Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

Sometimes you see a movie that makes you forget what the point of the medium is. Are people actually trying to tell stories? Or do they only ever get made to make money. It's probably somewhere in the middle for everything, and of course certain films have more artistic purpose to them than others. At first, this whole Marvel project leading up to next year's The Avengers was exciting, and it didn't interfere much with the movies themselves. Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk were pretty much regular super hero movies, which happened to include a scene teasing the eventual conclusion of the undertaking. Last year with Iron Man 2 though, the Avengers subplot grew visibly, leading some to think the movie was overstuffed and aimless (I still liked it). And this year with Thor and now Captain America, we're actually seeing hints of what the plot might actually be about, as the project threatens to wipe out any individual accomplishments of the other movies by themselves. Captain America's whole plot was probably adversely affected by The Avengers, as they had to turn Steve Rogers into a superhuman, get him through the war, and then have him wake up in the modern day within two hours. When all is said and done, will this whole thing actually be looked back on as a major triumph of long-term genre filmmaking? Or is just a way to make a lot of money, as you hype up a big event film and then hook people into buying tickets for a bunch of other movies in the lead up to it?

The real question though, is whether people care. I don't think I do. I think most people today are content to have their summer action movies be loud and colorful, and as far as that kind of movie goes, Captain America is more than adequate. It's not perfect, but I enjoyed myself while I was watching it about as much as most big action movies I've seen, assuming we aren't talking about ones with actual inspiration and creative intent behind them. And that's totally fine. Joe Johnston hasn't had the most distinguished career, but he knows what he's doing, and he manages to shoot this film with a nice traditional style and keep the action mostly coherent without an over-reliance on special effects (though things like Chris Evans' face on a scrawny body or him running with super speed sometimes definitely look silly). Evans is totally adequate as Rogers, both as a nobody and as a hero. The problem here is that Evans' best asset is that he's charming, and his character isn't really allowed to be. He's awkward and duty-driven and righteous. I still think he's likable enough to hang a movie on though, especially when the supporting cast is as helpful as this one.

As always, Hugo Weaving does an excellent job in a genre role, playing the villainous Red Skull with a solid German accent and a real menage. Tommy Lee Jones' character is sort of a standard gruff military leader, but he's Tommy Lee Jones and the part works out really well. I especially liked his interrogation scene. A couple TV actors who have done solid work there get a bit of big screen time here, including Hayley Atwell, who's a good romantic foil for Evans and has a look that fits in with the image of beauty for the period, and Sebastian Stan who brings life to Bucky Barnes in an enjoyable way. Stanley Tucci is a lot of fun in a few brief scenes as the inventor of the super serum, and I just loved the image of Neal McDonough with a big mustache and a shotgun as Dum Dum Dugan. Put it all together and you have a nice, brisk World War II movie, which happens to feature a legendary cube of immeasurable power, anachronistically powerful technology, and a guy running around with the world's best shield.

The biggest issue I had with the film is that the structure of the story feels wrong. It's not a huge deal because it's just a popcorn flick and most of the individual scenes hold together well, but it's definitely noticeable. Not every story has to adhere to the standard three act structure, of course, but if they don't the structure they use instead should be clear. The problem with Captain America is that it still seems like a three act movie, it just forgot the second one. It takes a long time for Steve Rogers to become the man we know. First he has to be given a chance to join the military, then he has to be selected for the super serum test, then he has to prove he can be a soldier with it, and then he has to establish a goal for the rest of the film. Meanwhile, we're also setting up the Red Skull and what his goal is to win the war. This is all stuff that the film tries to stuff into what should be the first act, and it takes over an hour. By the time it's all done, the script seems to realize there isn't time to tell a proper story, so they stuff a lot of implied action into a slick but unsatisfying montage, and then proceed quickly to the proper third act. It's just sort of sloppy.

I think if less time was spent between Steve getting his powers and proving his worth as a soldier, things would have been smoother. There's this whole section where he's being used for propaganda which is amusing on its own, but drags down the pace of the story in retrospect. It wouldn't have taken that much to fix the whole thing, which makes the problem kind of irritating, but like I said, being as the film only really exists to pump people up for The Avengers and sell tickets, it's not a major one. I just wonder what a Captain America movie that existed only for itself would have been like, because I think there's plenty of potential for one. I'm curious if all the planned post-Avengers sequels will be allowed to do their own thing, or if they'll just be serving to build up a sequel to The Avengers itself.

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