Saturday, April 28, 2012

Retro Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

The following is part of a series where I bring back some of my "older" reviews (those written during my 2004-2011 tenure at the now mostly defunct The Cinematheque) and offer them up to a "newer" generation.  This is a special edition of Retro Reviews, looking back at the films that have led up to the May 4th release of The Avengers.


The skinny but determined kid from Brooklyn. The sense of old fashioned determination and responsibility - not to mention storytelling. The trials and tribulations of a man who just wants to do the right thing - against all odds. The nostalgic look and feel of World War II era heroics and set design that meshes perfectly with this technical period piece. That myth-making iconic red, white & blue shield. It's all here in Joe Johnston's Captain America: The First Avenger, the latest chapter (after The HulkIron Man I & II and Thor) in the lead-up to next year's all-encompassing ultimate-trip, team-up superhero supergroup blockbuster-in-the-making Avengers

But being more than just introductory fodder (which incidentally, most of the other Marvelous aforementioned movies have the feel of as well), this latest film snatched from the pages of Marvel comics is an appropriately rousing adventure story that plays out not just as mere actioner, with superheroes and grunts alike kicking the requisite Nazi ass (and there is a lot of that), but as one brave man's battle against the evils of the world around him. The overall film has a pulpy, cliffhanger feel to its tattered edges, not unlike it's closest thematic relative, the original Raiders of the Lost Ark (which there is more than a couple allusions and/or references too - "and the Fuhrer searches for his trinkets in the desert") - and that is damn well what it should have in its iconic concoction of old fashioned superheroism and modern day Marveldom. 

First created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (best. comicbook. artist. ever. - as well as, in the eyes of comic book aficionados for generations to come, an almost as iconic figure as his hero would become) back in the Spring of 1941, the legendary Captain America had managed, in the comic books of the time, to get into the war nearly a year before his country did in real life. Published by Timely Comics (who would later become Marvel) this star spangled hero, shown punching out Hitler on the cover of Captain America #1 and going on to help defeat the Axis powers (both on the pages of his comic and in the morale-boosting of his nation's young people) was the perfect icon for WWII era America. Possibly seeming a bit square for today's society, in his hey day, Captain America was the red, white & blue symbol of patriotism and heroics. 

After a severe lag in sales post WWII (America now wanted to forget the war and move on with their lives and besides, horror comics, not superheroes were now the popular read of the day) the star spangled Avenger would see his final issue hit newsstands in early 1950 - and this once proud icon of American military prowess, save for an ill-fated and short-lived comeback in 1954, would be lost to pop culture for well over a decade. Then a resurgence in both superheroes and the comic industry as a whole, thanks mostly to Stan Lee's creation of The Fantastic Four in 1961 (a resurgence that would also bring the aforementioned Kirby back into the comic book limelight as this Silver Age of comics would also usher in The Hulk, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor and a band of pesky mutants), would bring Captain America back to life (literally pulled out of suspended animation from his supposed frozen arctic grave) and place his now legendary image front and center as leader of the supergroup The Avengers. 

Now here we are in the summer of 2011 (it's blockbuster time! - to paraphrase MC Hammer) and Chris Evans (already known to comics fans as the Human Torch in the failures that were The Fantastic Four and Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer - let's just forget about those now) dons the red, white & blue of the legendary first Avenger. Starting out as a uniquely skinny Steve Rogers (Evans is CGI'd onto an abnormally tiny body for the first act of the movie - the actor stating in an interview that now he knows what he would look like as a heroin addict) our intrepid wouldbe hero keeps getting turned down for military duty until a German ex-pat scientist (played with accented glee by Stanley Tucci) enlists this scrawny but determined soldier into a special top secret project. With the aid of the gruff and unconvinced Colonel Phillips (an appropriately gruff Tommy Lee Jones), Industrialist Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper as Iron Man's daddy) and British spy Peggy Carter, with legs to die for and a right hook to match (the all-but unknown Hayley Atwell), this runt from Brooklyn is given the Super Soldier serum and becomes the hunkiest of hunks, Captain America. 

After a brief stint as a senator's show pony, grafted into a ridiculous version of the iconic uniform of Captain America lore (actually it is designed exactly like the one from the comics but when taken from the pencil and ink drawing of the page to a real life human being, it becomes pretty funny looking indeed) and forced to shill for war bonds, Rogers' disobeys orders and rushes head first (and all by himself) deep into the lair of Nazi mastermind Johann Schmidt, essentially turning himself into a true blue (and red and white) American hero. All this and our humble hero gets to go mano y mano with Johann Schmidt's dementedly deviated super Nazi the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving in a particularly snarling, yet underused, portrayal of pure evil). Since this is such an iconic comic book character, and the opening obviously takes place in modern times, the ending of the film may be void of any spoiler warnings (though just in case, I will keep my big trap shut about certain things, even if they are already clearly known by any and all fanboys and girls that will be seeing this film) but even so, the ending does seem a bit hurried and rather abrupt. 

Captain America: The First Avenger is a good old fashioned adventure story full of vim and vigor, and even though the character of Captain America may seem a trifle bland when compared to such fellow superheroes as the darkly troubled Batman or the reckless playboy Iron Man (some of my favourite comic book moments were when Captain America had confrontations with more modern and more arrogant fellow heroes such as Iron Man and Hawkeye - which incidentally bodes well for the upcoming Avengers movie), his iconic stature and natural leadership abilities (not to mention Chris Evans surprisingly square-jawed portrayal of the Avenger) make for a rousing (again with the obvious metaphor) Raiders of the Lost Ark style motion picture experience. This of course is appropriate considering director Johnston (HildagoThe Rocketeer &Jumanji, as well as an episode of The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones ) may well have a Spielbergian complex about his work. In sum - it may not be the greatest superhero movie ever made, and it does have its faults, but it is still a very fun ride as they say.  A very fun ride indeed.

[Originally published at The Cinematheque on 07/22/11]



Dan O. said...

The film actually worked best outside of the action scenes, fueled by a brilliant supporting cast (Stanley Tucci, Tommy Lee Jones, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell and Hugo Weaving). Good review Kevyn.

Chip Lary said...

I enjoyed Captain America precisely because he was actually heroic. As you noted, this is a bit of a charming throwback, but it was a welcome change for me after all the vigilante/"woe is me" heroes we've been presented with recently.

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