At the Movies with Captain America

capamericaI don’t get out to the movies very often these days.  Partly that’s thanks to the logistics involved in finding a sitter for the kids, but mostly it’s due to my own indifference.  Going to the theater is frankly a drag at this point, what with 20-minute commercial “pre-shows” advertising everything from TV shows (?) to body spray (???), “digital sound” that mostly amounts to just more volume, fellow audience members who never learned how to behave in public and of course ticket prices that are flat-out ridiculous.  I don’t even have a tricked-out “home theater” and it’s still more satisfying for me to keep up via NetFlix than to go to the theater.  Factor in all the people who DO have home theaters with big screens and surround sound and so on, and it’s a wonder they sell any tickets at all.

But that’s another rant (or three).  The point is, Laura and I did get out to see Captain America: The First Avenger last week and I loved it.  First of all, it was terrifically cast; I’ve heard arguments for and against Chris Evans’ performance, but I thought he was great.  I love what Robert Downey, Jr does in the Iron Man films, but if you think about it, it’s got be a lot harder to pull off “earnest virtue” than it is to do “cocky irreverence.”  Evans manages to portray old-school, nice guy heroism here without looking like a schmuck, or wooden, which is getting to be a lost art.  Hayley Atwell is wonderful as Peggy Carter and looks very much like a film star of the story’s 1940s setting.  Certainly she’s more endearing and fully realized than Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster character from Thor.  Tommy Lee Jones is predictably great, if shockingly old-looking, and Hugo Weaving makes a perfect Red Skull.

The film looks amazing; despite all the sci-fi elements, the technology looks like it belongs in the 40s, or at least in a 40s sci-fi film.  There’s a control room central to Cap’s origin that’s huge and impressive and full of gee-gaws, but when you get up close, it’s all old-school dials and toggles and levers, which is awesome.  I’m so over touch-panels and holographic “head-up” displays: bring back the low-tech hi-tech!  Also the lighting and cinematography all look appropriate to the era, which is probably a big reason they picked director Joe Johnston, who’s been here before with The Rocketeer (another favorite of mine).

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There’s tons of Easter eggs for comic fans, but if you’re not one, they don’t get in the way at all.  All in all, it’s easily the best superhero film I’ve seen since the first Iron Man, but honestly I’m not sure I’ll enjoy any sequels as much if they’re set in the present day.

I’ve noticed I tend to like movies based on Marvel characters more than the ones based on DC heroes, and that’s not just because they’re technically better films (though they are).  It’s also because I don’t have much of an emotional investment in the characters.  I know who the Marvel guys are, and have an idea of their histories in broad strokes, but I’m not so mired in the minutea of their continuities that I get bent out of shape when the movies take liberties.  I knew, for instance, that the first X-Men film mixed and matched team members from various time periods, and that Mary Jane Watson was not Peter Parker’s first great love, but so what?  On the other hand, even at 14 I couldn’t get past the “crystal cathedral” Fortress of Solitude in the Superman films, or the fact that Jor-El was a white-haired, chubby AARP candidate.

Out of the Marvel roster of heroes, Captain America has always been near the top of my list, just by virtue of being closer to the traditional “hero” ideal than the average conflicted, neurotic Marvel protagonist, and that element is certainly played up in the new film.  In fact, I’ve seen it treated as a handicap by some reviewers, who say Cap is the “dullest” and “least psychologically complex” of Marvel’s characters.  One man’s meat is another man’s poison, I guess.  The thing is Cap’s the reverse of the standard Marvel hero.  Most of them are guys who gain powers first and learn to be heroes only afterwards; Spider-Man to atone for a colossal failure of character and the tragedy that results, Tony Stark (at least in the movies) to at last do something positive with a life up til now wasted on hedonism and debauchery.  Even Thor is an overgrown  kid who has to be taught a lesson in humility by his pop.  Steve Rogers is the opposite; on the inside, he’s a hero from the start; he just lacks the power to do anything about it.  The Super Soldier Serum enables his heroism, but it doesn’t create it.  The film understands all this and gets it dead right, in my book.   Stanley Tucchi’s Dr Erskine character explains the formula only magnifies a person’s true nature; it can make a good man great, but it would make a bad one only worse.

