Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

July 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Chris Evans being outmatched by uber-Nazi storm troopers in the campy but quality 'Captain America: The First Avenger'

Based on the comic created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby

Written for the Screen by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Directed by Joe Johnston

Starring Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving, Toby Jones, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper with Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones

In the last nine years, since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, we’ve experienced a glut of big budget comic book movies. Prior to these, there was a smattering of weak attempts, including low budget versions of Captain America and Fantastic Four, a grunge-y adaptation of Blade and an odd assortment of lesser known comic book heroes not named Superman or Batman. Now in the past year we’ve had all the second tier characters on top of plentiful sequels for the A-list characters; The Green Lantern, the Green Hornet, Thor, Daredevil, Iron Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, the Hulk, etc.

So at this point we have an idea of what a comic book movie is, what to expect and what we like or don’t like about them. There’s the traditional school of comic book movies, such as Superman, Fantastic Four, etc. all slightly cartoonish and dreamlike. There’s the gritty re-invention adaptations such as Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and then there’s the newly minted Marvel-verse, which seems to take all its cues from Jon Favreau’s first Iron Man movie. Henceforth, it was inevitable that certain properties would be adapted eventually. Of these properties, despite the fantastical alternate realities most comics take place in, Captain America is probably the most difficult to translate to screen, given the facts.

It’s basically about a normal G.I. on super steroids who wears a colorful uniform, sports a cumbersome but effective shield and only carries a pistol, which he barely uses. Aside from the logistical issues in convincingly displaying Cap Am on the silver screen, there’s a political element as well; Captain America is a fairly jingoistic character that’s a little too Ra-Ra America at his core for our generation’s multi-culti world view to be entirely comfortable with. There’s also the question of who could successfully play Captain America. It can’t be an unknown- that doesn’t sell tickets- but at the same time, the truly square jawed All American type from the 50’s is simply too cardboard 1-dimensional for audiences to connect with or take seriously as a character to root for. At his core, Captain America is an every man, meant to represent the very best values and abilities our nation has to offer. He isn’t cursed by a troubled past, or by some horrible deformity. He’s tall, well built, good looking, confident, loves his country and is a perfect physical specimen, designed to be as agile and adept in combat as humanly possible. A.K.A. he’s on the greatest steroids known to man. To top all of this off, despite being a United States soldier and essentially doing normal G.I. infantry missions during WW2 in his initial inception, Cap chooses to wear a rather attention grabbing outfit replete with a red, white and blue color scheme and a face mask that one would think obscured his vision worse than any regular helmet possibly could. In short, at face value, everything about Captain America as a character is impractical, even if his biological functions are next to perfect.

So given all that, they still went ahead and adapted the comic. They cast pretty boy hunky all american actor Chris Evans as Cap, going a little younger than previous incarnations, filled the rest of the cast with serviceable character actors, plus some gravitas from the wonderful Tommy Lee Jones and the respectably scenery chewing Hugo Weaving as Cap’s super villain-esque arch enemy Red Skull, a Nazi so evil and messed up he’s supposed to dwarf Hitler’s ambition and capacities considerably.

What director Joe Johnston has somehow done is perfectly melded the realistic aspects of a modern World War 2 movie, with the gung-ho aspects of a classic old Hollywood John Wayne-esque WW2 men-on-a-mission vehicle and filtered all of this through the perspectives of our larger than life hero Captain America and our larger than life villain Red Skull. We get subtle nods to the history of Captain America, to his original costume, which, like many original comic book costumes, don’t translate well to screen and we see a personal journey for Steve Rogers, the weak man who’d be turned into Cap, as a very relatable journey of a man weak in physical attributes, but powerful in courage, commitment and character. Johnston’s film never loses site of the Steve we’re initially introduced to, the Steve who suffers from a litany of health problems and is bone thin. He’s discovered at a recruiting station by Stanley Tucci’s sympathetic fatherly German scientist, who serves as a surrogate father figure to the orphaned Steve. That Steve stays with us as Captain America. His spirit is imbued believably within what becomes a behemoth of a man with his engorged biceps, bulging pecs and rippling abs. No, I’m not salivating, but the physical differences are a fact and do inform the character. The good part is that they don’t define him. He’s also devoid of zingers, one liners or any tongue-in-cheek dialogue. He’s as close as a multi-dimensional person to a Captain America adaptation is gonna get.

He’s given a love interest in Hayley Atwell, a British intelligence attache to the super soldier project that gives birth to Captain America. The romance is underplayed, as she initially sees Steve Rogers as an inexperienced, awkward young man who is honest and polite, but unaccustomed to dealing with women. He’s accompanied by a commanding officer in the gruff but fatherly Tommy Lee Jones and an assortment of soldier cliches around to support Captain in his suicide missions. These are played by established actors like Neal McDonough (best known for ‘Band of Brothers’, another WW2-centric story) and Derek Luke (of Antwon Fisher, amongst other films), the token African-American member of the crew. There’s also a crass but lovable asian American soldier tossed in for good measure. It’s a veritable Rainbow Coalition of a WW2-era fighting unit. The soldiers are there to be recognizable extras in a movie that is all Captain America’s. There’s also Sebastian Stan in a muted turn as Bucky, Cap’s sidekick, and Dominic Cooper as the senior Stark, father of future Iron Man Tony Stark.

In a similar capacity, Toby Jones shows up as Red Skull’s chief scientist and right hand man, Arnim Zola. It isn’t clear if he’s being forced to work for evil or if he’s evil himself, but merely indifferent and burned out from all the work he does. Red Skull’s plan is a macguffin. Basically he’s found this ancient blue plasma stuff that can be weaponized into these standard-issue laser gun/cannons, bombs, etc. and he uses them to build his own army of super Nazis who aren’t really Nazis (they’re his own brand of evil, whose name I forget) with a belief in the occult, a ridiculous double-Nazi salute and lots of other vaguely Metropolis-esque future-tech and they wear these Darth Vader-esque black uniforms, replete with breathing masks. The fire fights seem pretty fare between the traditionally armed American soldiers and the Nazis with science-fiction blaster guns.

Everybody gets their day in the sun, including some awkward scenes where everybody is given what feels like forced lines as an excuse to remind us they aren’t simply extras. Every name actor, like Tommy Lee Jones, get their big scene. Dominic Cooper channels the cocksure but oddly alluring nature of the Stark gene pool without coming off as a cheap imitation of Robert Downey, Jr.’s take on his fictional son. The action is very comic book-y with neat tilted angles and lots of money shot moments where Cap tosses his mighty shield to kick the ass of one of the future-tech Nazi storm troopers.

The ending is a bit of a non-starter as we kinda go from action set piece to downtime to action set piece until you realize the film is closing in on its 2-hour-plus run time and the film simply sets us up for inevitable sequels and the Avengers movie. They tie it into the Marvel Universe with a very brief appearance by one of the linking characters in all these films (hint: he’s black) and a special trailer for the Avengers film once the credits end. (I like the gimmick that this is an actual trailer as trailers originally functioned at the end of movies and got their names)

All in all a hammy but satisfying adaptation. They did as best a job they could of adapting an out-of-date character and impractical character and universe to conform to modern standards of film making, entertainment and political correctness. In the end, however, it felt like the pilot to a cartoon show come to life. That’s not a bad thing, but it does leave one with a detached sense of an impersonal screenplay for a property that might be too ingrained in its own time to translate perfectly to film.


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