Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Remarkably Average Superhero Flick, Captain America: The First Avenger Is Not Likely To Get One Looking For The Rest!

The Good: Fun, Decent-enough acting
The Bad: Predictable, mundane, plot, No real character development, Special effects are blase.
The Basics: Captain America: The First Avenger is so typical a superhero film that it is hard to write about it with anything other than thoroughly neutral terms.

Movies based upon Marvel Comics have real highs and lows for me. The various franchises have wandered and left me unimpressed or not been followed up on in meaningful ways. Thor, for example, earlier this year scored high on special effects, but had little else to thrill viewers. Further back, Daredevil actually had decent character development, but failed to have the success needed to make it a franchise. So, with next year's group superhero bonanza The Avengers attempting to compete with The Dark Knight Rises, Marvel presents the final preparation project with the movie Captain America: The First Avenger for this year's Summer Blockbuster Season.

Unfortunately for the talented cast that includes Stanley Tucci, Tommy Lee Jones and Hugo Weaving, Captain America: The First Avenger is so generic a superhero film that the story sounds more like an archetype for writing a superhero flick than anything that might audaciously redefine the genre. With mediocre special effects that are used mostly to augment obviously-choreographed battle sequences, Captain America: The First Avenger is plagued by a lack of real character development which neglects the talents of the most significant performers in the piece.

With World War II raging, Steve Rogers is a young man in Brooklyn who is utterly unqualified to enlist. After failing to get into basic training four times, Rogers is approached by Dr. Erskine, who sees Rogers as the ideal test candidate for a supersoldier program. Steve Rogers is enhanced by Howard Stark and his technology to become stronger, faster and incredibly fast-healing. His skills are put to the test when a Nazi supersoldier attempts to destroy the project and must be stopped. Following the encounter, Rogers is sent to raise money by hawking war bonds, then to Europe to entertain the troops as part of the USO tour.

But while there, Rogers learns that his friend from home has been captured by the enemy. Nazi superscientists known as HYDRA, who are developing superweapons designed to crush resistance, are holding Rogers's friend Buckey. As Rogers, Stark and Peggy Carter race to stop the Nazis and rescue the Americans, they soon uncover the leader of HYDRA, a cruel Nazi scientist whose horrific visage earns him the nickname Red Skull. With the fate of the war hanging in the balance, Captain America moves to stop the Red Skull and save the world.

Captain America: The First Avenger is less the usual "hero in the process of becoming" character arc for a superhero movie and more a "hero given the opportunity to shine" story. Steve Rogers starts the film, despite getting his butt kicked by bullies, as a courageous American who only wants to preserve truth, justice, and the American way by killing Nazis and doing his part to save Europe. Rogers does no learn any deeper truths, does not have his convictions challenged or changed. Instead, he simply gets the power to do what he wants at the beginning: to stop having his ass kicked and to be the one protecting America. Ironically, Rogers is advised not to change himself despite his physical changes and that makes for a pretty stagnant character arc in the movie.

Unfortunately, there is little else to Captain America: The First Avenger. Johann Schmidt (Red Skull) is a monolithic villain who does not have any distinctive convictions to make him more memorable than any other Nazi character. HYDRA might be the Nazi scientists who are so evil they'll run over Nazis to achieve world domination, but there is something unfulfilling or uncompelling about Supernazis. When you get to a certain stage of evil, the distinction is pretty well lost and unimportant. The super evil nazis are evil in a way that is analogous to the lack of intelligence that differentiates a 40 IQ individual vs. a 50 IQ individual. There's retarded and super retarded and the distinction has few practical differences. So, too, do the HYDRA agents seem about as evil as regular cinematic Nazis. The troopers might as well be COBRA agents from the G.I. Joe film (reviewed here!).

What prevents the stagnant characters and obvious plot of Captain America: The First Avenger from being utterly unwatchable is the acting. Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving and Stanley Tucci all do their best with what little they are given. Hayley Atwell might play a pretty generic 1940s servicewoman, but she feels so authentic one completely buys the time she is a product of.

Most of the movie rests upon Chris Evans and the real surprise for moviegoers is likely to be that he succeeds in carrying the role. As Steve Rogers, he plays a character with convictions who is nothing like the cocky role most know him from from the Fantastic Four movies. In fact, what is most winning about Evans as Captain America is how he does not simply rely on his smirk to carry scenes and instead tries to create a man who believes in something and wants more than anything to fight for his beliefs. He does that with a surprising amount of physical presence that works well for the film.

Having seen the film now in 3-D, one is forced to wonder if Paramount Pictures truly understands how to use the 3-D medium. I think that the studio and the stereoscopers for this movie forgot that we see movies already in three dimensions; forcing the perspective of mundane scenes does not enhance the film much. This movie uses the 3-D effects exceptionally poorly and it is impossible to recommend anyone shelling out for that feature.

Sadly, Marvel Comics and Paramount Pictures underestimate the formula for Summer Blockbuster Season. Director Joe Johnston is given a mundane script which he makes into a typical superhero movie that cannot possibly compete with Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2 (reviewed here!). It's not just that the other franchise has seven movies going into it that will prevent Captain America: The First Avenger from taking the top spot at the box office this weekend; it is the fact that one ending is pleasantly extraordinary, while this movie is unfortunately mundane.

For other movies based upon the Marvel comic books, please check out my reviews of:
X-Men: First Class
Iron Man 2
The Incredible Hulk
Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer
Blade: Trinity


For other movie reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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