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The only real negative for me is that annoying subtitle, “The First Avenger.”  I gather there are at least three reasons for its use.  First is doubtless to differentiate this film from the “Captain America” film made in 1990, a film so infamously awful it went straight to video and is still held up as a sort of “Heaven’s Gate” of superhero flics.  The second reason is to allow the character’s name to be dropped from the title entirely in countries where “America” is a bad word (like we care; they’re all run by Red Skulls anyway).  But the biggest reason is to hype the movie everyone seems really focused on, 2012’s The Avengers.

In fact, for all intents and purposes, that one appears the ONLY big movie from Marvel’s standpoint, with the Hulk, Cap, Iron Man and Thor franchises merely lead-in’s to what’s being hyped as the greatest cinematic triumph since Edison invented the motion picture. This grates on me for lots of reasons; for one thing, it seems like the ultimate surrender of artistic integrity to treat an entire film as a two-hour commercial for another film.  It a tacit admission that the bean-counters have finally and completely won out over the artists. (Apparently it’s precisely this issue that led Jon Favreau to abandon the Iron Man franchise).  But it also seems like a stupid game plan, telling people, in essence, “Come see the movie that’s out now if you want, but let’s face it, the one that’s really worth watching won’t come out ’til 2012.”  I mean, would it make sense to say, “Come get our new double-cheeseburger.  It’s not nearly as awesome as the one we’re bringing out next summer, but hey, you’ve got to eat something in the meantime, right?”

Of course if The Avengers does turn out to be fantastic, everyone’s happy.  But if it stinks, Marvel’s going to have a lot of very disappointed fanboys out there, considering the marketing campaign’s been rolling along for like six years now.  And let’s face it, so far the model has been that the more super-powered characters you cram into a film, the more it stinks, as borne out by the Batman and Spider-Man franchises.  The Avengers will have, what, six super-beings just on the side of the good guys, let alone whatever villains they toss in.  If they can cram all that into two hours and make it work, I’ll be impressed, but I’m doubtful.

With Captain America, though, even Marvel’s “this is a shared universe, so get used to it” attitude isn’t too grating as most of the film happens 70 years in the past, so I only have to put up with the obligatory cameo by Sam Jackson as Nick Fury at the very end of the film, plus a few in-joke references to other characters and themes that don’t get too intrusive.

As always, your mileage may vary, but I got the same feeling from watching this film that I imagine Cap’s legions of young fans had reading Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s comics in the 1940s.  In fact, if they still offered “Sentinel of Liberty” pins, I’d order one right now.

kid-cap

6 thoughts on “At the Movies with Captain America”

  1. Riveting review. Great! I would really like to see this.

    – “like we care; they’re all run by Red Skulls anyway”

    Been sharpening your diplomacy skills again, I see.

  2. The countries showing the movie using only the subtitle are Russia, South Korea and the Ukraine.

    Aldous, knowing your tastes I think you’d really go for this one.

  3. By Easter Egg you mean the appearance of the android Human Torch, right? I figured that was a shout-out for Chris Evans’s old job.

    And here’s one I missed the first time around: the English member of the Howling Commandos isn’t Pinkerton, which is who I figured it was…incidentally, Stan Lee recently revealed Pinkerton was a gay. Gee, I’d never have guessed it of Pinky.

    Rather, the English member in the movie was called Lord Farnsworth…the original Union Jack!

    I love the shared-universe stuff – I was tickled pink by the mention of the Erskine formula in the Ed Norton Incredible Hulk. One of the problems I’ve always had, as a superhero comics reader with media adaptations is, they never get it quite right…because they set the movies in our world instead of a superhero world. I can’t even imagine a place where, say, Spider-Man is the only superhero in the entire world, and the only villains are the ones in parts 1-3. For that reason it feels off.

