Tuesday, August 2, 2011

captain america - the first avenger


Just saw Captain America: The First Avenger today. I opted not to see it in 3D because I haven't heard great things about the 3D effects. When I saw Thor earlier this year in IMAX 3D, I wasn't overly wow'd by the illusion of a 3rd dimension. You may have read my woes with 3D glasses before. Even without the 3D glasses, the war posters during the end credits did give a nice 3D effect. But enough about the format...

This is the big one, folks. The last Marvel superhero movie before the Avengers film.
Captain America is a cheesy character. You can't get around it; no if's, and's, or but's will change the fact that he's a good, decent guy even before getting super powers. In fact, it's that innate decency that causes Dr. Erskine to choose Steve Rogers for Project: Rebirth. And he loves America so much he's dressed up in the flag. Where Joe Johnston, the director of Captain America, gets it right is playing this straight. Captain America is a patriot without a touch of irony. And it works.

Long story short: Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, no stranger to playing Marvel superheroes after two turns as the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four films) really wants to enlist for WWII but he's just too scrawny and asthmatic. He's been rejected no fewer than 5 times. His buddy Bucky Barnes sets up a double date at the World Expo and while Barnes' date is clearly happy to be with a tall, muscular soldier in Army green, Steve's girl is much less enthused to be with him. Eavesdropping on a conversation between Steve and Barnes, Dr. Erskine intervenes to approve the scrappy Rogers when he tries his luck again at the recruitment booth at the Expo.[1]

Though weak in body, Steve demonstrates both cleverness (releasing pins to drop a flag pole instead of trying to climb it) and bravery (diving on a dummy grenade) to match his innate goodness. His weak body, instead of being a hindrance for the project, actually is a strength; a strong man takes his power for granted but a weak man knows the value of strength, or so Dr. Erskine tells him.

Erskine and Howard Stark succeed in transforming Steve into the American super soldier but a Hydra spy who has infiltrated the Brooklyn base of the Strategic Science Research arm of the US military shoots and kills Erskine, taking knowledge of the super soldier serum to the grave.

Running down Erskine's killer in the middle of NYC turns Steve into a media sensation and he's initially deployed as Captain America, spokesman for war bonds and USO entertainer, instead of a soldier on the battlefield. But that all changes when the 107th and Bucky is captured by Hydra in Italy. Going AWOL from his USO troupe, Steve, Agent Carter (played sexily by Hayley Atwell)[2], and pilot Howard Carter drop Steve on Hydra's doorstep to single-handedly liberate 400 Allied POWs.

This is Steve's first encounter with Johann Schmidt (aka Red Skull) and Arnim Zola. Schmidt is the leader of Hydra, the Nazi's experimental weapons research group, and Dr. Erskine's first super soldier serum subject. Schmidt and Zola get away but Steve also gets a peek at a map showing where Hydra's secret bases are located throughout Europe.

The remainder of the movie is Steve and his handpicked Howling Commandos, an international collection of soldiers he rescued from the Hydra including Steve's pal Barnes, infiltrating and destroying Hydra's bases. The hand to hand combat in these sequences involving judicious use of the trademark red, white, and blue circular shield as a melee weapon and missile are some of the best fight sequences I've seen in a superhero movie so far. It's visceral and brutal without being the extreme close-up, shaky cam mess of the recent Batman reboots.[3]

Schmidt has laid his hands upon the Tesseract[4], a mythical maguffin mentioned earlier this summer as being stolen from Odin's treasure vault in Valhalla in Thor and last seen in Nick Fury's possession after Thor's credits rolled, in Norway. With Zola's tech genius, Hydra has harnessed the Tesseract's energies to power their futuristic war machines. These include disintegration guns that come in sizes from Luger P08 designs to rifles to cannons mounted on tanks and an immense flying wing fortress. These gadgets give the movie a 1940s sci-fi pulp quality that's visually interesting. It also contrasts starkly with the Asgardian future tech seen in Thor and Tony Stark's bleeding edge gear in the two Iron Man films. The aesthetic of the Hydra troopers and Zola's inventions evokes Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Doc Savage and even 2004's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

In a daring raid on a moving train via ziplines to capture Zola, Bucky dies. I guess there's a recent renaissance in the train robbery trope (see Sucker Punch, Spider-Man 3, Wanted) but I'm not complaining. Zola in custody sets up the final battle in the last secret Hydra base hidden in the Alps. A one-man frontal assault by Captain America on the mountain fortress leads the Howling Commandos to enter the windows through ziplines (yay! ziplines) and the SSR forces, led by Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), to storm the base to destroy Hydra once and for all.

