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Captain America: The First Avenger

I’ve completely run out of things to say about Marvel film adaptations. This summer alone, I’ve written about Marvel’s home projects (Thor), I’ve talked about their treatment at the hands of other studios (X-Men: First Class), and I’ve even talked about how they’ve spent the past few years running circles around DC/WB (Green Lantern). I’m tapped out, folks. I’ve got nothing left.

Having said that, I was still very excited to go see Captain America: The First Avenger. Not only is this the sole remaining pillar of the Avengers franchise, but it’s also the first real modern effort at adapting America’s most patriotic superhero to the big screen, after two humiliating direct-to-TV attempts. This movie had a lot to accomplish, but so did all of Marvel’s other movies before it. Anyway, the film has finally been released and all that’s left to ask is whether the film successfully did everything it needed to.

The short answer is “Yes.”

Visually, the movie is very good. I found it rather amusing to see the period setting so wonderfully seen through a comic-book lens. This may be the ’40s with high-tech weaponry and secret government labs hidden in antique stores, but it’s the ’40s nonetheless. The special effects were also quite serviceable, aside from a few obvious green screen sets.

Really, I have only two minor complaints about the visuals. First is that my screening was in 2D, and I saw absolutely nothing that made me wish for polarized lenses. Second is that this film has way too much blue. The movie was oversaturated in blue, and I personally think that representing both sides of the Good/Evil fight with the same color just doesn’t work nearly as well. It was a wasted opportunity to further distinguish them in a clear visual way, especially since either of them could have used red or white just as easily.

However, I will admit that all the blue contrasted against Red Skull in a way that made him pop off the screen very nicely. Also — though the lights could have been any different color — I do understand why all of the blue lights were necessary: They underscored the connection between HYDRA’s weapons and the Cosmic Cube. Speaking of which, the Cube’s place in the story is quite interesting to me. Red Skull spends however many years searching for this power from the Gods (the film wastes little time connecting itself to the past few movies, as you can already tell), yet he uses it entirely as a battery. It isn’t until much later — far too late for Red Skull — when the Cube’s true power is hinted at and we learn that our villain never really had any idea what he was playing with. I personally found that it took away from the climax, having the comeuppance delivered more by a magic cube and less by the hero, but I digress too close to spoiler territory. Let’s get back to the production.

The score by Alan Silvestri is wonderful, complete with what may be the greatest main theme that the modern superhero cinema craze has yet produced. It may not be anywhere near as iconic or memorable as the Superman March, but it comes closer than any hero theme I’ve heard in the past ten years, especially with how it’s used in the film. Oh, and the movie also has a propaganda song penned by the legendary Alan Menken.

Then there’s the sound design, which is damn impressive across the board. I especially liked the smaller touches, such as the strange noise that was added to Cap’s shield when it deflected bullets or ray beams. We’re told that the shield can absorb energy, and reflecting that in the sound design was a great move. Also, there were some sweet retro sound effects and multiple uses of the classic Wilhelm Scream.

Really, everything in the production went toward the period setting, and it shows. What’s more, putting the movie in WWII was really the only way this movie could’ve worked. The premise, after all, is about a guy who wants to join the army, but keeps getting rejected because of how scrawny he is. If this story had taken place in the age of Vietnam, Korea, Desert Storm, or Iraqi Freedom, any recruiter in the country would’ve said “Great! Come on in!” without a second look. Also, America has become so incredibly jaded since the Vietnam War that Fox News is now the face of American patriotic propaganda.

Today, voters and politicians pledge allegiance to their parties before their country. We go to war for no better reason than to keep the arms manufacturers in business and the pork money flowing. People fling around totally unfounded conspiracy theories just because they’re scared and untrusting of their government. We’ve come a long way from the optimism of WWII, when American citizens proudly fought and sacrificed with the belief that we would shepherd the world to a better place once we destroyed an enemy who was unambiguously evil.

Yes, no one can deny that we love killing Nazis now just as much as we did back then. The Nazis in this movie are a little different, though.

See, HYDRA actually started out as Hitler’s R&D department. The organization was led by Red Skull, who decides “Screw Hitler, I’m running the show now!” On the one hand, HYDRA is nicely presented as a force that’s powerful enough to conceivably be on par with the Nazi army. On the other hand, HYDRA’s agenda isn’t very well-defined beyond “nuke everything.” I got that Red Skull fancies himself a god and HYDRA members worship him as such, but I honestly couldn’t tell you why Red Skull decided to split off, aside from his ego. Did his opinion of socialist ideology differ from that of Hitler in some way? It’s not exactly understandable what Red Skull is trying to accomplish, but then again, it’s actually kind of refreshing to have a villain who wants nothing more than to take over the world. We haven’t seen one of those in a while.

Hugo Weaving does a wonderful job chewing scenery as Red Skull, and the makeup on him looks crackerjack. However, I do have one problem with the character, and it’s rather like the one I had with Nero in Star Trek (though not nearly to such an extent): The film treats its villain as less of a character and more of an obstacle. He’s just a mission, that’s it. The movie is far more focused on Cap’s friendships and conflicts — both internal and among his colleagues — which consequently makes the bad guy nothing more than something for our hero to hone his skills on.

