Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Movie Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

I received this poster as a consolation prize for
having to sit through the 3D version of the film...
I've never followed Captain America, either through the 210 million copies of his comic books that have flown off newsstand shelves since his first appearance in 1941, or through the various movie serial and television adaptations that have popped up since then.  Until a week ago, pretty much my only exposure to Captain America in any type of media was that one episode of the X-Men animated television series* that shows a flashback of Wolverine fighting alongside the First Avenger himself back in the "Big War." (You'll of course remember that Wolverine is actually much older than he looks, and that his mutant healing power keeps him young and fresh... insert nerdy guffaw here.)

* Before I continue, let me just say that I'm so happy that episodes from this solid show are easily available online, without having to trudge through the various incomplete bootleg versions on the YouTubes. The above-linked episode is from the latter half of Season 5 where animation quality suffered  as they were rushing to complete their various storylines before the show ended. But many of the earlier episodes are extremely well done and deal with more advanced and deep themes than you'd expect from a typical Saturday morning cartoon. I'd wholeheartedly recommend it; several steps below Batman: The Animated Series, of course...

Thus when I saw Captain America: The First Avenger last Thursday at the Arclight Hollywood (but not in the Dome), I was able to approach the story fresh, with no preconceived notions instilled by pesky, more original versions of the story. I was able to put myself squarely and firmly in the hands of Paramount Pictures and director Joe Johnston's 21st Century interpretation of the character. And I must say, I was not disappointed.

WARNING: The rest of this review includes {[(SPOILERS)]}. Turn back now if you know nothing about / want to stay ignorant of the Marvel Universe and what they're planning on rolling out cinematically in the near future.

Usually my first instinct when presented with a comic book movie is, "Really? Another one? I'm all for mining resources from other art forms to create interesting stories for films, but it seems like studios should be seeking to adapt the best comic books rather than every comic book in existence." But Captain America is different - it's the most recent in a series, a pre-planned combination of films based on Marvel Universe characters, that will all culminate next year in Joss Whedon's super-pic The Avengers. If you're interested in seeing more about The Avengers, go see Captain America, and stay all the way through to the end of the credits. You Marvel fans will crap your pants in excitement.

But back to the actual movie. The story takes place in the 1940s, which is good because that's when Captain America made his first appearance for Timely Comics, the precursor of Marvel. It also makes sense because the 1940s was when America was most able to support a patriotic superhero. It was during the heart of World War II, we were at the helm of the Allied Forces, doing battle for what's right against a power that can only be described as Evil. A 2010s Captain America would be wearing Hurt Locker-esque desert fatigues, steeped in billions of dollars of debt, and obese from a diet consisting of mainly high-fructose corn syrup. Honestly, Captain Planet would be a more appropriate superhero for our country in this day and age than Captain America...

No, Americans always seem most righteous and powerful when they have Nazis to punch on the jaw, which is why Captain America's arch-nemesis is Red Skull, the leader of a special high-tech, occult-driven offshoot of the alternate universe Third Reich. In the movie, he gained superhuman power from an incomplete version of the serum that turned a scrawny Steve Rogers into the incredible Captain America - but he suffered horrible side effects (pictured) due to his being impure of heart. I don't know if this jives with Red Skull's origin story in the comics and I don't particularly care to find out. I don't want to uncover anything that could potentially dampen my admiration of Hugo Weaving's stellar performance as the villain.

The casting of Weaving as Johann Schmidt/Red Skull was almost a little too on-the-nose, as the talented Aussie has carved out a niche for himself by playing over-the-top evil geniuses (Agent Smith, voice of Megatron). But I'm sure the producers at Marvel Studios asked themselves why they should settle for hamburger when they could have steak, and made the obvious (and perfect) choice. In the words of one of my fellow movie-goers: "Whenever he opens his mouth, gold comes out," in this case in the form of his perfectly crafted Nazi-German accent.

Chris Evans as the Cap did a very nice job, once I was able to get over his previous foray into the Marvel Universe as the Human Torch in those two ill-advised (and apparently non-canon) Fantastic Four movies. I still don't know how they made him short and scrawny for one half of the film, and then large and muscular for the rest of it. Was one version the real actor and the other enhanced in post? Were they both digitally altered? Were... neither? (Hey, Robert DeNiro put on 60 pounds for the end of Raging Bull, what's to prevent Chris Evans from gaining or losing a few inches or some muscle mass here and there?)

I saw the movie in 3D, though not by choice - the special members-only screening to which I was invited displayed the post-converted version in all three glorious dimensions. The result was about what you'd expect from movies shown in 3D that were not shot in 3D. The image was darker than it seemed like it should be, and there was maybe one or two scenes where the increased depth of field and jump-out-at-you effect made the slightest difference. So in ranking the movie, I will try to keep the drawback of a subpar 3D conversion from altering my opinion.

Overall, Captain America was a solid superhero pic, in the classic Summer Blockbuster fashion, with a fun origin story, a villain in every way worthy of the hero, and a strong cast of supporting characters (I'm looking at you, Stanley Tucci with your lighthearted accent, and Tommy Lee Jones with your "I'm too tired to care, but I still make it work" vibe). Patriots, fanboys, and critics alike should agree that this depiction of The First Avenger is the perfect last piece of the puzzle before we are introduced to the whole gang together in 2012.

Rating: 76 Congos.