Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Signal Watch Watches: Captain America - The First Avenger

I really liked this movie.  How's that for a review for you? 

I kid you not, I realized at about the 1.5 hour mark, I'd been smiling since the first two minutes.  That's not hyperbole.

I may not be the world's biggest Captain America fan or Marvel aficionado (I know two readers to this site that way trump my Cap fandom - Jake and CanadianSimon*), and while I've always liked Cap, somehow I never really became the kind of guy who picked up Cap every month.  I've been a "get the trade" sort of reader for the past few years, and I've picked up a few backlog items, certainly don't grab all the "let's flood the market" stuff Marvel tends to do with characters whenever their sales show signs of a pulse.  Prior to Brubaker coming on Cap, the longest run I think read was the entirety of Waid's Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty when that was in print.

Like Superman in the DCU, I think you can point to Cap as the moral center and heroic inspiration for both other characters in the Marvel U and for what the Marvel readership immediately clicks to when they think about "which character exemplifies unfettered heroism the most?"  Deep down, both Steve Rogers and Clark Kent have a lot in common, and its the "we do the right thing because its the right thing to do" aspect of both which really appeals to me.  Whether Steve Rogers got his ability from Vita-Rays or whether Superman got his from his alien physiology, these characters were going to make a difference in the world somehow just based upon who they were.**

Cap is going to punch you with a fist of righteous FREEDOM

The movie of Captain America spends no small amount of time setting up Steve Rogers from the first moment and never lets go, and that's a good thing.  Steve Rogers doesn't have some immediately identifiable "my avarice killed Uncle Ben!  NOOOO!!!" moment that propels him directly onto the path of the hero.   Instead, I'd state that the "tragedy" that spurs him to action is an accumulation of bad luck from genetics to the loss of his parents and the knowledge of the gravity of World War II and his inability to participate.  He may have the heart and spirit of a fighter, but he's been cursed with the body of 5th grader and a permanent 4F status.  By the time he's recruited, his resolve to help fight back against the machinations of the Axis is both concrete and abstract.  You can't NOT cheer for the guy.

Of course I'm a fan of the Iron Man of the movies and all that, but for my dollar, I'll take Steve Rogers gritting his teeth, grabbing his shield and chucking himself out of an airplane for FREEDOM any day.

A few items:
  • I know they have the technology to put Chris Evan's head on an undersized body, but I don't know how they did it.  Its mind-boggling.  
  • I know they have the technology to put the honest-to-God Red Skull on the screen now, and its also stunning to watch.  Other folks didn't seem to like it as much, but that was...  pretty darn interesting to me.  Part face, part skull...  yeah.
  • So, so many Marvel U Easter Eggs and Marvel movie Easter Eggs.  I may have been the only person to gasp out loud at seeing the original Human Torch in a display.  Brilliant throw-away.  But the comic-nerd crowd was going crazy every few minutes.
  • I am thrilled they included the Howling Commandos as minor characters in the movie, even keeping Dum-Dum's look with the homburg and 'stache.  I may not know them as well as Easy Company, but its still fun to see.
  • So to everyone who said "what was that thing at the post-credits end of Thor?" and I said "that's the (blank)" and you said "the what?".  Well,  the MacGuffin of this flick: that was what they had at the end of Thor.
Chris Evans was a pretty great Steve Rogers, both pre and post-transformation. In the many roles I've seen him in, he never fails to become the character even when he's in movies I didn't particularly like (Fantastic Fours 1 & 2, The Losers, and I guess I really didn't care for Scott Pilgrim).  And while Steve Rogers is mostly bold determination with bouts of uncertainty, you never shake the feeling that he is a kid from Brooklyn that's thrilled with the opportunity he's been given.  I can take a little "gee whiz" in my Cap.

I really dug both the actor and the way they fit Bucky Barnes into the story.   I don't know how a teen-sidekick would work in this movie, so its great to see Bucky in a great Bucky-esque leather coat right there in the thick of things.

Hugo Weaving was perhaps a bit obvious to be cast as The Red Skull, but I won't argue with the results, and while I'm only familiar with the modern-era version of Armin Zola, Toby Jones was a pretty good piece of casting.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I'm Johann Schmidt and my friend is Dr. Armin Zola.  We'll be your villains this evening.

For a fairly small part, casting Stanley Tucci as Erskine, the scientist who is responsible for Rogers' transformation, was a bit of brilliance.  Erskine could have been from central casting, but Tucci's hiring brings a real character to the part, one who is terribly gratified to find Steve Rogers, thrusting him forward as a candidate for what he will bring to the role if the experiment succeeds, rather than what usually works in a set of check boxes. 

Actress Haley Atwell as Peggy Carter is, uh...  she's quite good and the part is well written as a genuine peer rather than "the girl" in the movie.

