Saturday, July 23, 2011

On the Big Screen: CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)

Earlier this month, Marvel Comics published Captain America #1. Every so often the big comic-book publishers feel that the public gets intimidated by the high issue numbers of long-running comics. Especially when today's comic-book writers can't help telling a never-ending, infinitely convoluting story instead of the self-contained tales of the "Golden Age," a reader may well feel that there's too much information you'd have to know before you could hope to figure out what goes on in a typical monthly comic. So while at times the publishers like to boast of how long their characters have been running -- Marvel published a 70th Anniversary issue for Captain America a few months ago -- they're now increasingly willing to hide their history the better to offer a new reader a jumping-on point. Marvel hasn't "rebooted" Cap this time, but the idea is that someone possibly inspired by Joe Johnston's film to buy a Captain America comic won't feel that he'd need to have read every Cap comic published in the five or so years since Ed Brubaker started his mostly-admirable run as writer in order to figure out what goes on.

In fact, there's a kind of cruel hook for moviegoers in the latest Captain America #1. It features the funeral of Peggy Carter, a long-established figure in Steve Rogers's comic-book history and a prominent character in Johnston's film. Dead of natural causes at age 91, Peggy is survived by her niece Sharon -- who, in a twist moviegoers may find icky, is Steve Rogers's current love interest and partner in action. At her funeral is the "real" Nick Fury, a man who fought at Cap's side in World War II but somehow also attained extended youth and vitality, and an eyepatch, as the head of SHIELD. Moviegoers will recognize the red moustache and derby hat of Dum-Dum Dugan, Fury's right-hand man from the days of the Howling Commandos to the present, also unnaturally well preserved. No matter what number you slap on the cover, there's no escaping history in a Captain America comic, though you can sometimes avoid excessive continuity in getting to the heart of things. Cap is always going to be about history, and the people at Marvel Entertainment know this. That's why they set their story during Cap's glory days of World War II, except for present-day bookends and a dull thud of an ending that mars what otherwise may be the best of the "Avengers" series so far.

With The First Avenger (as the film is known in countries where "Captain America" isn't necessarily welcome on the marquee) you begin to see the cumulative benefit of Marvel's mythos-building. There's a little thrill that an old comics fan may feel more than others at seeing pieces of a puzzle connect, especially in a movie set decades prior to all the other Avengers films. The early invocation of Norse mythology makes Thor relevant to the project in a way the movie from earlier this year barely managed on its own. More significant and appealing is the large role given to Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Tony's dad who was seen in film clips and flashbacks in Iron Man 2 and who here is the spitting image of how Tony Stark himself was drawn in the original Iron Man comics. This is an innovation of the moviemakers, since neither Howard nor Tony Stark existed in the minds of Jack Kirby or Joe Simon (the latter still living as the last major creative figure from the Golden Age) when they invented Cap in 1941. Captain America is the rug that really pulls the room full of Marvel movies together and gives the Marvel movie universe a history distinct from official Marvel history, however often rebooted, or the "Ultimate" variant that has influenced much of the movies' environment, most notably (or regrettably) in the casting of Samuel L. Jackson as the insufferable Nick Fury. The First Avenger actually missed an opportunity to build more mythos by linking Jackson's Fury to a "historical" Nick Fury whom Cap should have encountered with the rest of the Howling Commandos in a Hydra prison camp.

Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely dramatically redefine Captain America in a way that makes the super soldier more heroic and more sympathetic for modern audiences. As always, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) starts as the proverbial 90-pound weakling yearning to join the military, albeit with more urgency than the original, since here he doesn't become a super soldier until after Pearl Harbor, while Simon and Kirby launched Cap in 1941 to fight Fifth Columnists and saboteurs while America prepared for a war that still might not come to this country. In a tremendous reversal of comics lore, Bucky Barnes, who in the comics was a juvenile Army mascot who became Cap's Robin-like sidekick, is here Steve Rogers's more manly pal, practically his idol, who makes it into the army when Steve can't. In the 1941 origin story Steve is his original sickly self for no more than a page or two, but in the movie he pays his dues in feeble form for nearly an hour, earning our respect for his grit, his enmity toward bullies of all types, his desperate eagerness to serve his country, his bravery (he's the first to throw himself on a grenade in a test) and his intelligence (he figures out how to capture a flag in the most practical way after fellow recruits fail to shinny up the flagpole). All these things impress emigre German scientist Dr. Erskine (a warm Stanley Tucci), who decides that Steve is most qualified to take the super soldier serum because he is not a bully like many of his fellow recruits, because despite his eagerness to enlist he can't answer Erskine's question, "Do you want to kill Nazis?" with a simple yes. Steve doesn't want to kill anyone -- but he'll do it if he has to because he won't let the bullies win.

