August 1, 2011 –
Captain America has been compared to Indiana Jones in an number of reviews I’ve seen, and I can see where they would get that impression. Some of the basics of Indiana Jones are also present here. The setting of World War II, the adventurous tone, the romance between a strong and strong willed woman and the main protagonist. At the very beginning there is even a nod to the archeological elements when the Red Skull makes a visit to Norway. But in many respects Captain America is a different film that, while never quite reaching the heights of an Indiana Jones film, is worthwhile all the same.
Captain America, is the story of a scrawny, weak little man named Steve Rogers, played by Chris Evans, who, despite his unwavering dedication to the cause his nation is fighting for, is constantly rejected for enlistment due to his physical state. Dr. Abraham Erskine, played by Stanley Tucci making the most of his short appearance, is a scientist working for the American Government who takes note of Roger’s spirit and heart and enlists him in an experiment that sees Rogers turn into a muscle-bound warrior with unparalleled ability of strength and reflexes; a super soldier.
But in their moment of triumph an agent of Hydra, a secret research group of Nazis, blows up part of the facility, killing Dr. Erskine, and destroying the dream of an army of American super soldiers with him. Rogers, now an oddity, is used for the propaganda machine as “Captain America” a symbol of the war effort for the USO.
When the regiment of Rogers’ best friend Bucky go missing in action, Rogers ditches the USO to go save the men, beginning his turn from propaganda figure to war hero. The rest of the film follows his continuing fight against Hydra and the Red Skull who have grand ambitions that outstrip those of their unaware Nazi masters.
The writing here is very straightforward, but clever. The plot makes a lot of basic sense, for the most part, and the audience can follow along readily. This could be seen as a negative, as the film is, in many respects, very predictable. There’s not really a single twist that comes as a genuine surprise. It’s a thoroughly trodden path, but it’s told so well I never really cared.
Framing the WWII story with snippets from present day works out very well, both foreshadowing the ending, and setting everything up for the Avengers. Some people call this film just a massive advertisement for the Avengers, but I disagree. Aside from the trailer after the credits and the presence of Howard Stark, I felt that this story was mostly self contained with a smooth progression from start to finish.
Steve Rogers’ character stays mostly the same throughout, and while this might seem to indicate a monotone 2D portrayal it never felt like this to me. Partially because of the excellent acting of Chris Evans who really pulls out his best performance in anything I’ve seen from him, making it obvious that there are more complicated emotions and struggles behind his outward determination and loyalty, even though he never wavers from those values.
Marvel has been a little hit and miss with their romantic relationships in their films. Incredible Hulk saw no real chemistry all between Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner and Liv Tyler’s Betty Ross, and as much as I loved Thor, that film’s relationship felt more like an infatuation waiting to blossom into a real romance. On the other hand, Iron Man’s relationship between Pepper Pots and Tony Stark feels genuine, if never serious.
In this film, Marvel has hit the mark, providing the first true romance in their collection between Rogers and Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter. The relationship between the two has time to grow and bloom, and you see her like his spirit before he gains the body of a greek god. It’s the subtle growth of the relationship that makes it believable, as opposed to the sudden, if sweet, one in Thor.
It should practically not need stating that Hugo Weaving does a suitably dastardly performance as the Red Skull. Tommy Lee Jones does a fantastic job as Colonel Chester Phillips and delivers all the best lines of the film. It may be his best role in any movie, he’s so good. Pretty much every bit-part in the film is played very well, from Toby Jones’ Dr. Arnim Zola to Neil McDonough’s Timothy “Dum Dum” Dugan (Even though Dum Dum and the other Howling Commandos are never mentioned by name.)
Possibly my favorite element of the movie is its setting. The World War II backdrop informs the rest of the entire movie, from aesthetics, to mannerisms to the plot to way history and fiction interweave just a tiny bit (the nod to Hitler’s obsession with finding relics in the middle east- and Indiana Jones too – was an especially fun nugget tossed in there.) Roger’s story is a romanticized and fictionalized allegory for the Greatest Generation, and in a time when WWII seems like ancient history to kids born past the turn of the century, Captain America makes it relevant again – which by no means is me saying it isn’t, but rather people don’t recognize it as such.
