Friday, July 29, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger; He's Waited Long Enough

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

As I explained here, I've been looking forward to Captain America's advent for some time. On opening day (this past Friday), I got to see the movie twice in 3D thanks to the generosity of my in-laws. Then, on the following Wednesday, I saw it again in a regular screening. I've not seen a movie at this rate since The Return of the King, so you can bet that I've got a lot to say about this fun film. Out of respect for this review coming out within the film's first week, I won't be spoiling anything past the first half of the movie. That said, much of the plot is true enough to the Marvel books that if you're familiar with them, you'll know the basics of the plot from the first scene on.

Expectations 'Odor': As Captain America: The First Avenger neared its release date, one of the things that continually impressed me about the film was the quality casting. Iron ManHulk, and Thor all displayed progressively star-studded casts, and Captain America was the culmination of that trend. With Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, and Hugo Weaving all playing critical supporting roles (or, in Weaving's case, Cap's arch-enemy), it was shaping up to be a fine piece of drama in the most under-realized genre today: period superhero stories. Even Neal McDonough (whom, you might recall, was my choice to portray Steve Rogers once upon a time) got in the film as Dum Dum Dugan, and JJ Feild played a charismatic James Montgomery Falsworth (as opposed to the well-realized rat-turd Thax he played in Centurion). I knew that this was going to be special from the start, but I wasn't expecting to have so many great performers to divide my focus. Indeed, each of my three viewings over the past week were distinctly different, but all wonderful.

Appreciation 'Beef': There's just so much to say about Captain America: The First Avenger, so many things to take in that it'll be an effort to keep this blog post at a manageable length. I could promise to be brief--but meh, it's me. The movie features an awesome cast that plays their roles with a straight-faced and earnest dramatic realism that pleasantly contrasts the slightly exaggerated plot and gargantuan vehicles. The pacing of the film is much more restrained than other action movies--distinctly different from Transformers or Battle: Los Angeles, for instance--with a marvelously nested structure that pays better homage to comic book story-telling than any other film I've yet seen. The script is pristine, with expressions and attitudes that hint at the period's rich language while still staying firmly in four-color territory. The action and plot are both a balance of power and grit that makes Captain America a relatable, human hero even when deflecting disintegration beams with his indestructible shield.

Each actor in the movie really plays their role to the hilt, giving you a sense that if only they'd been given the serum, they too could have been the film's main character. That's not to diminish Chris Evans' work as Steve Rogers/Captain America--he's a fantastically believable 90 pound waif before being given the serum, and he sells the awkward transition of trying to acclimatize to his new powers post-serum with knowing presence and swagger. The earnestness of his delivery is key, but it's by no means a flat performance. Between this and his role in Sunshine, I'm becoming a fan of Evans. Watching his first scene, where the dry-mouthed shrimp tries to convince a recruiter to accept him, lets you feel the dedication the un-sung actor poured into the role, and you get to see that same commitment to the part throughout the film's entirety. His romantic foil, Peggy Carter played by Hayley Atwell, is stunning in her role, and gives a similarly stellar effort. As a British attache to Erskine's project, she's introduced as a critical, slightly imperious woman who reacts severely to the crude recruits on either side of Rogers. She warms to the affable wimp's demeanor though, and the chemistry between them is achingly palpable for a movie where they get nothing more than a quick kiss. Given the unenviable task of playing the perfect romance that never was, Atwell soars past that and succeeds at being plot-critical, endearing despite (or because of) her hard edges, and an amazing stunner to boot. It's one thing to look good in 1940s fashions, it's another thing to make one wish that all women of child-bearing age everywhere adopted similar sensibilities.

"I could promise to be brief--but meh, it's me."

But two of the biggest scene-stealers in this movie are Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Chester Phillips and Stanley Tucci as Doctor Abraham Erskine. Col. Phillips is a sour doubter in Rogers' potential as a super-soldier, and right away he strikes you with deadpan humor that is awesomely grim and clearly inspired by a less fabulous interpretation of General George Patton. When he first begins giving a briefing on the goals of the Stragetic Scientific Reserve (SSR), he shudders at scrawny Rogers as he hollowly brags, "We're going to win because we have the" His tone throughout the film is a spot-on contrast to the exhuberance and energy of the other characters. Dr. Erskine, for instance, is the feebly congenial German scientist responsible for the super-soldier serum. He watches the frail Rogers struggle through training and the biases of the other burly candidates with a paternal congeniality that beams off the screen, and has some fantastic lines that betray the depth of the ill-fated character. "Everyone forgets that the first country the Nazis invaded was their own," he lisps in a perfect Aus-German accent to Steve the night before his transformation, reminding him that hating a cause or a flag doesn't mean hating the people trapped under its banner. Both of these characters are critical to the story, and the veteran actors set a very high standard for their younger counterparts to play against.