Steve undergoes the transformation in traditional style, and after the successful experiment Dr. Erskine is killed by a Nazi agent as he was in the original comic. That episode always left me wondering why the saboteur waited until after Erskine created a super-soldier to pull his gun out. Wouldn't you want to stop that from happening? But maybe he had instructions like Moe Berg, the baseball catcher turned spy, had when he was sent to hear Werner Heisenberg lecture in a neutral country. According to legend, Berg was to kill the German scientist only if he inferred from the lecture that Heisenberg was close to solving the riddle of the atom bomb. Why take chances, I'd ask, but I suppose that's why I'm not a super hero. Anyway, in another major diversion from Golden Age lore, the Army takes the creation of a single super soldier as a failure of Erskine's project, and even after Roges makes headlines capturing the Nazi after an exhilarating chase through Brooklyn, Col. Phillips (an effortlessly entertaining Tommy Lee Jones) assigns Steve to tests in New Mexico, only to be overruled by a Senator who sends "Captain America" (so named for the first time) on a War Bonds tour. The picture suddenly becomes a delirious amalgam of Flags of Our Fathers and Tucker: The Man and His Dream as Rogers is compelled to be a musical-comedy superhero fake slugging a fake Hitler in a stage revue as chorus girls cheer him on in song. He goes over big with the civilians, but dogfaces in Europe are far less impressed when the Captain goes on a morale-boosting tour. He'll soon get a chance to change their minds.

Cap is finally in a position to confront his Nazi counterpart, the disfigured occultist Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) who had been Erskine's first experiment, at Hitler's command. Schmidt proved Erskine's theory that the super soldier serum makes good men great and bad men worse by becoming a bald, noseless, red-faced lunatic. In short, he becomes the Red Skull, but the writers are strangely reluctant to so label him. If I remember right, the name is used just once in the entire picture. Otherwise, and even after the Skull gives up wearing his Hugo Weaving mask, he remains "Johann Schmidt" to his enemies. I'm not complaining; I just find it a little odd. Also odd is the movie's contribution to Marvel Comics's overall dehistoricization of World War II. Schmidt is the head (and mind you, there's really just one) of Hydra, the Third Reich's special occult research unit. In Marvel Comics, Hydra was invented in the 1960s as a collective antagonist for The Avengers and SHIELD. There were always former Nazis involved with this group, but Marvel has over time retconned World War II to make Hydra a kind of power behind the Nazi throne. In their current Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes cartoon, an apparent aversion to invoking Nazism in animation results in an extreme rewriting of history in which Hydra itself is the principal aggressor in the war. Captain America doesn't go that far, but it does indulge in the whimsy that Hydra is worse than Hitler because of Schmidt's interest in marrying occult power sources to super-modern technology in a manner much inspired, I suspect, by Mike Mignola's Hellboy mythos. Schmidt soon relegates Nazism to the background as Cap and his new army buddies (including Bucky) have to stop a Hydra-initiated attack from destroying not just the major allied cities, but Berlin as well. By that point I'd imagine that Cap would get some support from the Wehrmacht and the SS, but Hitler suddenly seems to be powerless in his own land, as if the movie, like the cartoon, is uncomfortable with Nazism, or the writers are afraid that Claude Lanzmann or Jean-Luc Godard will take them to task for trivializing the Shoah or something.

