Review: Captain America

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Captain America (subtitled The First Avenger, which in effect makes it a two-hour tease for next year’s The Avengers) is richly entertaining, yet somehow familiar. It recalls the adventures of Indiana Jones and James Bond, and doesn’t deviate from a fairly standard template. On the other hand, it is refreshingly unpretentious. It may use a piece of Gotterdammerung in the soundtrack, but does not resort to Wagnerian excess like some of the other recent comic book adaptations.

Captain America is the first Marvel adaptation of a superhero that predates the era of Stan Lee, who revolutionized the industry by giving his heroes neuroses and everyday concerns. Cap is a contemporary of Batman and Superman, and wasn’t much more than a patriotic symbol and a square jaw. When Lee figuratively and literally thawed him out of an ice floe in the 60s, he seemed an anachronism, yet has been a staple in the Marvel Universe since then (even though he was killed off at one point).

The film, directed by Joe Johnston, takes the same approach. Steve Rogers, played winningly by Chris Evans, is not a very complex character. He’s scrawny and weak, but he has the heart of a lion, and wants nothing more than to fight against the Germans in World War II. He is classified 4F, but catches the eye of a scientist (Stanley Tucci, great as ever). Tucci, along with Tommy Lee Jones as a classically gruff colonel, are developing a serum to turn men into super-soldiers. Evans is their first guinea pig.

Meanwhile, the head of a Nazi scientific outfit called Hydra, played menacingly by Hugo Weaving, who has a distinctly crimson complexion, has secured a rare artifact that supposedly comes from Odin himself (you would think that since Thor is part of this, they would have mentioned it in his movie. Maybe they did and I didn’t catch it). This, along with Raiders of the Lost Ark, echoes the claim that Nazis are obsessed with the occult. Weaving, along with his scientist right-hand man (Toby Jones, who has the appropriately bulbous cranium for such a role) have developed a weapon from the artifact that can win the war.

After Evans is turned into Captain America (the special effects of putting Evans face on another body is seamless) he is turned into a propaganda figure, selling war bonds and appearing in comic books and serials, a kind of meta approach. Of course when he finds out that his old friend, Bucky Barnes (who was a homoerotic sidekick in the comics) is in danger, he heads out to help him.

Captain America is a lot of fun, with the right mix of action, adventure and humor. Evans, who I despised as the Human Torch, is much more tolerable here. Hayley Atwell, who is the super-cool British Agent Carter, is both his boss and love interest. Evans is teamed with an old-fashioned all-American platoon, including a black and Asian guy (no mention is made of troop segregation), and is a film that celebrates American pluckiness without being jingoistic.

It also looks great. Setting the film in the 40s was a great idea, as this was when comic books were simple and cut and dried, with no gray area between good and evil. The colors are muted, like the newsprint of a pulp novel, and and instead of wearing a Lycra bodysuit, Evans wears what looks like a heavy denim. The only thing he carries that is fantasy is an impenetrable shield made of “vibranium” (I believe in the comics it was adamantium, the same substance that Wolverine’s claws are made of, but I quibble). A superhero carrying something as quotidian as a standard-issue sidearm just feels right.

As fun as the film can be, it doesn’t set the bar very high. For what it is, it couldn’t be much better, but it stops short of attaining an epic status like Batman Begins or Spider-Man 2. But not all superhero movies can be that sweeping, nor should they.

Be sure to stay after the credits finish for a sneak peek at The Avengers film, coming next May. I have to admit I’m excited by it. And I wouldn’t consider Red Skull gone, either (his defeat shouldn’t come as a spoiler to anyone with half a brain). As a guy I knew who wrote for Marvel said of the Marvel Universe, “No one stays dead, except for Uncle Ben.”

My grade for Captain America: B+

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

16 responses »

  1. re: head pasting
    I read that the bulked-up body is actually him, but the scrawny one is him too, just digitally shrunk. The director first wanted to go with head-pasting but found it didn’t work quite right…

  2. Yeah – it was digital body shrinking. It was amazing. It never worked less than 96% and often worked 100%.

    Anyway – liked the movie. A better film over all than Thor, though that film had more personality so it was a bit more fun. Evans was good, perfectly adequate and they could have done MUCH worse, but if he was a little more charismatic they could have had something great on their hands.

    The film looked great and the action was good. Johnston is safe from director jail for sure.

    Jones was good, though every once in a while I was like “what the hell is he doing in this?” Weaving was a stroke of genius, though I wish we’d gotten to see more of him sans-mask – cause the makeup job was awesome. Finally – Atwell was great. Totally in love with her, which makes the ending a REAL bummer, though sort of a necessary one. I do wish they’d have left the door open for more period piece adventures, though.

