Superheroes trade in wish-fulfillment. In this case, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), who persists in fighting even though he's been 4F'd, gets his chance to become the hero he aspires to be. His adventures set him against the Red Skull and an arsenal of fantastic weapons. The latest Marvel Avengers movie takes us back to the comic-book 1940s, when men were enhanced by superscience and women were allowed on the battlefield without helmets.1

The film handles its lead very well, giving Steve Rogers heroic qualities—but no heroic abilities—long before he becomes the titular Captain. He's a little guy with health issues who wants to help, and won't give up. The dazzle of special effects and action sequences that follow work in a large part because we're behind the central character.

The rest of the cast turn in entertaining performances. We're talking about acting here, not character. While the script develops Steve Rogers, in a comic-book sort of way, and invests Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) with a measure of credibility, the film rarely develops its characters. They have at most the two dimensions of the source material, and suitable actors have been given the task of making them breathe a little.

The film's villain, alas, has bigger problems than simply a lack of development. In the original comics, the Red Skull worked for Adolf Hitler (heil, he was even trained by Hilter). This makes him an amalgam of Nazi mastermind and comic-book villain2 and therefore the ideal adversary for a superhero war movie. Unfortunately, the movie changes his role, for no really good reason. Now, the Skull heads Hydra, a Nazi science division that has broken free from the Nazis (because the Nazis tolerated dissent, and would easily permit this to happen)—yet somehow maintains a large number of followers, full funding, and so forth. The change effectively means that fhe film's version of World War II had a third party, in addition to the Allies and Axis, and it means that we have a film about Captain America, set during World War II, where he doesn't fight Nazis.

Even more damaging to the film are the ill-advised prologue and epilogue.

I understand and appreciate the effort these films have put into continuity. It generally serves the franchise, and imitates a strong point of the original Marvel Comics. In this case, however, the prologue and epilogue, designed to set up next year's Avengers film, work against the story. The prologue adds an unnecessary layer of confusion to a film already stacking Captain America, the Howling Commandos, the Red Skull, the cosmic cube, a Bucky (of sorts), nods to Iron Man, Thor, and even the Human Torch, and the obligatory Stan Lee cameo. In addition, the beginning features significant amounts of backstory. The filmmakers did a surprisingly good job– but then unbalanced the cinematic jenga-stack at the start of the game with the opening.

The epilogue, while interesting, belongs, if anywhere, after the credits, in place of the brief Avengers trailer that currently awaits anyone who stays after thirteen or so hours of rolling cast, effects people, gaffers, best boys, grips, caterers and second unit crewmembers.

*WARNING: SORT-OF SPOILERS:

As it stands it undercuts the drama of the final heroic sacrifice, and undoes the conclusion.

END SORT-OF SPOILERS.*



They're making a series, yes, but they shouldn't forget that they're also making a movie, and that movie should stand on its own.

Separate of these complaints, the film holds up reasonably well. A clear narrative thread takes us through Cap's career. The story jumps spaces of time, permitting other 1940s sequels to be made.3 The writers also did a remarkable job of handling the demands piled on their script. Captain America features a protracted origin story, World War II, dozens of comic-book tributes, Easter eggs, and shout-outs, yet they have been handled organically, for the most part, so that people who don't notice or understand them won't be distracted. I tested the tie-ins and shout-outs on a film-goer who had no relevant background; she never realized they were there. The film also affectionately sends up and celebrates the conventions of comics and related media. At one point, we see the opening panels of Captain America's first comic-book adventure, duplicated more or less as depicted in 1941. At another, the film nicely satirizes 1940s propaganda without ridiculing the war effort itself.

The effects used to make the pre-promoted Chris Evans scrawny look great, and overall, the film gives us strong visuals. Johnstone and his designers have a sense of both the 40s and of comics4, and they do a better job of balancing these with the set and props than the writers do with their version of science and technology. There's also the matter of the Expo. It looks like a period World's Fair, but I'm left wondering who funded it. Don't say "Howard Stark"-- he would be investing in the war effort, not showing off. Point in fact, an exposition scheduled for Los Angeles in 1942 was cancelled because, you know, they had rather larger concerns at the time.

We have a movie for comic-book fans that will appeal to a larger audience, but we don't have a Batman Begins or an Iron Man. View Captain America as an old-time war movie with a superhero lead, and you'll probably enjoy it.

Just don't think too hard.



Notes

1. I'll accept special agent Peggy in a 1940s battle as a soldier (not, say, a driver or medic or even a pilot-- the Brits had a few female pilots who flew under combat conditions). This is a very special team. Why, however, doesn't she have to wear a helmet? The colonel was worried she'd muss her hair?

