Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Greatest American Hero

Captain America has always been something of an anomaly in the Marvel Comics universe. Created in the '40s by Jack Kirby and Jack Simon while at Marvel's predecessor, Timely Comics, Cap was not an obvious fit with the heroes that Marvel made its name on in the '60s - the troubled, flawed, angst-ridden super-beings created by writer Stan Lee along with artists such as Kirby and Steve Ditko.

When Lee brought Cap into the Marvel fold, he had Cap enter the '60s as a character who had been literally frozen since the days of WWII. Cap came into the turbulent '60s as a man out of time, a Living Legend. This was not a counter-culture icon, this was an embodiment of the self-sacrificing ethics of the so-called Greatest Generation, the generation that stopped the spread of fascism.

Lee wisely perceived that Cap must remain a man of his era. Simiarly, director Joe Johnston and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely succeed with Captain America: The First Avenger by staying true to Cap's roots and by not putting his character in any ironic context. Save for its bookending segments in the modern day, the entirety of Captain America is set during WWII, charting the journey of sickly Steve Rogers as he desperately looks for a way to serve his country and finally finds it as a guinea pig for a newly developed Super Soldier serum. Intended to be the first of an army of super soldiers, Steve instead ends up being the last person to undergo the miraculous transformation as an act of enemy sabotage kills inventor Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and sees the final batch of serum spilled on the grounds of a Brooklyn shipyard.

At first, it looks like Steve might be consigned to a lab to be studied but the intervention of a PR-savvy senator puts Steve in his first Captain America garb as the star of travelling USO show to sell bonds. Here we see Steve's confidence develop as he becomes accustomed to being a public figure but yet he yearns to be in battle. When his best friend Bucky (Sebastian Shaw) is taken prisoner by the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) along with the rest of his platoon, Steve, while overseas on behalf of the USO tour, takes it upon himself to launch a solo rescue mission. After his first real success as "Captain America," his future as a fighting member of the U.S. forces is guaranteed. Whereas the storyline of Marvel Studio's recent Thor took place over the span of a few days, Captain America tells the tale of Steve Roger's entire WWII career (with the opportunity left for any period-set sequels to fill in some blanks, if desired).

Director Joe Johnston has been a valued player in geek cinema for many decades since his days as a designer and art director on the original Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark but as a filmmaker he's never quite had that one movie where it all came together for him...until now. This is where a lifetime of experience combines with the right material and the right resources and the result is escapism of the highest order. Captain America is not a cinematic game-changer; it's not a reinvention of the action or superhero genres. What it is is a lovingly crafted call-back to an earlier brand of pop cinema. This is an old-fashioned film in all the right ways. It embraces not only Steve Rogers' old-fashioned morality but also old-fashioned ideas about moviemaking.

Johnston doesn't eschew CGI but this is the rare modern blockbuster to be largely rooted in the physical. CG has its place and it has afforded filmmakers incredible opportunities but sometimes the eye craves reality - even amidst fantasy scenarios - and that's what Captain America delivers. From Cap's shield with its battle-scuffed paint job to the silver Hyrda hood ornament on the Red Skull's ride, Captain America shows an exhaustive attention to making every detail matter - a testament to Johnson's background in design.

Johnston also shows his allegiance to older values when it comes to his action scenes. Johnston will never be considered a visionary but he knows how to get scenes on screen the right way and the action here stands out in the way that it's filmed and edited with clarity, sans any shaky camera moves or incoherent editing. When Cap faces off with the Red Skull, or with the Skull's numerous Hydra henchmen, it's not just a meaningless blur of movement. We actually see Cap's fighting skills and just how handy his iconic shield can be. Too often in modern movies, the work of stuntmen is not properly showcased - but not here.

The casting of Chris Evans met with some initial flak from fans due to his previous turn as cocky Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four movies and the belief that his often wise-cracking screen persona wouldn't be the right fit for Steve Rogers. But Evans clearly understood how to play this role. He's decent to his core without being smug or self-righteous. He's a man of innate goodness but rather than preach, he simply leads by example. Humor comes into the film through other characters, like Tommy Lee Jones as Col. Phillips, but there's not a trace of smart ass in Steve.

