Friday, July 22, 2011

Hope and Glory: CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER


Captain America: The First Avenger is the purest distillation of the serial adventure narrative aesthetic since Raiders of the Lost Ark introduced us to Indiana Jones (an adventure this new film obliquely references). To say Captain America isn’t as good as Raiders is merely saying that it isn’t the best action movie ever made. That’s hardly too big a strike against it, is it? This is a pulpy men-on-a-mission World War II picture with a big splashy dose of period detail and winking homage to every little bit of its genre roots. There’s always another cliffhanger around the corner, sometimes literally, right up into the end credits and beyond and through it all storms Captain America who, far from being yet another indistinguishable smirk in tights, is actually built upon a full-fledged character worth caring about. This, my friends, is the fully satisfying pure dose of superheroic adrenaline that I’ve been craving all summer.

Before we even get to Captain America, and all the explosive pyrotechnics that follow, first we must meet Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a puny guy with a good heart, who desperately wants to join the United States Army. It’s 1942, you see, and Nazis are marching across Europe. (There’s conflict in Asia as well of course, but the movie doesn’t have time to fight on two fronts). While thousands of Americans are doing their part, Rogers is forced to sit on the sidelines, placed there by his size, his asthma, and his basic lack of muscle and toughness. He’s filled with a sense of justice and civic duty that is unable to find full expression, but only until a kind military scientist (Stanley Tucci) takes pity on him and allows him entry into a special training camp that is looking for the right man on which to try out a new program.

Under the direction of this scientist, as well as hotshot engineer Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), a lovely British intelligence officer (Hayley Atwell), and a craggy general (Tommy Lee Jones), Rogers is dosed with a specially formulated serum that adds musculature and stamina, lifting away his physical weakness, creating a “super solider” out of him. He’s even better than expected, which is good because the Nazi “deep science division” led by the villainous Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) is on the march, having discovered a glowing cube of some import in a remote Norwegian village and developed it into a kind of supercharged energy weapon.

Rather than allowing all this to become overly somber, silly, or convoluted, the three most common errors in so many recent movies of this kind, Captain America barrels forward with a ceaseless sincerity and energy from moment to moment. It’s tremendously exciting with great bits of character and comedy for seasoning. But rather than mercilessly grinding its way through a chaos of effects and computerized daffiness, this is a film with shape and emotion, a sense of set up and payoff and of fully realized characters in a fully realized world. Each action beat feels like a part of the plot in important ways, but even when the Captain isn’t flinging himself and his men through combat, the movie is still hugely entertaining.

Take, for instance, a detour on the way to the front lines that finds the U.S. government parading Captain America across the country promoting war bonds that’s a sequence of color and music that’s both a critique of propaganda and essential character building. Rather than flinging the audience straight into the action, the film has introduced us to scrawny Rogers, moved him through science fiction hocus pocus into a superhero and then takes its time in allowing the character to explore his new persona. The best origin story films, like Richard Donner’s Superman, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, and Sam Raimi’s Spider-man, allow the character to feel his way towards the iconography, the outsized iconic persona we all have in our heads on our way into the theater. And you certainly don’t get much more iconic than the star-spangled Captain America who famously punched Adolf Hitler on the cover of his very first comic book in 1941, an image that gets a nice little reference here.

With a character so tied to the World War II iconography of the culture’s imagination, it makes perfect sense for the narrative to reflect the adventure serials of the day. But in its colorful Cinemascope presentation it also feels visually similar to the retroactive glorification of the conflict that occurred in the widescreen war flicks of the 50’s and 60’s. All of this retro style and content is filtered through a sleeker, more modern effects machine and then steeped in timeless sturdy craftsmanship. Here is a film with clean, uncomplicated visual comprehensibility put to use telling a fully realized story with characters charmingly acted that go through emotional arcs and events that add up into a fulfilling climax. It’s popcorn pleasure of a high quality.

Director Joe Johnston, a solid if often unremarkable filmmaker, has been in this territory before with his 1991 retro actioner The Rocketeer, a fun flop that has a small and reasonable cult following. He bests his work there creating, I dare say, the best film of his career by far. It’s all of a piece, fitting perfectly between two genres, suiting each just fine. It’s both a crackling period piece action film that smartly shies away from mindless jingoism and the most fully engaging character-driven stand-alone puzzle piece in the larger superhero universe that Marvel has been building with their other features like Iron Man and Thor. But that’s just added bonus to the simple fact that Captain America is flat out the most fun I’ve had with a big budget studio adventure in a very long time.

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