Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger (Paramount/Marvel, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I went to see the film Captain America: The First Avenger at the Regal theatres in Horton Plaza, an item that had been on our to-do list since the movie came out while we were slogging our way through the 1944 Republic serial featuring (sort of) the same character — though the new film sticks far more closely to the origin story of Captain America from the 1941 comic by Timely (later Marvel). The film opens in modern-day Norway, in a sequence showing the discovery of a wrecked airplane in the snow and a person inside it whose body had been kept in suspended animation by the cold (and the notoriously active air conditioning in the theatres at Horton Plaza added to the believability of this scene!). Then it flashes back to New York City in 1941, and introduces orphan boy Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, a normally robust and buff actor digitally “shrunk” to the scrawny dimensions of the 90-pound weakling he’s playing), who’s desperately trying to enlist in the U.S. Army and keeps getting turned down because of his overall puniness and history of asthma and other chronic diseases. (He’s an orphan because his father was killed in World War I and his mother died of tuberculosis.) His friend James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has no trouble getting in, but Rogers not only gets rejected by the military but regularly gets beaten up by just about every bigger, stronger man he encounters — including a guy he chews out in a movie theatre for demanding that the management stop the newsreel about the war and show the rest of the program already.

All that changes, of course, when he finally gets into the military and, like William Tracy in that interesting series of service comedies the Hal Roach Studios made during the actual war casting him as a scrawny recruit who uses his brains and rises through the ranks, he figures out how to bring down a flag no one else has been able to get because they haven’t been able to climb up the flagpole. Instead of climbing, Our Soon-to-Be Hero simply removes the bolts holding the flagpole in place, lets it fall and picks up the flag from the flagpole. Both this sort of resourcefulness and Rogers’ almost masochistic willingness to take punishment and abuse convinces Nazi refugee scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) that Rogers is the perfect subject for an experiment he wants to perform in which both his physical strength and his perceptions will be artificially heightened by a combination of injections of a blue serum and an electrical treatment which requires Steve to be locked in a high-tech sarcophagus and go through some of the same tortures-of-the-damned routines we’re used to seeing in movies about heroin withdrawal.

These sequences are intercut, sometimes confusingly, with scenes taking place in occupied Norway involving a secret Nazi research team called HYDRA — with a logo of the mythical multi-headed hydra taking the place of the swastika on their uniforms and of the Mercedes star symbol on their cars — headed by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), who hired Dr. Erskine to develop the super-strength treatment in the first place and who also discovered a glowing white cube that he claims was formerly the property of the god Odin (Wotan to you Wagnerites out there) and which supplies a limitless source of energy to power all the high-tech weaponry his research team, headed by the oddly nerdy Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), has devised, including light-powered ray guns and a flying-wing airplane called the Valkyrie which according to an poster was actually derived from genuine designs the Germans experimented with (Horten X.XVIII and Triebflügeljäger), though frankly it looked to me like they got the “look” of the thing from the Flying Wing seen in the Republic serials Dick Tracy (1937) and The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938).

Unfortunately for our side, a Nazi assassin manages to crash the secret lab in which Dr. Erskine works the transformation — which Our Hero was brought to by a British liaison, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), with whom he naturally falls in love — and kills Erskine. He tries to steal one ampule of the super-serum, but Steve Rogers gives chase (this is one superhero movie in which the hero doesn’t get a chance to try out his new-found powers; he has to press them into service in an actual emergency right away!) and manages to keep the bad guys from getting it, only the ampule breaks so the good guys don’t have it either, nor do they have a sample from which it could be reconstructed. Not knowing what to do with their lab-created superman, the Army first tries to send him to Alamogordo for tests and then, when Rogers refuses, they dress him up in costume as “Captain America” and have him do vaudeville shows and other live appearances to encourage people to buy war bonds. (They also give him, his chorus line of 12 “America-ettes” and the guy in his act [James Payton] who plays “Adolph [sic] Hitler” a suitably insipid song to perform; frequent Disney composer Alan Menken must have had fun writing something this deliberately bad.)

