Monday, March 19, 2012

Blogorium Review: Captain America - The First Avenger

 Pre-Review Nerd Stuff:

 I know that it's considered bad form to start a review with a tangent, but why is that subtitle on Captain America? Were Paramount and Marvel afraid that people wouldn't go see a Captain America movie if they didn't directly tie it to The Avengers movie that was still a year away? Were they concerned that people might think that, despite no evidence to support the theory, that it was somehow a live action sequel to Team America: World Police?

 Let's take a moment to just pontificate on this, because I'm guessing most of you didn't even think twice about it. Captain America was the last of the Marvel feature-length-prequels/trailers to Marvel's The Avengers Directed by Joss Whedon in IMAX and RealD 3-D Coming to Theaters May 4th*. We already know that every Marvel movie that doesn't involve spider-men, punishers, mutants and Nicolas Cage** are moving towards The Avengers. How do we know? Well, Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor have included either Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury or Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson (sometimes both!) and they keep hinting at an "Avengers Initiative" that Tony Stark isn't allowed to be in.

 Sometimes they throw in characters that have nothing substantive to add to the movie but who also happen to be members of The Avengers not named Ant Man (Hawkeye and Ant Man / The Wasp stand-in Black Widow) that are also part of S.H.I.E.L.D. However, to this point, Universal and Paramount have trusted nerds to understand that they're planning an Avengers movie without subtitles like Iron Man: The Avengers Wouldn't Have Him or Thor: The God of Thunder and Also Member of The Avengers.

 I could understand the need to bridge this with Captain America if say, Nick Fury wasn't in the film (SPOILER: He is. So are his "Howling Commandos," but sans their learder). If the film was actually just about Captain America's origin and role in World War II and didn't involve the prologue and epilogue in the present day, then yeah, I guess some rubes might say "hey, where's things I recognize? Why does that guy who isn't Robert Downey Jr. have the same last name? Why doesn't this movie explain things to me because I'm a drooling moron?" Okay, that last part was maybe a little mean, but we haven't needed our hands held to this point. The other films have done a reasonably good job of integrating elements for a later film without disrupting the experience of watching the film. Well, until Iron Man 2.

 Wait, what? Oh, the movie itself? Fine...

 Substantive Film Review Portion:

 Is there a missing "director's cut" of Captain America somewhere? Specifically a cut of Joe (The Rocketeer) Johnston's film that fills in the second half of the film, when things just happen without any connective tissue? Things were off to such a promising start...

 Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a 90 pound weakling with a heart of gold who just wants to enlist and fight Nazis in World War II. His miniscule body (accomplished with some impressive digital trickery) and sickly medical record keep him from being mowed down by machine gun fire, which is what the Army officials who keep turning him down remind him. Defeated, he goes to the World's Fair in New York with his buddy "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and a few girls, and on a whim he decides to forge his papers and enlist (again). This time, Rogers catches the eye of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a scientist who defected from Germany to help the Allied war effort. He's working with Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) to develop the "Super Soldier" serum, and after boot camp, Rogers is determined to be the ideal candidate. Despite the misgivings of Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Rogers receives the serum and becomes muscular, hunky Chris Evans, er "Captain America," and is promptly sent to do USO shows to help the war effort.

 Meanwhile, Erskine's first "Super Soldier" experiment, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), is plotting to take over the world, first for Hitler and then just for Hydra, his own private army. He has the Cosmic Cube, left on Earth by Odin (Anthony Hopkins, not appearing in this film), and with the help of Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), is creating new weapons, ones that will help him rule the world. Oh, and he doesn't have a face any more - he has a Hugo Weaving mask that he wears for a while but is actually a Red Skull. Or, THE Red Skull.

 And this whole portion of the film, dedicated to Captain America's origin story, is a whole lot of fun. It's a throwback to throwbacks of old fashioned adventure films like Joe Johnston's The Rocketeer or Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark (visual effects art direction by Joe Johnston). There's a nice sense of momentum and wonder as this puny kid named Steve Rogers proves himself to have the heart to be a hero and then gets the "Super Soldier" serum and instead of getting to fight Nazis has to pitch war bonds to families and punch a fake Hitler over and over.

