Monday, July 25, 2011

Captain America - Theatrical Review


Release Date: July 22, 2011

Much like Thor earlier this summer, I didn't know a whole lot about Captain America going into it. I knew about his WWII origins and that he had a shield...and that's about it. Much of that info came from video games or from fellow comic book geeks who would correct me whenever I would get something wrong when talking about the patriotic hero. So with a fairly clean slate I went into Captain America without very many preconceived notions.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: AMC 12 Glendora
Time: 4:30 pm July 23, 2011
Projector Type: Digital 2D

Loves: The Marvel universe
Likes: Chris Evans, Stanley Tucci, Tommy Lee Jones
Neutral: Captain America the character
Hates: Having to wait an entire year for The Avengers
Wait: Until the final credits are will be happy you did

This is it, the last piece to the puzzle that Marvel (and now Disney) have been assembling for the past few years. I don't know if they had always planned to end the series of origin stories leading up to The Avengers with Captain America's tale but now that we have gotten here I can safely say it was the best decision they could have possibly made. I won't go on and on about what Marvel has accomplished with this elaborate set up for the mother of all super hero movies (I will save that for next year) but I do want to explain just why it is that Captain America worked so well for me and also why this is the perfect lead into what awaits us next year.

It is 1942 and the second world war is at its peak. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is the flag waving All-American hero who has aspirations of flying over seas to not just kill Nazis but to rid the world of bullies of all types in general. Those dreams come to a screeching halt however when he not only fails the enlistment test but fails it numerous times under falsified documents. His heart is in the right place but unfortunately he doesn't have the physical attributes to back up the well mannered and tempered hero he has the potential to become. However, as he is forced to sit idly by and watch his best friend James "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan) shipped off to the fight he has a chance encounter with the one man who can make his dreams a reality, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci). With the help of the fine doctor along with the brilliant and rich engineer Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) and some serious military funding Steve is selected for an experiment that will not only make him the man he was meant to be but also the man our country and the world needs to save it from the Nazi threat.  That man is none other than Captain America.

Steve Rogers prepares to fulfill his destiny.

Nazis are not the real adversary for the Captain or the world in general though. While Hitler is busy being the bastard we all know from history there is another threat brewing from within the Nazi regime. Hydra is Hitler's main scientific division and the man in control of it is Johann Schmidt/Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). With the help of is lead scientist Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) they have taken it upon themselves to turn Hydra into something even Hitler himself never dreamed of. Red Skull has found a way to harness the power of the ancient gods and is threatening to unleash its power to decimate the world. After losing countless American soldiers from attacks made upon Hydra our only remaining hope is that Captain America can put a stop to Red Skull's plans before he is able to initiate his plan for world domination.

The first thing that struck me was just how different this film feels from all other super hero movies made up until now. By sticking to the comic book roots and placing Captain America's origin story in the early 40s it helps provide a much needed departure from all the other origin stories that came before it. Fans of either the James Bond or Indiana Jones series might be surprised to find a lot of influences from those seminal films at work here as well. I am hearing from many different sources though that there is a lot of origin story fatigue out there right now and for good reason. We have had four origin stories just in this summer alone with Thor, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern and now Captain America. That is a whole lot of origins to sit through but the thing that makes them all seem like a chore after a while is due to how they are all similarly structured.

My new cinematic crush, Peggy Carter.

We meet the hero either before they gain their powers or before they lose them only to regain them later. Then there is a learning curve as they get used to their powers and rediscover themselves (loved that moment when he first started sprinting down the street and stumbled into a store window). Then about half way through they finally confront their nemesis but only for an instant before the villain gets away. Then we have the grand finale where our hero is fully capable now and is able to stop the evil threat just in time. There is nothing wrong with this formula and it is a natural conceit of any super hero origin story, but having so many back to back can get tiresome. So it is understandable that many have written Captain America off as boring or too stiff with not a whole lot to it. But I think that is short changing one of the best told and perfectly executed origin stories in recent memory.

Like I said before, the setting is what counts most here which is top notch and executed to perfection, oh and a healthy liking of Captain America might help as well. There is just something so pure and good natured about this era in American history that fits the origin of Captain America like a glove. The tongue in cheek nature of a lot of situations such as a final kiss before heading out to take on the bad guys almost feels necessary given the setting. In any other time frame the ideals that Steve Rogers stands for would seem ridiculous or out of place which is kind of sad when you think about it. His gung-ho attitude towards thwarting evil but remaining the caring soul that Dr. Erskine saw in him is what every American aspires to be but is hardly ever achieved. Captain America is the poster child for the American spirit and what greater time in American history was there than during the world's darkest hour in the midst of WWII for someone that is the culmination of what our country stands for to emerge?

Cap doesn't waste time being all he can be.

This is his origin story though so that does mean there are some much traveled roads to get through first. While I can't speak to how the more common movie goer would react to most of the opening scenes in the film, I was in total geek love with just how many references and call backs that were made to the previous Marvel films such as getting to see Howard Stark in his prime who comes off as a mixture of Howard Hughes and your everyday playboy which gives you no qualms over deciding where Tony inherited his masochistic ways. Connections to Thor and The Incredible Hulk are also on display as is the creation of future Avengers nemesis organization Hydra. Suffice to say there are plenty of moments to find here that will make any fan that has been following the films closely go into full on joygasm mode. Even the more traditional moments of seeing how Steven eventually becomes Captain America are pretty fun which is mostly due to Tommy Lee Jones stellar performance as the sharp tongued and tough as nails Colonel Chester Phillips.

