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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Captain America: The First Avenger


“Captain America: The First Avenger” (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Joe Johnston, 2011

I don’t mean to be a grouch, but Captain America — stalwart crime and monster-buster of  the  new Marvel epic Captain America: The First Avenger — struck me as one of the duller superheroes I’ve seen recently. That’s despite one of the more amazing special effects onscreen transformations in quite a while — from 90 pound weakling Army rejectee Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) to ultra-muscular Nazi-battling titan Captain America (Evans also). And it’s also despite one of the niftier production design jobs to surround that superhero: a dazzlingly nostalgic recreation of the latter World War II era, on the home front and overseas, as you might experience it if you were living in a 3D comic book with an Art Deco artist delineating, TMC on the TV channel and Swing Era LPs playing in the background.

Why is Cap dull? (To me, at least.) Well, Evans, I think, plays him too straight, in the second part. The first is better. As the 90 (or 98) pound weakling, the perfect candidate for one of those old Charles Atlas “before and after” muscle-building comic book ads, Evans is actually more appealing. He almost won me over as a persistent but consistent 4F flunker who can’t get the Amy to sign him up to fight Hitler and fascism, which he desperately wants.

That Steve is concocted partly from technological magic: Evans’ talking head has been CGIed onto a tinier actor’s body, and when Steve is scientifically morphed into the torso of Captain America, thanks to the scientific experiments of refugee scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), we’re actually seeing Evans’ real head on Evans’ real body (which looks a little fake, maybe thanks to over-buffing for the role).

But, where the movie’s skinny Steve is sympathetic because he yearns to be a hero (and so obviously has the right stuff inside), the movie’s muscled-up Steve is a disappointment. He looks like an old Arrow Shirt ad, and he acts like one too. As David Edelstein notes, there’s no sense of the inner delight that Steve might feel upon inhabiting this new body he always wanted and experiencing the heroism he always dreamed about. Instead, he almost acts as if he’s always super-heroed it up like this. (Probably the script‘s fault, not Evans’).

I guess you could argue that it’s a case of the body finally matching the man inside, but it seems weird that he’s so blasé about it all. The second Steve has little sass or offbeat notes or depth, which allows the movie to be consistently stolen by the lovable scientist Abe (Tucci), the Nazier-than-Nazi villain Johann Schmidt aka Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), Red Skull’s assistant Peter Lorre-ish maniac Dr. Zola (Toby Jones) and Captain A’s droll, sour, constantly exasperated commanding officer, Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, who keeps throwing Don Rickles bombs at the hero and maybe at his movie). Or the splendiferous Hayley Atwell as romantic interest Peggy Carter, a hubba-hubba-hubba cutie who roots for either Steve and looks as if she’d just stepped out of a Milton Caniff comic panel. (Hugo Weaving, by the way, after he rips off his Johann Schmidt face and reveals the Red Skull face beneath, looks a bit like some weird cross between James Carville and a steamed lobster.)

As for Captain American in his full costume, which dates apparently from his first 1941 Marvel appearance courtesy of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, well, he’s your standard red-white and blue masked commando, with the usual Vibranium shield which seems as versatile a tool as a Swiss Army knife. (“A simpleton with a shield” and “an arrogant American” is Red Skull‘s contemptuous dismissal of his gaudily dressed foe.) And though Captain America doesn’t look like an Arrow Shirt ad, or anything from Abercrombie and Fitch, he‘s a little dull too, even when he’s jumping over fiery abysses, destroying secret underground war lairs, hopping on the roofs of speeding mountain trains, or battling and heaving out heavies while climbing aboard a super plane in mid air. (Captain America’s or Steve’s most exciting action scene is a chase through Brooklyn.)

