Monday, July 25, 2011

"Captain America"- Possibly My Favorite Entry Into the Avengers Saga So Far

I was really looking forward to "Captain America;" the previews looked awesome and I always liked the good old-fashioned square-jawed superhero. So I turned a blind eye to the early reviews and jumped in with both feet-- and found that my enthusiasm was well placed.

"Captain America" is the story of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a diminutive guy with aspirations to enlist and fight the Nazis in WWII --despite his physical limitations and continual designation as 4F (unfit for service). But Rogers isn't a gung-ho type who wants to flex his muscles (if he had any), nor is he particularly interested in killing. He just wants to do his share like all the other men going off to war. And it's his persistence in trying to enlist that catches the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), the creator of the Super Soldier Serum, who sees in Rogers the combination of humility and tenacity needed to round out the physical strength his serum will give the men to whom it's administered.

With the help of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), the civilian genius that founds Stark Industries and fathers Tony Stark, Erskine doses Rogers with his serum and achieves spectacular results. Rogers has a chance to prove his mettle immediately following his transformation, but when he's caught on camera he becomes a symbol of the perfect soldier. Instead of getting his wish to go to the front lines, he's instead chosen to sell war bonds in a Captain America costume. Rogers, not happy with his new role, performs without complaint. But when his best friend is captured across enemy lines, he defies orders and in doing so proves his worth and earns the right to go to war.

The biggest threat to the world, however, isn't the Nazis- but rather a Nazi other than Hitler with a taste for world dominion. Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), the head of Hitler's advanced weaponry division, becomes obsessed with the occult and an object known as the Tesseract. Forming his own organization known as HYDRA, Schmidt pursues power through the possession of the Tesseract and the illicit use of Erskine's serum. Unlike Rogers, Schmidt doesn't have the character traits needed to ensure that he isn't warped by the serum and he becomes increasingly inhuman and dubs himself the Red Skull. Somewhat predictably, but not without suspense or entertainment value, the movie then moves to the inevitable confrontation between the physically equal Red Skull and Captain America.

There are a lot of people who love this movie-- as you'll see through the enthusiastic reviews-- and a few who think it doesn't have enough explosions and CGI. I fit into the first category. Most reviewers will tell you, that while likable, "Captain America" isn't as good as "Iron Man." I get that. Robert Downey Jr. is a great Tony Stark. "Iron Man" has a ton of flair as a character and even a sub-par entry into that franchise is still pretty darn good. Who can compete with the bombastic appeal of Downey in the role?

But, I gotta say, I liked the understated quality of Chris Evans' Steve Rogers. To start, it's important to put the character in context. This is a story that takes place in the 1940's. America was a different place and people had a different set of values. You can't place a guy like Tony Stark into 1940's America and have it make a lot of sense. The closest you can get to that is Howard Stark and he's quite a bit more subdued than his son. Steve Rogers, on the other hand, is the embodiment of the best qualities our young men possessed at the time. He sincerely wants to do the right thing and he isn't going to spend a lot of time with any modern-day angst. He's the kind of guy who puts his head down and gets the job done. So when reviewers go on about how Evans wasn't given enough with the role and how they wish it was more emotive, I think they're putting modern expectations on a story where it doesn't belong. Additionally, when we get a sneak peek at the new "Avengers" movie at the end of this film, I think it's very smart to balance the outrageous personalities of Tony Stark and Thor with the quieter Steve Rogers.

But it isn't just my personal preferences that allow me to like this movie. It's just a good film. It's well constructed in terms of plot; somewhat predictable, but what isn't in a comic book movie without a tragic ending? The performances are strong, from Evans' earnest Rogers to Weaving's insane Schmidt. I did miss Weaving's resonant, bass voice (that I've become accustomed to thanks to the "Matrix" trilogy) as he loses that for an authentic German accent here, but you can't fault his acting ability as he imbues the Red Skull with a convincing bit of menace. And the supporting cast of Tommy Lee Jones as Col. Chester Phillips and Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter add the right touches of humor and sentimentality.

There's no way I could claim that "Captain America" is better than the first "Iron Man" (though I can say that it's better than the second) but I might be able to say it's better than "Thor." What I can say is that I would have a hard time picking a favorite between "Iron Man" and "Captain America" thanks to my own personality. As much fun as it is to watch Robert Downey strut across the screen as Tony Stark, I identify with Steve Rogers more. He's an admirable guy who doesn't set himself up for those uncomfortable moments we've come to associate with Stark. And, as if to reflect the personality of the main character, the overall tone of "Captain America" was distinctly toned-down from that of its sister films. The colors aren't as brash and the CGI isn't as explosive-- and that is a good thing in my opinion. Though the shield that Captain America carries seems like a tame weapon in comparison to the Iron Man suit, and Thor's hammer, somehow it becomes cool in Evans' hands.

"Captain America" isn't the comic book work-of-art that "The Dark Knight" is, but it's a very good addition to the Marvel universe that includes "Iron Man," "Thor" and "The Hulk." I think most fans will put it nearly on the same level as "Iron Man" and whether you prefer it or "Iron Man" will likely depend on if you like the more in-your-face personality of "Iron Man" or the calmer tone of "Captain America."

Though I suppose we don't have to go around picking favorites...


Michael Offutt said...

I loved Captain America. Plus he's nice to look at.

Charles Gramlich said...

So I'm hearing. Nothing but good so far in my ears about Captain America.