“CAPTAIN AMERICA” A SOLID YET UNFULFILLED FINAL TICK IN AVENGERS COUNTDOWN
Authentic characterizations and a genuine sense of greater purpose are two forces that make Joe Johnson’s “Captain America: The First Avenger” a better movie than it deserves to be. Johnson has many of the components that make up a great superhero epic, but he doesn’t seem experienced or passionate enough to piece them all together. In the end, the parts we like, we like a lot – from briefly seeing what the original 1941 costume design actually looks like when worn to the beautiful period locale of America when it was at its greatest heights. The rest of the film…? Eh.
The origin story begins in the 1940′s during World War II with Steve Rogers (a perfectly-cast Chris Evans), a 90-pound gangly man who longs to fight for his country with the absolute noblest of intentions. Of our many Marvel protagonists, there is a reason Steve Rogers is a symbol for the American way – his stand as the epitome of patriotism. Steve, along with his best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan in a career-starting supporting role that should turn heads in Hollywood casting departments), both get accepted by the Army when they try to enlist (although this is Steve’s 5th attempt) – but for Steve, he must be part of a secret government program.
Steve is sent to army boot camp, where he tries his hardest to keep up with his superior comrades and fails miserably. Watching him are Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and Bavarian scientist Abraham Erskine (played by the instantly-likable Stanley Tucci). Erskine was who got Steve picked. Phillips can’t stand looking at him, failing to see why he should be chosen. But Steve proves himself not by showing off brawn, but by showing an unstoppable sense of courage – even in throwing himself onto a runaway grenade to protect his fellow soldiers. Erskine believes that Steve is his only choice for the program.
The program, which is also being funded and co-researched by Tony Stark’s father Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, hilariously channeling Robert Downey’s charm), ends up being an injection of a new serum that basically turns the user into a super-soldier. Steve is given this injection and turns from a 90-pound doormat to a beefcake with muscles the size of axle rods. But, of course, we can’t have an army of Captain Americas, so a covert spy kills Erskine (who apparently was the only one who knew the formula to the serum) and then kills himself before Steve can get answers. But before he dies, the spy gives a cryptic message: “I am just one of many. Long live HYDRA.”
Now we get into our film’s villains. HYDRA is a group of brilliant scientists who work directly for Hitler, headed by the diabolical Red Skull (an underused Hugo Weaving). Now for fans of the character, don’t expect a Joker-like portrayal of pure evil. Rather than Amon Goth from “Schindler’s List,” we get Voldemort from Harry Potter. There are some menacing moments where the Red Skull surpasses his expected villainy more than usual for a Marvel villain, but he can’t quite escape the cartoonish quality of the character’s figurative mustache-twirling regarding world domination.
Now the Skull is obsessed with ‘the gods’ (who fans of “Thor” know actually exist in this universe) and has discovered the outlandish squarish device which the after-credits scene in “Thor” showed – the Cosmic Cube. The film never quite gives us an idea on just how powerful this device is. All we know is that the Red Skull will kill for it without too many quibbles. We also find out that HYDRA has weapons far beyond the capabilities of the 1940′s Nazis, especially a particularly-effective energy pistols that can vaporize anything from a person to a tank. The Red Skull plans, of course, to use the power of the Cosmic Cube and his new weapons to take over “everything.”
At first, the U.S. Army decides to use Steve as a marketing campaign, garbing him in a hokey Americanized costume with a shield, giving him the name “Captain America,” and sending him on a state-by-state tour to rally morale by making propaganda films and singingAmerican classics with a dozen dancing showgirls. The kids love him and the adults think he’s an entertaining joke. Yet the soldiers think he’s a national embarrassment. He agrees with them. Phillips’ female assistant Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) sympathizes with him and recognizes his drive to become something more.
Steve is given the chance to prove himself when Bucky and 400 U.S. soldiers are captured by HYDRA. Single-handed and dropped by a plane over Germany, Steve – now officially looking like the militarized Captain America we’ve seen in the trailers – uses his trusty shield and a couple revolvers to free all 400 prisoners (including Bucky) and destroy one of HYDRA’s main headquarters. From here on, the battle between Captain America and the Red Skull wages on, with Cap continuously taking down each of the Skull’s barriers until their final climactic battle inside a military airplane containing a nuclear bomb set to go off in New York.
“Captain America” is an at-times rousing WWII-set action-adventure, bringing an old-fashioned fun which feels reminiscent of something like “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.” There are moments of great entertainment easily accessible through this latest addition to the ever-growing Marvel Comics universe. While it is easy to see that Marvel Studios believed (and rightly, in a way) that the Avengers roster was saving its best origin story for last, this plays far too much like an extended trailer for “The Avengers” rather than its own standalone film. At 124 minutes, not enough really happens to make the movie worth existing on its own merits. It feels far too much like “the first chapter” of something bigger for my taste. Captain America is a big enough character that his first big movie should have been able to carry itself.
Now the updated costume designs and character arcs of Cap, Red Skull, and Bucky Barnes are exactly what fans would hope for. Both Evans and Weaving are extremely fitting for their roles. Evans crushes this part with an acting ability I didn’t even know he had, landing each emotion – from an inherent gentlemanly nature to a heartbreaking radio conversation near the end – with a passion and finesse we’ve never seen from him before. Weaving, while not given quite as sadistic of a role as we know the Red Skull deserves, is effective and quite chilling when he gets the chance to be. Weaving is a master at subtle menace, as we have seen in Mr. Smith in “The Matrix” and V in “V for Vendetta.” A sequel will do him good, I’d think.
The portrayal of heroism is perhaps the film’s greatest attribute. Real heroism is rarely defined by brawn. Few movies focusing what elements a hero consists of understand that, especially in the world of comics superheroes. Heroism usually falls into the background amid brash decisions of arrogance or ego while doing good deeds rather than courage and dedication. Tony Stark’s Iron Man falls into this category, as does Thor and the Hulk.
But Captain America is actually the real deal. Steve Rogers isn’t a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants playboy looking for a thrill by playing god or an actual god who just doesn’t have anything better to do than smash his antagonists. Steve Rogers is a bonafide America hero whose indomitable strength and courage are far more a part of his character than the superpowers he possesses. That is his true power. Considering the old idiom “show; don’t tell,” here is a superhero film that gets the mix right in showing us exactly what has made Captain America such a figure of strength and power for our nation. We immediately understand why this guy is special rather than it just being told to us that we should consider him special.
Cap has a few more layers than most superheroes (outside of Batman, Spider-Man, and Hulk) have, and those layers are laid out bare pretty early on in the storytelling. We get Steve. We like Steve. That’s a powerful driving force. Joe Johnson tackles the most complicated elements of the famed national hero’s mythology and translates it to the screen with clarity when it comes to why we should care about this guy.
Cap has always had the same issue as Superman in being a dull one-dimensional hero. They are both ultimate boy scouts. Yet here, we get a Captain America that remains true to this ideal at its core, yet he is willing to use a gun and shoot Nazis in the head. This automatically puts him in a different category from other heroes we’ve seen so far. His part in “The Avengers” should be fascinating considering he’s willing to take his patriotism much farther than, I think, everyone else will.
Armed with a neat action-adventure premise, a villain vile enough to hate effectively, and a charismatic hero, “Captain America: The First Avenger” is a snappy love letter to America. Yet it never feels as complete or as fulfilling as it should be. Still, even with that glaring fault, there is something to be said for a superhero origin story that actually focuses on its characters instead of mindless action. Too bad that same meticulous care couldn’t have been put into the overall plot, as well.