    This is even more distractingly obvious in budget-strapped media adaptations like the George Reeves Superman and Linda Carter Wonder Woman where there are no true supervillains whatsoever and we have to watch the absurd spectacle of the almighty Superman fight Hardy Boys villains like counterfeiters.

    In fact I was so used to a shared comic book world thanks to the Marvel movies that when Green Lantern, for rights-related reasons outside of their control didn’t have any of that, it was incredibly distracting and a throwback to the early-2000s bad-old-days of superhero movies. There was even one line in that movie where Angela Bassett said “here is the first evidence and contact of alien life.” And I was like…so I guess in this world there’s no Superman, huh?

    This is the movie where they put it all together. And not just cute little cameos by the android Human Torch, but they actually weave the elements together in a big way into the plot. The Cosmic Cube was an invention of the superscientific Asgardians, Tony Stark’s Dad doesn’t just make a cameo…he’s a character in the movie. There is a scene in Captain America that implies the new element power source from Iron Man 2 is the same as the Cosmic Cube.

    Being an arrogant guy who is often just as smart as they think you are is much harder than humility and sincerity, which just requires you to show up and be a grownup…which is why a lot of people were skeptical of Chris Evans, best known for stuff like Cellular where he plays the himbo-dude on Spring Break. Chris Evans has graduated and become an adult actor like Anne Hathaway has, and good for him. He did just fine and I liked what he did, but by no means is it a role as difficult as Iron Man which requires a “Mad Genius” like Downey Jr.

    Anybody could have played Luke Skywalker, but it took Harrison Ford to be Han Solo.

    DC people often say Captain America is the most like a DC hero. That is because they don’t understand the character at all. He’s an extremely nuanced and well developed character.

    Captain America is dead certain, never waivering and ultra-confident…BUT ONLY WHEN EVERYONE IS LOOKING.

    When he’s by himself and no one is watching he berates himself for his failures, has crises of conscience, questions the judgment calls he’s so certain of in public, and he has a dysfunctional private life and relationships. For this reason, Cap is often called “boring” by people that only read him in Avengers, which by necessity doesn’t bring us into Cap’s personal thoughts as often.

    Captain America is a guy who is a real person of flesh and blood who finds himself considered by others to be a “living legend of World War II.” What do you say to something like that? Those are intimidating expectations for sure. It also reminds me of real-life war heroes who were uncomfortable with being called heroes – simply because in the situation they found themselves, they merely acted sanely.

  4. Another cool “Easter egg” comes when we get our first glimpse of Armin Zola, with his face grotesquely magnified on a TV screen. Also I loved all the nods to Indiana Jones.

    I agree RDJr is terrific in just about anything, and let’s face it, if he can make Iron Man cool where 50 years of comics have failed then he must be some kind of genius. And I’ll also concede that just because a character is written as “cocky genius” doesn’t guarantee an actor can pull it off convincingly, let alone endearingly. My point, I suppose, is that the “cocky, arrogant wise guy” is the tried-and-true path to winning over the crowd, and just in the comparatively short time since we met Han Solo, it’s gone from the exception (or “secondary hero”) to the rule. No one wants to labor at making a “straight arrow” hero work any more, since there’s so much more adoration to be earned as the wiseguy. There’s no more Gary Coopers, but we’re well-stocked with Bruce Willises.

    Incidentally, notice Han Solo is everyone’s go-to example of the type. Ryan Reynolds said he was going for a Solo vibe in GL, and in the ultimate proof that it’s the new gold standard, even current Captain Kirk Chris Pine has said he was aiming for Han Solo as opposed to TOS Kirk. Again, I’m not saying it doesn’t still take skill to do the schtick as spectacularly as Downey, but it can hardly be argued that it’s a “bold choice” for a hero at this point. The fact is, Captain America is not an irreverent wiseguy, so Evans was given a harder role when it comes to winning over modern audiences with their modern expectations. And to the credit of the filmmakers, they didn’t take the easy way out by simply re-writing Cap in the irreverent wiseguy mode, which I gather is the route they took with Green Lantern, though I guess you could argue the die was cast as soon as they picked “Van Wilder” to be straight-arrow Hal Jordan.

