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Captain American Splendor: JediCole’s Review of Captain America

If comics enjoyed their Golden Age in decades past, comic book fans are indeed being treated to such a period in super-hero genre cinema! This has been the summer of the comic book in movie theatres worldwide. But I don’t think it will be the biggest we will see! 2012 is already shaping up to bring a new string of such movies our way, but that is another story. It is Captain America that is at the forefront now. And thank Jack Kirby it was a hit! After The Dark Knight and Iron Man became the illusionary benchmarks of super-hero film success, Green Lantern and Thor were declared “flops” in their opening weekends! Captain America’s ability to topple Harry Potter at the box office will undoubtedly have May and June’s naysayers singing the praises of the genre anew. Such is the fickle nature of that species we call movie reviewers.

In taking up such a mantle now I risk that declaration being applied to myself, but I go forward with that possibility looming and have not the slightest concern that I would fall into such a category. And so I reflect back on my first, and certainly not last, screening of Captain America. I was fortunate enough to be in Austin last weekend and to see this movie at that city’s famous Alamo Drafthouse. Well, one of them anyway, built I am told (by Jim Dirkes of Film Thugs) in an old grocery store. I say that I was fortunate to see this movie at the Alamo because as we entered the theatre a reel was already playing in advance of the preview trailers and other material reminding you to shut up and turn off your phone. It was a reel of clips from Captain America movie serials and cartoons. What an incredible lead into an incredible movie that would not have been seen anywhere else!

Needless to say at this point I found Captain America a near perfect super-hero movie! It delivers on so many levels and should be used as an example of this genre done right. For so long The Dark Knight has been regarded as the standard by which comic book-based films have been judged. I gladly welcome a new standard. Not to discount The Dark Knight in the least, what I really welcome is an example of how dark and gritty need not define the genre. Are you listening Hollywood? A super-hero movie can be colorful and fun and still make money! Here endeth the lesson.

When it comes to revealing the origins of a character with the kind of history that Captain America brings to bear it can become a convoluted mess, a montage-driven fast forward, or what this movie delivered, a satisfying progression from ordinary man to extraordinary hero. The plot of this film succeeds in taking the slow road in the same way Fantastic Four did not. It allows Steve Rogers to be front and center in the origin of the hero he will become. Rogers’ story is central to the Star-Spangled Avenger’s story and is given its due. It was quite refreshing to see a character driven approach that succeeded.

During the first act we are introduced to the life of a man who was every inch a hero long before his physique matched his tenacity. While at its core his desire to join the army and fight in Europe is driven by a sense of family honor and history, he illustrates in many other ways that he is motivated by an innate sense of justice that surpasses any other drive. This is an important factor as the Lieutenant Dan-level reverence for family service could easily have drug the character down as he becomes someone larger than life.

A chance encounter with a scientist working on a top-secret project leads young Rogers on the path to greatness. A path that will intersect with the Captain’s greatest nemesis, the Red Skull. As the principle antagonist of this tale we are treated to a foe who is one part pulp fiction villain, one part mad scientist/despot, and one part scenery-chewing classic movie bad guy! Hugo Weaving delivers a pitch perfect performance that combines menace and madness. He is everything you could possibly expect of the Red Skull personified. And the makeup effect serve only to enhance the performance. A particularly nice touch later in the film was seeing the Skull with his shirt partially unbuttoned revealing the deep red skin of his neck, answering any question as to whether he is indeed crimson-skinned from head to toe.

Equally impressive in their respective roles were Chris Evans and Tommy Lee Jones. Jones’ portrayal of Colonel Phillips had him stealing every scene. A combination of great dialogue and impeccable delivery really brought an otherwise background character to the forefront. Meanwhile, Evans breathes such life into the character of Steve Rogers that you know him both as man and super-man. And it is that level of involvement, especially though such a stellar performance, that makes Captain America as much Steve Rogers as he is the iconic hero. This is particularly well illustrated during the first part of his career which lacks the heroics for which he will become known. The awkwardness, the awakening sense of purpose, and in the end the strong resolve are all brilliantly brought to bear as Evans evolves the character on screen.

