A few things become perfectly clear upon the initial viewing of Captain America: The First Avenger: (1) why they hired milquetoast director Joe Johnston to helm it and (2) what is up with that stupid subtitle.
Johnston has a shaky track record at best, but if you know the background on a lot of his movies, you might be more forgiving. He tends to be a guy that studios hire in an attempt to make a terrible movie somewhat watchable. On Wolfman, he was a replacement director after Mark Romanek left over budget disagreements. He was brought in as an attempt to clean up the script-free mess that was Jurassic Park III. But if you look at his better movies (The Rocketeer, October Sky), you’ll see his talent with period films. He’s not exactly risk-taking, but he know how to make a movie what feels like it was actually produced in the era in which it takes place (save for color film and modern effects).
Captain America feels like the logical inverse of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Instead of being a 1930’s serial story told with gutsy, modern-day film-making, this is essentially a very modern idea (big budget superhero movie) told with a very “aw-shucks” earnest mentality that is way harder to convincingly pull off than it looks. Just look at Superman Returns; Even with a talented director, centering a movie around a relentless do-gooder can easily just bore the sh*t out if it’s audience.
Oh, yeah. The movie itself.
(Warning: possible spoilers and immature jokes ahead)
As you probably know, the film is about a sickly runt (*cough*pussy*cough*) of a man named Steve Rogers who is hell-bent on joining the military. Based on his desire to fight for his country and contribute to something bigger than himself and blah blah blah, he is selected for an experimental program that injects normal soldiers with a serum that makes them into SUPER-SOLDIERS. HIGH FIVE, BRAH! After the magical blue sh*t has turned
Barry Bonds Steve into a massive slab of beefcake, he begins an adventure that will eventually save the world and yadda yadda yadda, generic-as-f*ck plot synopsis.
Based on just how generic and boring this sounds on paper, it is a f*cking miracle this movie turned out as well as it did. And, when you take a step back, this movie does a lot of things really well that would just be so easy to fumble. It stars one of the bro-iest looking actors today (Chris Evans) who is well-known to be a tall-strapping man, and it spends the first 30-40 minutes with him as a five-foot nothing, flat-chested weakling. And, I must stress this: the effects for this are done very well. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a jaded f*ckface who only says so because he knows that it’s a special effect (if you’re the type of person who says sh*t like this in the theater during the movie, let’s never hang out). It’s certainly better than it was in the critically lauded Benjamin Button. One scene, it’s weird little CGI old-man Brad Pitt and the next it’s clearly just Brad Pitt in overwrought old-people makeup; I remember laughing aloud in the theater.
Anyway, before the action wrestles the movie away from him, Evans is great and charismatic in the role. You actually buy that he aims to do good in this world and not in a way that makes you want to punch his CGI face in. The fact that the movie gives him so much screen time just to develop a character – and that he is actually a likable character – is a testament to how far comic-book movies have come. Remember the first Hulk?( …no? Good for you, then). “Work out your daddy issues on your own time, Banner, you f*cking crybaby! Nobody cares. Hey, who let Nolte on set?”
The movie has a decent supporting cast, as well. Hayley Atwell (ugh, pretentiously misspelled first names), is not given a whole lot to do as Peggy Carter, but she at least doesn’t look out of place in a 1940’s movie. She has a nice “Dame” look. Also, she wears a semi-androgynous military uniform for most of the movie and never becomes a damsel in distress, being a competent government agent and all. If this were Mike Bay territory, it’d be Meagan Fox in tight black leather, popping her chewing gum and airbrushing cartoon ponies onto Cappy’s motorcycle. Yeah…she’d be all bent over wearing lip gloss and…sweating. Yeah, just dripping wet and –
Okay. Yeah, so anyway…
Not that Carter is completely asexual or anything. She has a lovely face and there is one perfunctory scene about halfway through the movie where they are on leave in a club and *POW* she is wearing a tight red dress. I dunno ’bout you, Cap’n, but I sure hope they had motorboats in the 40’s, if you gnome sayin’!
Also, Tommy Lee Jones plays a much more prominent role throughout the movie than I was expecting. And I cannot stress this enough: he straight owns every scene he’s in. No one does “Lovably Gruff” like Jones, and that is in full effect here. Stanley Tucci is endearing as the good German scientist/HGH peddler, even eef da accent ist unt leetle Hogan’s Hero’s.
As usual, Hugo Weaving does solid work as the red skull. He is slightly upstaged by his makeup; it’s just cheesy enough to fit in with the tone of the movie without being stupid or distracting. I initially though they were going to completely CGI his face, which would have pushed him into George Lucas territory. And no one likes that territory. I will say, though, that his bad guy plot is just kinda dumb and slight. Like, imagine if they found the lost Ark in the first 5 minutes of Raiders and spent the rest of the movie somehow “harnessing” God’s power from it to make super -nukes. Even if you are onboard with the pleasantly-cheeseball feel of the movie, that is both dull and completely uncreative. It’s really my biggest complaint with the movie.
I really got a kick out of the little things that were so “saturday morning cartoon” in how silly and funny they were; these would have just been dumb in a serious movie like The Dark Knight or even Iron Man, but here it just tickles the sh*t out of me for some reason and I loved it. For instance, toward the end, when Cappy is onboard the super-Nazi bomber plane in the bombardier chamber, each nuke has the name of it’s intended target city painted on it, in English no less. Also, to that point, the Nazis all speak to each other in German-accented English, instead of, you know, f*cking GERMAN.
These were the kinds of things people might complain about; for me, it just contributed to the overall texture of “Made in the Forties” that the movie had. This is opposed to the “Shot On A Green Screen In Spielberg’s Backyard Then CGI’d To Death By ILM’s B-Squad While You Can Practically Hear Lusas Counting Stacks Of Your Money In The Background” texture that Indy IV had. Slight aside: Seriously, f*ck that movie.
Oh, back to the dumb “First Avenger” subtitle. The ending is a little jarring (and the decision to kinda spoil it in the first scene of the movie was a pretty big misstep), but the subtitle kinda helps you understand: this isn’t really a stand-alone movie. It’s a prequel for The Avengers, which comes out next summer. And having this set-up in the final scene is a whole lot better than having it constantly shoved into the middle of the movie and derailing it’s own plot, like in Iron Man 2. I enjoyed that movie, but Jesus. It reminded me of when you are watching a TV show and there is a big-ass banner ad at the bottom of the screen for another show on the same channel. We get it. We’ll see Avengers when it comes out in two years. Now have Mickey Rourke cut another car in half.
And, speaking only as a mild comic fan, I am excited for The Avengers. It seems like Marvel studios is taking a huge risk with this whole tie-several-movies-into-one venture; but they actually seem to want the movies to be good and not just make money. That is kind of a rare thing in Hollywood these days, especially with the summer blockbuster. They keep throwing some great talent into these project’s and it has payed off so far. Hopefully Whedon will keep it going. I think Whedon is like the good twin to evil George Lucas’s. Lucas’s giant neck pouch tells him to nuke the fridge while Whedon’s giant forehead tells him to make NPH sing musical numbers. Whooboy, this last paragraph really went to sh*t, huh? Probably shouldn’t write at 1 o’clock in the morning.
Anyway, the movie is good; not great, but worth a night out at the movies.
Afterthought: The last scene takes place in Time Square. It’s a fitting place to show how someone from the 1940’s could be overwhelmed by the future, but man. It’s pretty clear that’s where they shoved all of their tie-ins and product placement. EAT DUNKIN’ DONUTS OR THE NAZI SCIENTISTS WIN!