Friday, July 29, 2011



- The big trend in superhero movies these last several years has been to make them gritty, sleek, modern, realistic. That can result in great movies, like Dark Knight, but it can also make some superhero movies feel unnecessarilly reigned-in, small, boring. For those of us who love the imagination, the boldness, the bright colors, the unlimited storytelling possibilities of superhero comic books, this trend can leave us feeling a bit cold. Look, I get what guys like Bryan Singer and Jon Favreau tried with X-Men and Iron Man, but sometimes ... sometimes I just want a superhero movie that's unabashedly fun, big, bright, over-the-top, and full of good, old-fashioned, two-fisted action and rip-roaring adventure. Good vs. Evil. Heroes vs. Villains. And that, True Believers, is what CAPTAIN AMERICA is all about. Unapologetic comic book heroism. Colorful heroes and villains. And a simple, yet, to me, still-powerful message that's at the core of the superhero myth, but that's been lost all too often in recent times: be a good person, fight the good fight, and never give up.

I'll just say this right off the bat - my biggest worry going into this movie was Chris Evans in the lead role. I like Evans as an actor, but let's face it, he's best known for more comedic, smart-alecky roles. The guy has a surfer-dude persona that just didn't seem to gel with Cap, who is, of course an All-American guy from Brooklyn who has to muster the gravitas to lead the US Army into battle against the Nazis, and later, to lead The Avengers against the forces of evil. But - wow - Chris Evans shocked me in this film. He 100% pulled off the role of Steve Rogers, and didn't just pull it off, but went above and beyond. His transformation from skinny, undersized geek to Super-Soldier-Serum-infused hero is really pretty remarkable - comparable, I think, to the gold standard which is Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent / Superman. There's a scene when Steve first gets his new physique and abilities that seriously sold me. Having just been released from his containment tube, Steve realizes that there's a German spy amidst the scientists and soldiers gathered to witness his transformation. Once outed, the spy begins firing bullets and attempting to make an escape, and immediately, Steve springs into action and gives chase. The ensuing chase scene through the streets of New York is absolutely awesome. Not just because it's exhilerating and well-staged, but because of Evans' demeanor. Without saying anything, we can see Steve's mindset - he's nervous, scared as hell, usure of the limits of his new abilities ... but at the same time, he is absolutely determined to bring this guy down. The big stand up and cheer moment comes when the spy throws a seemingly helpless kid into the river, and Steve has to make the classic superhero choice - save the kid or pursue the badguy. But, in a great little moment, the kid swims above water, looks at Rogers, and yells "it's okay, I can swim - go get 'em!" as Steve smiles, waves, and runs away. Cheesy? Maybe. But dammit all, at that moment I was 100% sold on this movie - it just got it. It got what heroes like Captain America are all about. No irony, no modernist spin - just one man who wants to help those who need helping. And Evans pulls it off - the earnestness, the heroism, the determinaiton of Cap - better than I could have imagined.

I also give a lot of credit to director Joe Johnston. He directs Captain America in a classic, straightforward manner that is like a lesson in action movie-making for the Michael Bays of the world. This one is very much in the spirit of a Raiders of the Lost Ark and Johnston's own The Rocketeer - that same spirit of all-American adventure is present in this one. That said, there is some great stylization here as well, with Johnston introducing a lot of the art deco-like touches that he included in The Rocketeer. This isn't necessarilly World War II as it happened, but it's WWII as it appeared in movies, TV, in comic books, in pop-culture at large. This is the bold, weird, stylized world of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby come to life, and man, that, to me, is awesome. There's well-staged, slam-bang action and some great set-pieces. And yes, there is humor, and even the occasional wink at the audience (and some nice homages to the comics as well). But mostly, Johnston finds nothing inherently funny or silly about Captain America, and I really respect that. And by the way, there's a great, symphonic score to the movie as well that really adds to the action.

That same enthusiasm for the characters and the period carries over to the villain of the piece - Hugo Weaving as THE RED SKULL. How many superhero movies have we seen lately where the villain is a conflicted antihero, a corrupt businessman, or a nebulous entity of some sort? Not here. Here, The Red Skull is a classic villain ripped straight from the comics - gleefully over-the-top, scheming, plotting ... he's just an evil bastard with a freaking red skull for a face. Now, his origin does nicely mirror Cap's, and there are some interesting interactions between the Skull and his not-so-chummy Nazi collaborators ... but at the end of the day, I just loved watching Weaving go full-on EVIL. In short, The Red Skull is one of the best, most fun-to-watch comic book villains we've ever seen on screen.

