Saturday, September 10, 2011

Movie Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

Marvel Studios has been busy as a bee since 2008, introducing a variety of Super Hero characters. Each character has their own movie, and some even have multiple movies. We have two Iron Man movies, a Hulk movie, a Thor movie, and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has appeared in all of these movies to varying degrees. There’s even a third Iron Man and a second Thor movie in the works. Any comic book geek with knowledge of the Marvel universe could see what was coming after the post-credits scene in Iron Man (2008).  Nick Fury showed up telling Tony Stark (Iron Man) that he’s not the world’s only super hero and wanted to discuss the "Avenger Initiative". The last of The Avengers team that hadn’t shown up yet was Captain America. I didn’t think Captain America’s story would be hard to do, but it might be tricky to do well. But after seeing how well a Norse god became relatable, I felt confident and ready to see Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).
The year is 1942; World War II is in full swing and the United States has entered the fray. Thousands of young men are volunteering to join the army to serve their country. One among them is Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a short, ninety-five pound asthmatic with a heart of gold who has just been rejected yet again for military service. Rogers’ life changes dramatically after encountering Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) at a recruitment center. Dr. Erskine is impressed with Rogers and recruits him for the top secret “Project Rebirth.” After proving his extraordinary courage, intellect, and morals, Rogers undergoes a Super Soldier experiment conducted by Dr. Erskine and Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) that transforms his weak frame into a body at the peak of human strength and potential. Dr. Erskine is immediately assassinated by an agent of Nazi Germany’s secret research department, HYDRA, which is operated by Johann Schmidt, also known as The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). Schmidt has been using an object of remarkable power called the “tesseract,” believed to have come from the Norse God Odin’s throne room, to create space age weapons and supply Nazi Germany with an unlimited energy-source for world domination. Rogers is deemed too valuable to be put on the front lines and is misused initially as a propaganda mascot. However, when his comrades who had previously enlisted need his help, Rogers springs into action to aid them and truly becomes Captain America, the hero, not just the symbol. This is where Captain America’s war against the Red Skull truly begins.
My biggest concern with this movie was that the character Captain America would be portrayed as a gung-ho, pro-America, nationalist, which seems to be the extent of modern day patriotism. Thankfully, this was not so. Captain America: The First Avenger (directed by Joe Johnston) has something to say about patriotism and where the true strength of America lies. This aspect of the character and plot was not played up quite as much as I was expecting, but it was not belittled or avoided as I had feared. Steve Rogers did not join the military out of a sense of vengeance or bravado as many of his comrades had. He joined out of a sense of justice and a desire to protect the oppressed. This was depicted in an exchange between pre-Super Soldier Rogers and Dr. Erskine. Erskine asks, “Do you want to kill Nazis?” to which Rogers replies without hesitation, “I don't want to kill anybody. I don't like bullies; I don't care where they're from.”
We’re shown the other side of war where patriotism can be used as propaganda. Initially Steve Rogers is given a rather eccentric costume after the Super Soldier experiment so that he can help promote the war and sell it to the American public. He is given an embarrassingly simple script to recite about buying war bonds while a line of dancing women are singing pro-America jingles. This ends badly with Captain America throwing a fake punch at a stage actor portraying Adolf Hitler. Rogers is clearly uncomfortable with this and desires to take a more active and useful role in stopping the Nazi bullies. This really is the type of simplified gung-ho nationalist-like patriotism that the character Captain America is not about and I appreciated that they made this distinction in the movie.
In most movies, especially superhero movies, they spare no time in having the newly empowered hero confront the villain and dive headlong into the action scenes. Not so in this movie.Captain America: The First Avenger really spends time developing the Captain America character. This really is an origin story that develops the character at his heart; the movie is more character driven than action driven. There is an action “montage” rather than lots of fighting scenes. This was used to depict Captain America’s multiple successes and shield-smacking victories before getting into the bigger, more plot-specific battles. But don’t worry; when the action arrives it’s really good; I was on the edge of my seat for many of the scenes. There were even a couple of moments during the action scenes that were unexpected and a bit shocking, such as a henchmen meeting a grotesque demise by a propeller.
All the characters were fun and well developed. Steve Rogers’ flame, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), was interesting, pretty, confident, and independent. Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) was gruff, practical, logical, and helped push Rogers’ to his best potential. Howard Stark (who is the father of the not yet born Tony Stark; Iron Man) is a lady killer, arrogant, creative, and resourceful. All these characters play off of each other really well. No one character is given a bulk of the humorous lines which was a somewhat mediocre device done in Thor (2011).
My only real complaint was the Red Skull. Every good hero needs a good villain; the nastier and more devious the villain, the more interesting the conflict. The Red Skull seemed to be lacking in purpose. He seemed to simply want to take over and destroy the world for the sake of taking over and destroying the world. It was almost as though all the lackluster qualities of a generic throw-away villain were stuffed into what is ordinarily an iconic super villain from the Marvel Comics universe. I have heard Red Skull is supposed to possess a superior intellect and inventive genius, as well as being a highly gifted subversive strategist and political operative. We did see some creative genius as he made ray guns and all manner of sci-fi gadgets with 1940’s technology. But you don’t get a feel for his intellect, political machinations, or strategic plotting. The Red Skull as a character is just about the only major character that seemed flat, generic, and undeveloped. He fills the role of “nasty, ugly villain” quite well, but his depiction in this film just seemed cliché. I can overlook this shortcoming a bit since Captain America is the main focus and there needed to be a struggle over which he could prevail. Such a struggle allows us to see what Captain America is made of and ultimately understand his part in the upcoming Avengers movie.
As opposed to the excruciating Captain America movie that came out in 1990 (trailer here) which, with good reason, no one seems to remember, Captain America: The First Avenger really was a fun movie with a good, fairly solid story. The movie demonstrates the message that patriotism is not about strength. It is about compassion and justice. Patriotism is not about how loud you cheer for your country or how many bad guys you kill. It is about how much you are willing to sacrifice to protect the helpless. Those are real patriotic American values. I enjoyed this movie enough that I intend to get a copy of it on Blu-Ray for my personal collection when it becomes available. This movie will be pretty intense for younger audiences, but it might be worth the effort to show them once they can handle some intense action scenes. Captain America is a hero of good morals and character that would be good to help them model in their own lives.

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