Captain America: The First Avenger

July 31, 2011

The question that continued to weigh on my mind as I viewed Joe Johnstone’s Captain America: The First Avenger, the latest in the series of extraordinarily expensive supplemental materials for 2012’s Avengers spectacular, was this:  are comic book movies boring or am I bored of comic book movies?  I’m not entirely sure, and although I realize the premise isn’t entirely true (I am excited to see Nolan’s next entry in his Dark Knight series), I couldn’t even feign enthusiasm for any of the superhero tentpoles that have graced the screens this summer.  As a matter of fact, I only saw this one and X-Men: First Class, so maybe I’m just being harsh.  I’m sure I’ll rent Thor just to get myself up to speed, but at this point the Marvel Universe (or really, the Avengers Universe) entries are all too mediocre to get excited about.  They feel more like filling in the prerequisites for a course I don’t particularly want to take.  I recognize that Captain America isn’t all that bad, but it’s not all that good either.

Captain America is one of the corniest of all superheroes, and with good reason.  He was created during WWII as propaganda, the first issue famously featuring him punching Hitler in the face.  The story involves wimpy Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, convincingly CGI’d onto a small body for the early parts, though the voice is a bit odd) who is desperate to his part to fight for America.  He’s small and plagued with health problems, but he’s got plenty of spunk so a scientist (Stanley Tucci) signs him up for an experimental program that will inject him with a super-soldier serum that’ll make him really strong and uber-ripped.  One he’s full-on Chris Evans, the rest of the serum gets destroyed and the technology is lost.  Rather than spend his time in the lab, Rogers heads off on a tour to drum up war bonds.  Eventually he sees action, gets together a small unit, and works to take down the so-evil-he-is-too-evil-for-the-Nazis Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), who has built some sort of blue disintegration ray/ultimate weapon to take over the world.

The obvious advantage Captain America in distinguishing itself from the other in the Marvel series is the 1940s time period.  There’s no real need to set it in a recognizably similar world to the other characters, so they use the opportunity to give it a gee-whiz Saturday Serial vibe.  It’s a good idea, and certain elements like Red Skull’s mad scientist lab fits a damn sight better than it would in anything pretending to be straightforward.  Overall, however, it fails to actually live up to the zesty fun these things should be.  The best sequence involves the slightly cynical war bond tour, in which a lovingly presented montage of Rogers in a chorus line gives the film its only real spark of energy.  Once the action starts, it’s a slog of brief gunfights and CGI warehouses and then a montage of Cap and his woefully underutilized crew of character actors taking down Red Skull’s army.  Before you know it, there’s a climactic sequence involving unconvincing green screen in a car chasing down an unconvincing super-bomber.  The whole look of the thing feels more like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, only less visually inventive but just as dull storywise.  A lot of this has to do with the pitfalls of any origin story – by the time your hero is established there’s only about an hour or even less to give him a major villain to take down – but taking down Red Skull still seems way to brief and easy.  We’re told how much is at stake but not shown.

Still, those brief action scenes are better than the thirty minute CGI slugfest between robots and/or monsters that other films in this series routinely rely on.  On top of that, there’s an excellent supporting cast breathing a bit of life and energy into the film when they can, including Tommy Lee Jones giving us gruff bemusement, Dominic Cooper playing Stark the elder with playboy panache, and the aforementioned Tucci giving a lot of sensitivity to an expository role.  Hayley Atwell is solid enough as the love interest, but that story is so torpedoed by lame plot requirements that it’s tough to really tell how good she could have been.

It’s not a total wash, and there are enough watchable elements to make up for the boring ones, but I really couldn’t help feeling that it was somewhat tossed off.  This is a requirement to get us to the Main Event, but all these little side attractions have zapped whatever interest I might have had in The Avengers.  Despite all the talent in front of and behind the camera, these Marvel films feel flat and anonymous.  Instead of going out there and trying to do something really special or, heavens forbid, exploring a character with any debt, the primary concern seems to not rock the boat.  After all, they a franchise to think about.

-M

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