So it's all action from that point on, and Johnston deserves a ton of credit for directing it with a clarity and an eye for the dramatic or iconic pulp image that eludes so many other action-spectacle directors these days. The director of The Rocketeer clearly revels in a return to an era he clearly loves, and both cinematographer Shelly Johnson and production designer Rick Heinrichs clearly share the love. The art direction is more of a special effect than the film's modest 3D conversion, and the retro-spectacle of it all should attract movie fans who are otherwise wary of superhero films. The greatest effect of all is the by now familiar and pretty much seamless process that grafts Chris Evans's head onto Steve Rogers's original puny body. Working only with his face, Evans makes the illusion believable, and the actor really is a revelation here. Like Thor, Captain America has to sell its star as someone who can share the screen with Robert Downey next year and not be reduced to wallpaper. Chris Hemsworth more or less passed the test this spring, and Evans passes with flying colors. He is the Steve Rogers of the comics, only more so. With the ordeal of his media exploitation and humiliation following the ordeal of his years of weakness, Evans expresses a frustration with his wasted potential that everyone can identify with in some way while remaining a sensitive soul who's still inexperienced (though not cartoonishly naive) in many ways. His power fantasy comes with constant disillusionment and loss, but neither the power nor the losses compromise his goodness and idealism. It's still an open question how Evans will do alongside Downey, but now it's a question I'm interested in seeing answered -- even if that proves my only reason to see The Avengers next year.

Captain America may have the best ensemble cast of any Avengers film to date. Hayley Atwell gives a star-making turn as the kick-ass glamorous Agent Carter, and Dominic Cooper (the second actor to play Howard Stark) helps energize every scene he's in. All the battle-happy joes of the precociously multicultural Howling Commandos are engaging and likable. Toby Jones bids to be the modern Peter Lorre as Arnim Zola, the Red Skull's chief assistant who's doomed to become a TV-headed cyborg in 1970s comics. Tommy Lee Jones presumably is in this movie for the same reason Anthony Hopkins was in Thor: prestige. But if this movie proves anything, it's that Jones can't phone in a performance. While Hopkins (under a Shakespearean's direction) does little more than yell, Jones plays his lines like curmudgeonly music, and you hang on his every word. Jones may not be the greater actor (though he certainly is now), this star turn may show that he's a greater star, that a "Tommy Lee Jones" part is inherently superior to an "Anthony Hopkins" part. I suppose that if they traded parts we'd really see who's better. But Jones helps make Captain America vastly superior to Thor, as does just about everyone involved in the new film. The First Avenger arrives at a moment of talk about "superhero fatigue," but it'd be a shame if that fatigue causes people to miss one of the most exhilarating expressions of that beleaguered genre.

5 comments:

W.B. Kelso said...

I never would have thought in a million years that this movie, post transformation, would spend nearly fifteen to twenty minutes dedicated to a musical revue/war bond rally. Beautiful, just beautiful.

hobbyfan said...

Ya know, neither one of us brought it up, but the musical number, co-written by Oscar winner Alan Menken, sounded as though it actually came from Stan Lee's pen, as it was, to be frank, very cheesy.

Some people on a message board complained that the Skull wasn't given enough to do. I disagree, but I suspect he'll return.

W.B. Kelso said...

It sounded more to me like the opening theme to the old Gantry/Lawrence animated Cap cartoon.

J.D. said...

"The picture suddenly becomes a delirious amalgam of Flags of Our Fathers and Tucker: The Man and His Dream"

What a fantastic observation and right on the nose! This film was a lot better than I was expecting and hiring Johnston to direct was a very smart move as he brings a refreshing no-nonsense style that flies in the face of overt stylists like Zack Snyder. Even when Johnston employs the "speed-ramping" technique favored by Snyder it fits seamlessly with the action.

I also really enjoyed the relationship between Rogers and Peggy and how the screenwriters kept it simmering under the surface until the surprisingly poignant and tragic conclusion, which I was amazed at how affecting it actually was.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for writing, folks. W.B., I regretted the absence of "When Captain America throws his mighty shield..." but I imagine that Marvel isn't that proud of that part of their animated past. As it was, though, Cap is a breath of fresh air in the Marvel movie mythos.

Hobby, the Skull was often more hands-on in Golden Age stories but making him more of a serial mastermind seems like the right idea for the movie. The reluctance to call him the "Red Skull" was the only real problem here.

J.D., I agree about the handling of the romance, except that the epilogue's dull thud ("I had a date.")didn't do it justice. But anything else would probably have been too sad for the summer movie audience.