Steve's love interest here is played by Hayley Atwell as Agent Peggy Carter and for the first time in a Marvel Studios movie, there's a romantic subplot that carries some weight. Steve's relationship with his sidekick Bucky Barnes is somewhat altered from comic lore but the changes work for the better. Instead of meeting during the war, the two are now boyhood friends from Brooklyn. It's a more efficient way of getting them together and giving them the shared history that they need to have. It also presents an effective irony when the once-weak Steve, who had always been pulled out of back alley scrapes by Bucky, becomes the man leading Bucky into battle. It would've been nice to see more of Bucky and Steve together but, in the end, we get enough (including just a hint of Bucky's dark future as The Winter Soldier). That the pair's eventual separation comes in a different way than in the comics might rankle some fans but it's a variation that preserves what's important and smartly leaves the emotional climax of the movie to be between Steve and Peggy.

As the last Marvel Studios movie prior to next summer's The Avengers, a lot is riding on the shoulders of Captain America but unlike, say, Iron Man 2 it doesn't feel like its running time is overly devoted to setting up future plot points. I expect that some unfamiliar with the comics will assume that the consequences of Cap's final face-off with the Red Skull just represents a means of getting everything in place for The Avengers but it's just following the trajectory of the comics.

This summer has produced something of a glut of comic book adaptations but on the Marvel end of things, quality was high across the board. While some argue that comic book adaptations have to go dark or ironic or to deconstruct the genre in order to continue their appeal to audiences, Captain America: The First Avenger proves that old-school heroism done right never goes out of style.


Bob Ignizio said...

Spot on review, Jeff. This is just an incredibly fun movie.

Jeff Allard said...

Yeah, it might strike some as too old-fashioned or whatever but for me it was perfect.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, spot on. I was nervous about this one. Am I the only one that still has that abortion of a film from 1990 still fresh in their mind? I guess that's not fair considering the awesomeness that has been Marvel Studios' output (for the most part).

Anywhos, I love how it melded WWII and the present day. Really solid film all around.

Jeff Allard said...

PoT, not only is the 1990 Cap still fresh in my mind but so are the two TV movies from the late '70s which were even more abysmal than the '90 film! I have to think that growing up with such lame comic book adaptations only helps people like us appreciate the new stuff all the more.

Unknown said...

Excellent review. We are in total agreement on this one. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this film as you wrote:

"staying true to Cap's roots and by not putting his character in any ironic context."

I think that is one of the crucial things that makes this film work. Johnston and co. are able to convey the idealism and earnest nature of Cap without making it seem cornball, which is quite an accomplishment in our cynical times.

The hiring of the director of THE ROCKETEER was the smartest thing that the powers of be did on this film as he has real affinity for this time period and I've always been a fan of his no frills directing style (OCTOBER SKY is another fantastic film by Johnston). Even when Johnston is employing stylistic flare, like that "speed-ramping" technique that someone like Zack Snyder loves to use so much, he does it in a way that is unobtrusive.

I also loved the inclusion of the Howling Commandos. The actors cast as Dum Dum and Gabe Jones looked and acted uncannily like their comic book counterparts.

Jeff Allard said...

Yeah, I thought there was so many great things about the cast and the many Easter Eggs and nods to the comics that I couldn't even list them all.

And I agree about Johnston's compatability with the material. I doubt if anyone but Johnston could've served Cap as well - Marvel definitely picked the right guy.

Mummbles said...

I just came from seeing the film and your review was really well done and enjoyable. Johnston finally made a complete film and it looked and felt like it should have. I think it was almost as enjoyable as Iron Man to me. I know everyone is looking forward to the Avengers but marvel has been a real roll with Thor and Captain American both being solid films. I hope they keep hiring good directors and put out more movies with good acting and writing.