Eventually we learn that Schmidt also went through Dr. Erskine’s process, though he experienced an earlier version of it with the side effect that his face turned beet-red and acquired the finely chiseled characteristics of Max Schreck’s Nosferatu makeup (and I suspect that was actually the inspiration of the people who created the design of his face). He also sailed into a heavy-duty megalomania that made Hitler look like Mother Teresa by comparison, and he worked out a plot to conquer the entire world with his high-tech weapons and install himself, not his nominal boss, as the world’s Führer. Captain America assembles a commando squad with himself as its commander and his friend Bucky Barnes (who was actually prepubescent in the original comics, one of those Boy Companions, like Batman’s Robin, whom the comics writers of the early 1940’s thought would humanize the books and give them more resonance to their mostly prepubescent and barely pubescent male readership — though in Jules Feiffer’s famous essay on the history of comics, replete with illustrations from the Golden Age, he was witheringly scornful of Boy Companions and said he’d never liked them) as his assistant, and together they stage a series of raids that take down HYDRA’s centers of operation, one by one — until they get to the last one in Norway.

Captain America loses Bucky, who falls from a moving train both he and the Captain are trying to board into a crevasse, and ultimately he discovers that Valkyrie is a huge bomber loaded with one missile each that is labeled “New York,” “Chicago,” etc. Cap realizes that his only chance to save America’s largest cities is to board Valkyrie, take over her controls and ditch the ship somewhere at sea — and eventually good triumphs over evil but good also finds himself encased in a block of ice for 70 years, from which he’s awakened in a hospital room where, in an attempt to ease his transition, they’re playing a recorded broadcast of a Brooklyn Dodgers (you remember) baseball game from 1941 — only Cap recognizes the game because he actually attended it, and he escapes from the hospital and finds himself face to face with the future-shocking reality of New York c. 2011. There’s a tag scene in the credits where he’s punching a heavy bag, and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury (a character who was white in the comics, by the way) makes two cameo appearances setting up a sequel in which Cap will appear with Thor and quite a few other members of the Marvel Universe in the 2012 film The Avengers.

Captain America was directed by Joe Johnston, a problematical filmmaker who’s like the little girl with the curl: when he is good (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer, October Sky) he is very, very good, and when he is bad (the franchise-killer Jurassic Park III and — by reputation, since I haven’t actually seen these — Jumanji and the 2010 Wolfman) he is horrid. This time around he’s very, very good, perhaps inspired by the similarities between this story and The Rocketeer (also a tale of an accidental superhero set during World War II with the Nazis as villains, and with a mysterious rich man in the background helping Our Hero — Howard Hughes in The Rocketeer and here the Hughes-like Howard Stark, who’s supposed to be either the father or grandfather of Iron Man and is actually played by someone, Dominic Cooper, I could readily imagine siring Robert Downey, Jr.). Johnston moves the film at a surprisingly stately pace, even during the action scenes, evoking the style of the actual movies of the 1940’s instead of turning it into a big-bang-a-minute thriller.

The film’s visual design is quite appealing, especially in its evocation of what people in 1942 thought the world’s high-tech future would look like. The script is by just two people, working as a team — Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely — which probably has a lot to do with why this is a better constructed movie than most of the superhero films out there — and it’s well acted, even though I found Chris Evans more believable as his other Marvel hero, the rambunctious Human Torch in the two Fantastic Four movies from 20th Century-Fox, than I did here. Still, he’s personable and hot, right for the role both physically and as a “type.” After Hugo Weaving’s marvelous performance as the hero of “V” for Vendetta it’s disappointing, to say the least, to see him as a villain again — and frankly I think it would have been better if Christoph Waltz had got the part — but as the heroine Hayley Atwell has the appealing spunkiness of her role models in Republic serials. Though I didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as Thor, Captain America is still an excellent movie in the superhero genre c. 2011.