    You and Marvel may be slowly winning me over on the “shared universe” thing. I have to admit it was cool to have the suggestion that Howard Stark’s “energy source I could never perfect” was based on an Asgardian relic (the proper resting place for which we saw in Thor). Also that the sound effect for the Hydra weapons was the same as Tony’s repulsors, and the “levitating” car prefigured the jet boots. Even the look of Howard Stark was an “Easter egg” for me, since he looked just like vintage Tony Stark as drawn by Don Heck. Also having Steve and Howard be friends sets us up for some interesting dynamics between Steve and Tony, who has some Daddy issues. It was also cool that the “Indiana Jones” MacGuffin here is Asgardian in nature; in 1943, it’s still just “kooky mysticism,” though we in the audience know it’s all legit and in a couple decades the Thunder God will be in our midst.

    Finally, I’d say Cap has one foot in DC (or at least National) and the other in Marvel. As the “living icon” plagued by self-doubt, he’s a lot like Superman; confident on the outside because that’s what’s expected of him, and mopey in private because he was raised to keep that stuff to himself. Also I’ll always think of Cap as a Golden Age character first, with the self-doubt and angst grafted on later as the price for being resurrected in the Marvel Age. But as insecurities go, I’m much more comfortable with “I failed my partner” than half the junk Peter Parker whines about. For me, “do I really deserve the loyalty of my troops” is not only an acceptable concern for a military-based hero, it’s an “insecurity” without which a “born leader” risks straying into Custer or Patton territory.

    That said, it takes a good writer to make it work. One scene that always bothered me came in a late Tales of Suspense issue, when Steve checks in with the Avengers via video-call and once he hangs up, Hawkeye says, “He was smiling, but I can tell he’s in one of his depressions again.” It never sat right for me to have Cap’s fellow heroes sitting around commenting on what an emotional wreck he was. Somehow you need to find a way to make the guilt and insecurity work without turning the guy into a pity case.

  5. I always figured the hover-vehicle there was an early version of the SHIELD flying car, just like Tommy Lee Jones’s scientific anti-HYDRA directorate was basically and early SHIELD.

    Incidentally, I strongly suspect the woman Captain America saw at the end was Sharon Carter. She looked the part and when she left said “Code 13.” Not exactly a slam-dunk, but as Eddie Michigan pointed out, IMDB says she was Sharon!

    I suspect we’ll see the classic, bizarre Arnim Zola either in Avengers or in the next movie. Incidentally, it’s worth noting the Red Skull didn’t die. The guy’s coming back for sure.

    See, there’s another thing about superhero comics the movies never duplicated until recently, which always felt “off.” No bad guys in superhero comics ever die – or at least when they die, it’s in a vague, corpseless circumstance where he can easily come back.

    My point, I suppose, is that the “cocky, arrogant wise guy” is the tried-and-true path to winning over the crowd, and just in the comparatively short time since we met Han Solo, it’s gone from the exception (or “secondary hero”) to the rule.

    Interesting observation although I think it doesn’t go far enough.

    I was just listening to a radio podcast that was supposed to be a “parody” of 1950s science fiction, with a “Defender of Space” type hero…and I honestly don’t know what they’re making fun of, exactly. It’s a parody of something that never existed, like the famous belief that “the butler did it” is a common thing in mystery novels, when I can’t think of a single example in a real mystery of the butler doing it.

    I can’t think of a single “straight” example of the chin-endowed “Captain Proton, Defender of Space” type hero – even in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, most science fiction heroes were of what would later be the Marvel mold: cigar-chomping, wisecracking badasses who solved problems with dubious engineering concepts and wiseass their way through fights…in addition to the kid genius, or the scientist who is the hero because he figures out the true nature of the problem. Come the 1960s we had the smooth-talking, rebellious and rule breaking heroes like the diplomat Retief and the intergalactic criminal, the Stainless Steel Rat.