The rest of the supporting actors were similarly perfect for their roles. Sebastian Stan played James 'Bucky' Barnes with a grin and potency that established him as a very ordinary hero to play counter to Captain America's larger-than-life persona in the second and third acts. Some (pedantic) fans might object to him being cast as an adult and even idol to pre-serum Rogers, but it's a creative decision that makes the world feel more grounded than a thirteen year-old knife-fighter riding Cap's coattails into combat. As it is, Bucky helped to anchor the audience to someone who was exceptional but still mundane--a common theme in the Captain America comics. And Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark managed to perfectly fill that eccentric niche needed for the film, playing up the four-color confidence and clean-yet-crass attitude you want from a comic book womanizer in World War Two. In a bizarre way, Howard Stark is the spitting image of his son, right down to echoing his stage presence in his first scene.

"It's one thing to look good in 1940s fashions, it's another thing to make one wish that all women of child-bearing age everywhere adopted similar sensibilities."

The villains also found themselves ideally cast. Hugo Weaving as Johann Schmidt/Red Skull was a whole other kind of antagonist from what has been portrayed in movie supervillains. Decried as a flat character, Weaving still gives the Red Skull a fierce, insane megalomania that evokes Hitler--who never actually appears in the film--and he also pulls out a calculating, almost diplomatic tone to his ultimatums and rants. The first scene where he threatens a Norse priest is wonderfully sinister, and he keeps up the energy throughout the film to make a villain that is quite possibly more fun than Agent Smith in the Matrix trilogy. Toby Jones does a similarly great job as evil inventor Dr. Arnim Zola, playing neither a minion nor a larger-than-life villain waiting to take over the world--he's a reasonable and believable shill for Hydra that plays well off of Red Skull's grandeur.

The film has a more distinct structure than any other movie in the drama. Those who say the film had a third act problem or pacing issues clearly can't count to nine. Rather than merely having three acts--a beginning, middle, and end--Captain America: The Last Avenger nests that common structure in a way that is very theatrical. The first act has a beginning, middle, and end, as does the second, as does the third. The first act is Steve Rogers origin story, ending after his first scuffle with the Third Reich. The second act is Captain America's origin story--featuring the proto-hero as he struggles to find his own agency in his new life. And the third act, of course, is the inevitable showdown as the meta-plot of the movie becomes a deeply personal vendetta for Captain America. I'd excuse reviewers who missed this bit of embedded artifice if it weren't for the fact that two montages clearly separate each of the three acts, making this structure gloriously apparent and signaling the nature of the following act.

The script for Captain America: The First Avenger is really tight and evocative of the setting. The language is mild and has a mix of Wertham Code-approved PG expressions delivered with such seriousness that you might forget the profanities that would probably be realistically inserted into the tense scenes. More than that, though, the script is rich with dense lines that unpack to glorify the characters and showcase how well the screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely knew their subjects. You get perfect capsules for Steve Rogers early on, for instance: "there are men laying down their lives. I got no right to do anything less." Col. Phillips also gets some great lines that inject surgically prescribed humor into the film's tension to keep the audience in a properly light-hearted attitude.

"The first scene where [Johan Schmidt] threatens a Norse priest is wonderfully sinister, and he keeps up the energy throughout the film to make a villain that is quite possibly more fun than Agent Smith in the Matrix trilogy."

The action in the movie manages to keep everything crisply easy to follow while still keeping a fevered amount of activity onscreen so you never lose the war-torn feeling of the action. The fight set-pieces throughout the film keep you roughly apprised of combatants' positions (a common complaint against the Michael Bay-style of action directing), and there's no god-complex to Captain America as he fights through the enemy's minions--he hits hard and fast regardless of whether it's a redshirt he's fighting or not. This is supported by the depiction early on that this superhero is not bulletproof--his ribs are grazed by a bullet in the first action scene. The realistic temper of the combat contrasts the elements of many of the fights, though: Red Skull's Hydra minions sport ray guns powered by the Cosmic Cube, and they deploy a tank that would make a Baneblade feel deeply inadequate.

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': I adore Captain America: The First Avenger. As a superhero fan and a geek for Captain America and the modern nobility he represents, this film hit all the right notes for me. It's not quite perfect--there are a few things I was hoping to get that they passed on or represented differently--but it is a masterpiece of the genre nonetheless, and I hope it will later become a vanguard of its World War Two sub-genre.

Ever since I first saw The Incredible Hulk, I started geeking out over the potential of watching Cap duke it out on the big screen. When the juicing pre-Abomination Blonski charged into close quarters with Hulk, flipping around and shooting him with a brutal sort of grace, I couldn't wait to see Captain America do likewise. I was not disappointed. Just watching the recently empowered Steve Rogers rundown the traitor Heinz Kruger was a nerd-thrill beyond anything I'd seen in theaters in quite some time. At one point in that sequence, Steve hurdles over a ten foot fence in a single bound. To depict that, the camera drops to a low angle looking up at him as one leg thrusts forward and his arms spread wide in an eagle-like pose--that's a classic pose from vintage comics, and is distinctly reminiscent of several pieces of Kirby's work. The rest of the combat does a similarly good job of both invoking the source material while also keeping the action purely cinematic and fluid.

"Red Skull's Hydra minions sport ray guns powered by the Cosmic Cube, and they deploy a tank that would make a Baneblade feel deeply inadequate."