Oh, Peggy Carter.  You are the machine-gun toting vintage British agent of my dreams.
And Tommy Lee Jones is just...  well, he's Tommy Lee Jones, and you have to like that.

The bottom line is that I didn't trust director Joe Johnston.  Yes, he made The Rocketeer, but he also made Jumanji, Jurassic Park III and last year's DOA The Wolfman.  Apparently first-half of the 20th Century-era superhero movies are where he excels.  Who knew?  Maybe he had more freedom on this picture?  Maybe he really liked the material?  But he manages to find new ways to challenge the notion for Steve Rogers of how to serve without smacking you over the head with it, and without making Cap seem like a milquetoast or simp.  And, hey, how about that musical number?  (you guys think I'm kidding, but I'm not).

I still remember watching the 1970's-era made for TV Captain America movies as a kid, and thinking Cap was cool (he had a motorcycle that shout out of the back of his van!).  It was in college when I rented them from United Video that I realized "these are absolutely, stunningly awful", and everyone involved should be ashamed.  Even you, Christopher Lee.

No matter how goofy this looks, this is not what was wrong with the movie.

In the wake of the success of Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, Marvel rushed a cheap version of Cap into production, and I recall seeing the poster at Great Hills 8 and about having a coronary.  Wisely, the studio buried it and it never saw the light of day, and despite the fact it supposedly went to video, I never found it anywhere.  It wasn't until about 2003 that I actually saw the movie, and those were two precious hours of my life I was never able to retrieve.  Good, golly.

Again, this does nothing to suggest the eye-bending awfulness of the movie
So, yeah, it was gratifying to see the Captain America I would have always liked to have seen hopping about, bouncing his shield off agents of HYDRA, punching Nazis and running around Europe in WWII being a good guy.

If the movie has a political bent, I didn't see it.  It doesn't go in for jingoistic hoo-hah about how America is magical and thus always right, and it doesn't get into whiny speech making to satisfy the moonbats.  Instead, it focuses on what Cap is about, and that's being the one who stands up to those doing wrong to others, especially people you don't even know.  In Cap's framework, that means the Axis overrunning Europe, but its a core belief that I think we'll see translated into the next films.

As per structure...  the movie isn't exactly retro, but it also has a lot more to do, laying out Cap's career in the European theater across the second half of WWII.  Something about the slow build to even get Cap throwing punches showed a kind of restraint you just don't see much in movies, and especially superhero movies, that doesn't have a bit of a filler feel before the hero leaps into action.  Green Lantern, in particular, was like a parade of cliches from the intro of Hal Jordan to the moment he launches into space.  Cap's slow boil seemed less like biding your time and more about genuinely establishing the characters.  No small thing in a big budget action flick.

I think people may be burned out a bit on yet another superhero origin story, but this movie seems to push it a bit farther than Thor or Green Lantern managed to do this summer.  And I know its the end of the summer, but its likely my favorite flick of its sort of the year.  I've seen gritty superheroes and snarky superheroes.  I think I am ready for a new/ old-fashioned take on the superhero film.

*I KNOW.  And yet, he LOVES Cap.  The international appeal of ol' Wing Head.
**I am aware these characters are fictional and we wouldn't be reading their tales in comic form if it were "Steve Rogers: The Caring Accountant", but I think you get my drift.


Anonymous said...

You know who hates this movie? Paul. Ergo, he hates America. And freedom.

The League said...

Often I think how sad it must be for Paul, going to so many movies and not liking any of them. You'd think he'd turn to enjoying team water skiing events or acrobats or something, but no... off he goes to the movies once again, just once more to be disappointed.

Paul Toohey said...

I don't hate this movie, America NOR freedom (Exhibit A: https://fbcdn-sphotos-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-snc3/19674_604351827331_40001293_34897339_87788_n.jpg )I think I said "Not overly impressed with Captain America" and I wasn't. Now, out of the three new Comic Book movies I've seen this year (Thor, X-Men First Class and Captain America), it was by far my favourite. But at the same time I was fairly let down by this movie in several ways.

This movie just looked too modern. The primary setting is WWII, yet it looks like today. They should have spent the $5 on some filters to make the film look like it took place in the past. They don't totally have to RobRod it up and make scratches, horrible jumpcuts (although there were a couple of weird jumpcuts that didn't make sense). I'd have been happier if they aimed more for the look of Saving Private Ryan.

Some of the CGI was amazing. The Chris Evans head on a 10 year old kids body was mostly seamless. Red Skull was also mostly seamless...and I'd forgive the few times when they were more obviously CGI if they hadn't included some HORRIBLE CGI as well. I'm just tired of audiences being ok with shoddily done CGI in big budget movies.