He never even gets to punch the real Hitler, because Captain America: The First Avenger doesn't actually feature Nazis to speak of - The Red Skull kills a few of Hitler's liaisons and then declares Hydra to be its own entity. That's okay, I guess, although it defeats the purpose of needing to have the film set in the 1940s, but I was still on board. Rogers ends up in Europe doing his goofy show to soldiers that really aren't interested - they lost a lot of good men to Hydra, including "Bucky" Barnes. Rogers decides that this "rah rah" patriotic song and dance isn't helping, so he asks Stark and Peggy to sneak him across enemy lines so he can save the captured allied soldiers.

 The first action scene, when Captain America improbably sneaks into the Hydra plant past a bunch of heavily armored soldiers and rescues Barnes, along with what will eventually be the aforementioned "Howling Commandos": "Dum Dum" Duggan (Neal McDonough), Gabe Jones (Derek Luke), Jim Morita (Kenneth Choi), James Montgomery Fallsworth (J.J. Feild), and Jacques Dernier (Bruno Ricci). The men band together to escape from Hydra, and Captain America ends up meeting Zola and The Red Skull as the plant begins exploding.

 And then Captain America: The First Avenger falls apart. There's still plenty of action and patriotism and fighting of Nazis Hydra, but none of it matters any more. All of the well designed narrative and breathless pacing designed to service Captain America's origin collapses and Johnston's film becomes a meaningless cacophony of scenes that seem to happen independently of what comes before and after them. The sense of wonder and adventure dissipates and instead we're subjected to a mish-mash of things that need to happen to service the epilogue of the film, when (SPOILER) Captain America wakes up in present day New York.

 I'm going to give you two examples of things that just happen without any explanation other than "well, it needs to happen for the movie to end the way we wrote it":

 1. Captain America goes from being a propaganda tool who went AWOL and saved some soldiers who returned fully expecting to be court-martialed to being AN ACTUAL soldier. How does this happen? Well, there's a scene where he's supposed to get a medal for bravery but he isn't there so that Stan Lee can make a joke in his standard issue cameo. He's not there because Captain America is now in London is certainly appears to be an actual Captain. Before someone goes into the comments to correct me on this, please instead consider explaining how, in the film (not the comic), receiving a medal of valour is in any way a logical substitute in the narrative for going from being s morale booster into being an actual soldier.

 2. Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter have a "will they or won't they" romance during the first half of the film, one that is loosely continued into the second half of the film, only in a lazier fashion. They sort of flirt, have conversations that indicate that they could fall in love, and then Rogers is seduced by another lady. Carter walks in on them kissing, makes a snide comment, and Rogers is embarrassed. He tries to apologize, but instead she shoots his new shield and Howard Stark makes a joke. Steve thought that Stark and Peggy were canoodling because he doesn't know what "fondue" is, so he doesn't understand why she's so mad! Oh, romantic comedy misunderstandings! Then the script drops all of the parts where he wins her back and instead pretends that because Captain America puts a picture of Peggy in his watch and that she sees it in a newsreel that they're in love. We know this because they see each other during the last Hydra showdown and kiss in a car, then have a sappy conversation as Rogers (SPOILER) crashes the Red Skull's plane into the Arctic, where he will be frozen for seventy years.

 That's important because the nonexistent third act romance is supposed to be the real tragedy of the film, because when Rogers wakes up in the future and Nick Fury stops him in the middle of Times Square, the only thing he can say is "Yeah. Yeah, I just... I had a date."

 I wish I shared the tragedy of Steve Rogers losing everything and everyone he knew, but I just didn't buy it. Just like I didn't really feel anything when (SPOILER) "Bucky" is killed during a seemingly arbitrary train sequence designed to capture Dr. Zola. We're off to the next scene so quickly that it doesn't really matter what just happened, which robs the second half of the film from having any meaning.

