Saturday, July 23, 2011

Review: "Captain America"

Marvel Studios' lengthy build-up to next summer's The Avengers began in 2008, with the release of the first Iron Man. A surprise hit of sorts, it finally gave Marvel the confidence to go forward with establishing the other key heroes (and villains) to make The Avengers a reality on screen. However, ever since Tony Stark, the road has been a little bumpy. Immediately following Iron Man was The Incredible Hulk (also 2008), with Edward Norton (now replaced by Mark Ruffalo), which received rather dismissive reception and only did decent box office. Flash forward to 2011 (we'll skip over Iron Man 2), and the last pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place. In May, Kenneth Branagh gave us Thor with oddly unsatisfying results. That leaves only Captain America, and thankfully director Joe Johnston and crew have saved the (second) best for last.

After an opening designed to tie the film into The Avengers (but only vaguely, at first), we jump to Norway, where insane Nazi (and leader of science division Hydra) Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) storming through villages in search of a deus ex machina, er, important artifact of the Norse gods. We then jump to America, where scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is trying his hardest to gain entry into the US military. By chance, he's overheard by Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who thinks Rogers may be cut out for a different program, one designed to create "the next breed of super soldiers." Long story short: he gets in and becomes significantly taller and more muscular. From there, we follow Rogers' attempts to stop Schmidt as he goes rogue.

Yet for whatever silliness there is in the premise, director Joe Johnston executes the Captain's origin story in a surprisingly effective way. There's a sincerity to the characters and story that, however simple it may be, rings true. The good guys are good, and the bad guys are bad, but the film resists the urge to beat us over the head with overly patriotic nonsense. Instead, it focuses on giving the audience a good, Indiana Jones-esque adventure, which it delivers on, albeit with less memorable results. Depth isn't exactly something Johnston's film is striving for, but it does have some nice touches that keep it from being an all-out action bonanza. A sequence involving Rogers being used as a propaganda figure for the war effort adds a fun angle to the story. It may not explore anything about Rogers' feelings and motivations (which are all established before his transformation), but it's entertaining and presents him as an alternative to the other, cockier comic book heroes (Tony Stark, Thor, Hal Jordan).

So when the good Captain finally charges in against Red Skull, we as an audience have something resembling investment, as minimal as that investment may be. This is only helped by the clear establishment of the tone and world that Johnston and crew have created, that of a pulpy, Saturday morning cartoon/adventure serial. Whereas the slightly better-reviewed Thor struggled to fully involve me in its mythos, Captain America grounds you in its reality right from the start, and it aids the viewing experience tremendously. Even the romantic subplot is more effective here, though it's hardly given proper attention; Evans and Hayley Atwell have a simple, but believable chemistry with each other, one that makes you wish the film had been more invested with the relationship.

Because even though there are explosions galore, the action-packed final act of Captain America, though good fun, is a bit of a letdown. The staging of the fights is rather uninspired, and there's a rather heavy reliance on shots of characters driving vehicles amid rather obviously CG backdrops and surroundings. And even though Weaving completely sells the Red Skull character, he's undermined by the writing, which doesn't do nearly enough to make his character truly interesting or fearsome. The film's tone, while engaging and fun, also conflicts with things like the romantic subplot and character deaths; we aren't given nearly enough to care when the film wants us to care.

Disregarding Harry Potter, 2011 could easily go down as the summer of Marvel, even if the quality of the films (or box office performance) hasn't exactly been stellar. And even though it may not be the best superhero adventure of the summer (I'd still give that title to X-Men: First Class), it delivers on what it promises: a good, old fashioned adventure where a guy in red, white, and blue beats up some Nazis.

Grade: B-/C+

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