Friday, July 22, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger ***

Captain America is the first one of Marvel's Avengers intros to come along after I fully embraced the concept of the upcoming film. It may be recalled that with Thor, I found myself quite pleasantly surprised that I felt Marvel had finally succeeded at mixing Avengers setup with making a film that felt whole in its own right. The failure of Captain America is that it really stumbles on that level, sacrificing a satsifying ending or sense of completeness to segue into an setup for the team-up movie. Fortunately, the success of Captain America is almost everything else.

     Chris Evans makes a departure from his normal cocky persona to play Steve Rogers, a scrawny, sickly, 90 pount man who desperately wants to enlist to fight the Nazis in WWII, but is rejected at every turn. Steve is no macho blowhard: when asked if he wants to kill Nazis, he says "I don't want to kill anybody. I don't like bullies." Steve continually proves himself to be brave, steadfast, and all around good guy. This attracts the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German scientist working on a government program to create an experimentaly supersoldier. Steve is chosen because he's a little guy, and because of his sense of decency. It's believed he won't take his powers for granted and be corrupted by them. Erskine hopes Steve will remain what he is: "Not a super-soldier. A good man."

    Of course, the serum turns Steve into Captain America. There's a delightful irony to the satire on propaganda as Captain America becomes a figurehead to sell war bonds, appearing in musical numbers and promotional films. This element really helps to balance out how hollow this sort of jingoistic flag-waving propaganda can feel today with the fact that this is, in its heart, an old-fashioned celebration of patriotism and "the American spirit". I suspect that will make it mostly acceptable to most audiences, whether they love or hate God Bless The USA.

     Eventually of course, Captain America becomes a top American agent, and this leads to series of action/adventure sequences that are as much fun as any we've seen this summer. Director Joe Johnston is very much recalling his work on The Rocketeer, with the old fashioned Americana feel mixed with a very Spielbergian flair (Johnston is Lucas/Spielberg protege who did most of the storyboards for Raiders of the Lost Ark). Johnston really excels at that sort of film, and I think he's at his best through most of this film. Captain America is exciting, funny, and visually terrific, and Johnston deserved most of the credit. This character needed an unapologetically old fashioned director who wasn't afraid to be a little square. But Johnston is sincerely square, so the film is never left with that forced, faking it feeling Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor had.

     I've typically enjoyed Evans in his previous films, but questioned whether he could play anything but the lovably arrogant bad boy. Thankfully, he pulls off the humble neice-guy surprisingly well.  While I was at times a little put off by how much weakling Steve is made the butt of jokes (no doubt being a sckly "little guy" made me more sensitive to this than most audiences), he's an admirable character who is a hero because of the good person he is inside. The serum merely allows him to get past his physical limitations The supporting cast is mostly strong, including  Tucci, Hailey Atwell as the obligatory love interest, and Tommy Lee Jones as the tough-as-nails Colonel running the outfit (Jones seemed a little bored to me at first, but his natural prescence and charisma really kick in the second act, the strongest portion of the film). Hugo Weaving is a memorable villain: to me, he's an actor who regularly finds just the right balance to entertainingly chew the scenery without slipping into complete hammy overacting. Dominic Cooper is also a highlight as Howard Stark, a brilliant inventor who, fans will recognize, is the father of Iron Man. Cooper is utterly believable as being the progenitor of Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark, and the character feels like he belongs in the film regardless of the Avengers connection.

     It' a shame the the ending is so ham-fisted. Captain America will be a welcome addition to The Avengers, and overall this only makes me more enthusiastic for that film. And I must admit that the ending is not unfaithful to the source material. It's not so much the concept as the execution. It feels so out of step with the rest of Johnston's film that I lamost wonder if he even directed the sequence (the stinger at the end of Thor was directed by Joss Whedon, not Kenneth Branagh).  It just feels rushed and tacked on, and lacking in the sense of culmination that a piece of such old fashioned storytelling needs and deserves.

      However, there's so much here that works, that I forgive the misstep of the ending. Captain America:The First Avenger is great summer fun, and engaged me enough to make me eager to see it a second time. As long as audiences can accept that they don't get a genuine wrap-up, most will find this to be a satisfying blockbuster experience.

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