Sunday, August 14, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger ***

Director: Joe Johnston
Cast: Chris Evans, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones
Hayley Atwell, Neal McDonough, Dominic Cooper
Hugo Weaving, Derek Luke, Stanley Tucci

Out of the large universe of Marvel superheroes, Captain America has always been one of the strangest because unlike say, Spider-Man or Hulk, despite their US headquarters, he doesn't really represent a global cause. The stars and spangles on his uniform appeal specifically to Americans and no, the rest of the world does not consider the US of A to be its savior. In fact it's essentially intriguing to ask oneself why would a studio bother in making and distributing a film about such a specifically American icon when the country has unarguably been losing more and more prestige as a mediator of nations. Oh wait, there we have the answer...
In reality this film isn't so much a prequel to The Avengers or yet another money making blockbuster, it's basically a propagandistic piece that tries to recover the very American idea which says that the prouder you are of the USA, the more you will make foreigners admire you.
This sounds like a tough sell after the disastrous international consequences brought about by the Bush administration and the mixture of antipathy and pity brought on by the inefficient Obama government.
Each of these factors make Captain America: The First Avenger a complex beast because it's meant precisely to work as the sort of nationalistic fluff made during the war, designed to attract young men to enlist and young women to drool over their efforts. So, what's the best way to convey this without getting flack from liberals and extremist praise from conservatives? You make the movie an homage to the lost art of propaganda, you set it during the era when it thrived, you bash in the method's techniques and surreal patriotism and you get to have your cake and eat it too.
This is precisely what director Johnston does for this film, he borrows the retro aesthetics of his superb The Rocketeer, throws in some modern quips to satisfy comic book fans and even casts non-distinctive actors (can anyone tell the difference between Atwell, Sienna Miller and Claire Danes?) to fulfill the promise that anyone can become Captain America.
Chris Evans pulls off the all-American handsome blue eyed, blonde hair look as super soldier Steve Rogers, who starts out as a Benjamin Button-ized skinny young man with good intentions who catches the eye of a Nazi-escapee scientist (the always wonderful Tucci) who realizes he's the best subject for his new program. Rogers then is injected with a serum that - in the best fairy tale way - creates a physical manifestation of his inner values. Therefore the meek Rogers who hates bullies and never says no to a good cause turns into the obscenely muscular version of Evans we already know. Problem is that before he escaped Germany, the good scientist also conducted the experiment on the insane Dr. Schmidt (Weaving) who turned into a supervillain trying to destroy the world by means of Nordic god weaponry.
The film then becomes a brisk adventure that recalls 30s and 40s serials, the film exudes a lovely Indiana Jones spirit and the art design and costumes are spot on. The film is often at its best when it inadvertently gives us glimpses of the futuristic views of the past. Cooper is a scene-stealer as crazily seductive engineer Howard Stark (Iron Man's dad) and he shows absolute joy in a manic Howard Hughes inspired way. Gotta love that he gets to pull off the mustache now favored by hipsters the world over, while staying true to the aesthetics and customs of the era he's in.
For all its talk of American pride and honor, the film can get quite sneaky at times and you might find yourself rooting for the Captain's illegal operations. Perhaps all changes in times of war but to justify invasion in this day and era feels like an ethical conundrum, even in the name of blockbuster joys. Best of all is that Johnston never denies his intentions, at one point Dr. Schmidt reminds the Cap that he's not an emblem of nations, that his cause is in the name of one particular country. Of course he ignores him and despite our best efforts to keep neautral, we keep on cheering for him until the very end.


Candice Frederick said...

love this review. such a good movie.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I can't agree (sigh, I hate it when we spat). The film looks beautiful, but it feels ingratiatingly hollow for me. The lead doesn't demand my sympathy or even my interest and even Tucci seems to be overdoing - that accent. Cooper (and Stan) are fun, but the lack of chemistry between Atwell and Evans is damning. I mean, does the film really hinge on that "date" the two are supposed to have?

Jose said...

Candice: thank you for reading!

Andrew: It is hollow but precisely because of this it seems to bloom with comic book-ness. Everything is over the top and matter of fact (when they come literally knocking into Red Skull's HQ!) It's not precisely profound in any manner but it's cute in its self awareness. said...

It can't work as a matter of fact, that is what I consider.