25 July 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger Is Marvel’s Best Film Yet

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Directed by Joe Johnston. Starring Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Sebastian Stan.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

How much a geek am I? After my first screening of Captain America, I stood up and thrust both my hands in the air with balled fists and screamed “Hail HYDRA!” Yeah, they may be the bad guys, but they have a great rallying cry.

I have waited since I was twelve years old for a big theatrical Captain America movie. (That 1990s straight-to-vid quickie directed by Albert Pyun does not count.) Ever since I was old enough to read comics on my own, Cap was my favorite superhero. I have spent an enormous amount of time on this blog with my series “Re-Cap,” following the chronological history of the Captain America comic book. All that Captain America: The First Avenger needed to do was not mess up Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s star-spangled hero and I would be happy.

Now I’m ecstatic. I unabashedly love this movie. It is the finest product yet to come from Marvel Studios and one of the best superhero movies ever made. I’m going back to see it a second time the moment I can. (In fact, by the time you read this, I probably will already have seen it a second time; I watched the first show on Friday morning.)

However, I recognize that not all people will walk into Captain America with the same adoration for the character, and for the 1940s, that I have. I also concede that the film has some flaws. However, I think I stand on solid ground when I say that most viewers are going to have a good time with this movie. Possibly a very good time. It’s the sleek summer movie without the bombast, the summer film that actually aims to entertain as opposed to pummel its viewer (yeah, Michael Bay, I’m looking at you). It is also essentially about the concept of “heroism,” and its optimism even in the midst of the worst war in history is something viewers from all nations can cheer. Every summer produces at least one of these wonders, and Captain America is it for the Summer of ’11.

Now that I have finished the screaming-and-shouting part of this review, time to move into specifics.

The main reasons that Captain America: The First Avenger works is that the movie knows exactly what it wants to be and achieves it, and it understands its two main characters: Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), and Johann Schmidt, a.k.a. The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). It strips away cynicism and irony to tell a straightforward story of Good vs. Evil. Sometimes, viewers need a shot of the old-fashioned pulp heroism, and Captain America contains that joy, and everyone involved seems in on it. It is not as classic as Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it exudes that same sort of “Golden Age of Adventure” euphoria. In fact, Raiders will probably be name-checked more than any other film when it comes to Captain America reviews. That, and director Joe Johnston’s other period superhero film, 1991’s The Rocketeer. Captain America is essentially the delivery of the promise Johnston made with The Rocketeer, and hinted at again with his fine early Space-Race drama October Sky.

For a summer spectacular, Captain America is a highly character-driven story. The movie spends the right amount of time letting the audience get to know Steve Rogers so that all his later battles mean something aside from the need to blow things up. From the moment the scrawny Steve Rogers appears in the film, a boy from Brooklyn who yearns to join up for World War II but can’t because of a laundry list of physical ailments, we sense what a great heart beats inside that weak body. When asked if he wants to “kill Nazis,” he answers: “I don’t want to kill anybody. I just can’t stand bullies.” That’s Captain America captured in a single response. He is not a warmonger, he doesn’t fight because it thrills him: he fights to stand up against those who believe “might is right.”

Chris Evans’s performance throughout the movie, whether as the asthmatic Steve Rogers, or as a costumed performer selling bonds at USO shows, or as Captain America barreling through the agents of HYDRA, shows that Cap is the most decent, strong-hearted man around. You believe any soldier would follow him, and that no force of evil could ever make him back down. Just the way that Evans slams his shield back onto his arm after catching it shows a man who will never surrender.

There is something powerful about building conflict around a person whose is inherently good and without personality flaws. In a time when heroes are expected to have troubled psyches and darker sides, Captain America shows that a genuinely heroic man can make for great drama as well. It’s refreshing.

On the other side . . . The Red Skull (Der Rote Schälde) is the best villain that the recent slew of Marvel Studio films has produced. The Red Skull of the comics is as vile as they come. Other criminal masterminds like Doctor Doom and Magneto have elements of honor and tragedy to their personalities. The Red Skull has nothing remotely redeemable to him—and that’s fantastic! I appreciate villains with well-rounded character arcs like Magneto, but when it comes to Captain America, we need a baddy so nasty that hating him is like a caffeine high.

The movie version of the Skull played by Hugo Weaving nails it. The Red Skull has a tragedy in his past connected to experimenting with an early version of the Super-Soldier Serum that eventually turns Steve Rogers into Captain America. But the Red Skull actually embraces his disfiguration. I almost cheered when I realized this during the film: “The Red Skull likes looking hideous! He revels in it!” This version of the Red Skull is so repugnant he thinks the Nazis are too petty for him. He believes he is near to godhood, and to his followers in HYDRA, a Nazi science-cult that sounds like something that mass-murdering crackpot Heinrich Himmler might have dreamed up, he is a god, higher than Hitler. Hugo Weaving delivers the right amount of controlled madness and arrogance, avoiding the trap of a corny accent. (i.e. “Colonel Clink Malady.”) Listening to Weaving dressing down top Nazi officials is a wicked joy.

There is an interesting subtext to the film that reverses the adage that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Steve Rogers is a good man who receives great power—and becomes a great man. Johann Schmidt is a hateful man who receives great power—and becomes a thoroughly evil man. This concept that power accentuates the qualities of the person who receives it bolsters the Good vs. Evil story and adds an extra layer to the characterizations.

