Monday, August 08, 2011

In Theaters: Captain America: The First Avenger

Poster and IMPAwards link
Though the superhero genre may be reaching a saturation point at the movies (as opposed to comics where it apparently never gets boring), I’m not quite tired of them yet. At least a good entry can still stand out, and Captain America: The First Avenger, the last step in Marvel’s buildup to next year’s The Avengers, is a remarkably fun movie. Captain America was always going to be a challenge, as three failed movies have demonstrated, but the filmmakers, notably director Joe Johnson (of The Rocketeer), embrace the character’s wartime origins and star-spangled cheer, delivering an old-school pulp adventure with just the right balance of character and action. It’s way more fun than a lead-in to an upcoming summer blockbuster should be.

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is introduced to us in 1942, applying for enlistment in the U.S. Army and being rejected repeatedly based on his many, many physical deficiencies, from asthma and a touch of TB to a generally scrawny physique. A 4F label is no fun to live with, but beyond any shame, Rogers feels an innate desire to help his country just as his mother and father did (giving up their lives in the process.) His repeated efforts to get in attract the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who is working with the Army to develop a super-soldier serum which amplifies a person’s strength, agility, and possibly his or her basic character. Erskine sees in Rogers’ gentleness and perseverance the qualities the soldier of tomorrow will need, and Steve steps up to be the subject of a painful and dramatic medical procedure which turns him into a musclebound superman.

Erskine is killed shortly after the experiment and his serum destroyed, and the newly powered Steve is sent on a propaganda tour to sell war bonds under the name “Captain America”. When he ends up in Anzio performing for unenthusiastic troops, he discovers that a friend of his has been captured by the forces of HYDRA, the Nazi’s covert science arm which, under the leadership of the “Red Skull” Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), has broken away from Hitler to try and conquer the world themselves. The Captain leads a prisoner breakout and graduates from USO performer to full-fledged hero, aided by Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), the lovely and kickass Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), inventor and aviator Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), and a host of fighting commandos.

As you might imagine, this film has a solid sense of humor about itself. Cap’s brief sojourn into showbiz is an inspired twist- it allows the filmmakers to trade on the original Golden Age image of the Captain, and the historical context in which he and other patriotic heroes arose. It adds self-awareness to the film’s retro pulp indulgence, just enough to make it interesting but not so much that it undermines the reality of the story. As in the Indiana Jones movies, we’re being told that this is an old-fashioned adventure film and to adjust our mindset accordingly.

Continuing what has been an encouraging trend in Marvel’s pre-Avengers movies, the hero is surrounded by a strong supporting cast of characters, and their interactions form the film’s heart. As Peggy Carter, Atwell is enchanting and convincingly kick-ass, and Tommy Lee Jones’ dry persona is a good addition as well. Chris Evans plays Rogers as more the starry-eyed cadet than the respected veteran Cap would become, but it fits the story very well. There’s a bit of sweetness and even sadness to Steve’s arc, even managing a moist eye or two near the end. On the side of evil, Weaving plays the Skull as the Captain’s snarling opposite, someone who has also been given great power and sees himself as no longer human as a result.

The action sequences in this one are really good, some of the best I’ve seen this year. They’re clear, they’re legible, and there’s a good balance between CGI effects and stuff that seems to be live on set. It helps that, as Cap is fighting a war against fascist scum, the whole “superheroes don’t kill” law gets to be waived (though the picture does take care to emphasize Steve’s gentleness- he doesn’t want to kill Germans, he just doesn’t like a bully.) This is another movie where 3-D conversion was done after the fact and doesn’t add a whole lot, but it doesn’t hurt the visuals either.

Though Marvel Studios’ whole strategy as regards setting up an Avengers franchise may be calculated commercial filmmaking at its most corporate, it’s hard to be too concerned when it produces genuinely good movies. Captain America: The First Avenger is just fun in a way that blockbusters aspire to but are often a little too cynical to manage. It’s a lead-in, and ends in a very direct fashion that precludes other potential directions for the series on its own, but it works not just as a prelude, but a great adventure in and of itself.

Based on the character created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Directed by Joe Johnston

Grade: A-

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