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Monday, July 25
Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011)
I typically enter these comic-book movies blind, with only the mass pop-culture resonance of basic backstory as my guide. But I have read Ed Brubaker's fantastic revival of the character, a run that effectively revitalized the Captain for an age of mass disillusionment. Johnston, along with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, ably mimic Brubaker's balance of the character's old-school idealism with modern sensibilities. The film's subtitle is already cumbersome and limiting—it defines the film essentially as an advertisement for an upcoming one rather than its own entry—but it seems especially unnecessary considering that, among the rushed crop of Avengers-preparing movies (Iron Man 2, Thor), Captain America is the only one that truly works as a standalone property, as well as the first origin story since Iron Man to remotely justify its feature length.
Like Iron Man, Captain America succeeds by maintaining total focus on its lead and primary cast. Though Chris Evans might not be as utterly perfect in his role as Downey is in Stark's, he finds Steve Rogers' sense of conviction and irrepressible idealism from the start. Usually cast as the arrogant looker, Evans here captures Rogers' sense of long-suffering but undiluted optimism so quickly that when he becomes the ultimate soldier through a special serum, I began to think of the muscled, taller Evans as the effects-crafted body rather than the rail-thin weakling he plays at the start.
Rogers' transformation into a larger-than-life figure of unreal proportions matches Johnston's visual design, which is the first film of his since The Rocketeer to truly show off the skills he must have learned in his early career. After a summer of superhero films with questionable CGI so cheesy and spotty it looked as if some of these movies were made years ago and locked in studio vaults, Captain America uses computer animation in a manner that is outlandish without being insufferably self-conscious. Johnston makes everything huge: tanks loom over characters, and the villain's plane makes Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose look like the prop-jobs aviation-minded kids train with in fields.
They key to Captain America's success is the way Johnston embraces such camp without winking or placing himself above what he's depicting. And if a hero ever called out for some easy modern irony and distance, it's Captain America: Evans and Johnston sell Steve Rogers' desire to get into the war effort without once suggesting that his zeal is either misplaced or sinisterly bloodthirsty: Steve merely knows what it's like to be bullied and wishes to help others being pushed around. (On that note, the absence of father issues is like a sudden gust of breeze through a room without air-conditioning in this heat-wave ridden summer.) The only commentary Johnston makes is within the movie, mocking the manner in which Captain America is quickly put on the war-bond circuit rather than allowed to properly serve. The Cap just wants to do his part, not be put on a pedestal.
Because Johnston never forces a modern perspective on this throwback or parade his own self-perceived cleverness, Captain America lacks the smug self-satisfaction of Matthew Vaughn's un-satire X-Men: First Class. It also avoids the pitfalls of the Spider-Man franchise, a series preemptively hobbled by the 9/11 attacks, placing a severity upon New York's most iconic superhero that Sam Raimi's puckish genre travesty could not handle.
I'd go so far as to say that Captain America is not merely one of the few good superhero movies but one of the most purely entertaining alongside Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy films, which share traits with this movie's focus on occult Nazi evil. The cast is so good that one hardly notices how surprisingly non-threatening Hugo Weaving is as Johann Schmidt, the super-powered Nazi scientist bent on taking over the world. Weaving is on autopilot as a force of pure evil, but everyone else is wonderful, from Toby Jones' skittish right-hand man to Stanley Tucci's downplayed idealism as the defected Nazi scientist and creator of the Super Solider formula. Tommy Lee Jones doesn't break ground as the gruff Col. Chester Phillips, but his laconic weariness gives his unique bite to Phillips' sarcastic lines.
Best of all, of course, is Hayley Atwell's Peggy Carter, who is the ultimate rarity: a strong, completely independent woman in a comic-book film. She is Rogers' love interest, yes, but watch how she establishes her presence entirely outside Steve and continues to exist when not by his side or doing something that will affect the male hero. Her first action is breaking a soldier's nose for disrespecting her authority, a move captured not with martial arts grace and sexiness but swift, brute force. Her romance with the Cap is one of equal ground, each attracted to the other as much out of an empathetic sense of being dismissed by others as the physical spark that comes after Rogers buffs out. Carter's own strength gives the romance an actual stake, and Captain America, for all its high-camp fun, ultimately ends on a melancholy note regarding the two.
Though it eventually loses track of where, exactly, it's headed and lacks a villain compelling enough to fit into the massive surroundings he creates to forge his weapons, Captain America is one of the more surprising successes of the year. Atwell's Carter alone is worth the price of admission, but let us not forget Evans, who, after a decade of high-profile roles in numerous blockbusters, finally makes the case for himself as a star. He manages to play Rogers' humility and quiet dedication in such a way that you still can't take your eyes off him. Complete with some of the only competent live-action CGI of the year so far, Captain America is a delight, and if it is as imperfect as all other comic-book films, it at least tries to tackle the genre from a new direction rather than stay the course whilst pretending to be smarter than everyone else who trod that road.