Monday, August 1, 2011

Rocket's Red Glare

The summer blockbuster train continues en route to 2012's Joss Whedon-directed Avengers movie, this time introducing to feature film audiences Marvel Comics' stalwart defender of freedom in Captain America: The First Avenger. Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Captain America was introduced to comic book fans in 1941 as a World War II hero who was made to be poster child for patriotism of the American soldier. Strong of mind but weak of body, Steve Rogers' bravery in volunteering for a risky procedure to fight the evils of Nazi Germany was the stuff of legends, and during the war Captain America was among the most well-received comic book heroes. That popularity faded with the War's end, but in 1964 he was brought back from the dead, revived from suspended animation to lead one of the most iconic superhero teams of all time... can you guess it? Yup, The Avengers team was partially as big and important as it was thanks to a thawed-out WASP from the forties. Since then "Cap" has been truly one of the most important characters in comics, though seemingly always overshadowed by flashier, grittier heroes such as Iron Man, The Hulk, Wolverine and Spider-Man. That lack of sparkle has always been a problem for him, and that was the main reason I wasn't sure whether I'd like this new film. Cap has always been relatively somber and focused, more of a sounding board for wittier men and women to bounce their best material off of, all the while unflappable and dedicated to his mission. This doesn't always make for a great main hero however, so director Joe Johnston was going to have to be near-perfect if he wanted this title to be close to Thor or the under-loved X-Men First Class in terms of sheer film quality.

Woah... Big Guns...
After failing at attempts to enlist in five different cities due to his physical malnutrition and stunted growth, Brooklyn-born Steve Rogers (Boston native Chris Evans) doesn't know what to do. Men less brave than he are headed overseas to battle the oppressive forces of Nazi-occupied Europe, and Steve so desperately wants to join their ranks. His desire is not to kill men, but to combat evil, and even seeing his best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) off to war without him is almost too much for him to take. He finally gets his chance when Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) approaches him and offers a chance to get into the fight. Recruiting Rogers into his "Super Soldier" test program, Erskine injects Rogers with a secret drug that manages to transform the weak New Yorker into a bonafide power house, and eventually into a true-blue American hero.

Results are not typical. Do not take the Super Soldier Serum without first consulting your doctor.
Of course, the story of Captain America is pretty much academic, and not at all the reason you're going to see it in the theater. You're going for the special effects, explosions and gunfire, as well as 3D imagery and IMAX surround sound, and for those attributes this film is not at all lacking. Though more circumstance than pomp reigns the film's first half, once the action kicks in there is very little not to glue your eyeballs to. Even many non-combat sequences are well shot, with choreography and cinematography working extremely well together. Say what you want about Johnston's body of work (Jurassic Park III and The Wolfman, take your pick), but he does occasionally make good use of the camera in front of him. Sound effects are also nice and loud, for those of you who have yet to completely blow out your eardrums. The only real complaint I had was with the 3D, as has often been the case this year. With most visual technology, the best thing you can say about it is when you can't tell it has been implemented. The Incredibles is my foremost example, when you see the near-real island forests in that film's final act. 3D doesn't work that way. When a film is 3D, the audience needs to feel immersed while also being aware at the enhancement, which to be fair is a difficult line to toe. It certainly isn't IMPOSSIBLE, but very few films have adequately used 3D to properly stand out from their typical 2D variants.

Steve Jobs' early attempt to harness iPod technology goes a bit awry
It seems odd that I name my blog after a line from Hugo Weaving when Weaving has barely been made mention of at all in my work. My Transformers review notwithstanding, Weaving has simply not been in too much that I've seen of late, and his 2010 effort The Wolfman was ignored by me on the recommendation of several others. Still, I've loved the effort he has brought to modern-day iconic titles like The Matrix and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and nobody can doubt the talent he carries with him on the set. In this way, he is perfect as an unfortunately one-note villain, Captain America's arch-nemesis The Red Skull. Though Skull doesn't have too much depth to him, Weaving does his best to create a genuine menace around this simple character, one which dramatically poses while spewing generic. cliched bad guy lines, all the while berating his lackey (an underused Toby Jones) and rarely doing his own dirty work. That he still carries one of the film's better performances is as much a testament to his talent as one to the lack of strong character throughout Captain America. Chris Evans would not have been my first choice to play the eponymous superhero, but once again he surprises me with his ability to ease into whatever his director asks him to do, and that pure ability makes him worth more than a dozen Taylors (Lautner or Kitsch, or any other for that matter). If he's not one of the biggest stars in Hollywood a decade from now, something will have gone terribly wrong. And Stanley Tucci reminds us that he is in fact one of the businesses' best workers, giving a real heart to a character that probably would have been overlooked by other filmmakers. More than Evans, Tucci steals every scene in which he appears, the film being all the better for his abilities.

Putting her best chest... I mean FOOT forward
It's a shame the rest of the cast doesn't step up to the plate as much as those three. True, the simplistic dialogue and sparse character development is the biggest culprit, but the performers' inability to overcome these obstacles simply cannot be ignored. Best of "the rest" is Hayley Atwell as British Agent Peggy Carter, Cap's love interest and bad-ass soldier in her own right. A recent trend in the female hero community has brought us Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, strong characters that could go toe to toe with heroes and villains alike, whether by Jane's intelligence or Widow's more... PHYSICAL methods. The film tries to make Peggy Carter too much of both, and then fails to meet either standard. She does play well off of Evans, but in fairness so does everybody else. Relative unknown Dominic Cooper is fine and makes some waves as Howard Stark, father of the modern-day Iron Man, but is too patterned after Howard Hughes to be original in the slightest. Sebastian Stan tries his best as Cap's sidekick Bucky Barnes but doesn't quite fit the bill, while his character is marginalized to the point that true fans would (and do) cry foul. Tommy Lee Jones is by far the worst, playing the same damned tough-guy old man character you've seen him play a hundred times before. Sure, he chews up scenery like nobodies business, but there are no surprises with him anymore. Throw in a bunch of under-developed cannon fodder and you have a nice war film, but not one that capitalizes on the rich history of the comic book characters inherent.

Here's a nice action scene to soothe your palette
At about the film's halfway mark, the story breaks down to random battle scenes and violence that could only be referred to as gratuitious. While not BAD, it definitively strays from the strong narrative we that had been standard issue for Marvel Comics films this year. From this sequence, it takes far too long to get back on track, and it would have probably been easy to make a trilogy of films surrounding the shambles of bits and pieces strewn throughout. When you compare this tale to the cohesive stories of most of the other superhero films released in 2011 (and yes, by that I mean even Green Lantern), it's the one thing that prevents Captain America: The First Avenger from being among the best action films this year. A strong showing among that lot help damper excitement surrounding this title, especially with it being portrayed as an elaborate lead-in to The Avengers in the first place. As nice as it was to see the familiar red, white and blue hero make a successful transition to the big screen, Captain America works better in a group, and that's most of what I'm looking forward to in the 2012 blockbuster. Still, I had a lot of fun and would at least recommend checking this one out, at least as long as you avoid the useless 3D showings.

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