(Joe Johnston, 2011)
July 23, 2011
by Joel Crary
Since the release of “Iron Man” in 2008, Marvel has had a view on their “Avengers” movie, due next year. We’ll soon be seeing Iron Man, Thor, Hulk (with Bruce Banner portrayed by the third actor in as many movies), and Captain America, all together in one flick. Until then, everyone gets an origin story, and Captain America’s is the last to arrive before the big mash-up. As far as origin stories go, it’s one of the better ones, maybe the best Marvel has done thus far. While it’s not as willing to explore its hero’s complications to the extent of Nolan’s benchmark “The Dark Knight,” “Captain America: The First Avenger” is adorably naive in its pleas for us to remember a time in which comic book heroes were brand new to the world.
Some superhero origin adaptations seem unmarried to their time and place. Not so with “Captain America,” first published in 1941; thankfully, the film retains the original series’ Second World War-era settings. Director Joe Johnston, whose recent “The Wolfman” was a disgusting misfire of tone and period, here delivers on both counts. We meet Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a skinny nerd with a heart the size of his native Brooklyn, desperate to join the army in spite of a laundry list of health problems. His ticket into captainhood is his bravery, a quality defecting German scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) sees in him early on. Erskine delivers his perfected superman serum into Steve, blowing him up to about four times his usual stature.
The movie accomplishes the changeover in Steve’s physique with digital effects. The nerdy version of Steve is a manipulation akin to Benjamin Button, producing that weird uncanny effect of knowing that the person we’re looking at can’t be real. But the effect isn’t only present in Evans’ appearance on screen; everything in the mid-century New York environment has the ring of slightly cloudy digital recreation to it. While it all seems a little too polished, that only amplifies the film’s dimestore pulp quality in a way not seen since Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen.” I was drawn into it.
Erskine’s strongman serum earlier produced the fiasco known as Johann Schmidt, the Red Skull, a Nazi so bad he’s split off from the Reich and formed his own faction known as HYDRA. Schmidt is bent on harnessing the power of a glowing tesseract, and his robotic subservients work ferociously on it in factories across Europe. The tesseract is a MacGuffin, beaming brightly from its box much in the way the nuclear device shone from the suitcase in “Kiss Me Deadly.” “It will change the world,” Schmidt utters menacingly, adjusting the fleshy mask that covers his abominable true visage. Not in a good way, we figure, especially after Schmidt brandishes a weapon that completely incinerates its target.
“Captain America”‘s energy is wholly based out of the American propaganda machine during World War II, and Steve finds himself at the centre of it. His newfound public visibility lands him a job as a bond pusher rather than soldier, and while America’s kids eat up his stage act, complemented by high-kicking dancing girls, the troops overseas are far more reticent to accept Steve’s genetically enhanced shtick as emblematic of the nation’s fight against tyranny. This is good character writing from co-scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely; rather than sticking Cap square in the middle of battle, he has to prove himself to the professionals first. Once he does, the action is permitted to come fast and furious. Steve and his company launch a siege on Schmidt’s headquarters, and the rare-metal shield hits the fan.
The movie is well cast. Tucci is kind enough to lend more humanity to his scientist than typical in movies like this. The tired-eyed Tommy Lee Jones snarls appropriately as U.S. Army Colonel Chester Phillips. Newcomer Hayley Atwell delivers as Peggy Carter, the tough-as-nails military dame overseeing Steve’s integration into the war as a superhuman fighting machine. Hugo Weaving milks things as the Red Skull, who spends most of the film teasing the big reveal of his blood-coloured dome. And it’s hard to imagine a better choice than Evans as the hero (his second for Marvel, after portraying Johnny Storm in two “Fantastic Four” movies). He has “all-American hunk” down pat, even if he does look more cartoonish at actual size than as the weakling leading up to the transformation.
“Captain America” does its job a bit better than most, but I’m burned out on superhero movies. The film is incessantly predictable, and there were moments in which I felt I was simply biding time until the release of “The Avengers.” (Stick around after the closing credits and you’ll be treated to a teaser trailer, complete with Tony Stark quip and badass gang’s-all-here sentiment.) There’s no doubt “Avengers” will perform well, even though it will probably be the same good-triumphs-over-evil jazz we’ve been susceptible to most weekends out of this summer season. What’s the saying? Insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result? The studios are banking on your insanity. How much longer they’ll get away with it remains to be seen.