Friday, July 22, 2011

Captain America Arrives (And I'm Happy!!)

As I've written before, while Superman: The Movie (1978) may have provided an emotional punch that Star Wars (1977) did not, I wanted it to be a Marvel comics hero's story instead. I wanted it to be a film about Captain America.

I can remember thinking as an 11-year-old that Captain America was the hero that mattered to me, not the too-perfect Kal-El.

And I know that some will say that Steve Rogers/Captain America is also too perfect -- too much of a Boy Scout and all that -- but the character still appeals to me. There's something poignant about his plight as a World War 2 hero trapped in a modern world. And that situation also spotlights the duel between idealism and actuality, between old fashioned virtue and cold reality.

Captain America stories, especially those in a modern setting, remain ones about the battle between morality and cynicism. Steve Rogers, as star Chris Evans noted in an interview, always does the right thing -- that's his nature -- so we feel his struggle as he tries to maintain his moral purity in a world that is constantly seeking to destroy it, or diminish it.

In a world of gray nuance, he's a walking flag.

In the 1970s, as a shy and somewhat sarcastic kid, I gravitated to Ben Grimm and Captain America; The Thing had a personality like my own -- caustic, cynical, but good-hearted -- while Captain America represented the person I wanted to be.

Even after Vietnam and Watergate, Captain America still fought for the same ideals he had in World War 2 and I admired that.

Whatever problems exist in this country, whatever horrible things we've done in the world, the ideals of America still inspire, still matter, and Captain America was a character who could remind us of that.

Is it any wonder that the guy has been embraced by both big liberals like me as well as right wingers?

Now that I've seen the film -- at a midnight showing in Bowie, in the same theater where I saw the first X-Men at midnight back in May (?) of 2000 -- I can say that Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) succeeds on many, many levels.

Firstly, Chris Evans removes all doubts within moments that he was the right casting choice. Whether a scrawny Army reject, or a hulky hero, Steve Rogers seems like the same guy all along and for that Evans' deft touch deserves a lot of praise. Recalling Christopher Reeve in the first Superman flick in many scenes, Chris Evans actually makes Steve Rogers a touch more nuanced than he was in many of those Jack Kirby comics I read in the 1970s.

All of the supporting players are uniformly good, especially Stanley Tucci who seems to be underplaying what could have been a broad, farcical role.

The negatives are that -- clearly -- the film feels like one long introduction to The Avengers (2012); not for nothing did the audience erupt in cheers and applause after that post-credits sequence and not at any of the obvious moments in the film.

And, on that note of being a set-up for another flick, Hugo Weaving is quite good as the Red Skull but his plans never get fully explained despite his character having a fair amount of screen time. While I was happy to not have to waste a lot of time on a backstory for a comic book villain, I felt like that lack of backstory was diminishing the gravitas of the world domination plans being thwarted by Cap and his commandos.

The other negative is the pacing which seems a bit flat.

That said, Iron Man (2008) didn't strike me as exceptionally well-paced. But, like that film, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) succeeds during all of the character moments that matter, as well as in the period details.

The highlights of each film were character bits, not any action set-piece. Director Joe Johnston here seems to wisely be erring on the side of restraint and I appreciated that.

Steve Rogers' relationship with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) seems believable and -- as others have noted -- mature; like Pepper Potts and Tony Stark, there's a dramatic plot-centered need for the guy-and-gal to be together. And their banter seems less the device of a witty screenwriter and more the well-scripted remarks of two romantically inclined adults.

Given the way that the Captain America film must end to get Cap into the modern age and leader of Whedon's Avengers, there's also a great deal of pathos here as Cap becomes that man-out-of-time figure I loved so much as a child.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) is not perfect but it's a very enjoyable film and one that is fun without being too complicated. With no reason to make Captain America into a dark-and-brooding Batman figure, director Joe Johnston has discovered the complexity of Steve Rogers.

The very lack of brooding -- the consistency of the guy and his morality -- is what ultimately makes the character as compelling as Bruce Wayne. As he navigates the world like a bulked up Clark Kent, Steve Rogers/Captain America bears the burden of his own ideals and those of his country.