Tommy Lee Jones also makes an appearance as Col. Chester Phillips. The role of a grizzled old war commander is one that Jones could play in his sleep, and that’s pretty much exactly what he does here. The man does get some great one-liners, but it’s clear that he’s putting in the least possible amount of effort. Still, he doesn’t humiliate himself by any means. With this combination of actor and character, humiliation is out of the question.

Faring much better is Stanley Tucci in the role of Cap’s “creator,” Dr. Abraham Erskine. The character is killed off at the end of the first act — as anyone familiar with the comics knew he would — but Tucci makes a huge impression before he goes. In just a few scenes, Erskine firmly establishes himself as Cap’s moral compass and gets an occasional laugh in the process. It’s he who chooses Steve Rogers to be Captain America, though Steve is the least suitable candidate and everyone knows it. However, we see that Erskine has his reasons for the choice, most of which have to do with Red Skull’s origin (yes, the origins of Red Skull and Captain America are tied. Done to death, I know, but it works here).

Last but not least, Erskine does indeed die in Steve’s arms. Drawn-out death speeches in film are a strong pet peeve of mine, which makes me all the more glad that Erskine doesn’t get one. Instead, he only gets one gesture. One parting gesture that says more than any lesser actor might have been able to say in a whole monologue. Well done, Mr. Tucci.

Then there’s Dominic Cooper, now the third actor in as many films to play Howard Stark. I actually found it quite amusing to see all the ways in which Cooper emulates RDJ, though Howard naturally lives in a time without quite as many drugs or high-tech toys to abuse. Additionally, Stark in this film is visibly much younger than his son in the Iron Man films, which counts for a lot. Nevertheless, Howard Stark is still a cocky and womanizing genius of an SOB. He also serves as a part-time brother figure and a part-time romantic rival to Steve, and their interactions are often quite interesting to watch.

Sebastian Stan also joins in as James “Bucky” Barnes. In the comics, Bucky was a kid sidekick who was basically Robin in all but name. Here, Bucky grew up with Steve, getting him out of beatings on a regular basis. Their roles are sorta reversed after Steve’s transformation, but Bucky remains one of Steve’s best friends. In combat and in conversation, the two treat each other as equals, together through thick and thin. They play wonderfully off each other, and I can’t wait to see Bucky come back in the sequels.

Haley Atwell also deserves a mention for her performance as the love interest. Agent Peggy Carter is a woman from the UK who’s working among men from the US, so she’s naturally able to relate to a fellow misfit. Unlike the bland and forced attempt at romance in Thor, it’s actually plain to see why Peggy and Steve are attracted to each other. The romance arc may be thin at times, but it’s there and it makes sense. Atwell may not be the best or the prettiest actress in Hollywood, but her chemistry with Chris Evans is perfectly serviceable. In fact, Atwell plays Peggy with a surprising amount of strength and humor. For instance, remember her “I think it works” moment from the trailer? That moment is actually much funnier in the context of the movie, and that’s saying something.

Still, what really makes the romance work — especially near the end — is that it’s doomed. We all know that at the end of the day, Captain America will get himself frozen in the Antarctic, and poor Peggy will either be dead or dying by the time he wakes up 70 years later. As a result, the romance isn’t effective because the hero and his love interest get together. The romance is effective because they could get together and have every intention of doing so, but ultimately can’t. And the film plays this in such a way that it’s guaranteed to break a beating heart.

All of this brings me to the star-spangled star of the show. The thing about Captain America as a character is that by himself, he’s kinda boring. Not only is he a total boy scout and an uber-patriotic goody-goody, but he’s a static character by nature. He can’t gradually develop into this paragon of American virtue, after all, or his reasons for joining the army in the first place wouldn’t make sense.

Thus, the film wisely decides to develop Steve Rogers not by dragging the character down, but by strengthening the obstacles against him. At first, he’s a guy who tries multiple times to get into the army, thus showing that he never gives up. The point is later reinforced when he subjects himself to massive pain during the transformation, even when everyone else in the room thinks the procedure should stop. Then, he’s forced into being a U.S. army mascot, which goes against his honest and sincere nature. After that, he goes behind enemy lines with no support or reinforcements, all to save Bucky (his best friend) and a bunch of other POWs (his comrades-in-arms). Steve’s character is challenged at every turn, which makes his unyielding purity that much more powerful.

In Chris Evans’ hands, Captain America isn’t just a superhero, but also a leader and a role model. From first to last, Steve Rogers is a hero not because of his strength, but because of his spirit. This is a character with optimism, integrity, honesty, and a fierce passion for saving lives. This is a man who can lead soldiers into battle, bring them back alive and have them eager for one more time in the battlefield. He’s also quite self-effacing and awkward with women at times, which is endearing to see after he’s turned into a bodybuilder. It can’t be stressed enough that despite his change in appearance, Steve Rogers is still the same good man he ever was. Evans totally knocked this one out of the park, and I can’t wait to see where he takes the character from here.

Captain America: The First Avenger has its flaws, but it’s still a very good movie. The action is solid, the pacing is good, the music is awesome and the performances are all wonderful. In particular, Chris Evans takes his place among RDJ, Chris Hemsworth, and Sam Jackson in the list of actors who have become inseparable from their Marvel counterparts.

Oh, and I suppose I should mention the end credits stinger. This time, it’s actually a teaser for The Avengers, and it looks great so far. It’s the only movie left to go for Marvel’s immediate future, and it just happens to be the single biggest superhero movie ever attempted.

As always, Marvel, no pressure.

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