The rest of Cap's supporting cast is, amazingly, damn good. Stanley Tucci hams it up in the best way possible as German doctor Erksine, the inventor of the Super Soldier Serum. Tucci's character is another example of hoe the tone of the movie is just right - a little over-the-top, a little hammy ... but just heartfelt enough that man, we really come to like and care about about this kooky guy. Same goes for Tommy Lee Jones as tough-as-nails Colonel Phillips. Jones could probably have played this role in his sleep, but he seems to having a great time here - just acting the hell out of the role and delivering his lines with gusto. Same goes for Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark - yep, *that* Stark. It could have been a one-note role, but Cooper brings so much charisma to the part that he steals a scene or two with just a raise of an eyebrow or a nod of his head. Sebastian Stan is similarly good as "Bucky" Barnes, Cap's loyal friend and ally. You really buy into him as a great friend of Cap, and I'd love to see Stan come back and do the Winter Soldier storyline if a sequel is greenlit. Toby Jones is also really funny and easy-to-root-against as the diminuitive henchman of the Skull, Dr. Zola. Finally, how great are the HOWLING COMMANDOS in this movie? God, just seeing Neil McDonough with bowler hat and handlebar mustache as Timothy "Dum Dum" Dugan ... I mean, if that doesn't bring an ear-to-ear smile to your face, then by all means, turn in your geek card now. Like I said, I love that Captain America embraces all the great silliness and fun of the comics without any shame or embarrasment. I mean, this is why I love superhero comics - because you get a group of ragtag misfits called The Howling Commandos kicking Nazi ass while being led by a guy named "Dum Dum." And that's all here in this movie. Yes, awesome.

Finally, let me bestow infinite praises on Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter. Take note, Hollywood - THIS is what a leading lady is supposed to be. Atwell kicks ass as much as any of her male counterparts, but is also a total bombshell that, completely understandably makes even Cap - the ultimate boyscout - want to toss his good guy persona out the window. Atwell seriously just owns it in this movie. I knew she was good when I saw her on the recent PRISONER remake on AMC, but if she doesn't become a huge star after this, there's no justice in Hollywood. But hey, Joe Johnston has quite the track record with leading ladies - remember, he cast a young Jennifer Connelly as the Bettie Page-esque star of The Rocketeer. And I think Atwell's performance here is comparable, except she gets to kick a lot more ass and bust a lot more balls.

If there's one thing that keeps Captain America from being 100% pure awesome, it's the ending. Without spoiling anything, the very end of the movie just left me a little cold, and after so much fun buildup to get to that point, I was disappointed to see what amounted to a somewhat tacked-on-feeling ending that came off more like an obligatory bridge to The Avengers than anything else. Don't get me wrong, I think there might have been a way to do this sort of ending in a more impactful manner, but as is, it just feels like the main story we've been following for two hours ends very abruptly, all in the name of having a quickie prologue to next summer's big Marvel blockbuster. It just could have been handled better, and it's a shame, because the movie builds and builds so well that the right ending could have been the final exclamation point on what was, to that point, an incredible ride. As is, the energy deflates a little bit as the credits roll.

Overall though, I really loved Captain America, and it might just be my personal favorite Marvel superhero movie of all time. At the least, it's right up there with X2, Spiderman 2, and the first Iron Man. But this one really feels like a different beast, because while those other characters are products of the 60's and of Stan Lee's reign as the head of the House of Ideas, Cap represents an earlier, simpler time - when America was at war and needed heroes, icons, to bear our flag and rally the nation. To me, there's something magical about the characters and stories of World War II-era America, and perhaps that's why I've always been a DC guy moreso than a Marvel one. I love the big icons, the larger than life heroes, the simple-yet-powerful concept of fighting for good and for what's right. And that's what Cap is - an idea, a modern myth, a kid from Brooklyn who becomes America's greatest hero, simply because he is a good man and will never stop fighting. The movie proudly restates that credo - when Dr. Erksine points at Steve Rogers and tells him he was chosen not because he was a good soldier, but because he was a good man. It's there when Steve Rogers jumps on what he thinks is a live grenade, because he's ready to sacrifice himself to save others. It's there when that kid tells him to quit worrying about him - he can swim! - and tells him to go catch the badguy. To me, this is just a fun, positive, fist-pumping sort of action movie - an adventure that gets back to the basics of superheroes, a movie that more than proves why Cap isn't just the first Avenger, but the best.

My Grade: A-

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