Friday, July 29

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Directed by Joe Johnston

Sometimes you go into a movie expecting to be disappointed despite hopes otherwise and you end up with Green Lantern – getting about what you expected. But sometimes you get Captain America. I confess that I was worried about this movie – I've learned never to underestimate their ability to mess up a good story, especially on these “summer blockbusters.” But I really liked it. It wasn't perfect, by any means, and frankly the “third act” faltered quite a bit – I got totally confused as to what exactly was going on as Cap and his squad were making their assault on the Red Skull's base in the Alps – but the first half of the movie was well-nigh perfect and the last part recovered nicely.

One thing concerning me was the fact that it was a period piece.  That can be difficult to pull off with this type of material, but in my opinion Joe Johnston was the right director for the job. I had some faith that this might be the case going in since he was the director of one of my favorite although sadly underrated “light” movie adaptations of a story set in the same general period, The Rocketeer. The first half of Captain America had, for me, much the same “feel” as The Rocketeer despite being a very different type of story.

Although I might still have preferred seeing my own favorite for the role of Steve Rogers, Ryan McPartlin (“Captain Awesome” on Chuck), and I was a bit worried about the prospect of Chris Evans as Captain America, those worries were unfounded. He did more than “just fine.” He owned the role. And the effects that made him “skinny” (the general's word) before he received the “super-soldier” treatment appeared flawless to me.

Running down a few things at random, things I liked and didn't like:

The story overall was just what was needed and explained convincingly just why Steve Rogers in particular was chosen for the super-soldier treatment. Very quickly his heroic character that is much greater than his innate talents and abilities will allow him to be is developed, as is his relationship both with his friend (and protector) Bucky Barnes and with Professor Erskine. When the latter two are killed – I don't consider myself “spoiling” anything here since this basic story is decades old! – you feel something despite their relatively brief times on-screen.

The supporting actors – those who played Bucky and Prof. Erskine as well as Tommy Lee Jones as the general and the actors playing Howard Stark and Peggy Carter – all did well with their parts. Can Tommy Lee Jones do anything less than “well”? I liked the way that Stark was somewhat similar in character to his son in the Iron Man movies and yet not just a carbon copy. Hugo Weaving maybe hammed it up a bit much as the Red Skull – but how could he not? That was, of course, encouraged by the cliched use of Wagnerian overtures as his “theme” – but what the heck, I like Wagner. 
The geek in me got a kick that our introduction to Dr. Zola was seeing his distorted face looming large in some mechanical instrument in clear homage to his (unworkable on screen) appearance in the comics as a huge face on a torso rather than a head. Another “geek-out” moment was seeing the original Human Torch (not the same character played by Chris Evans in the Fantastic Four films, but that's just too much to explain here!) standing inert in his glass cylinder at that “World Science Expo” early in this movie.

Always a matter of grave concern in a “comic book” movie is how the costumes are going to work in live action. Cap's was perfect – it looked “real.” Hilariously, they had a good bit of fun with the campy nature of traditional superhero attire by using it first as Steve's costume when he's relegated to promoting war bonds as part of a travelling show. As written, that role made sense – the general believed that one super-soldier was of little use to him in the field once Erskine was dead and with him the prospect of a super-soldier army. And getting to see the on-screen logical development of that public relations drive into comic books and movie serials to promote the image of “Captain America” was great!  As to the costume, soon enough we were rewarded with what looked perfect and functional for Cap's military missions.

Overall, I thought they did a very good job of making a movie that is essentially just a prelude for next year's Avengers movie stand on its own as well. This despite the fact that of all the “Marvel Movie Universe” movies to date this one stands most explicitly as just part of a bigger story. There were all kinds of little links to Thor – not just the “Cosmic Cube” (although I don't think it's ever called that), but the Norse gods motif, the brief glimpse of Asgard – and to Iron Man (Stark of course) as well as directly setting up Avengers in the last few minutes.

But as I said at the outset, the movie's not perfect. A few things bugged me:

I saw it in 2D. And as I understand it, it was shot in 2D with post-production computer conversion to 3D. But it obviously was shot with that in mind – and frankly repeated shots of Cap's shield coming edge-on directly at the viewer got tiresome. That's one thing I don't like about the very idea of 3D, that shots often seem overly contrived just to make use of that “depth.”

Since this was a period piece, although I guess in the context of the story the bad guys having what were essentially “laser guns” made sense ultimately it just kept nagging at me. I'm sorry, but laser guns and World War II just don't mix for me.

There were some narrative failures as well. As I mentioned above, the “third act” I found to be an incomprehensible mess, especially when it came to the assault on the Red Skull's headquarters. I just couldn't follow what was going on. Also, how did those reconnaissance flights miss the huge column of men that Cap led back from his first real mission rescuing Bucky's captured unit?

Granted that I'm not a huge Marvel reader and have only a sketchy knowledge of the characters and universe overall, but I am passingly familiar with the Howling Commandoes. Maybe it had no place in this movie, but I recognized that they were there. But that's about all. Nothing was really made of them. Most importantly, wasn't it “Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandoes”? Thus the same character who keeps popping up with the eye-patch in the set-up scenes for Avengers (as played in repeated walk-ons by Samuel L. Jackson) should have been here as a much younger character. Actually, given the time-gap that's now developed between World War II and the present, that could have been problematic for thinking audience members (he'd have to be ninety- to a hundred-years-old now) – but it could have been handled very easily to instill a sense of mystery about S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury. I think that was a missed opportunity.

Ultimately, however, the shortcomings do not in any way ruin this movie. Man, I'm looking forward to Avengers (with that same sense of hopeful anticipation tempered with fear that it may be a big disappointment)! Luckily, I have a lot of faith in its director, Joss Whedon.

Cheers! … and Avengers Assemble!
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(One thing that unfortunately was beyond the control of the filmmakers did interfere with my total enjoyment of this movie. Parkway Cinema in Natchitoches, Louisiana, please fix the speaker on the right in your right-hand stadium screen! It warbled dreadfully at certain points, whenever the volume reached a certain point or most annoyingly during the music over the closing credits – through which I sat knowing that I would be rewarded with the preview for Avengers.)

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