The Red Skull’s dastardly plan comes from the discovery of an Asgardian object (already glimpsed in the post-credits sequence from Thor) called the Tesseract. Marvel fans will recognize it as “the Cosmic Cube.” When the Skull’s scientific genius Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) manages to harness the cube’s power, it gives HYDRA an advantage in weapons tech that the Allies cannot possible match.

But of course, the allies have Captain America! Although they don’t realize it at first.

The opening forty minutes of the movie, showing Steve Rogers’s ascent toward superhero-dom, are the film’s strongest. Director Johnston showed how much he understands the feeling for this time period with The Rocketeer, and he has a grand time staging USO spectaculars. (The original song written for Cap’s pageants, “The Star-Spangled Man,” is period perfect. It will make you want to go buy war bonds in the theater lobby.) The action builds here well, showing how Cap becomes a fighting machine even though the U.S. military is not certain what they want to do with the only super-soldier they have. It’s this “everyman” quality about Cap that makes him so wonderful a hero; this is a figure you want to see rise up and show what he is capable of achieving.

The second half of the movie turns into a “men on a mission” flick, with Cap and his team of Howling Commandos (that name is actually never spoken) taking the battle to HYDRA in Europe. This where the film stumbles a bit, because . . .

Okay, I cannot believe I am making this complaint about a movie. I almost never have this problem with current films. But . . .

Captain America: The First Avenger is too short. Coming in at two hours, the film feels like it could pack in another twenty minutes without losing the audience. It seems as if a major action beat is missing somewhere in the second half. The Howling Commandos only get a few choice character moments, and I wanted to see more of them. Bucky, played by Sebastian Stan, suffers the most from the brevity. “Bucky” in the comics of the 1940s was Cap’s teen sidekick, with later continuity aging him up into a specialized assassin. The movie’s script makes Bucky a friend of Steve’s from New York who gets to enlist in the army while his 4F friend must remain behind. Bucky works well in the early scenes, but he feels underused when he goes into action with the Howling Commandos. Bucky forms a major part of Captain America’s mythology and his later motivations, and even though Evans is able to sell these emotions on the film, there in not quite enough of it before the movie hurtles toward the conclusion.

But it’s a stunner of a conclusion ending, thankfully. The first scene of the movie tells viewers unfamiliar with Cap’s comic book history what will happen, but the finale is an airborne adrenaline rush nonetheless.

The supporting cast is excellent. Tommy Lee Jones is exactly what he should be as a tough-talking U.S. colonel who isn’t wowed with the idea of a Super-Soldier. Jones can spit out the surly no-nonsense military lines and gritty Patton-esque pep talks like nobody else, while still making you know he is a stand-up fella whom you would want at your back. Stanley Tucci as Dr. Erskine provides some of the most heartfelt moments early in the movie, and gives viewers a conduit to the Red Skull long before Cap meets the villain face-to-skull. Tucci’s scenes will also help sell the movie internationally, since he shows that not all Germans are bad guys. That he’s Bavarian, the birthplace of Nazism, is an extra push.

Hayley Atwell plays a gutsy Peggy Carter, a British agent involved with the Super-Soldier program who is more willing to listen to Steve’s ambitions when he end up shut into military limbo. Atwell has a feistiness that fits classic 1940s actresses, and the chemistry between her and Chris Evans makes the slow-burn romance believable so it pays-off in the emotional finale.

Another of Cap’s major villains from the comic books appears in the cast. No, not Flag Smasher . . . another Jack Kirby creation, scientist Arnim Zola. Kirby invented Arnim Zola and his unusual physiognomy—he has a robot body with an electronic “ESP box” instead of a head, and a projection of his face filling up his chest—in his late ‘70s run on Captain America. Diminutive Toby Jones plays Zola, and it is strange to see the man’s head actually on top of his body. Weird. But at least there’s a piece of fan-service introducing him that hints at the projected face. Zola is the Red Skull’s main scientist in HYDRA, and Jones is ideal as a weasly, subservient figure. His purpose, aside from developing the power of the Cosmic Cube, is to make the Red Skull and HYDRA look extra-malignant, since even Arnim Zola feels frightened of them. I hope in future Captain America films we will see the clone-body Zola appear.

As a finishing polish, Alan Silvestri’s score has the right robust orchestral sound for a patriotic hero. It sounds like what Jerry Goldsmith—the best composer of military music—might have scored for the film if he had lived to do it. Coming from me, a die-hard Goldsmith fan, that is a huge compliment.

As the subtitle “The First Avenger” explains, this film is a direct set-up to next year’s The Avengers movie. Captain America does feel like the final colon in a long sentence, but it is the most appropriate departure point. It carries less baggage than the previous films, which often had extraneous scenes of SHIELD slowing down events (SHIELD’s endless interference almost derailed Iron Man 2 in its middle stretch). The stripped-down energy is the ideal way to get audiences pumped to see The Avengers. The wrap-up scenes in Captain America came at me unexpectedly, but they effectively conclude Cap’s emotional arc within the 1940s while putting the pieces in place for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to assemble next year.

And, I have a sense that when The Avengers does come out in 2012, Captain America will be the heart of the team. In The Avenger’s panoramic poster revealed at ComicCon, Cap is the one in the middle. No surprise.

Finally, whatever you do . . . stay through the end credits. If you have seen Marvel’s other “Avenger set-up films,” you will know there is a surprise tucked away after the MPAA logo rolls off the screen. This is the best surprise yet.