The details of the time period are especially fun. The way the rampant American propaganda of the time is handled, and the inherent element of propaganda that is the main character, is brilliant. The USO scenes, involving a song and dance number, the goofy first costume, and the contrast between the reception at home versus amongst the troops, is all very well done. Sometimes real patriotism is ignoring the flag-waving and just getting a task done right, which is an important thing to remember in our paranoid first decade of the new millennium.
The action of the film is pretty much all you could ask it to be. Gunfights were exciting, explosions were expode-y and motorcycles leaped off improbably angled bunkers. However implausible the physics, Captain America looked like a skilled warrior while fighting, ably moving around a battlefield taking out armed opponents in a tactical and effective manner. The ping and clang of the shield is possibly one of the most satisfying sounds I’ve ever heard. Captain America’s fights with the Red Skull were particularly satisfying. Seeing two people of equal power duking it out with high stakes were some of the best fights in the movie.
In terms of special effects, the Benjamin Button-esque transformation of Chris Evans from a weakling Steve Rogers into the dashing Captain America should earn a bunch of tech guys a pay raise. You understood the moment you saw him why the army would reject Rogers, and you can believe the butt kicking Captain America dishes out later in the film when you see what the experiment turned Rogers into.
The Red Skull’s face was another stand out effect in the film.
I honestly couldn’t tell how much of the Red Skull’s face was CG and how much was practical. Either way, they did a great job on making him true to the comic book, while still managing to be menacing, rather than comical. On the other hand, the green screen moments were fairly obvious. Not Star-War-prequels obvious, but noticeable all the same.
Captain America’s only real flaw is its predictability and simplicity, and if you come at this film with the right mindset, those might very well be virtues. Captain America is just about all it could be. Clever writing, excellent acting, explosions, science fiction, fisticuffs, tragic romance, a memorable villain and a fresh take on the World War II backdrop make this film one of, if not the best Marvel movie to date. It may not be the most exciting action movie, most romantic romance movie, or most historically accurate (haha) war movie, but it combines it all so well under the superhero banner that it doesn’t really matter. This isn’t just a movie to see, it’s a movie to keep. Marvel has done it again.
STAR RATING: (4 & ½ Stars)
For those of you who stuck around after the rating, I’ve got a extra segment for you called Spoiler Talk. It’s a segment in which I discuss what I thought of certain elements of the story or themes that are too spoilerish or high-concept for the main review. What I say here doesn’t ever trump my review, instead it might give insight into what exactly made me give something the score I did. So let’s get started.
The demise (or not) of the Red Skull is a little bit of a cop-out. Captain America doesn’t defeat him. Instead he is sort of melted by the Cosmic Cube. What almost certainly really happened was that he was teleported somewhere, like we’ve seen in Thor. After all the beginning of the film ties the Cosmic Cube to Odin’s store house, so it makes a lot of sense, especially when you see all the images of the cosmos that appear when the cube’s power is activated raw. So we know that the Red Skull is still out there, and no great surprise, really.
Hydra was a good choice for an underling service for the Red Skull, making them sort of super-Nazis, and those always make for good villains and cannon fodder. On the other hand, I’d like to see them expand from here and become the more distinct group we know from present day comics.
One element that makes my heart get all warm and glowing is how egalitarian and truly peaceful the message is. It isn’t a glorification of war, but rather the reasons we fight against evil. It’s an easy well to mine, as World War II is truly the most justified war we’ve ever fought. The most black and white. And yet to a degree Captain America subtly undercuts that black and white image of the time period. As Dr. Erskine says, “people forget that the first nation the Nazi’s invaded was their own.” There is definite good and evil, but it’s not the races, genders or nations. It’s about the powers and principalities (wink-wink to all the Christians out there) that drive them.
As I said before, the romance between Peggy Carter and Captain America was great. The tragic ending where Rogers knows he’s not going to see Peggy again, and they both talk about a date they’re planning to have until the end… got a little glisteny in the eye. Oh, and she is a bad-ass, punching that soldier out and then pegging the driver of the saboteur’s car from down the street. Girl-freaking-power!