    B

  3. This should be called – Captain America: NOTHING happens for over an hour.

    Holy hell, was this boring. Did I step into the wrong movie? So you want me to believe they’d create the perfect soldier and then make him a sideshow phony? Wow, there is so much unimagination in that logic…made *no sense*. They didn’t even devise a strategy to prepare him to fight after going through all the nonsense of making him?
    So America goes through the trouble, relegates him to carnivals to sell bonds and he has to sneak around and be Captain America. Why not just use any soldier from the platoon? This was one of the worst scripts of the year.
    This followed the Unbreakable school of screenplay development. Create one loooooong, boring set-up for a planned trilogy. Stumble and create such a bad movie (Unbreakable was at least epic in scope if not execution) that no one wants to see any other chapters. If you want another after this, then Brian really is right that maybe this is as good as we can expect nowadays.
    And Hydra has the most inept security known to mankind. No one notices a dude with a big American flag on his back?! And I love how they fight sometimes by running up to you even though they have weapons, and sometimes standing around not shooting so you get the drop on them.
    The countdown was some of the worst editing ever. The little scientist walked out, got his things and got away and Cap saved Bucky……all in 30 seconds.
    And Stan Lee’s cameos are just kinda sad now.
    I love the way he didn’t get upset by the cities on the bombs, were they? until he saw New York. Cap is an asshole.
    He’s a SUPER SOLDIER…and they give him bed rest in a small room with drywall walls. This script was terrible.
    Pretty amazing that they got Werner Herzog to voice the Red Skull, though…
    I’d rather sit through Super 8 again.

  4. I still can’t understand why they would build-up to creating this super soldier, going so far as throwing a dummy grenade to find the right guy and then not have anything more to do with him than use him to sell bonds.
    The screenwriters had a scene where they even talked about using the other guy from the platoon. So if this is all you were going to give him, why even use the skinny guy to create him and not just pick any good looking soldier to sell your bonds? Wouldn’t you let Cap do some heroic things and *then* be the face of your bonds?
    Why wouldn’t your first step in creating him be walking him to the place with the shield and the outfit and say ‘The serum worked, here’s your gear, Captain America, now go save the war for us.’?
    It’s not Spider-Man, who had to start like that, since his bite was an accident, and it’s not Batman, who created his weapons first in order to become Batman. You specifically set-out to create this guy and then act like he doesn’t mean anything and he’s of no use to you in war?
    (Just when I think my fanboy is sufficiently suppressed…)

  5. It’s because they wanted a whole platoon of super soldiers, not just one. (Spoilers) The serum is destroyed during the chase with the German spy, and since Tucci is dead they can’t make more (that’s what you should be complaining about–they didn’t keep copious records?) Jones says that one does him no good, and he kind of has a point–Captain America still needs a team of others to help him. He doesn’t have enough powers to single-handedly win the the war. And besides, Jones turned out to be wrong.

  6. I was just going to point out the terrible record-keeping of the American Army right after I pointed out how their biggest secret weapon could just commandeer a plane with a busty foreign agent and a ‘Snarky Stark’ and just pilot into enemy territory and….yeah. Good point.

    The entire ‘we can’t make anymore’ felt so absurd that he would have to prove he can do it to a country who researched this that even if you only had one, you at least ‘try’…no? Their biggest hope sits in a bar with his ‘secret powers’, recruiting the most random assortment of caricatures I mean, random good dudes in movie history?

  7. The biggest detail in any superhero story is how the hero must cope with having the powers in a world that is reluctant to accept them. Spider Man is hunted, Batman is hunted, the X-Men are hunted….and those were random anomalies.
    In this world of this movie, the American government creates a super badass and then just…….forgets about him and leaves him to his own devices. If one was useless, wouldn’t the government maybe….get rid of him?

  8. I thought the war bond deal was a good way to explain the costume. Cap needs the costume.

    Anyway – better than Thor.

    I didn’t think Weaving’s voice sounded close to Herzog at all. Certainly wasn’t aping him.

  9. Also – and I usually hate this argument when it comes from others – but I think this is too much scrutiny for a Captain America movie. However, if I disliked the movie I’d probably feel the exact opposite.

  10. This was nothing I’ll want to see again. I didn’t think it was particularly convincing as a period film, and it’s poorly directed in the sense that I often didn’t know who was Captain America and who was a bad guy wearing a similar costume. I didn’t think the body switiching effect was “seamless” either, since no one as scrawny as Rogers has a head that big and a neck that small. It just looked weird.

    It wasn’t terrible, but I don’t think it was as good as Thor, which was just OK itself. It felt like the assembly line piece that it is.

    Oh, and filmman’s right about the war bonds stuff. Dumb.

  11. Nothing about this offended me, but as with every Johnston film it’s nothing I’ll ever watch again. Possibly the safest, blandest Marvel film to date.

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