Thursday, December 15, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

Director: Joe Johnston
Starring: Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Stanley Tucci
Running Time: 124 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 

Captain America: The First Avenger is Marvel's final puzzle piece in building toward next year's The Avengers, a movie everyone but me seems to be greatly anticipating. Perhaps if they hadn't botched every other film leading up to it by treating each as a full-length trailer I'd have taken a more optimistic view. As it stands, Captain America (I refuse to refer to it again by its clunky sub-title) is probably the best of the bunch. Or rather the least worst. Or at least better than Iron Man 2 and Thor. Yet something still seems to be missing, despite an effective lead performance and a decent story from which to draw from. But don't get me wrong. I'm not saying 1990's hilarious direct-to-video Captain America (starring J.D. Salinger's son!) is better. It's worse in every possible way. But given the choice of inviting friends over and having a bad movie viewing party featuring that forgotten stinker or watching the new version again, you can take a guess which I'd choose. One was clearly made with passion (and maybe a special sense of humor) but is dreadful. The other is a slick, safe, well-oiled, special effects machine that isn't completely passionless, but is kind of an empty spectacle with little re-watch value. Pair both up and you'd have really interesting double feature.

This story takes place in 1942 during World War II with underweight asthmatic weakling Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) dreaming of enlisting in the Army to serve his country. He's patriotic and motivated but his physical limitations are too big an obstacle to overcome. That is until he encounters Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) whose latest scientific experiment to create a "super soldier" turns him into a much stronger, buffer Steve. His full transformation into superhero gets underway when he goes from selling war bonds under the guise of the costumed "Captain America" to battling the sadistic Johann Schmidt A.K.A. Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), the leader of a Nazi-like organization called HYDRA that plans to influence the outcome of the war and take over the world. Or something like that. At his side fighting the good fight is best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones).

By far the most intriguing aspect of the film is everything before Rogers actually becomes Captain America, especially the impressive CGI work that was done to believably make Evans look like a 90- lb. weakling for the movie's first act. This is the kind of special effects work that shows what happens when digital technology is used effectively to suck you into a story rather than take you out. If I didn't know who Evans was I probably wouldn't have been able to detect that this was anyone but a really skinny actor and it's a testament to that technology that when Roger's transformation arrives it feels important and substantial. Then everything goes completely downhill from there as the story evolves into a more common action adventure with poorly realized characterizations and a sanitized  Hollywood version of World War II that feels like it takes place in the present rather than the 1940's.  Granted we don't to superhero movies expecting historical accuracy, but is it too much to ask that the film at least looks like it takes place in the past?  It's just strange seeing what's so obviously modern special effects and sets when we're supposedly in another era.

That this was directed by Joe Johnston who brought us 1991's classic superhero adventure The Rocketeer, is a surprise. It had an authenticity and old fashioned sense of fun this lacks. But in his defense, that's the problem facing all current comic book/superhero movies. They want to stay true to the story, but at the same time everything has to be streamlined to make money and cater to the masses, causing certain elements to be sacrificed. It has to be PG-13. It can't be too violent. Supporting characters can't be too developed. That's how I'd explain what goes wrong in the second half and why it feels so goofy. Very few movies in this genre can achieve that balance and of recent ones only The Dark Knight (and to a far lesser extent Iron Man) have been able to have their cake and eat it too, though an argument can be made both had richer source material from which to draw.  

Chris Evans does a commendable enough job as the lead, even if there's a certain blandness to him that's hard to describe (part of me still thinks the alternate choice of Jon Krasinski would have been more interesting). That the success of the movie doesn't even seem to rest on his shoulders is only indicative of how many other problems there are. Tommy Lee Jones collects a paycheck as the underdeveloped Col. Phillips while Hugo Weaving's Red Skull doesn't get nearly enough face time or attention considering his character's supposed to be the lead villain. I guess we should be grateful he at least has a cool look to him this time around. Hayley Atwell seems to have gotten a lot of attention for her role as generic love interest Peggy Carter and I haven't a clue why since she brings little in the way of charisma to a part that feels tacked on to begin with. I get what the writers were going for in trying to make her a modern military woman in a 1940's action-adventure but since the setting feels inauthentic and the casting is off it ends up not registering at all. What does make a lasting impression is Rick Heinrich's production design and Shelly Johnson's cinematography, both of which make the movie look way better than it actually is. From a technical standpoint, there's no denying everything is top-notch. Whether it needed to be, or it even helps the film, is an another debate entirely.

Even with all its faults Captain America still positions its title character well heading into The Avengers and this is the first Samuel L. Jackson/Nick Fury cameo that seems to exist as part of the narrative rather than as a cheap plug. Even the appearance of a young Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) seems organic to the story. With Rogers' awakening in the present-day after a 70-year cryogenic nap, there's at least a time capsule, fish-out-of-water aspect to this character that makes for a compelling cliffhanger, differentiating him from the other Marvel superheroes. Though I had to laugh at the third act development of Fury trying to convince the time traveling Rogers he was still in the 1940's. It couldn't have taken much considering the retro clean version of that period the film presented seemed so modern anyway. As a prequel to what should be an overwhelming popular superhero gathering next year, this gets the job done. But therein lies my problem. Every one of Marvel's features feels like a prequel to whatever comes next rather than any kind of standalone achievement. We'll find out next spring if that strategy pays off. 

1 comment:

Jack Thursby said...

Agree with your review. Johnston's The Rocketeer was an excellent movie and he seemed like the perfect choice for this but the film ended up a little sluggish and disjointed.

I enjoy Marvel's films but by interlinking them it never feels like you've seen a whole movie. Every episode has a cliffhanger or an epilogue. After 5 or so movies it's getting a little distracting.