Those parts of the film being what they are though, they are not what makes it stand as tall and proud as it does. Those are just mere elements added to an already delicious mix of super hero awesomeness. What really got to me was the character of Steve Rogers and his selfless ambitions to right the world's wrongs. I just love how bad he wants to fight for his country knowing he stands little chance of surviving the plane ride over to the front lines let alone on the battlefield itself. I love that he doesn't know how to act around women and when he tries to talk to Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) he fumbles his words trying to be a gentlemen but comes off as mostly naive and overly innocent in a charming way. Most of all though I love that he is a good guy, he stays exactly true to the way Dr. Erskine found him regardless of his new found powers.

Cap and the Howlin Commandos charge forward.

And Chris Evans adds just the right amount of nobility and heart to the role. I was never really a huge fan of Evans, at least not to the point of trusting him with such an iconic role. When he played Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four films he was more the wisecracking smart ass...just like most of his other roles before that. And while I still think he was the best part of those atrocious films I never got the feeling he could pull off a role like that of Captain America which required a more calm and stoic presence. Besides his physical likeness to the character I was pleasantly surprised at how reserved he was here though and especially how well he depicted the All-American hero image, but with a slight awkwardness to him. His performance was hands down one of the best aspects of this film and I can't wait to see how well his personality mixes in with all the other heroes next year.

A hero however is nothing unless he has some sort of evil to confront or clash with and for this we have Red Skull. Hugo Weaving embodies evil like very few actors out there. I have always found the man to be most engaging when he is playing a part that requires a sort of merciless evil, someone that would kill their best friend and not even blink. His Red Skull is just such a character and Weaving sinks his teeth into it without abandon. He is the perfect foil as well as the perfect contrast for Captain America. One is pure good and the other is pure evil but both are born from the same father. While this conflict isn't played up nearly as much as it could I thought the way it was handled was more than adequate with Red Skull manifesting his abandonment issues by trying to destroy the world and Cap trying to correct the mistake of his creator while saving it.

Red Skull isn't very happy with Captain America.

Which leads me to why this film worked so well for me. In every origin story I always felt cheated in some way, like so much time was devoted to the set up for the characters that we end up getting so little on screen time of seeing our hero do his thing. Director Joe Johnston miraculously sidestepped this somehow and delivered on the thrills along with all the necessary components that make up an origin story. We see Rogers go through training, get transformed, learn the ropes, fall in love and even recruit his fabled squad called the Howlin Commandos in under an hour. Normally I would say that is too much to be crammed into an hour but it worked and because of that the rest of the film is all gravy. Captain America starts taking down Hydra bases one after the other and by the end of it all you just might be surprised to recall that this is an origin story.

Action junkies won't be disappointed either and to anyone afraid the time frame may make everything seem a little too antiquated fret not for there are some pretty amazing things going on here. One of my favorite things about the character Captain America has always been his boomerang shield and oh boy does that thing get a workout here. While a lot of the action in the middle of the film is shown in montage form it doesn't make it any less excited such as the quick moment we see Cap and his team take down a monstrous Hydra tank, it just looks so darn cool. And with this being a super hero movie expect some technological advances that are far beyond anything available in that time frame. What truly blew me away was the finale though, there were some things that happened during that final confrontation between Cap and Red Skull that just made me geek out all over the place. I think anyone that has felt let down in the past by the finales of other origin stories will be most pleased with what is offered up here.

Cap makes them all eat shield.

But there was another strange thing that happened to me during those final moments, I actually got a little misty eyed. One of the better executed aspects of the film for me compared to previous super hero movies in general is the love interest. I have such a crush on Peggy Carter like you wouldn't believe and so does Cap who keeps her picture in his pocket watch (love that moment when Peggy spots it in a debriefing video). Her strong will and motivation to complete their objective as well as her ability to love Steve for who he is as opposed to what he has become made me fall head over heels for the woman...and that red dress helped a lot too. Their moments together are fleeting though and mostly due to the actor's performances as well as their chemistry with one another, they were still able to convey a sense of longing that really got to me. For the first time I actually cared if the super hero got the girl because both of them were just so darn likable (and in Peggy's case so darn beautiful as well). Their discussion over the radio got to me and I wasn't expecting that.

There is just so much done right here when so much of it could have gone horribly wrong. I am so happy that we have entered an era of the super hero film where the source material is treated with such affinity. That loving care will shine most brightly next year when The Avengers hits theaters and Captain America was the perfect punctuation mark before we get there. I loved how well this film wrapped up yet it was still able to connect the dots leading into The Avengers without sacrificing its own narrative. Captain America's greatest achievement though is its own story and the way it presented that story to us. It is not a perfect movie (the musical score was a little lackluster for instance) but I think it deserves the respect of everyone out there. So show some support for your country and go buy a ticket at your local multiplex, each ticket bought puts a smile on someones face, namely yours.




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