2. The Nazis, of course, could be remarkably like comic-book villains.

3. I propose Captain America: The Second Adventure. You heard it hear first.

4. gnarl reminds me that the same director invested The Rocketeer with a similar comic/historic sensibility.



Credits

Directed by Joe Johnstone

Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley, featuring characters created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon.

Chris Evans as Steve Rogers / Captain America
Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter
Sebastian Stan as James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes
Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Chester Phillips
Hugo Weaving as Johann Schmidt / Red Skull
Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark
Richard Armitage as Heinz Kruger
Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine
Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury
Toby Jones as Dr. Arnim Zola
Neal McDonough as Timothy "Dum Dum" Dugan
Derek Luke as Gabe Jones
Kenneth Choi as Jim Morita
JJ Feild as James Montgomery Falsworth
Bruno Ricci as Jacques Dernier
Lex Shrapnel as Gilmore Hodge
Michael Brandon as Senator Brandt
Martin Sherman as Brandt's Aide
Natalie Dormer as Pvt. Lorraine
Marek Oravec as Jan
Stan Lee as General Cameo

"He's still skinny."

Col. Chester Phillips

The origin of Captain America is a story that has been told several times over the years (with my favorite meta-example being the one where Jack Kirby and Joe Simon explain that they were sitting in a Chinese restaurant joking around, and came up with the idea of a superhero PUNCHING HITLER IN THE FACE!!). However, we are at present nearing the end of a multi-year, multi-film run-up to next year's ensemble superhero movie The Avengers, and thus Marvel Studios has been doling out the relevant 'origin stories' of the early members of the famed Superteam as summer blockbusters. So far, we've had The Hulk (which explains why it was done a mere three years after the Ang Lee disaster), Iron Man (and Iron Man 2), and Thor. In those four movies, we've been shown the title characters as well as others relevant to an Avengers origin story. Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD (played by Samuel T. Jackson in an inspired bit of casting) is the thread that ties the movies together. Iron Man 2 introduced us to War Machine and Black Widow; Thor gave us Hawkeye, however briefly. The founding roster of The Avengers consists of Thor, Iron Man, The Hulk, Ant-Man and The Wasp, so we have three of five. Since Hawkeye and Black Widow were both members, albeit later on in the comics, it is plausible for them to replace the married Ant-Man and The Wasp. And oh by the way, Marvel seems to have 'suddenly decided' to reboot the not-really-in-need-of-reboot Spider-Man series. Given that Spider-Man was a later member of The Avengers...hmmm. And finally, although he was not originally a founding member, our subject Captain America joined in the fourth issue of the comic and was a team leader. Thus, this year's summer blockbuster: Captain America: The First Avenger.

But how was the movie? This is critical. Although there are high hopes for The Avengers given not only the cast so far but its director, we'll have to wait and see. In the meantime, we've had excellent through mediocre movies during the run-up.

Note: There will be spoilers in this node, because given how many times and how often the origin of Captain America has been written, drawn and filmed it's practically a requirement to discuss how well it hews to the comic book version. So I'm going to assume that you know the bare bones of the comic book story. If you don't, and plan on seeing the movie, well, maybe you should drop reading here and come back afterwards.

Let's cut straight to the chase, in fact. The story told in this movie is, in its broad strokes, extremely faithful to the origin story from the original comics. Its main divergence is essentially one of compression: Originally, Captain America was a World War II comic book, conceived prior to the U.S. entry into the war and run for many years following. This movie is concerned with creating the origins of a hero who, in the next movie, will be fighting in present day. As a result, the entire first run of the comic, years and years of it, is crunched down into this movie. Despite several 'montage sequences' which are meant to indicate Cap and his friends on many missions, it's really a story about how he was created and how he ended up in the year 2011. Thus, the movie is bookended by scenes set in present day, with most of it set in a 'Marvel alternate' World War II. In the film, Captain America fights Nazis but really only incidentally; the villain of the piece (and the only one we see him fight) is the period-correct Red Skull and his organization HYDRA. At the end of the movie, a plot to destroy America which Captain America essentially gives his life to foil is also attributed to the Red Skull, despite it in the comics being originally the work of a not-so-completely different villain (Baron Zemo? Yes, Baron Zemo, thank you Jet-Poop!)

So. You shouldn't see this movie for a brand new thrilling story. You should see this movie for a familiar (if you're a comics person at all) story, executed well in 'summary form.'

