For years it’s seemed the most frequently trotted-out criticism of superhero movies has revolved around how boring and unnecessary the “origin story” has become after more than a decade of relentless comic book franchise starts. How many times do we need to see the cliches inherent in the birth of the superhero before we can just skip it and get to the satisfying, meaty action that inevitably follows? Well Marvel has finally changed the game, bringing new life to the idea of the origin story and proving that if you dig deep for the core of what makes a hero’s birth special and thematically satisfying, you can hinge on it a beginning that’s exciting and entertaining in its own right. Unfortunately they really did flip the tradition all the way, as the filmmakers behind Captain America: The First Avenger put a great deal of effort into nailing an origin story so their hero could embark on a boring mess of a first adventure.
In this version of the Captain America story, Steve Rogers is a scrawny, headstrong patriot who burns with the desire to do his part on the front lines. He’s also inherently good-hearted, demonstrated by his lack of even a twinge of resentment towards his physically-able buddy Bucky as he prepares to ship out. Also, the surest sign of them all: Steve is sweetly incompetent with women. The film isn’t interested in motivating these traits, rather it focuses on proving them as indelible qualities beyond a shadow of a doubt, while simultaneously building the film’s image of America during wartime in the second great world conflict. This is an alternate world, where just the slightest twinge of science fiction technology is starting to exist, all presented in that classic knobs-wheels-and-levers aesthetic of early sci-fi. A man behind some of that technology recognizes the strength of character in Rogers and invites him to serve the army in a special way. Here, having sent his good-hearted friend off to battle, our good-hearted hero is transformed into the pinnacle of humanity by the good-hearted defected German scientist under the supervision of a gruff-but-good-hearted Army colonel and the beautiful, good-hearted officer Peggy Carter. As you can see, the film is deliberately painting in broad moral strokes, the contrast of which it jacks up by presenting its villain as uncompromising evil.
It’s in Johann Schmidt, played to delicious perfection by Hugo Weaving sporting a Herzogian German accent, that we see a perfect microcosm of what makes Captain America such a painful failure. Red Skull is an amazing villain with fun toys, an iconic visage, and an equally entertaining sidekick (Dr. Zola, played by the ineffable Toby Jones). Even better, he’s presented as a counterpoint to the newly beefed-up Steve Rogers, who earned his physical augmentation by strength of character and an understanding of the value of power. Red Skull is a man born powerful, who has mutilated himself in a quest for more power– he is the unquenchable greed on one end of the scale, balanced by the magnanimous and dutiful Rogers on the other. Obviously this decidedly lacks subtlety, but often subtlety can be discarded in favor of focus and clarity. The two figures are tied together when an agent of the villain’s shadowy Third Reich offshoot organization, Hydra, murders the good-hearted scientist (ending a pleasant performance from Stanely Tucci) and ensures Captain America will be gunning for Red Skull like the dickens. Of course, first he has to escape the USO tour in which the government shoves him center stage (and that explains his ostentatious costume via montage, naturally).
At this point, everything is set up clearly and sharply, with the groundwork laid for a a great, grounded WWII superhero story. One that never comes.
At the start of the film Red Skull is empowered by the Tesseract, an object loaded with baggage in the Marvel universe, but here is presented as a very cut-and-dry cube of infinite, unstable energy. With the help of Dr. Zola, Red Skull weaponizes the energy and turns his personal army into an unstoppable force, one unconcerned with the modestly evil goals of Hitler. Schmidt has moved beyond the ideals of Germany, and sees world domination as the only goal. As classic and prototypical of a comic book conceit as that may be, there’s already a hint of the problems to come as the conflict our hero has to solve has already detached itself from the WWII narrative that gave the film its greatest potential. At this point our hero is not going to do his duty on the front lines, support his fellow soldiers in the trenches, and turn the tide on some blasted European battlefield. At this point our hero has to stop a silly typical villain plot– you know, the one where they want to blow up the whole goddamned world, but take it over at the same time? Again, that’s classic comic book, but it’s also an idea that without some new inspiration is a boring plot that was tired 50 years ago. That the villain uses his new god-like technology to essentially build a big plane filled with big, nasty nukes isn’t filled with childhood imagination or a clever twist on the era. I’m reminded of Hellboy, where the rumored mysticism of the Nazis could have potentially belched forth Hell on earth. While I would never expect a Captain America movie to delve off on a Lovecraftian tangent, making it so the master plan of Red Skull is to build a big plane and fly around dropping bombs isn’t very scary or imaginative.
