Monday, July 25, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011)

Captain America: The First Avenger is so enjoyable it prompts not merely a reevaluation of the relevant worth of a superhero intrinsically tied to an outdated nationalist self-perception but of the abilities of its director. Joe Johnston, an art director who apprenticed under George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and then promptly made a solo career that did nothing to live up to that resumé, finally demonstrates a keen understanding of what his early bosses did with the help of his talents. Captain America is outrageously big, using CGI to extrapolate realistic objects to absurd dimensions. In fact, Johnston's movie feels more like an Indiana Jones film than Spielberg's last entry.

I typically enter these comic-book movies blind, with only the mass pop-culture resonance of basic backstory as my guide. But I have read Ed Brubaker's fantastic revival of the character, a run that effectively revitalized the Captain for an age of mass disillusionment. Johnston, along with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, ably mimic Brubaker's balance of the character's old-school idealism with modern sensibilities. The film's subtitle is already cumbersome and limiting—it defines the film essentially as an advertisement for an upcoming one rather than its own entry—but it seems especially unnecessary considering that, among the rushed crop of Avengers-preparing movies (Iron Man 2, Thor), Captain America is the only one that truly works as a standalone property, as well as the first origin story since Iron Man to remotely justify its feature length.

Like Iron Man, Captain America succeeds by maintaining total focus on its lead and primary cast. Though Chris Evans might not be as utterly perfect in his role as Downey is in Stark's, he finds Steve Rogers' sense of conviction and irrepressible idealism from the start. Usually cast as the arrogant looker, Evans here captures Rogers' sense of long-suffering but undiluted optimism so quickly that when he becomes the ultimate soldier through a special serum, I began to think of the muscled, taller Evans as the effects-crafted body rather than the rail-thin weakling he plays at the start.

Rogers' transformation into a larger-than-life figure of unreal proportions matches Johnston's visual design, which is the first film of his since The Rocketeer to truly show off the skills he must have learned in his early career. After a summer of superhero films with questionable CGI so cheesy and spotty it looked as if some of these movies were made years ago and locked in studio vaults, Captain America uses computer animation in a manner that is outlandish without being insufferably self-conscious. Johnston makes everything huge: tanks loom over characters, and the villain's plane makes Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose look like the prop-jobs aviation-minded kids train with in fields.

They key to Captain America's success is the way Johnston embraces such camp without winking or placing himself above what he's depicting. And if a hero ever called out for some easy modern irony and distance, it's Captain America: Evans and Johnston sell Steve Rogers' desire to get into the war effort without once suggesting that his zeal is either misplaced or sinisterly bloodthirsty: Steve merely knows what it's like to be bullied and wishes to help others being pushed around. (On that note, the absence of father issues is like a sudden gust of breeze through a room without air-conditioning in this heat-wave ridden summer.) The only commentary Johnston makes is within the movie, mocking the manner in which Captain America is quickly put on the war-bond circuit rather than allowed to properly serve. The Cap just wants to do his part, not be put on a pedestal.

Because Johnston never forces a modern perspective on this throwback or parade his own self-perceived cleverness, Captain America lacks the smug self-satisfaction of Matthew Vaughn's un-satire X-Men: First Class. It also avoids the pitfalls of the Spider-Man franchise, a series preemptively hobbled by the 9/11 attacks, placing a severity upon New York's most iconic superhero that Sam Raimi's puckish genre travesty could not handle.

I'd go so far as to say that Captain America is not merely one of the few good superhero movies but one of the most purely entertaining alongside Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy films, which share traits with this movie's focus on occult Nazi evil. The cast is so good that one hardly notices how surprisingly non-threatening Hugo Weaving is as Johann Schmidt, the super-powered Nazi scientist bent on taking over the world. Weaving is on autopilot as a force of pure evil, but everyone else is wonderful, from Toby Jones' skittish right-hand man to Stanley Tucci's downplayed idealism as the defected Nazi scientist and creator of the Super Solider formula. Tommy Lee Jones doesn't break ground as the gruff Col. Chester Phillips, but his laconic weariness gives his unique bite to Phillips' sarcastic lines.

Best of all, of course, is Hayley Atwell's Peggy Carter, who is the ultimate rarity: a strong, completely independent woman in a comic-book film. She is Rogers' love interest, yes, but watch how she establishes her presence entirely outside Steve and continues to exist when not by his side or doing something that will affect the male hero. Her first action is breaking a soldier's nose for disrespecting her authority, a move captured not with martial arts grace and sexiness but swift, brute force. Her romance with the Cap is one of equal ground, each attracted to the other as much out of an empathetic sense of being dismissed by others as the physical spark that comes after Rogers buffs out. Carter's own strength gives the romance an actual stake, and Captain America, for all its high-camp fun, ultimately ends on a melancholy note regarding the two.

Though it eventually loses track of where, exactly, it's headed and lacks a villain compelling enough to fit into the massive surroundings he creates to forge his weapons, Captain America is one of the more surprising successes of the year. Atwell's Carter alone is worth the price of admission, but let us not forget Evans, who, after a decade of high-profile roles in numerous blockbusters, finally makes the case for himself as a star. He manages to play Rogers' humility and quiet dedication in such a way that you still can't take your eyes off him. Complete with some of the only competent live-action CGI of the year so far, Captain America is a delight, and if it is as imperfect as all other comic-book films, it at least tries to tackle the genre from a new direction rather than stay the course whilst pretending to be smarter than everyone else who trod that road.


  1. Excellent review, Jake. I largely agree with you, although I found myself distrusting how much I liked the movie due to its manipulative treatment of the US army. Captain America is almost as commendable for what it doesn't do. As you mentioned, we've had enough father issues, and the storyline seems very streamlined and straightforward, with Johnston's reliance on the iconography of his images doing much of the work (I like the squinting headlights on the Nazi car, the fashion choices of the real uniforms in comparison to the CGI ones in Green Lantern, etc.) I also find it funny how effective Steve's and Carter's romance turns out to be because it is so old-fashioned and chaste. Captain America accomplishes much just with a photo of Carter in a compass. Johnston has learned how to make his images emblematic, and so the movie tends to resonate more than most superhero films.

  2. I agree with everything you said. I went into this expecting to be furious with it; I have even less need for Cap than I do Superman. At least Supes is only suggestively rah-rah American where that is Cap's only purpose. But I did find Brubaker's run to be surprisingly strong (not because he wrote it but because the character was made so interesting) and I was pleasantly surprised how it had fun with everything I hated while still not winking lazily.

    And I was duly impressed by Johnston's visual storyelling. Your review went into the visual references, and I'm proud to say I thought the same for all but Metropolis (BRILLIANT observation, there; I really need to rewatch that movie). The way it undermined propaganda even as it functioned as an endearingly optimistic and idealistic paean to the Noble Cause really won me over. And I really can't give enough props for Peggy Carter. One of my favorite characters of the year.

  3. Spot on, Jake. This is pretty much exactly what I thought about the film - much more fun and sincere than I expected. It's getting so summer blockbusters don't know how to be fun within delving into goofiness or snark or fully ironic self-awareness. Cap was extremely entertaining without ever being jokey about its premise.

  4. Jandy: What rubs me wrong, as I've said many times, is that the irony is so lazily applied solely as a means of self-defense from criticism that it holds no weight. Genuine, sharp irony is wonderful and opens up new possibilities for the genres and subjects it tears apart. But so many films now just feature awful scripts that absolve themselves by saying, "Well hey, I know I suck!"