 Along those lines, the Red Skull and Captain America have no stakes in their rivalry: other than being the only "Super Soldier"'s and being on opposite sides of the war, there's nothing driving their specific animosity towards each other. They're enemies because the movie needs an antagonist who can fly to America so that Captain America can crash the plane, be frozen, and be rescued in present day. The Red Skull works because he's Captain America's enemy, so he's in the film. He has the Cosmic Cube because it figures into The Avengers, although for some reason they aren't calling it the Cosmic Cube in the film.

 Nothing happens organically after Rogers storms into the Hydra plant. It's somehow appropriate, because at that point the World War II setting becomes irrelevant anyway. The Red Skull has developed futuristic laser guns and laser tanks that evaporate Allied soldiers (gotta have a PG13 rating for this war movie, after all), so it ceases to be a throwback to adventure films anyway. Now it's a dumb CGI science fiction / comic / war hybrid where things like plot development don't matter. The film doesn't need a reason to get from A to B to C; it just skips forward and assumes you're too swept up in the special effects to notice.

 For a director who started in visual effects, Joe Johnston has been having a lot of trouble with effects heavy films lately. Jurassic Park III and  The Wolfman looked comically cheap when it came to digital effects, and despite the presence of actual physical stunts, Captain America starts to look like a long string of green screen sequences with people running, fighting, or driving. I'm almost positive that most of the plane interior where Captain America fights the Red Skull is an actual set, but it looks fake, and so does most of the movie after the first hour. To put it in perspective, I knew that most of Asgard was designed in a computer, but it seemed more palpable than 80% of Captain America's climax.

 Now, it is possible to watch Captain America and not think about any of this. You could just turn your brain off after an hour, try not to follow the story and just say "well, they need those 'splosions, after all" and be swept away to the end of the film. You're still going to feel underwhelmed by how quickly it ends, how little any of it registers, or the way that you don't feel anything that the writers, director, and actors wanted you to. But you might not mind. You'll think about Chris Evans and how he was a really good Captain America / Steve Rogers. You'll like Hayley Atwell and Tommy Lee Jones and be surprised that Neal McDonough wasn't playing a jerk for the first time you can remember. Toby Jones is a little bit like Ronald Lacey in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Hugo Weaving is chewing up scenery as the Red Skull. Dominic Cooper is fun as Howard Stark and you know, it was a fun adventure movie. It was a comic book, and really what did you expect?

 And if that's how you measure a movie, then the fact that half of an actual movie has been stitched together with a bunch of other scenes won't be an issue. Maybe there are a ton of deleted scenes that I need to watch or something, but they aren't in the movie I did see. The movie I did see started out with a lot of promise, and then used that good will to skip to the ending without earning it. Of course, the ending only exists to be the beginning of another movie, and not much else. At least Thor had something to do on Asgard, and Dr. Banner went back into hiding while he tried to cure himself. Tony Stark had to decide what good being Iron Man was really doing.

 Steve Rogers hangs out in S.H.I.E.L.D. until Nick Fury asks him to be an Avenger. The First Avenger, I guess.

 Subsequent Nerd Closing Component:

 So, where were we? Oh right, "The First Avenger" part. So if we're talking chronologically, wouldn't Thor be the "first" Avenger, predating Captain America by a few thousand years?

 I fully admit that I'm not an expert on Captain America or The Avengers. I was always more of a DC Comics fan, so I'm coming into these films with what little I do know about the characters. Some of them I know more about than others - I read more Spider-Man and X-Men and The Punisher than The Avengers, but I also read Secret Wars and am familiar with most of the major Marvel characters. The movies have their upsides and downsides, but Captain America has, to this point, been the one I was the most disappointed with.

 Sure, Iron Man 2's plot was too busy and Thor's story was more concerned with Asgard than the dutch-angle laden New Mexico portions, but there was a semblance of narrative in them that wasn't JUST in service of The Avengers film. Captain America doesn't feel like a movie so much as an obligatory set-up of one last character in the crossover film. It's like stretching the Hawkeye scene in Thor into a two hour movie that needs to hit certain beats in order for people to come into The Avengers knowing who everybody is. Worse still is that it tricks you into thinking there's an actual movie in the beginning and then just peters out halfway through.

 * Take that, George Lucas. May the 4th be with them!
 ** Or are those last two the same thing???

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