Monday, August 1, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

8.1.11.Captain America

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Dir. Joe Johnston

3.5 out of 5

Like Marvel Studios' other summer blockbuster that pleased (almost) everyone, Captain America: The First Avenger sticks to the well-established Marvel storytelling recipe and lands in the sweet spot of brain-optional Hollywood entertainments. The instructions are simple and finite. First, saddle the hero with traits that make him an easy target for social ostracism - for Tony Stark, snark; for Peter Parker, glasses; for Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the body of the proverbial 90-pound weakling. Second, give the movie some stakes, but don't get too serious. Third, flick the adrenaline switch every 20 minutes and sprinkle in plenty of breadcrumbs for the comic geeks. Pair with a director typically known for delivering the upmarket version of what you're aiming for and chill for a couple of hours.

But like most of these films, the appeal of Captain America can't be reduced to its mere structural elements. Like X-Men: First Class it's a superhero period piece, albeit one that's executed more naturally than other films of its ilk. It's several months after the United States enters World War II, and Evans begins the movie lamenting the 4F draft status that feels like a government-sanctioned metaphor of the world's constant rejection. If he can't help his country in its greatest time of need, well, when is he ever going to be able to help? Evans flippantly dismisses a role in domestic industries, but he's a lionheart who believes he belongs in the fight. His attitude catches the eye of a German defector (Stanley Tucci) who has developed a stimulant potion for creating super-soldiers and needs an ideal test subject - a true patriot with the judicious mind to complement the artificially-powered body. The newly-minted 'Captain America' is unhappily confined to peddling war bonds on the USO circuit until he proves himself during a visit to the European front.

In the meantime, one of Tucci's former employers, Nazi researcher Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) consolidates his power while searching for a relic from Norse mythology that will fuel the creation of terrific new weapons with minimal R&D costs. He's the kind of madman who considers himself bigger than the Reich and the war, bent on usurping the Fuhrer until the Captain performs a successful raid on his alpine fortress.1 Such hair-raising, truth-bending adventures reminded me of Inglorious Basterds, but with the style and symbolism appropriate for an audience of 9-year-old boys. Retro-futurism trumps grim realism. When you're dealing with any comic book hero besides Batman, that is a winning method.

Captain America moves quickly even at a running time of two hours, though they might have managed to trim an action sequence or two. And while Johnston's dedication to creating the most earnest incarnation of the Captain mostly works in his favor, there's something unsettling about Evans' extreme enthusiasm for war. His eagerness to fight is coded as noble, but comes off as an archaic desire to "test his mettle" or even as a death wish. When Evans jumps on a grenade - revealed to be a dud - in training, it's seen as a sign of his heroism instead of the potential waste of a young man's life. Also, the subplot with Evans' love interest, a British special agent (Hayley Atwell, whose icy determination and gorgeous features were some of the few salvageable pieces of that awful remake of The Prisoner), feels underdeveloped, tacked-on, and more than a little cruel. Given Cap's commitment to present-day adventuring in the upcoming Avengers movie, perhaps the filmmakers could have spared Atwell's character the ignominy of being stood up for a 70-year deep freeze.

1 The combination of historically futuristic combat and a snowbound stronghold gave me more than a few LXG flashbacks.

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