Thursday, July 28, 2011

Captain America: Last Movie before the First Avengers

Gotta love when a Golden Age comic gets recreated on screen!
I was really looking forward to watching Captain America on the big screen for several reasons:

1) Marvel Studios’ excellent track record.
2) A Golden Age superhero movie actually set during World War Two.
3) A very limited amount emotionally invested in the character.

The last one may seem counterintuitive, but it ends up relieving a large amount of tension I usually feel about this genre of film. When I’m watching an adaptation of a hero I’ve followed obsessively since childhood, I tend to be burdened by the excessive details of what “really” happened crammed into my head. This requires constant mental processing to either justify, or rant at, changes made in the new narrative.

As a low level fan (who normally only buys Captain America comics when he crosses over with Iron Man) it was far easier to just sit back and enjoy the show.

Note: As with all things in the comic book world, “low level fan” is a very relative term. While I don’t have his symbol permanently etched into my skin; as I sit at my home computer writing this (still appearing to the outside world to project a semi-professional business casual image) I am, in fact, wearing Captain America underwear.

Cap is one of my favorite guest stars in comic books. There are many marvel characters I view that way. I really have no interest in what makes the Punisher tick. However, seeing how more traditionally minded heroes react to a character that is either a villain whose goals they sympathize with, or a hero whose moral code they reject, is fodder for some excellent tales of self-reflection and examination.

Captain America serves the opposite function. His main purpose as a guest star is to inspire and lead other superheroes to higher levels of performance and confidence. In order to tell ongoing serialized fiction about him, writers have to focus on his faults, troubles and doubts. I much prefer not dwelling on those and using him as a symbol of what’s best in the hero community.

Most of his appearances in my collection are as:

Iron Man’s conscience
Hawkeye’s mentor/foil
Daredevil’s sign of hope in his darkest hour
Thor’s source of faith in humanity
The Avengers’ (and others') goal to aspire to.
Subtlety, thy name is Marvel.

They did a good job of showing those aspects in the movie. It’s nice to see that (like in recent animated versions) the influences of the “more realistic” Millar/Hitch Ultimates' storyline stop short of their jingoistic interpretation of Captain America. (Owing much more to U.S. Agent than the original Cap.) The idea that Steve is more a “Good Man” than a “Good Soldier” is taken to the forefront in the film. This is also driven home by those who really knew him well continuing to think of him as the little guy from Brooklyn who never gave up or backed down. (I’m starting to think my Dad may have been Captain America…) The use of, “I don’t like bullies” served to clearly sum up the core of the character with a single line.

The Ultimates’ style costume did show up, eventually. Before that the movie showed a great juxtaposition between the silliness and glorification of combat in the golden age comics with the actual horror of war. This was nicely shown in the differences between the civilian and military groups’ reactions to Cap’s classic costume and war bond rhetoric. (Cool cameo of the first issue of Captain America comics in there as well.) Fortunately, even with the more realistic suit and setting, the trademark shield slinging was kept in to the heights of ridiculousness that it has in print. It’s pleasant to see they remembered, despite all the realism concessions, that they were making a comic book movie.

After Cap’s joining the combat branch of the service, the movie launches into another excellent Marvel montage. They’re getting really good at showing the passing of time, and the increase of knowledge and skill of the characters, in very entertaining combinations of scenes. These show the development of an individual in a more organic way, without either basing all of their abilities on brief, aborted training and ten minute pep talks (Hi, Green Lantern) or spending most of the story with a main character who isn’t at his full potential (Greetings…pretty much every origin movie.) Since the scenes were generic and short (if awesomely action packed) it makes me hopeful that we may get a Captain America and the Howling Commandos period film sometime. Hey, thanks to the appearance of a very Jim Hammondy looking display labeled Phineas Horton at the Stark Expo, I’m holding out for an Invaders movie.