    And grizzled, cynical, weatherbeaten heroes have been the main characters in Westerns and detective stories since the 1940s, which have been filled with self-destructive PIs and bounty hunters.

    To look back to an era when earnest, beefy heroes were the norm you’d have to go back to the Victorian Era…but it had its fair share of arrogant, cynical and eccentric characters even then.

    Maybe the Middle Ages? I’m not a medieval lit buff so I couldn’t tell you.

    In short, I can’t think of a time when the earnest, pure of heart hero was EVER the norm at any point, anywhere.

    That said, it takes a good writer to make it work. One scene that always bothered me came in a late Tales of Suspense issue, when Steve checks in with the Avengers via video-call and once he hangs up, Hawkeye says, “He was smiling, but I can tell he’s in one of his depressions again.”

    I think I know the one you mean. If we’re talking about the same scene, I believe the implication of that was the acknowledgement that Hawkeye and Captain America had a special friendship and relationship where Hawkeye could see right through him.

  6. “Cynical and weatherbeaten” I’d put in a different class from “cocky wise-ass.”

    For instance, no one would argue that John Wayne’s many weatherbeaten characters were earnestly virtuous in a Dudley Do-Right sense, but neither were they brash, flashy wisenheimers. You got the feeling his characters started out with high-minded ideals before life beat them about the head and neck, and while they might be disillusioned, they’re no less devoted to doing the right thing.

    In contrast, now we have characters like Seth Rogen’s Green Hornet, a doper frat boy who falls backward into crime-fighting or (though I haven’t seen it) Ryan’s Green Lantern, a flashy babe-hound “screw-up” where the comic version was one of those guys whose demeanor screams “military” even when he’s dressed for a luau.

    Yes, the Middle Ages would be a good place to look for virtuous hero-types, like Percival and Galahad. Ivanhoe was a straight arrow type. Jumping ahead, guys like Owen Wister’s “Virginian” and the heroes of Zane Grey’s “Ohio River Valley” trilogy (and the many Westerns that followed their lead) are “pure of heart”; even though their woodcraft and battle experience make them smarter than the “dudes” who stumble naively into trouble in the West, they’re not in-your-face “I know more than you ever will” jerks. Likewise Dick Tracy, always one step ahead of every crook and most of his fellow cops is super-smart but not a wise-ass. And he’s practically the poster boy for “square-jawed.”

    C.S. Forrester’s Hornblower was hardly without his human flaws, but he was a straight-up hero (and very popular) and not at all cocky or brash. Shatner’s Kirk I guess is somewhere in the middle; he’s notorious for violating orders when it suits him, but in his day-to-day doings he’s very much into military discipline, and not at all the class clown type.

    Fleming’s James Bond can be “immoral” in his private life and amoral in his work, but he’s another “straight” hero who does it all for Queen and country and, though jaded, is not flippant or self-absorbed.

    If you want to talk about characters who are so virtuous and honor-bound you want to strangle them, look no further than your boys Tarzan and John Carter, who put themselves into all kinds of life-threatening situations in the name of chivalry, even though one was raised in a jungle and the other lives in a culture that celebrates cruelty. There you go: in ERB’s world, “pure of heart” heroes are the norm.

    On the other hand, you’re right that Han Solo wasn’t the genesis of the type, even if he is the most cited. Recently I read Sabbatini’s “Captain Blood” and I have to admit even I was dreading what I fully expected to be an old-school tale of a dreadfully earnest paragon of virtue, but I was delighted to find Blood a sharp-tongued, sharp-minded rogue that could have been written to life last week instead of in 1922. In this sense, it was kismet that they found newbie Errol Flynn to play him in the movie, and indeed Flynn would go on playing variations on the character for the rest of his career.

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