Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
August 2011

Half-man, half-movie

'Captain America' exudes style and class, but can't keep up with its own momentum

Captain America: The First Avenger
Paramount Pictures
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 Tomorrow.

(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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