Another stroke of genius was the treatment of the Howling Commandos. While never referred to as such on screen, the group is unmistakably Nick Fury’s (the original one that is) old World War II unit. The clever thing that this film did, since the cinematic Marvel Universe does not allow for the same kind of Nick Fury dynamic, was to replace Fury with Cap. Essentially Dum Dum Dugan, Jimmy Woo (nicely retrofit into the group), Gabriel Jones, Pinkey, and company become Captain America and his Howling Commandos. This time including Bucky Barnes in a more sensible role. I mean, be fair, who would sit for a super-hero leading a minor into the middle of a theatre of war?! Captain America becomes worse than Batman in that light. So making Bucky and Steve old friends from back home, the teaming of the pair after the creation of the hero makes a lot more sense.

Is this a perfect super-hero movie? Perhaps not, but it is terribly close to perfect. It is highly approachable to a non-comic reading audience while still delivering some great nods to the long history (70 years) of the character for those who know him well. The first shot featuring Arnim Zola was one of the most satisfying bits aimed at fanboys and it hit its mark well. As did the cameo, albeit in a non-action way, of a classic Golden Age contemporary of Captain America. Tying the origins of the hero with a bit of cinematic Marvel history in the person of Howard Stark was an elegant touch. As was a glimpse a the precursor to Iron Man’s repulsor technology. All of these are things that read well or become simple background elements to the unindocrinated but add punch to those familiar with the comics.

If I was to voice a complaint about this movie it would be the necessity to tie the origin of the character directly into his involvement with the Avengers.  We go from the creation of the hero to his inevitable hibernation and rediscovery in the course of one story.  This robs Cap of any further history and adventures, but such is the way of cinematic adaptation.  All in all Captain America was a satisfying movie experience. I am looking forward to a second screening this weekend as I write this review.  I am sure I will notice much that I missed the first time (like Stan Lee’s requisite cameo which was lost to me while the Drafthouse waitress was asking if we wanted refills on our drinks) and naturally another chance to see the cookie after the credits. That’s right, don’t forget to sit through the credits folks. You will certainly be glad you did! In conclusion I give Captain America a resounding five out of five shields (delta or circular, take your pick)!

Afterword

I realize that throughout this article I have referred to the movie simply as Captain America rather than Captain America: The First Avenger. There are a few reasons for this, not the least of which is a desire to keep things concise. Another is to dismiss the secondary title that was put on as much to introduce the Avengers a year in advance of the movie while also allowing an alternate title for international distribution. I love the fact that studio paranoia about anti-American sentiment was largely unfounded with a mere three countries opting to release the film solely as The First Avenger. And finally, I did not want this article to turn into the Academy Awards for 2010 when we constantly had to hear the full title Precious – Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. Once, just once, could they not simply call it Precious?! I mean really?! Did the marquees of theatres have Precious – Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire? No! Of course they didn’t. By the fourth of fifth time I think the point had been made! Did the Academy Award ceremony in early 1965 repeatedly refer to Dr. Strangelove as Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb? I think not.



1 comments:

A few small points before my big one:

Tommy Lee Jones was awesome.
It made me very happy to see Dum Dum Dugan on screen.
I like how they tied this movie into the others. At the beginning, we hear about the Tree of Life (Thor) and later we see the '43 Stark Expo (Iron Man 2)

Now, the big one.
The makers of this movie payed so much attention to detail. They did the little things that they didn't have to as if to say "hey viewers, we love you." For example, when Cap was touring around the States, they briefly showed kids grabbing Captain America comic books. On those, we saw copies of the cover from Captain America comics #1, Cap's premiere. Also, during the scene where Red Skull was getting his portrait painted, there was classical music playing. That music was written by Richard Wagner, a 19th Century German composer. Wagner was a German nationalist and anti-Semite. Because of this, Hitler (and therefore all Nazis) loved his music. Probably, myself and about 4 other history buffs got a kick out of this, but still, it showed the filmmakers going out of there way to get the little stuff right.

/rant


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