Schmidt escapes in the flying wing fortress but thanks to Colonel Phillips and Agent Carter in Schmidt's suped up Mercedes-Benz roadster, he doesn't leave Captain America behind. Hydra's most nefarious scheme is to deliver on Hitler's dream of flying bombers across the Atlantic and attacking American cities directly. There are even bombs neatly printed with the names of intended targets, including Boston and Steve's home of New York City.

Unsurprisingly, Captain America triumphs, damaging the device used to harness and contain the power of the Tesseract. Schmidt seizes the energy-spewing cube as it opens up what appears to be a gate to Asgard before he is consumed by its power. Mimicking Roger's heroics from the 1960s Avenger's re-boot, Captain America pilots the crippled flying wing into the icy Arctic rather than letting it rain destruction on American soil. He and Carter make a date to go dancing both know he'll never make right before the plane crashes, leaving only radio static. Cut to a scene of Howard Stark recovering the Tesseract at the bottom of the ocean in a small submarine on his quest to find Captain America.[5]

Right before the credits roll, Rogers awakes in a 1940s New York apartment to the sounds of a Brooklyn Dodgers v. Philadelphia baseball game playing on the radio. But he knows it's not right. He was at that game in 1941. He escapes into modern day New York City where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the single thread that's tied all these franchise films together so far for the upcoming Avengers team-up in 2012, arrives on the scene.

Roll credits.

It's surprising how many people in the theater got up and left at this point. It's like they haven't been clued in after 2 Iron Man movies, the Hulk reboot, and Thor that this is where Marvel sets up the next film in the line towards the Avengers movie. Except this is the last movie in that line. The brief clip after the credits is a trailer for the May 2012 Avengers film.

We see Steve punching a boxing bag furiously before Fury arrives. Steve asks if it's another mission to try to get him into the modern world. Fury replies that it's a mission to save the world. Through the jump cuts, we see Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), the Hulk (Edward Norton), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, very briefly glanced earlier this summer in Thor when the thunder god attempts to reclaim Mjolnir from SHIELD agents in the desert) joining Captain America to form the Avengers. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) makes an appearance in the trailer as the major baddie the Earth's Mightiest Heroes have to team-up to stop. Presumably the Tesseract will play some role as Loki shows interest in it at the end of Thor.

Captain America: The First Avenger is a great summer popcorn adventure. The un-ironic tone of the film, accepting Steve Rogers / Captain America as the boy scout he is without giving him a modern edgy coat, works and works well. Along with the pulp, raygun serial visual aesthetic of the film created through Tesseract-fueled super tech and a general sepia colorization, Joe Johnston manages to transport the audience into the sprawling epic of Marvel's WWII of superheroes and super-villains more villainous than Hitler and the Nazis. For 124 minutes you manage to cast off modern cynicism and accept a world of genuinely good guys battling sinister masterminds plotting world domination.

And then there are the fights and action sequences. The fight choreography is amazing. It's like they invented a new martial art for fighting with a shield. And the action is high tension. Guns, broken glass, fire, explosions, fast cars, trains, airplanes, and high speed chases all combine to keep you on the edge of your seat once the plot gets roaring along. It's definitely high adventure of a much more adrenaline-rushing, white-knuckle type than Thor.

But the film's not perfect. The ending in particular felt overly contrived. If the flying wing was in good enough shape for Steve to pilot it down towards the ground, why couldn't he turn it left, right, or even straight up? And it's a freaking fortress! Surely there had to be an escape pod. Evil geniuses always include escape pods. Or at least a parachute. Why not one of those piloted bombs intended for American cities?

