At The Picture Show
'Captain America' exudes style and class, but can't keep up with its own momentum
Captain America: The First Avenger
Director: Joe Johnston
Screenplay: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on characters created by Joe
Simon and Jack Kirby
Starring: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones, Toby Jones,
Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper and Stanley Tucci
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 5 minutes
Opened July 22, 2011
(out of four)
There's so much I admire about Captain America: The First Avenger, it makes me want to
forgive all the ways in which it falls short. Unfortunately, the things that don't work occur
mostly in the second half of the movie, so that's the taste I walked out of the theatre with.
That's just how it goes, for better or worse - the last impression is always the lasting one. But
really, it's that first hour's fault for getting my hopes up. The idea of a superhero period piece is
interesting enough by itself, but director Joe Johnston goes the extra step of dousing the era with
atmospheric style, creating a World War II backdrop that feels oversaturated and vaguely
dreamlike - something of a visual combination of Watchmen and Sky Captain and the World of
(Contrast that with Matthew Vaughn's "style" in this
summer's other superhero period piece, X-Men: First Class, which looked bland and felt
completely modern, but with the affectation of a 1960s wardrobe.)
Front and center in this stylized version of the mid-20th Century is Steve Rogers, a 90-pound
shrimp who will eventually become Captain America thanks a special serum created by a
German scientist named Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and some covert government funding.
Steve (Chris Evans, in both the 90- and 230-pound forms thanks to some impressive but
inconsistent digital wizardry) is a strong-willed All-American boy whose dedication to his
country stretches almost to the point of farce. It makes sense, then, that a farce is exactly what he
becomes. Not when he's trying in vain to join the military despite his physical handicaps, mind
you - no, I mean after his metamorphosis. After he runs down a Nazi assassin on foot in his first
official act as a super-soldier.
The army decides it has much more use for Steve as a propaganda machine than an actual
soldier, so they slap a red, white and blue costume on him, put him on stage with some dancing
girls, and pep-talk the nation's citizens into buying war bonds.
The Captain America tour montage, accompanied by the
fantastically catchy (and kitschy) musical number "The Star-Spangled Man," is the film's most
inspired sequence. I loved that Johnston and his writers took the story in that direction instead of
jumping right into the inevitable action sequences.
OK, so we've got our credible hero, we've got our interesting backstory, we've got our historical
setting. All that's left is a villain. And the film gives us what seems like a great one - a Nazi
general (and dear friend of Hitler), disfigured from a beta version of Dr. Erskine's serum, with
plans on world domination through an all-powerful device known as the "Tesseract." (Surely
Marvel aficionados will know more about this subject than I, so I will just leave the details out of
it for now.)
The Nazi is Dr. Johann Schmitt, or as his friends call him, Red Skull. And he could only be
played by Hugo Weaving.
But at the point when everything has been established and everything seems to be running along
smoothly, the film fractures. I'm so used to seeing the no-setup, all action/resolution formula, but
Captain America was exactly the opposite - a rich setup that goes nowhere.
At first Red Skull is the best bad guy of the summer. By
the end of the film, he's a guy in a semi-cool Halloween mask who sounds vaguely like Werner
Herzog. At first it seems like the fate of the world is at stake - at risk of falling under Red
Skull's control! But then why is it that he seems so . . . I don't know . . . human? What
happened to the fact that he has the most powerful weapon on Earth at his fingertips? Why is he
running away from guys with guns as if he's just some petty thief? What happened?
Steve Rogers loses interest just as quickly, and I have no idea what happened to the plot, or
where it went. It just disappeared. Along with everything that was intriguing about the film in the
first place. Even the epilogue - which is a nice enough touch overall - seems like it would have
probably worked better if its concept had somehow been embedded into the rest of the film.
All that being said, Captain America still stands out as one of the more impressive of this
summer's studio tentpoles. Granted, that may be more an indictment on the other superhero/alien
robot/pirate/talking car/bachelor party movies from this summer, but still. I'll give credit where
credit is due. Even if the credit in this case only goes to half the movie. I suppose half, at least
this summer, is just good enough.
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