This summer has been an extraordinarily good one for Marvel. First they gave us Thor (my review), which was a delightful little surprise, and now the star-spangled Captain America, which, for a World War II history nut like myself, was pretty much a guaranteed win. Happily it delivered on all fronts, and now I really can't wait for the star-packed Avengers film next summer. That, my friends, promises to be EPIC.
A period superhero flick could have easily fallen flat on its face. Thankfully the team that crafted Captain America hit all the right notes character and nostalgia-wise while providing plenty of flash and spectacle to keep things interesting. It feels a bit like the 21st-century equivalent of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I am an admitted comic-book movie geek, but I never thought I'd have my love of 1940s history so gloriously mashed-up with the superhero film genre. It's a fantastically realized dream come true, one that I didn't even quite realize I had. *wink*
Chris Evans just owns this movie as Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America. I am seriously crushing on the man now. :) His all-American good looks and boyish earnestness are pitch-perfect for the role and the time period. His turn as Steve manages a delicate balance between the conventions of modern superhero movies and the innocence and idealism of Hollywood flicks from the 1940s, when "men were men," if you will, fighting against the unfathomable might of the Nazi war machine. The special effects that transform Chris Evans from the 90 lb weakling version of Steve into the unstoppable hunk that becomes a patriotic symbol of the American war effort are, quite frankly, amazing. It would be easy for the CGI to overshadow the characters, and it is a credit to Evans and director Joe Johnston that they don't allow the on-screen magic to usurp the kindness that is the bedrock of Steve's character. Steve's never-say-die determination and gentle spirit are what set him apart, and ultimately it are those qualities that transform him into a leader of men.
As I mentioned in my Thor post, I find myself getting educated on the "standards" of the Marvel comic universe a little more as each film releases. This is probably the way to go, for me anyway, as keeping things straight in the 21st-century film universe is job enough (when compared to reconciling the sprawling, over-lapping, and in some cases contradictory comics canon). The focus of the power struggle in Captain America is a "cosmic cube" stolen by Nazi/HYDRA big bad Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a source of unlimited power that he refers to as "the jewel of Odin's treasure room." With that you have the Thor tie-in (the cube is briefly seen in the bonus scene at the end of the credits), and prior to Thor, the cube was seen in Howard Stark's notes in Iron Man 2. HYDRA is apparently the evil-terrorist version of S.H.I.E.L.D., which I suspect will be the crux of the conflict in The Avengers.
I absolutely LOVED the film's recreation of 1940s New York. It's chock-full of delicious period detail, from the clothing to the props to the cars, that all work together to set this film apart from your typical superhero flick. All through Steve's multiple attempts to enlist in the army, his best friend is the dashing and confident James "Bucky" Barnes, played by Sebastian Stan. Stan first came to my attention in the all-too short-lived television series Kings, where he played Jack Benjamin. I really loved the friendship between Steve and Bucky, and their later role-reversal - when Steve becomes the guy women swoon over, a reality he does not know how to handle - is really quite humorous to watch play out. Barnes, and indeed the whole motley crew Steve assembles to take down Schmidt, have this great Band of Brothers-style vibe, a bit reminscent of the elites that took on the Nazis in classic films like Von Ryan's Express or The Great Escape. More on the rest of the team in a bit...
Much has been made in the blogosphere of Richard Armitage's appearance in this film as the evil Heinz Kruger. Kruger is a small but pivotal role in the movie, and if you overlook Armitage's gosh-awful take on an "American" accent he does make the most of his screentime. :) Kruger infilitrates the top-secret lab where Steve is turned into a super soldier, and after Steve's treatments prove successful Kruger starts to wreak havoc right and left, blowing things up, shooting secret agent old ladies, and threatening plucky small children (all in his best Guy of Gisborne fashion *wink*). When Kruger flees, Steve gives chase, and the ensuing action sequence is a great introduction to Steve's new powers - and I'm not gonna lie, I kinda enjoyed watching Evans throttle Armitage, and I couldn't help but chuckle at his death scene with a mouth full of foam. However, for as nice as Richard looked with his slicked-back hair and 1940s-era suit, I do wish he'd been one of the good guys. Maybe next time... :)
In a stroke of genius the filmmakers cast Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man's daddy. Cooper's been extremely busy since his break-out turn as Willoughby in the 2008 Sense & Sensibility - he's also appeared in films like The Duchess and An Education. Here, Cooper has the retroactive advantage of being able to watch Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in the two Iron Man films, and it's a great deal of fun seeing him bring the cocky, brilliant Tony's precursor to life, while bringing his own unique charisma to the legendary Stark family name. It was especially great fun watching Cooper mack for the audience at the 1940s equivalent of the Stark techonology expo seen in Iron Man 2.
