Saturday, July 23, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

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.


The Insouciant Sophisticate said...

I really loved this but felt bad that I didn't recognize Feild until I saw his name pop up in the credits while I waited for the teaser. I was not expecting a trailer for The Avengers but I'm really excited about the film now!

Lori said...

I totally laughed at RA's demise too! But he did look quite lovely before he started foaming at the mouth! And what is wrong with him in this article saying he doesn't have a nice-guy face?!? Vicar of Dibley, anyone??

I fully agree about the ending as well. Poor Steve!

And have I ever revealed my secret (well, not anymore) Stanley Tucci crush? It seems like everything he shows up in lately, he's playing older. Not that he's not fabulous, but I want to see him in something new looking like himself.

Amber Holcomb said...

OK--this movie has Richard Armitage AND JJ Feild??? Awesome! ;D

But seriously, I've seen the trailers for this one on TV and it has me quite intrigued. I'm kind of a wimp, though, when it comes to violent movies. How violent would you say this one is? If I can handle an Indiana Jones movie, can I handle this one?

Thanks for the great and helpful review! :)


Unknown said...

@Bookworm1858 - Don't feel too bad about not recognizing JJ - I went in looking for him specifically. ;) I'm really glad you enjoyed Captain America too & are looking forward to The Avengers as welL!

@Lori - I KNOW! I read that about Richard too...poor guy, does he have self-image issues or what? :P And POOR STEVE!! I'm still thinking about that one. *sigh*

Well you've outed yourself as a Stanley fangirl, but that's good because YAY! Now I have company! LOL! You saw Julie & Julia, right? I totally wanted a whole movie with him and Meryl Streep, I thought he was just fabulous in it. And here, well, he did not deserve to go out the way he did! :P

@Amber S. - Ok, if you can handle the Indy films I would say yes, you will probably be okay with Captain America - just go into it with the understanding that it's "updated" for the 21st century with lots of explosions. Deaths in this movie are mostly where people are vaporized, so therefore as an action film the "bloodiness" factor is somewhat minimized. Any other recent action or superhero films you've seen that I could compare this to for you?

Charity said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it. I thought about seeing it this weekend, but couldn't swing it with my busy schedule. I'll try for Tuesday!

Amber Holcomb said...


Thanks! As far as recent action films...I saw the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean, but I confess that I closed my eyes during certain parts (mostly involving the mermaids, LOL!). I guess I'll have to see if anyone else in my family wants to see it, 'cause I probably wouldn't go on my own.

Again, thanks for the review!


Lori said...

Yes, I did see Julie & Julia...and he was great in that, wasn't he?!! I can't remember what movie it was (it's been a while)where he was shirtless and all I could think was wow...that is a level of fit that I wasn't expecting!

Unknown said...

@Charity - I look forward to reading your take on this one! :)

@Amber S. - Well, that said you might want to think about waiting until this one is out on DVD, that way you can fast-forward through any scenes that might prove a bit too intense. I figure better safe than sorry, I don't want to steer you wrong! :) And you're welcome!

@Lori - You realize you need to wrack your brain and come up with this movie you're forgetting, right? RIGHT?! ;)

Lori said...

Oh...don't worry. I had to find it and I found some other gems on the great YouTube. Emailing details soon...

Unknown said...

@Lori - Discussing Stanley Tucci's appeal is a great way to spend a Monday, just sayin'...

Elaine J. Dalton said...

I can't wait to see this movie! *bounces with excitement* Btw, your review was AWESOME! ;)

Susannah said...

Your post popped up on my dashboard and I ignored it with great difficulty. As soon as I got back from seeing it tonight (about ten minutes ago) I got on the computer to read your review. :)

Of course, we agree about everything. I thought it was awesome. I loved the World War II combined with the superhero stuff--something I'd never thought about and wouldn't have thought could be pulled off so smoothly.

JJ Fields was so wonderful, as was Sebastian Stan, who I've never seen in anything but who I now love. I loved Chris Evans--I totally agree about the all-American vibe. So, so perfect for the era.

Anyways. I once again appreciated your crazy-intelligent review. I'll be posting my own (unintelligent/spazzish) review here pretty soon. :)

Traxy said...

Great review, thanks for sharing! :) Have heard positive things about it from various sources, but you're someone whose opinion I trust and you didn't talk just about RA's part, nor leave him out. Ahh, can't wait to see the movie! It opens on Friday here, so not sure if we'll see it over the weekend or next week.

Unknown said...

@Elaine - Aww, thanks! I hope you get to see it soon!

@Polka Dot - Yay! So happy you loved this movie too! :) As to "crazy-intelligent," thank you for the compliment - I don't know about that, I feel pretty fangirlish and spazzish here myself. ;) But thanks. :) I'm looking forward to reading your take on the movie!

Unknown said...

@Traxy - Thanks, friend! :) As much as I like RA, and it was a real treat to see him on the big screen, this movie had so much more going for it which was a huge treat! I am looking forward to reading your take on the movie, hopefully soon! :)

Read the Book said...

I saw this movie yesterday and really enjoyed it. I agree that Steve's kindness is one of the most attractive things about him, and I thought it was a nice touch that Peggy was so moved by the picture of Steve pre-Captain America.

I was sad, too, that he didn't get the girl, but what's a superhero movie without a little angst? I'm jealous you got to see the Avengers preview, but it is a little crazy-making to see previews a full YEAR in advance of the movies (I saw the Batman preview and another one that will come out next summer when I saw Harry Potter, and the anticipation could kill me!).

Lovely blog!

Unknown said...

@Read the Book - Thanks for stopping by & commenting! I completely agree about that last moment when Peggy is looking at the pre-transformation photo of Steve - I seriously coulda cried a bit.

The lead-time on previews can get a little crazy! We must keep each other sane. :)

Read the Book said...

Have you read anything about the CGI used for Steve at the beginning of the movie? I'm definitely interested!

Unknown said...

@Read the Book - Oh, I'm afraid not - let me know if you find anything out!