Another feather in Marvel's Cap ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Another feather in Marvel's Cap

Captain America: The First Avenger
My rating:

Allow me to begin my review of the last superhero movie of 2011 by mentioning our local filmmakers' attempts at creating Malaysian superheroes, two of which I've seen (but not the two Cicakman movies, arguably the most noteworthy ones to date). My biggest gripe about both is that they have no idea what the word "hero" means. It means selflessness. It means moral courage, not just the fight-the-bad-guys kind of courage. A bad superhero story panders to the wish-fulfilment adolescent power fantasy of beating up those who have wronged you. A good superhero story transcends that by defining heroism, by creating a character with a moral code that is tested and emerges stronger as a result. This is exactly where Haq and Kapoww!! failed.

And this exactly where Captain America: The First Avenger succeeds.

It is 1942, and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants to enlist in the army to fight the Nazis - but he keeps getting rejected because of his weak physique and poor health. Despite admonishments from his best friend James "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan) - who is himself shipping out to the war front - Steve persists in trying to enlist, which earns him the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci). Erskine recruits him for a secret project, led by Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and aided by Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and industrialist Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), to inject him with a "super-soldier" serum that enhances his physical abilities to the peak of human potential. But the formula for the serum is lost soon after, and the newly-transformed "Captain America" is sidelined as a touring entertainer promoting the sale of war bonds. But you can't keep a good soldier down, and soon Steve is on the front lines battling the forces of HYDRA, a splinter Nazi organization led by Johann Schmidt - alias the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) - and bent on world domination.

Just like with Thor, Marvel Studios prove they have the formula for making superhero movies down pat - or at least, superhero origin movies. Both have the same combination of action, humour, broad yet effective characterisation, and just enough gravitas to be taken seriously; I can't imagine anyone who liked Thor not liking this one. In fact, I can't imagine anyone who liked the first Iron Man not liking either Thor or this one, and I suspect the only reason why Tony Stark is more popular is that he's the most obvious male fantasy figure; everyone wants to be a snarky, sinfully wealthy playboy who drives an Audi R8 and sleeps with a different hot chick every night. But that also points to the unique identities each of the three films have forged independent of each other - namely, in each of their central characters.

Steve Rogers is not an unrepentant capitalist who has a change of heart, or an arrogant man-child who learns humility. From start to finish, he is a paragon of courage and decency. He wants to enlist because he sees it as his moral duty; when Erskine asks him, "You want to kill Nazis?", his answer is, "I don't want to kill anybody. I just don't like bullies." He fights like a lion even though his scrawniness means he keeps getting beaten up. He throws himself on what he thinks is a live grenade when the rest of his squadmates run for cover (in a scene that raised giggles from the audience, which I don't think is the appropriate reaction; it's a hero moment, not a funny one). And when the super-soldier procedure transforms him into every woman's wet dream, he is seen briefly enjoying his newfound adulation and celebrity - things he's never had in his life - but when he hears his best friend has been taken as a POW, he sallies forth on his own to rescue him.

This flies in the face of conventional screenwriting wisdom regarding character arcs, which can sometimes be stupidly reduced to "he must be a hero by the end, so he needs to start off as a jerk" (see Green Lantern). Cap does not have a character arc, but he has strong characterization that is both tested and demonstrated in numerous different ways, and this makes him as compelling as any movie character. Who he really is never changes, only his physical body does - and that points to another great thing the movie does in actually redefining Cap from its source material. The fact that Steve Rogers was too scrawny to enlist in the army has always been part of Captain America's backstory, but it had never been explored to the depths that this film does - how his physical weakness is integral to who he is today, as much the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents is integral to Batman. Even for long-time fans of the comics, this is new, and it actually makes its hero even more heroic than he's ever been.

So it disappoints me when folks don't appreciate a superhero movie with a genuinely, inspiringly heroic protagonist, but it doesn't really surprise me. I suspect they were expecting actual superpowers a la X-Men, because there aren't really any here; Cap isn't super-strong like Superman, he's just, as his Wikipedia entry puts it, at the highest limits of natural human potential. This means the action scenes are pretty prosaic ones of Cap beating up HYDRA goons and occasionally operating a vehicle or two - but Johnston puts them together competently, which really deserves more credit than it's given. I might quibble about how he didn't use his shield often enough, since it's his one attribute that might qualify him for the "super" aspect of "superhero" - but as compensation, I got some pretty cool dieselpunk-futuristic designs in HYDRA's uniforms, bases, war machines and laser guns. (Oh, did I mention? This movie gets its laser guns in your World War II!)

Chris Evans is terrific. This makes no less than the third comicbook character role he's nailed; his Johnny Storm was one of the few bright spots of the otherwise sucky Fantastic Four movies, and don't forget Lucas Lee in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It's pretty amazing how an actor so good at playing cocky and egomaniacal jerks can turn right around and play a character for whom the slightest hint of self-centeredness could sink the whole movie. Hugo Weaving could play a comicbook villain in his sleep, and it's a small pity he wasn't given more opportunity to ham it up. Tommy Lee Jones gets most of the funniest lines and laughs from his droll delivery. Stanley Tucci establishes a warm mentorly chemistry with Evans in just a few short scenes. Sebastian Stan gets little screentime, but enough to raise anticipation for a possible future storyline. And Hayley Atwell is just a little wooden, but damn she looks great in a uniform.

And one more great thing about Captain America: The First Avenger - absolutely no jingoistic, flag-waving "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" propaganda. Marvel Studios actually offered foreign markets the option to drop the Captain America from the title (which few countries did), and that points to how considerate they've been in promoting the movie. Yanks may whine about them being "ashamed to be American", but the real kicker is a film that needs absolutely no overt patriotism to portray a hero any American - anyone in the world, really - could admire. Hot damn, with the two Iron Mans and Thor and now this, the Marvel cinematic universe is becoming an inexorably awesome great-movie-making machine. I'm expecting equally great things now from next year's The Avengers, but frankly, I'd be just as happy to see more of Cap.

NEXT MOVIE: Winter's Bone
Expectations: ooh, I've been looking forward to this one


profwacko said...

Even with laser guns, Hydra's soldier still loose to american soldier. Their aiming must be very bad. lol.

In real world, if Nazi have lasers in WW2, i think they ruled the world today.

Dr Labu said...

The grenade scene. Maybe the crowd's laughter were meant for the other cadets (for cowering around) & not for steve rogers' selflessness.

Ana M said...

i was so glad to read that you love this movie!! i was anxious to know your reaction to it.

i just watched this movie (me living at a rural place with no option but to download is just a torture). But hell, i was waiting for it for two months since its release in the cinema. i was anxious to see your review but decided to watch it before i read your review (yes, your review plays an important role in my perception of the movie. in fact, in any movie. hehe). anyway, good job TMFB!! keep it up. =)