Returning to our hero, make no mistake– Captain America does heroic things and helps win the war, but he does so by rescuing soldiers from a big bland warehouse or embarking on a series of useless raids against Hydra’s facilities. That series of raids is delivered by another montage that has a few cool moments, but fundamentally skips over the kind of adventure we’d most want to see detailed in a Cap film, and ignoring an opportunity to inject traditional front-line warfare action into the isolated comic-booky plot. What’s worse is that despite Cap’s success in the montage, in which he and his mostly unexploited companions cause explosion after generic explosion on enemy turf, there seems to be absolutely no result– Red Skull’s giant super-carrier is completed and loaded with all of his super-bombs. So yes, we’ve seen Cap throw his shield and toss around bad guys in cheap montages that require no choreography or sophisticated fluidity, but it’s all been for pretty much nothing.
As the film races towards its conclusion, it spirals off even further with no care for inventive action or adding to a sense of real menace. Eventually Cap and Skull get wrapped up together in a flaccid climax that literally leaves Red Skull sitting on his ass for an extended period of time, while Rogers has a series of disjointed fights and senseless action gags to get to him (auto-pilot technology, and our hero’s ability to operate enemy planes are both very inconsistent from scene-to-scene in this film). A weak fight with a weak ending leaves the film with the setup for a genuinely touching (and very well-acted) conclusion, before commercialism and wider Marvel Universe concerns take over, robbing even this disappointing narrative of the chance to at least end like a real movie.
Amidst the films increasing disregard for logic or stakes (the big evil plane is shown crashed from the very start of the movie, keep in mind), there’s the undeniable fact that Joe Johnston just isn’t a very good action filmmaker. Almost comically reliant on explosions, the action in Captain America (even when not presented in one of the many montages) carries no weight, and builds no momentum. Geography is never a concern and battles mostly occur in forests, big smokey bases or hallways in a very bland style built from lots of coverage, with sequences likely built in the edit bay. Usually the characters simply run around inside buildings while cuts take them to different places, or we just kind of assume they’re going where they should. The first confrontation between Red Skull and Cap, in one of the aforementioned boring warehouses, is a mess of stairs and walkways and elevators, traveled by characters with no geographic goals visible to the audience. Sure, it sets up a nice image of Cap and Skull divided by a great fiery chasm, but that brings to the front another serious problem with the film– it’s a giant CGI mess.
There are great effects in Captain America to be sure, including the mix of techniques that convincingly make Chris Evans exaggeratedly skinny in his pre-transformative scenes. There are other nicely rendered elements here and there, but all-too-often the filmmakers rely on unconvincing CGI to make us think we’re in the mountains or amidst a hellish fire. Even Captain America himself suffers as for every badass shield toss or concussive punch, there’s a goofy digital leap or a cheap composite stunt that not only isn’t fun to watch as action, but prevents this from ever feeling like a legitimate throwback to a simpler kind of adventure.
Despite how badly the script and most of the filmmaking goes off the rails as the movie goes on, it’s worth nothing again how extraordinary of a cast was assembled here. Chris Evans is everything Steve Rogers and Captain America should be, and it’s to his credit that such an ostentatious use of archetype works as the heart and soul of the film. Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, and Toby Jones all do fine work, with Tommy Lee Jones in particular chewing up and spitting out delightful little one-liners that seem to have woken him up a bit. Hayley Atwell is blessed with a strong female superhero movie character that, while no revelation, is certainly a much more two-dimensional and instrumental part of the film’s puzzle than most similar figures. Atwell fills out Peggy both physically and emotionally, with the strength of her demeanor even deflecting the bothersome subtext inherent to the fact that while nice to skinny Steve, Peggy would never have fucked him until he juiced up. Finally, Weaving has once again crafted a screen character that won’t be forgotten- proving he can be successfully menacing even when pushing towards the broad. That his prosthetics are some of the outright coolest to ever be featured in this kind of film only seals the deal.
The real problem with Captain America is that for all of its impeccable casting and perfectly-tuned performances, all of its wonderful production design and costuming, and all of its general understanding of character thematics, it’s ultimately content with flinging around (expensively recreated) childhood action figures in the audience’s face. All of the right elements are in play or acknowledged, but with action that has all the gravity and fluidity of a child throwing toys around the room based on a script that can never decide just how dumb it wants to be, Captain America is a string of disappointments made sharper by the exceptional pieces of the puzzle. It’s a bitter shame that something so strong so painfully collapses, and ensures that when the dust settles and time passes, Captain America will be remembered for striking all the right poses rather than delivering the classic adventure it promises.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
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