Monday, August 1, 2011

A Frank Review of "Captain America: The First Avenger 3D" (2011)

The Short Version? When Captain America throws his mighty shield, all those who chose to oppose his shield must yield. If he’s led to a fight and a duel is due, then the red and white and the blue’ll come through.
What Is It? Period Super Hero Origin Story
Who Is In It? Lucas Lee, Aliena, Agent K, Agent Smith,
Should I See It? Yes.

I love Captain America. I had the "1966" coloring book with Batroc that probably came out in 1975. Cap was to the best of my knowledge my first favorite super-hero, and is disputably still my favorite, although there were many others between now and then. His was one of the first series I collected by trucking down to the 7-11 with my own coin, and you know I had the Secret Wars action figure with the lame lenticular animation shield. Heck, it's one of the few toys from my childhood I've since reacquired as an adult. I watched the cartoons and the lousy TV movies as a kid, and subjected myself to the 1990 "theatrical" film that wasn't good enough to be released in the United States, home of American Ninja and the career of Frank Stallone.

I tell you all of this because despite my usual hypercritical tone in these reviews, it is impossible for me to be unbiased in discussing a Captain America motion picture.That's why I was so filled with hate at the disappointing teaser trailer and then posted an apology with the much improved international trailer. I've only ever reviewed trailers a few times here, much less two for the same movie. That is my love for Captain America.

This should explain why I sat through most of The First Avenger's running time with a big stupid grin on my face. Despite early indications and a lifetime of disappointments, someone finally got a Captain America movie right. It's earnest, patriotic, cornball, unsophisticated, goofy, innocent, and in summary, delightful. No one tried to "fix" Cap by making him sarcastic or blowing G.I.s to gory bits or having him show up to liberate Buchenwald. He's a simple, inspiring comic book icon in a movie to match. They did tone down a costume that was never going to translate to film and offer up some logical tweaks to satisfy modern audiences, but for the most part, there is a clear adoration and knowledge of the source material that is manifested as a love letter to fans. I would imagine any kid who bought Captain America Comics #1 in 1940 who survived to this point will be happy with this film, and as a fairly polluted cat from better than half a century after that, I dug it too. Captain America is not and never should be The Dark Knight, and for my money, is the more entertaining movie for it.

For reasons I don't fully understand, the movie begins in 1943, three years after his comic book career began as a guy punching Hitler before the U.S. were even involved in World War II. For reasons I totally get, Cap never actually fights the ancestors of the current Japanese or German ticket buying audience, preferring the faceless leatherboy terrorist gimps of Hydra. If the movie has any fault, it's that divorced from Nazi atrocities, the Red Skull is just kind of an asshole who wants to blow shit up with cosmic lasers for no discernible purpose. It kind of balances out though, since Captain America is motivated by innate goodness and a desire to contribute to society as a man. File under "Keep It Simple, Stupid."

Chris Evans is pretty nearly the Christopher Reeve of Captain Americas. I watched Frank Miller's Gucci cologne ad with Evans, and it struck me how badly Cap needed to shave and treat Evan Rachael Wood a little more delicately. Evans fits Cap so well, there's a real danger of his getting typecast again, because his previous screen persona as the cocky smart ass now seems like a total put-on. As another voice in the chorus, the Steve Rogers special effects are flawless, but it's worth noting that Evans' mannerisms helped sell himself as a runty kid from Brooklyn. His stiffness in trailers as Captain America can be chalked up to bad editing, since he's typically quite fluid in the uniform.

Hayley Atwell sets Peggy Carter at "austere" and rarely varies, but after the almost too game Natalie Portman in Thor, it's nice to see a female lead with reserve and concerns outside of "will they or won't they." Tommy Lee Jones gets to play all the salty attitude of Sgt. Nick Fury without any of the physical effort, but they named him Colonel Phillips to avoid confusion with Sam Jackson's role. Stanley Tucci humanizes Dr. Erskine while still using him as a means of selling Steve Rogers to the audience. Dominic Cooper is fun as a less sexy Stark, and Sebastian Stan does what needs doing as a doomed sidekick. No one is bad in the movie, but almost everyone's role is stock, so they play their hand as dealt. This includes Hugo Weaving's Red Skull, Toby Jones as Toht Arnim Zola, and all of the unnamed Howling Commandos. They know their role, and this is Captain America's movie, so that is that. It's hard not to miss the eccentricity of a Micky Rourke performance in the mix, though, and there's something missing when you hate Obadiah Stane far more than the Red Skull.

There are a few twists along the way, and I'm sure a greater degree of unfamiliarity with the character could lead to more. I don't believe this movie was shot in 3D, but for a post-conversion, I think it plays well. Unlike most 3D films, I didn't forget about the process while watching, or take notice when the studios does so. There are scenes that are relatively flat, but when there's a call for 3D, particularly in a mildly claustrophobic train sequence, the depth is there. The action is a bit overblown at times, but I dearly love seeing bad guys get whacked with that shield.

Objectively, this is a better film than Thor and many other Marvel movies, but unlike the Iron Man and X-Men franchises, I don't know that it's built to reach out beyond the fans of this type of character. The movie certainly handles the continuity machine building up to The Avengers next summer better than most, even if the post-credits teaser isn't worth the wait. Probably because of its setting, it incorporates a lot of Marvel mythology without sagging from the baggage, at least until the abrupt ending. In fact, The First Avengers is three-quarters of a rock solid bit of self-contained entertainment, and only goes off track because of its obligation to other movies. After the first Captain America mission, there's a montage covering the rest of the war, and then Cap and Skull have to hit all their marks for a lackluster final showdown. I'd have much preferred leaving it to the Avengers movie to explain Cap's connection to modernity, and leave the door open for more 1940s fun. That said, the movie had built up plenty enough good will up to the last reel to see me through to the denouement. I finally got a Captain America movie to thoroughly enjoy, with a lead actor I expect will be able to stand up to major thespian competition next year.

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