The Love Story. Thor's Love Story was crap. NatPort meets guy in Desert. They interact once or twice. She loves him forever. This one was better, but at the same time I would have been much happier with it if they had spent an additional 10-15 minutes hitting more of the beats that it needed. Maybe I'm being nitpicky, but I feel it would have improved the movie.

Lastly, (and least important) The Germans speaking English. I know most of America probably would scoff at the Germans being subtitled, but it would have helped the movie for me.

I am happy I have seen this film. I wasn't very familiar with the backstory of Cap'n (how true to the Comics was this film by the way?). I thought it was much better then Thor and X-Men (and I was always mostly an X-Men fan).

The League said...

As per the comics, its a mish-mash of Ultimate Cap and modern takes on Cap from the comics. But, yeah, mostly pretty much the same. Sort of like Spidey where it wasn't exactly right, but the spirit of it was there and it worked better as a movie rather than to get stuck with fidelity to comics few have read.

I'd actually argue with you that they DID actually use some color correction where appropriate, like in the city shots and in color matching the musical sequence to the pop-colors of 1940's musicals. Especially when you compare that to what you then see when Cap moves to Europe and things go colder and grayer.

I don't know that addinga rtificial film grain to the movie would have added anything and would have worn pretty old by the time we were in the second reel. Yeah, it takes place in the past, but I don't need my roman epics printed on scrolls or my westerns to be in sepiatones.

This was also a movie for children. I suppose you could have hired an all-German acting crew, but subtitles aren't really necessary. I can assume that we had the benefit of translation rather than believing they were speaking English.

Given that that's the last we'll see of Peggy, I wasn't too bunged up that we didn't spend more time on Cap and Peggy's romance. In the comics, its always just been a "yeah, and back in WWII I had this kick-ass sweet heart, Peggy Carter" sort of thing, not the focus of the story. Maybe knowing that colored my expectations of how much screen time she'd even get.

M said...

I, for one, am just glad it's not another '70s or '90s version of Cap. Thanks, League, for reminding me of why I still rub my eyes with steel wool.

The League said...

Yeah, before anyone goes bagging on this movie, I really think you need to see how far wrong this could have gone. DEATH TOO SOON!!!

Anonymous said...


I can't wait when Bucky comes back in the sequel as "Winter Soldier". And I wonder if Cap will have a relationship with Peggy's daughter in the avengers.

The League said...


I turned around to some fellow geeks in the theater after the credits and immediately basically asked "Winter Soldier...?"

We'll see. And, yeah, I can't see a SHIELD build-up without Sharon showing up.

Simon MacDonald said...

Yes, CanadianSimon does love Captain America and I finally got to see the movie after a few weeks of spreading my Canadian-ness to the pacific northwest. I have to say I absolutely loved this movie. Just like Ryan I was enjoying this movie from start to finish.

The film was absolutely loaded with easter eggs for comics fans but they did not distract from the movie. My father in law who saw the flick with me followed it just fine without ever reading a Captain America comic ever.

My only nitpick was I wanted more Nazi punching action. Yes, I know that Hydra was the evilest of the evil Nazi's but I still wanted Captain America to fight Nazi's. I also understand that for distribution reasons they couldn't use the Swastikas or say "Heil HItler".

I loved this movie and really liked how it setup The Avengers and a big possible plot point for Captain America 2 which has already been mentioned as a possible spoiler in the comments here.

Jake Shore said...

I enjoyed the movie, but found it lacking. I really think Johnston's determination to avoid any overtly patriotic sentiments, which I think I can say with authority is central to his character, hurt the film. Yeah, I know there were all these global marketing concerns, but I think that's all BS. The international box office receipts show that pro-American movies do as well or better overseas than other films.

I think ideology and/or the imagined fear of appearing *gasp* jingoistic (read: patriotic) had as more to do with this omission.

In my opinion, this undermines the character of Captain America.

I go into greater detail about this issue in my review:


But like I said, I thought it was a fun movie, just not among the best of the genre.

The League said...

I think that's a fair critique (I'm referring to your comment and to your post). There are ways to go about talking about Cap or SHOWING - not telling - Cap's patriotism that needn't have been as watered down as this movie insisted upon. What DID America mean to Steve Rogers is a good question, and one I'm not sure I've seen tackled much in the movie or in the comics of late.

Perhaps the obligatory sequel will use the juxtaposition of past and present to explore the question?

Jake Shore said...

Yeah. I don't think most people are looking for something cheesy and obnoxious. Just a nod to or exploration of his values. If ultra liberal Mark Millar can put some great, even moving, patriotic moments into The Ultimates that absolutely nail the character without going overboard; if he can get it, why can't Hollywood?

Jake Shore said...

And Millar's a Scot!