July 29, 2011

Guys Movie Night: Captain America: The First Avenger

A wholesome and workmanlike origin story for Captain America. Because I knew nothing about Captain America, I had pretty low expectations. Now I would call him "Wolverine, minus the claws, plus a lot of earnest patriotism." I joked beforehand that all I wanted to see was Captain America punching out Hitler. And I got that, but it turns out that Captain America doesn't fight any Nazis at all. In fact, no one fights any Nazis. From the very beginning, our villain, The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) goes rogue and takes over Hiter's Crazy Science division for himself. Why is this movie set during World War II if there's no Nazis? Sure, the Red Skull wants to take over the world, but the only people we see him kill are other Nazis, and a couple of our faceless Army guys in a firefight.
It's hard to win my heart over when there's no faces to connect with. Red Skull has a red skull, and all of Red Skull's henchmen wear gimp masks, so the only face of the enemy is Toby Jones, the stubby scientist stuck between a madman and a laser gun, who we actually feel some sympathy for!

Chris Evans was just perfect as Steve Rogers. The shrimpy weakling Steve Rogers, before he gets his super-serum, was a seamless effect with Evans's head on a concave weakling (Not a body double. He was so small, maybe it should be body "three-quarters"?)
I really appreciated how Rogers' costume evolved. Getting superheroes into costumes is often the most clunky plot point in the movies. In this case, it's a nice organic evolution: he starts out onstage in a stage costume identical to the comic book look. When he slips away on his first mission behind enemy lines, he cobbles together some gear- an awesome combination of his stage costume and shield, plus a great leather jacket, and a blue army helmet stolen from one of the dancing girls. I wish he was dressed like this for the whole movie! Only later does he suit up with the leather helmet and round shield.

 A thousand thanks to two award-winning character actors who save this movie from blandness: Stanley Tucci is the avuncular German ex-pat scientist who befriends Steve. He got a chuckle from the crowd with every line. Equally indispensible was Tommy Lee Jones as the Colonel shepherding the super-soldier project. He's playing his bread-and-butter authority figure, and he charms the audience all the way. I also loved veteran corset-wearer Hayley Atwell as the British agent who goes all moony for Rogers. She actually gets to shoot bad guys and punch d-bags first, so she's not useless like Rose Byrne's agent in X-Men: First Class. She tends to stand uncomfortably close to Steve in their dialog scenes, and she barely cries at the end. She also looks perfect in the period hair and makeup.
That lipstick was a.maz.ing.
We had some technical quibbles with the movie: even if you grant that the super-serum is pure fantasy, I did not believe that they only had one dose on hand and had no notes or research written down to create more? What kind of defense contract is this? Adam noticed the motorcycle chase through the forest was a little too similar to the same scene in Return of the Jedi. Rogers even uses a tripwire to throw the bad guys off their bikes, Ewok style. Also, we found it odd that the Red Skull's underground base fortifications are angled the wrong way, like a ramp, so Captain America can jump over them like Evel Knievel. Everything else was completely plausible, or, at least, comic-book plausible.
I guess the reason I brand the movie "workmanlike" at the top of this review is my cynicism at work. This origin movie, which, like most origin movies, doesn't contain much action for the first 30-40 minutes, felt more like a necessary stepping stone for the Avengers mega-franchise than a story by itself.

I am also undrewhelmed by its director Joe Johnston. Johnston, a former George Lucas protege, was the art director for Star Wars Episodes 4-6, plus Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Battlestar Galactica TV pilot in 1978. Since Honey I Shrunk The Kids in 1989, he has directed eight more effects-heavy features, including Jumanji, Jurassic Park III, and The Wolfman. He doesn't seem to direct with much character or personality. The most cynical part of me thinks he's the director you can count on to successfully accomplish your film's technical challenges. Kind of like Michael Bay with no personality and a smaller budget.

TRIVIA: Dorchester native Neal McDonough plays one of the Captain's team, with a bowler hat and muttonchops. I thought to myself "This getup is wayyy too specific. This must be a character from the comic books." Indeed, he's future Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D. "Dum Dum" Dugan.

TRIVIA: Before he heads to the front, Rogers performs in US Savings Bond fundraising shows, where he gets to knock out "Hitler" for the crowd each day. The guy playing the actor playing Hitler, James Payton, has another famous part with no dialog: the father of Neville Longbottom in Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix (we only see him in one of those magical moving photos.)

TRIVIA: Strangely, Joe Johnston has directed another comic book movie set during WWII where undercover Nazis are plotting to steal American technology in order to create super-soldiers: The Rocketeer. Compounding the strangeness, both movies feature wealthy industrial tycoons with awesome moustaches: Howard Hughes invented the rocket in The Rocketeer; The real-life Hughes is the inspiration for the Howard Stark character.

Dominic Cooper (L) and Terry O'Quinn (R)

My grade: how about a B?
Regal Fenway Stadium 13 (screen 12) with: Adam, Angus, Geoff, Ilan, Jack, Jeff, John, Marc, and Marc's other friend whose name I never got :-S