Review: Captain America: The First Avenger
“What makes you so special?”
“Me? Nothin’ – I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.”
Nerds debate things a lot – it’s part of the culture. This requires people to take sides, in order for the debate to happen. Invariably, when the debate about the Boy Scouts vs. the Bad-Asses comes up, I am the one in our group here who decides to defend those who fall into the Lawful Good alignment. I’ll take up Supe’s cause against the mockery of the Dark Knight lovers, and when the Wolverines and Iron Mans cast their taunts, I’m the one who sticks up for Cap (usually). While I’m not saying Batman, Wolverine, and Iron Man aren’t incredibly cool, interesting, and complex characters (they are), there is something to be said for a straight-up hero. He is the gold standard that makes the anti-hero variations interesting. He is the fundamental example of the ideals that move the world forward. Forget all this “hero Gotham needs-deserves/deserves-needs” stuff; in Captain America: The First Avenger, we get the hero that most people simply want. He’s just a kid from Brooklyn, a good man given great power who does inspiring things. And oh, yeah, nerds will be super-happy about damn near every aspect of this movie, too. This is Captain America with all the references, and perfectly integrated into the Marvel Universe that has been built in the series of films so far.
For a proper break-down, hit the jump.
SPOILER WARNING: I tried to keep it to a minimum, but there will be spoilers. Nothing that will surprise anyone familiar with the Cap mythos, but if you’re new to the game, be warned.
The first thing that really, truly struck me about this movie was the CGI work for Chris Evans as Steve Rogers pre-Super Solider serum injection. It is almost unsettling just how realistic that scrawny body is underneath the head of the usually muscular Evans. You may think you know what I mean based on the trailers – trust me, the longer he’s on screen, the more shocked you will be that you can’t quite tell if there’s any CGI at all. The makers of First Class could have used this tech to make Beast’s appearance not quite as unfortunate as it was.
The look for the film over-all was fantastic. The mood and period was incredibly well set by the costumes, in-film news media, and especially the props. All the war propaganda (including Cap’s numerous appearances) was spot-on, and the props and weapons were by far what did it for me. The thing about the Marvel universe is that it is intended to exist along-side our own. And so, when depicting Allied Soldiers, nearly all the tech looks exactly like it would in Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan. Well, except, you know, for Cap’s Vibranium shield and motorcycle-mounted flamethrower. But he’s the hero, like I said! Plus, I did say nearly all the tech. However, the Hydra agents, using their supernatural/advanced-tech weapons, straddle an all-important line. They have to put you into a comic book world, but a comic book world that is meant to be an often-accurate mirror of our own. And this is where the film-makers nailed it. Mixing in a little bit of
steam-punk diesel punk for good measure, they blended sci-fi/fantasy elements with real Nazi experimental designs. Many of the tanks and planes in the film, while outlandish, actually were found among Nazi plans. And you can tell. It all blends together so that the line between real-world inspiration and comic-book-cover sources becomes hard to finger. Result: you can get lost in the world of the movie while barely noticing it. That’s the magic of cinema, folks.
Now, Chris Evans. You know, some of the dialogue was cheesy, and I was very uncertain of his casting, given the snarky roles he usually plays. But for the most part, he remains the scrawny kid trying to do good, and often doing it awkwardly. He managed to retain that character even after becoming a massive superhuman, and that’s what kept him convincing and easy to relate to. Throughout most of the movie, he remains as awe-struck by his power and the surreality of his surroundings as we are. And I should say right now – I squealed like a little girl every single time he tossed his shield and then deftly caught it and re-attached it to his arm. And he does that a lot in this movie.
Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones nailed their parts as the kindly creator of the super-soldier serum and the crusty colonel, respectively. And Hugo Weaving – oh man, Hugo Weaving. His casting as Red Skull was what initially sold me on this movie, and they teased out the reveal of his true form just enough to tantalize the knowing fans without making it tedious. He is pure, straight evil – the proper villain for a proper hero. And yeah, the Red Skull make-up was fantastic. Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, the British secret agent and Steve Rogers’ love interest, functions as a fairly independent woman and a convincingly innocent romantic partner appropriate for Captain America. There should be far fewer groans compared to the amount I’m sure feminists uttered while watching Natalie Portman’s character fall irrationally and hopelessly for Thor.
As for the dialogue, I actually thought that the writers and actors together did a wonderful job. Except for one totally random and extremely odd clunker uttered by Dominic Cooper’s Howard Stark, the writing was actually quite well done. This is a straight-up action hero movie, and so there are certain requisite exchanges that are prone to being cheesy: the discovering of the powers, the romantic interest, the motivation of the hero, etc. But really, I never found myself cringing – in fact, I thought that often, the writers found extremely clever ways of expressing clichéd tropes found in action movies in new ways, at times using a single gesture to get a message across.
An interesting aspect of this movie is the approach to the action that builds to the final climax. When Cap recruits several soldiers to join his squad and take down Hydra bases across Europe, the progress of his team is depicted, for the most part, in a montage that approaches a pre-movie war reel. But it never quite becomes that, and it lacks the oomph of a fully-developed action montage. It’s like the makers of the film tried to go for both historical reference and sequence of ass-kicking, and didn’t quite nail either. This was really the only part of the movie with which I was disappointed. Now, for Cap’s team, he picks familiar faces like Dum Dum Dugan and Bucky Barnes, whom Cap fans will recognize instantly. But he also picks Jim Morita and Gabe Jones, Japanese American and African American soldiers, respectively (When Kenneth Choi’s Morita responded to a questioning of his loyalty by saying “I’m from Fresno, Ace,” I literally died laughing). In a war fought at a time when African Americans were often denied both basic civil rights and the chance to fight in forward combat positions, and Japanese Americans were largely interned in camps wholly without proper justification, this might seem a bit historically inaccurate. But I think that while Captain America recognized these facts of history, it also chose to recognize other historical facts, like the fact that, during WWII, the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the Nisei, comprised entirely of Japanese American citizens, was the most highly decorated regiment in the history of the United States armed forces. 21 Medals of Honor, folks. Yes, there were, and are, problems with the United States, and I think this will be something addressed even more explicitly in The Avengers, when Cap returns to the world to confront reality as compared with his ideals. But this movie chooses to say “We know there are problems, but we still think that certain ideals can be held up as something to admire.” Again, this is pure hero story, and I think they did it right, without being disrespectful.
To close, I am going to make a bold claim. As I was watching this movie, replete with Nazis harnessing the power of the occult and wonderful one-liners that approached cheesy without ever crossing the line, something outrageous occurred to me: this is the Indy sequel that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull should have been. I know, I know – “The Indiana Jones movies are without compare, they can never be done again. The makers of the originals tried and failed! That proves it!” But go see this movie and just try to tell me that, at some point, a part of you that hadn’t jumped for Saturday Morning Adventure joy since Ford shared the screen with Connery didn’t find itself rejoicing once again. Seriously, go see this movie – it was Indiana Jones good.
Thanks to Mister Keitel about the punk classification advice – he was spot on.