cooler, to boot. But that’s beside the point. Captain America, for me, always held that feeling of what it meant to be American - standing up for what’s right, despite all costs. And that’s the feeling I was left with when this film ended. I was proud to be an American.

I also remember watching, in my youth, the first Captain America film. In my review for The Green Hornet, I noted that that’s the kind of film that makes me question the frailty of the genre. However, and thankfully, 2011’s Captain America - subtitled ‘The First Avenger’ - corrects the many vulgar mistakes of that film. I saw it as a kid, and even then I thought to myself “this is crap!”. There is one thing I took from it, though - the design of “Red Skull”, the film’s villainous Nazi commander. Rough, gritty, and ugly. Exactly what it should have been. Adult, and monstrous. The only thing missing from it was the performance behind the mask.

Captain America is really Steve Rogers (Chris Evans); a small, by all definition, kid determined to serve his country and make his father proud. His best bud Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) tries to protect him and keep him safe, but eventually - at the local fair - Steve enlists again and is accepted. He doesn’t do as well as the other boys. He’s about 100 pounds soaking wet, 5’7”, and shy. He’s brave, though; when he thinks a grenade is about to blow up his squad, he jumps on it without a second thought. He’s the soldier who might make Dr. Erskine’s (Stanley Tucci), Howard Stark’s (Dominic Cooper), and Col. Phillips’ (Tommy Lee Jones) project complete. They have a serum, and all they need is a subject. Rogers is recruited, and turned into the unstoppable American hero - and he’s exactly what we would have needed at the time.

There is a neat twist in the movie’s mythology of the Captain America world. Director Joe Johnston slides in a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek montage of kids in the 40’s reading Captain America comic books and watching the Captain America movies. It’s a neat way to further connect the Avengers series with the real world, and loop the film around its own form of dirty truth. Note - dirty truth doesn’t necessarily mean that this origin tale is one of those “tell all, re-invent the wheel” movies. It’s just gritty for its own reality. There is war, and there are brave men dying for their countries.

Where the movie spends itself out, however, is the second side to the story. Red Skull is really Johan Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), and tried to get Erskine to give him his serum. Of course, like most mad villains do, he injects himself with the potion and becomes evil. Now he wants to usurp Hitler and take over the world for himself. The film seems less concerned with the design of Red Skull, almost as if banking on the fact that people still hate (or don’t remember) the visual forcefulness of him from the first film. And Hugo Weaving’s portrayal suggests he’s seen Inglourious Basterds several times.

Where the film doesn’t spend itself out, however, are the other performances. Mainly, in all areas, it’s wonderfully put together. There’s a touching conclusion to a mostly dramatic script, but even in the drama there are hilarious one-liners and fully fleshed out characters. Being a superhero movie, it is effects laden. For the first twenty minutes or so, Chris Evans is CGI’d into the body of a small weakling. And it’s completely seamless. There are loud action sequences, but it’s important to note that the film isn’t just action and noise. There’s a love story that’s fully believable, there’s the sequel set-up, there are excellent performances, and a smart screenplay fueling that action. Marvel knows that there really isn’t another way to do these movies. They have the formula down to a science.