Speaking of Stark, Robert Downey Jr. better be on his best behavior, because Dominic Cooper could easily step into Tony’s shoes after playing his dad. The rest of the cast was stellar as well. Halyey Atwell looked and acted like a woman from the forties who’s managed to overcome everything that would be stacked against her in the military of the time. It was very obvious why Steve Rogers would feel a profound sense of loss awakening without Peggy Carter in the present. (It is also obvious that, with a slight modernization of her attitude, Atwell would look stunningly dangerous (and vice versa), in a blond wig and SHIELD uniform.)

The Howling Commandos were all spot on, and Tommy Lee Jones was Tommy Lee Jones (don’t need to say much more than that). Marvel seems to be following Christopher Nolan’s ban on kid sidekicks, but an adult Bucky, with the rank of Sergeant and displaying excellent sniper skills set up an interesting older brother/younger brother reversal situation. Plus, in those snow covered battle scenes, he looked like and excellent Winter Soldier didn’t he?

The villains were Hollywood’s decades-long go to guys for evil, the Nazis. Maintaining a connection to the Reich makes it more forgivable to have a (historically accurate, but odd looking in modern times) gun wielding Cap blow away his enemies. However, it was a pretty shrewd marketing move to have the Red Skull break off the German R&D branch from the government and plan to take over the world with Hydra alone, keeping their uniforms, accents and Wagner fixation, but changing to the Hydra symbol and rhetoric. This way Hasbro doesn’t have to worry about making swastika clad action figures, while keeping everything else World War Two appropriate. The faceless Hydra soldiers, two handed instead of one handed “heil” salute, and laser like weapons made it pretty obvious how Larry Hama’s G I Joe comic could have come from a cancelled SHIELD reboot…and also, sadly yet again, that someone else made a better G I Joe movie than Rise of Cobra was.

I’m usually not a fan of forcing the hero and his arch enemy together at their origins when that’s not how the comics went. (Mostly because I get tired of people asking me, “Didn’t the Joker kill Batman’s parents?”) This time, however, it worked. Throughout their history, the Red Skull and Cap have been shown as equal opposites more and more, with Schmitt trying to replace and/or supplant Steve on several occasions. Combining the Red Skull with the German super soldiers and prototype serum experiments (both present in the comics) worked well to tie everything together. Hugo Weaving looked like he had a great time letting go and chewing the scenery in this, as opposed to the far more subdued Agent Smith villain from the Matrix. He was a hoot and a half to watch. Toby Jones made Arnim Zola a creepy in a good way little flunky too, and I’m pretty sure I saw a sketch of his weird chest face robot form from the comics when he gathered his papers. It’s extra fun when they throw in little stuff like that for us nerds.
Hard to tell which one is more disturbing.

Not only has Marvel Studios released another entertaining film on its own, but it provides glue to hold together the entire Avengers franchise (much like Stan Lee did when building the original Marvel Universe). Amidst the transformation of a man with heroic qualities into a super hero with the abilities to back those qualities up, and mixed within the period costumes, locations and battles are elements showing how all the films we’ve seen so far are connected.

The foundations of Tony Stark’s business and technology
The initiation of the Super Soldier program used to fight the Hulk
Asgardian science as magic (The Red Skull’s dénouement looked suspiciously Bifrostian…you can’t keep a good world conqueror down.)
The set up for Captain America being a man out of his own time, with very specific emotional ties to the past,
(And a precedent for having a thing for foreign spies. Could the Black Widow romance shown in the animated direct to DVD adventures be on the horizon?)

The most amazing thing about this film was that, somehow, Marvel made a World War Two movie that both my wife and daughter thought was fantastic. I appreciate that at least one comic book company is consistently creating stories the whole family can enjoy. (Heck, my wife is afraid to watch The Dark Knight, forget the kid.)

My daughter’s review of Captain America: “THAT WAS AWESOME!”

Although that was her review of all the superhero movies this year, this time she added.

“Way better than Green Lantern.”

When I asked why she said, “Green Lantern used his ring to make yellow fire…that was just wrong.”

That’s my girl!

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