The movie is set in 1945, in the last gasps of World War II, and briefly in the present, for a prelude and coda. Thanks (or no thanks) to screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia movies and The Life and Death of Peter Sellers), and along with director Joe Johnston (the visual whiz of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, October Sky, and, more relevant to this assignment, the 1991 nostalgia-fest The Rocketeer), we follow Steve from his earlier attempts to join the Army; to his successful Captain Americanization; to his disappointing interlude as a star bond drive attraction (surrounded by high-kicking red white and blue chorus girls, who look as if they were waiting for Betty Grable or Alice Faye to take the melody); to the European War Theatre and his ultimate destiny as a costumed superhero with a band of brothers wreaking havoc on Schmidt’s maniacs, the Hydra. (Since Red Skull thinks Hitler is too soft, the Hydra legions salute each other with “Hail Hydra” instead of “Heil Hitler” — though it sounded to me like Hail Hite-ler. Or maybe Heil Hynkel.)

Finally Captain America gets the ultimate superhero gig: He shows up in another of those teaser ads for the upcoming superhero supergroup convention The Avengers, after what seems an endless — and I do mean endless — credit crawl. (Don’t walk out during that endlessness, or you’ll miss the Avengers teaser.)

Captain America has been treated kindly by most critics — very kindly I thought — so you may conclude that I‘m just being an elitist snob carper nitpicker when I say I found all this sort of dull. Well, maybe I am. After all, how can a movie be “dull” when, for our entertainment, people spend upwards of 140 million dollars to bring back World War II, find a new head villain, and nearly destroy the East Coast of America. What the hell do they have to do: bring on a Black Hole and destroy the universe? (Please. Don’t encourage them.)

How can it be dull when they hire so many good expensive actors and put them on so many good expensive sets? Or when they allow director Johnston and cinematographer Shelly Johnson and production designer Rick Heinrichs to work their magic on the visuals? How can it be dull when the moviemakers let Tommy Lee Jones insult their own superhero and everything else for two hours? (Jones is a magna cum laude Yale English graduate and former scholarship all-conference football player on one of Yale‘s all time best teams, and his favorite writers include Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and John Ruskin, so he’s probably earned the right to grouse. After all, whatever you can say about Captain America: The First Avenger, it ain‘t “The Brothers Karamazov.”)

I watched this movie twice, once in 3D and once in 2D. (I liked the 2D version better.) So I think I gave it a fair shot. Maybe I just watch too many of these things. (Or maybe there are too many of these things.) Maybe I‘m getting Marveled out. It’s a possibility. I genuinely realize Captain America isn’t trying to be The Brothers Karamazov, nor do I want it to. (Gad! A real recipe for disaster!)

I also realize that Captain America: The First Avenger is the kind of movie that’s often described in reviews, a little defensively, as a “popcorn movie.” But I‘m not sure exactly what that means. Does watching Captain America bring on an irresistible urge to eat popcorn and sip Diet Cokes? Does popcorn, buttered or un, suddenly taste better when munched lustily while watching the likes of Captain America?

Or is “popcorn movie“ a cultural distinction to show that the speaker is a really a regular guy or gal at heart — and to differentiate red-blooded, rock ‘em, sock ‘em mass audience entertainments from boring, thin-blooded art fare by foreign directors like Zhang Yimou, Bergman, Antonioni, Ken Loach, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, or anyone who comes from Rumania, to be viewed and reviewed by (scanty) audiences who prefer concession stands with espresso and yogurt and fruit smoothies to seizing a red-blooded, heavily buttered box of popcorn in their mitts and proudly wolfing it down?

Actually, I’ve eaten more popcorn than I’d like to confess to, though I usually prefer hot dogs or M&M peanut candy. And I prefer the first Iron Man and The Dark Knight or any Spiderman to this. But I wouldn’t call Captain America: the First Avenger a hot dog movie, even if I were trying to be Tommy Lee Jones.

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One Response to “Wilmington on Movies: Captain America: The First Avenger”

  1. uconnfan says:

    overall good movie, really stupid that they showed nick fury’s commandos and no nick fury ! just as stupid as making nick fury black. I love samuel jackson, but captain america has history and stan lee has shown the same loyalty to the comics he help create as he did jack kirby. the genius behind captain america ! not even a credit for jack kirby. what a dirtbag. like the movie overall but why werent the avengers shown getting cap outta the ice ? would have been a great intro to what was coming out next year.


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