In addition to the finely crafted action, the characters were absolutely lovely. Only Tommy Lee Jones can do deadpan and farce, understated and overplayed, all at the same moment, and he does so with each of his scenes. Howard Stark was a background character that was delightful everytime he turned up--including the moment of dry humor where he stands over Steve immediately before his operation. Weeks before, Steve watched a confident Howard's hovercar take a stutter-drop at the World's Fair, and now he hears the eccentric inventor shrug, "We're we'll ever be." The beat of awkward anticipation after that moment is delicately easy to miss, but it is pricelessly fun and well-played.

I mentioned the film's nested structure above, and that decision (and the two montages especially) really hit the mark for me, though I imagine it might be a little jarring to those looking for a typical movie two-or-three act progression. Having the detailed and carefully oriented plot split up this way helped me to appreciate the passage of time--while other superhero movies have taken place over weeks of time, Captain America occurs over the course of nearly three years. It also evokes the feeling of reading a comic book mini-series, as though the movie was adapted from a three issue story arc revolving around his first combat with his nemesis. I also loved the montage separating the first and second acts--a musical montage depicting Captain America's USO bond drive across the United States. Not only is the music terribly fun and catchy (I've been heard saying "Every bond you buy is a bullet in the barrel of your best guy's gun," several times this week), but it also is a new wrinkle to the character that is pitch-perfect. In the comics, Steve Rogers does a one page transition into his Nazi-fighting super-soldier role, which somewhat implies that he didn't need to grow into his powers and all he needed was to get them to become a war hero. The movie adaptation, though, makes it clear that Captain America had to struggle to get a chance to fight, just like Rogers had to struggle to get enlisted in the first place. Plus, the USO sequence captures the decadent extravaganza that was the American propaganda and morale machine. Even though the country was at war and under severe rationing, a lot of those specials at home were about taking people's minds off of the hamstrung economy and dire news from the front. Americans would get a show and feel like their country's greatness was linked with success in the war, and nobody is better to link to that than Captain America. It's also an elegant way to show that Cap doesn't just want to make a difference: he wants to do everything he can. The distinction is critical and well-realized.

"Just watching the recently empowered Steve Rogers rundown the traitor Heinz Kruger was a nerd-thrill beyond anything I'd seen in theaters in quite some time."

One of the few notes of minor disappointment for me might be a bigger issue for others--Captain America features a stylized World War Two in which not only are the weapons not very accurate to the period, but the villains are four-color. This was something I expected: in a super-hero treatment of the war, I doubted that the Nazis were going to be the true threat or that Hitler would be allowed to mastermind the villain plots. Indeed, Hydra starts out as a Nazi program in the film, but once Red Skull gets his super-weapons he quickly decides to break off independently from Nazi Germany, killing the Nazi officers looking over his shoulder. There's no real consequence to this in the film other than you see virtually no swastikas and the ultimate threat is one insane super-villain rather than an entire country's military. This is about cultural sensitivity, I suppose. Once you have a villain who looks like an iteration of Satan to be universally reviled, it's better to lift him from political and cultural reality altogether. Still, it would've been nice if Captain America did a little bit more Nazi-stomping.

A note about the 3D experience: I don't buy into the 3D craze. The last 3D movie I saw in theaters was the Captain Eo movie in 1989 at Disneyland. I'd seen a couple of movies in home 3D since then, but nothing on a large scope this millennium. So the first two viewings were an especially fun treat for me as I got to view the final result of years of waiting with bated breath for Captain America to charge into theaters. The 3D effects were well done and very well integrated into the film. More often than not they added a subtle depth to the film's contents, and when the effects did jump out at you it was a dynamic part of the action's story-telling as opposed to a cheap gimmick to make you jump--although that didn't stop my wife or my brother-in-law from ducking away from Cap's shield.

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': Captain America: The First Avenger is being hailed as the best super-hero film of the year. It is the most distinct superhero film yet made, invoking vintage comics alongside modern action sequences and sensibilities. If you're a Marvel fan, you've already seen this movie and loved it. If you've enjoyed most of the Marvel movies made to date, this one should not only entertain you but give you a genuinely unique film-going experience. Even if you don't normally like the Marvel movies except for maybe Iron Man, appreciating high drama more than anything, you should still be able to appreciate the crunch of the actors' fine performances in this cogent, slick film. Captain America: The First Avenger has plenty of feel good, inspiring moments without cheapening the characters, and the action is easy and fun to watch, often getting you caught up in its kinetic but deliberate tempo.

If you are requiring a fully sober experience with no comedic relief, realistic war elements including weapons and vehicles, or are turned off by playful cheesiness or elegant campiness, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about.

It's okay. I forgive you.


  1. Awesome, Ben!

    "It's one thing to look good in 1940s fashions, it's another thing to make one wish that all women of child-bearing age everywhere adopted similar sensibilities."

    So, so true.

  2. Yeah, I didn't expect to become enamored with a female character who duked the first man who spoke to her, but Peggy Carter was an essential, great anchor in the film. I'd love to see more of her, but unfortunately the most we might get is some flashbacks in later movies. The high-caliber of her performance and presence helps to sell one of the major themes of Captain America, though, which is really the most you could ask of her.

    She knocked it out of the park. 'Nuff said.