The acting is of varying quality . I found Chris Evans (Steve Rogers / Captain America) to be perfectly satisfying as his character - once you understand that Steve Rogers isn't a very complicated character at all. He's pretty much, like Superman, a Golden Boy - almost 2D in his convictions and cheesily-voiced optimisms. Evans does a decent job of showing us a once-weak man, unused to having much say in his life, suddenly thrust into the role of central figure. His physique in the first part of the film, where he is the unimproved Steve Rogers, is done with CGI - he is not only made weedier but shrunk down several inches using special effects. This is done well enough that unless you know about it, it's unlikely you'd realize it, save for one or two shots where a perspective of his face goes slightly wonky, indicating visual trickery.

Cappy's various sidekicks and assistants (his friend Sergeant 'Bucky' Barnes from home takes the place of a younger sidekick of the same name from the comic) are done well, if unexceptionally. The two other actors who really concern us are men who were hired partially for their acting skill but partially (and fittingly, for a comic book movie) for the meta-roles that they have become known for. Tommy Lee Jones plays Col. Chester Phillips, the U.S. Army lead of the Super Soldier program. He speaks so infrequently that words seem to be on short rations with him - and yet, in true Tommy Lee Jones style, his lines are usually laconic gems of comedy or plot mechanism or both. I have a vision of Tommy Lee Jones at home answering the phone, listening to his agent or maybe Marvel Studios tell him in detail why they want him for this movie and what they'll give him, getting more and more voluble in his continued silence, before he finally comes out with a curt and two-tone "Okay" and hangs up. Alternately, I can see him getting a call from his agent that goes like this:

Agent: "Tommy, they're making the Avengers."

TLJ: "Okay."

Agent: "They want you. They want you to just come and do your thing."

TLJ:" "Okay." (hangs up)

Something much like that probably occurred when casting the villain. Hugo Weaving plays Johann Schmidt / The Red Skull with his usual scenery-chewing debonair nastiness - the megalomania and zealotry of Agent Smith with a trope-perfect Nazi sneer and accent. Stanley Tucci does a good job playing Dr. Erskine, the creator of the Super Soldier serum, injecting enough levity into the role to lift it above 'SCIENTIST' labeling.

The movie is paced quite well. It starts a bit slowly and haphazardly, since for some reason which I'm not sure I agree with the film opens with a modern-day bookending that I think really isn't necessary. After that, it has to set up Steve Rogers as a weak but dedicated guy, and it does that with aplomb. Once it gets rolling, it does certainly pick right up and hold the pace all the way to the end.

There are a few things I had issues with while watching it. The first one was that the majority of the film takes place during World War II - but it didn't feel like a World War II movie, despite its mighty attempts to look like one. There were too many incongruities of both plot (HYDRA? What?) and prop (Wait, blue-LED-sporting plasma rifles?) for it to fit into that space in my head. But, I realized, that's not what it was doing. It's not a World War II movie with 'extras' like Inglorious Basterds was trying to be. It's a superhero movie drawing on WWII tropes to tell its story - and as that, it does a perfectly fine job. It doesn't have to flesh out the European theater of operations in WWII - because we all know that from history and scads of WWII movies and books. It just has to invoke the ETO - forests, mountains, maybe some snow, and some familiar WWII vehicles and uniforms - and we'll fill in the rest.

In the end, Captain America: The First Avenger isn't a great story- but it's a very, very well executed 'origin story prequel' for a superhero. One which entertains all the way through, and at the end (if you've been watching the other movies) slots neatly into place in the runup to The Avengers with a solid click on par with that of seating a Tommy gun's magazine.

One other thing I should mention for you comics books fans. This movie is full of fan service. No, really. Packed. I'm not a real comics book guy, and even I picked up on a few specific references and could tell that there were dozens of others. Over and above the now-expected Stan Lee cameo, there are references galore in this thing. From people in the US in the movie excitedly buying and reading what looks to be an actual replica of the original Captain America comic book, to the shape of his shield as the story goes along - there's tons of stuff here. Howard Stark shows up in this movie as a further link to the Iron Man series. But those aren't what I mean - the references are for the comic book fans.

I recommend it as Good Summer Fun. Even if no, he doesn't really get to punch Hitler in the face in this one.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Directed by Joe Johnston (Jumanji, The Rocketeer (win!), October Sky)

Steve Rogers / Captain America - Chris Evans
Col. Phillips- Tommy Lee Jones
Johann Schmidt / Red Skull - Hugo Weaving
Agent Peggy Carter - Hayley Atwell

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