The reasons are clear from the perspective of theme and narrative. Thematically, Rogers mirrored the lesson that Barnes' death taught him (through Agent Carter): that choosing to sacrifice yourself for someone or something you believe in is good and noble. It's the double, the repeated lesson, the hero learning something from his sidekick. Captain America doesn't experience the traditional character arc of standard superhero movies. He isn't chosen and resists the call. He doesn't overcome any personal failings or character flaw to save the day. He's a good man when he's the scrawny kid from Brooklyn and he still possesses those some values and attributes when he's the super soldier with the shield. But in this way, Rogers does learn something. He wanted to join the Army and fight so badly when he was just a skinny guy from Brooklyn. Arriving on the front lines with the USO and seeing the remnants of the 107th return, he gets a taste of the reality of war. He was willing to dive on the grenade to save others in basic training. Now he knows what it means to sacrifice yourself for the sake of others. He leaves behind Carter for whom he has been carrying a torch all throughout the war.

Narratively, Cap has to sink into the ice so that he can be cryogenically preserved for 70 years. He can't escape because he will be found and revived in the 21st century to lead a team of superheroes against an unstoppable evil. But here, the comic makes more sense. Cap leaps onto a rocket aimed at America to disarm it. When that fails, he hangs on to divert it off course. There are no escape pods or parachutes installed on this instrument of destruction. A rocket is on a one-way trip. His sacrifice wouldn't have felt so contrived if he had to actively force the plane down by battling the flaps mechanism or blowing up some of the remaining bombs to cause the plane to rapidly plummet. Yes, this would no touching last conversation between Rogers and Carter. Oh, wait, super tech. Steve could have found a "futuristic" wireless headset device at the Red Skull's captain's chair.

Oh yeah, and the CGI that put Chris Evans' head on a skinny body to play pre-serum Steve Rogers was both effective and kind of creepy.

The one burning question I'm left with is: what will Steve Rogers be like in the Avengers? In the normal Marvel timeline, he plays out like a boy scout, still supporting American values if not always the government. But the important feature is that he manages to adjust to the present. In the alternate Ultimates universe, Steve Rogers is played much more as a fish out of water in modern America with its modern values. His way of speaking to women and superiors is frozen in the 1940s along with his body. His ideas about recreation and fun, his tastes, are of a 1940s man. This out-of-time element makes him both appealing in his chivalry and frustrating by his old-timiness.

Which Steve Rogers will we get in 2012? We see him viciously beating the punching bag in the trailer for the Avengers. Will we see a 3rd option, a bitter and angry Steve Rogers, a man who loves his country but can't accept his personal losses and what his country has become? We only have 276 more days until we find out.

[1] I wasn't able to read the display, but in the glass case at the World Expo is none other than the original Human Torch. Not only is it a brilliant nod to the wider Marvel universe but also a wink and nod to the audience; Chris Evans played the second Human Torch, Johnny Storm, in Fantastic Four (2005) and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007).
[2] Here's a few pics of Hayley Atwell out of uniform. Don't say I never give you fan service. Here Here and Here. For those of you coming here for her cup size, she's listed as a 36C. And just to be fair, here's Chris Evans with his shirt off.
[3] Let me be clear: I love the Christopher Nolan Batman movies and eagerly look forward to Batman Rises. But the fighting sequences are confusing in the Batman films. Yes, it gives the audience a sense of the chaos and tunnel vision that being in a real fight brings. But that doesn't necessarily make it the best or the only satisfying way to film a fight.
[4] aka the Cosmic Cube
[5] Assembling a timeline for the Tesseract from its appearances in the Marvel films so far means that it must have been stolen from Odin's vault as mentioned in Thor long before the 1940s since it's stored in the temple in Norway at the beginning of Captain America. It's in Hydra's possession until the end of Captain America, when Howard Stark recovers it from the bottom of the ocean. At the end of Thor, Nick Fury has the Tesseract as revealed in the post-credits scene with Dr. Selvig (who is either possessed by Loki or Loki in disguise). Does it make any other appearances in the Marvel movies?

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