I can't neglect mentioning Stanley Tucci's turn as Dr. Abraham Erskine, a refugee from Nazi Germany and a one-time colleague of Schmidt. Erskine is the one responsible for the super-soldier formula, and having seen the horror of the technology mis-used firsthand, he wisely picks Steve as the ideal candidate for the army's experiments because of his heart and great capacity for compassion. I love Tucci, and he does a great job playing Steve's surrogate father-figure. Tucci brought just the right amount of kindness and gravitas, I guess you could say to the character of Erskine, and I loved his mentorship of Steve.
Hayley Atwell plays Steve's love interest, Peggy Carter - a British member of the Strategic Scientific Reserve responsible for the program leading to Steve's transformation. Atwell worked with Cooper in The Duchess, and has also appeared in the Masterpiece productions The Ruby in the Smoke and Mansfield Park. Most of the time Atwell had a touch too much of the whole Brit "stiff upper lip" thing going on, which squashed any chemistry she could have with Evans pretty effectively for most of the film. However, she was made for the trappings of the time period - with her looks, curves, and hair she looks like she stepped out of a classic Hollywood film. And I did love how Steve's atypical background and the respect he exhibits for Peggy in her male-dominated military field start to win her over well before he proves himself on the battlefield.
Captain America is packed with great acting talent, but believe it or not I saved a favorite for the last. JJ Feild plays the British beret-wearing member of Steve's elite commando unit, James Montgomery Falsworth. Feild was just seen in the Marple episode The Pale Horse, and his upcoming appearance in Austenland can't come soon enough to suit me. Falsworth only gets a few lines, but he gets several nice close-ups, and Feild exhibits a nice intensity and heretofore unimagined flair for fight scenes that I really appreciated. *wink* Plus, the moustache was ADORABLE. FREAKING ADORABLE. Thank you for that, JJ. :) I also can't neglect to mention Neal McDonough (from the Tin Man series) as the moustache-gone-bad, bowler-hat-wearing "Dum Dum" Dugan. According to the IMDB, it looks like Marvel has green-lit Nick Fury's (Samuel L. Jackson) origin movie, and it's rumored Dugan will appear in it - that's something to look forward to, hmm?
So, just in case the length of this post didn't make it clear, I loved this movie. For a little over two hours I got to revel in the movie's glorious recreation of 1940s New York and the accompanying wartime ideals of heroism and patriotism. The trappings of the war bond rallies are a fantastic example of the film's nostalgic flavor, and Steve's first stage costume is a nice nod to the character's original look. The "Star-Spangled Man" theme song was a little slice of retro heaven, recalling the sound of acts like The Andrews Sisters, etc. The vibe of the stateside rallies stands in stark contrast to the newly-minted Captain America's first gig to overseas troops, who don't respond well to a rallying cry from a guy who has yet to see combat. Things like war bond rallies were feel-good shows for the homefront, far removed from the reality faced by troops on the ground. Steve's response to that reality, and his desire to prove himself, is just a small part of what makes his character one to cheer for.
I simultaneously loved and hated the ending of this movie - it's a fantastic set-up for Captain America's introduction to The Avengers team, but Steve's noble sacrifice that puts him in stasis for seventy years just killed me. K-I-L-L-E-D ME. Just as Steve is finally seeing Peggy's heart thaw, just as he's finally on the verge of getting the girl for the first time EVER, he has to crash-land in the Artic Circle. Life ain't perfect in superhero-land. *sigh* While I ultimately think Steve can do better than Peggy, he was so sweet being sweet on the unattainable girl my heart turned to MUSH MUSH MUSH. MUSH, I tell you. On the plus side, Steve's overwhelming angst at losing Peggy and waking up in the 21st-century should make for an interesting character arc in future films. :)
Full of heart, warmth, action, and adventure, Captain America has sky-rocketed to the top of my favorite superheroes movie list (top five at least). Be sure and stay through the end of the credits - the first part of the credits roll over some fantastic wartime American propaganda poster art, but the real treat is seeing the first trailer for The Avengers on the big screen. That, my friends, kicked the fangirl radar into overdrive. It's gonna be awesome. :) Captain America is a perfect summer movie - brimming with humor, heart, and adventure, and set apart by a fantastically realized period setting, it's a bit of a throwback movie, in the very best sense of that term. Highly recommended, and let me tell you I can't wait to see it again.