Oh Captain, My Captain

Well, the last of the Avengers prequels is upon us.  Oh, don’t be fooled by how it’s cleverly titled Captain America, because Marvel doesn’t want to leave you any doubt that this is just prologue to the movie they really want you to see next summer.  Through Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk and Thor and now this, we’ve basically been told that we’ve just been warming up for the main event, but if anything, all this build up has just made me weary of the whole idea.  Whereas in the wake of the first Iron Man movie I would have sat down and watched an Avengers film right that second, now I’m like, “Just release the damn thing and get it over with already.”  It’s sort of like  a summer movie coming out in August but whose trailers start running in May.  Except we’ve been seeing trailers for three years now.

It’s the insistence on tying everything into Marvel’s 2012 tent pole that gets Captain America off on the absolute wrong foot.  As soon as I saw what looked like modern vehicles driving through the snow, I was hoping against hope the film wasn’t going where I thought it was, but no, there we are in the present and the discovery of Cap’s frozen shield and “Better call the Colonel.”  It’s getting to the point where Marvel might as well call their films The Nick Fury Saga, as much as his presence hovers over them.  And to make matters worse, we then cut to what should have been the opening of the film, a “Norway 1942” title card and a fantastic introduction to Hugo Weaving’s magnificent Johann Schmidt.  In tone, style and feel, it’s so different from the first scene that you think they might have accidentally started showing the wrong movie for five minutes or so.  I felt like the ship was righting itself, and once we got into the meat of Cap’s origin, we seemed to be fully back on course.  Chris Evans (with some special effects assistance) does a great job conveying Steve Rogers’  inner strength and intelligence hidden in his scrawny frame, qualities that make him the perfect candidate on which to test the government’s new Super Solider program.  When Rogers shouts for them to continue with the Super Soldier procedure despite his cries of pain, it’s as heroic as anything else in the film, because it’s not a battle he wins with physical strength, but sheer will.  We see in that moment what made him a hero long before he got his upgraded new body.  Not that he’s not a hero in the new body; his pursuit of an enemy spy shortly after his transformation is also thrillingly done, played with just the right balance of elation and trepidation, as Cap gets the hang of just what he’s capable of.

But then comes a difficult stretch of the film for me.  It’s a sequence that I think has tons of energy and gets tons of stuff right — it may be my favorite part of the film — but that I also think takes away time that could have been better used later on.  The enemy spy has destroyed both the lab that housed the Super Soldier technology and the scientist who created it.  Deprived of its promise of rank after rank of Super Soldiers, the Army is ready to write Rogers off, but a canny senator sees the huge propaganda value in a heroic blonde, blue-eyed kid from Brooklyn.  And so “Captain America” is born as a war bonds salesman, complete with a dead-on recreation of Cap’s costume from the original comics, played for all its inherently goofy patriotism.  But this isn’t the war Rogers thought he’d be fighting, a point driven home when his routine draws jeers from soldiers who have seen actual combat.  When he learns that an old friend is among a group of soldiers captured by Schmidt, Rogers is finally motivated to take direct action, and thus the hero is truly born.

All of which would make for a rousing ending to a pretty great origin film.  The only problem is, this happens about halfway through.  We’ve still got Cap’s campaign against Schmidt — now revealed as the Red Skull — to set up and resolve.  And with the running time that’s left, this part of the film feels awfully compressed.  We see a montage of successful battles, one mission in detail that ends successfully but tragically, and then it feels like we’re on to a final confrontation that really hasn’t been built up to.  I feel like we needed to see at least one of Cap’s raids on the Red Skull fully play out, to show us Cap’s skill as a leader and to heighten the stakes between him and Schmidt.  As it is, they’re adversaries simply because the Skull is a less-successful product of the same procedure that created Captain America.  There’s also a missed opportunity to show us the true scale of the threat the Red Skull poses.  We’re told of the incredible power he possesses, we’re told it can annihilate entire cities, but we’re only ever shown it used to disintegrate soldiers and knock down walls. What was needed here was for Cap to  fail to stop a Red Skull attack on one of his targets, not only to show us just what the outcome would be should the Skull prevail, but to give us some more conflict for Cap himself.  It would be a chance for him to question himself and his abilities, raising the stakes all around for the inevitable third act showdown.  Which is rousing enough when it finally comes, but lacks the impact it could have had it been built to properly.

In the end, the film follows comic lore pretty much by the book.  Cap sacrifices himself to save the day, ending up entombed in ice only to awaken 70 years later in a once-familiar city that is now a stranger to him.  Although this reveal is pretty much telegraphed by the opening scene, and therefore its impact somewhat diminished,  it’s still done fairly well, up until Colonel Exposition arrives to explain everything and remind us what Marvel had in mind for this film all along:  “Are you ready for The Avengers yet?”

This isn’t a bad film by any stretch.  It’s got a good performance from Evans as Cap and a great performance by Weaving as the Red Skull, vividly demonstrating the two ways the acquisition of great power can go.  Director Joe Johnston, no stranger to the time period and style thanks to his work on The Rocketeer 20 years ago, strikes just the right tone of earnest patriotism without descending into corny flag-waving or ironic commentary.  Part of the appeal of Captain America is his tried and true red-white-and-blueness regardless of the time period in which he finds himself, and it’s great to see this played as a virtue rather than an outdated philosophy.  And the film looks fantastic, from the convincingly period designs to the visual effects to the way the film is shot and put together.*  It’s a quality production, just one that, frustratingly, never gave me that sense in my gut I get when I know a great film well and truly has me in its grip.  It’s certainly the best super-hero movie of the summer though, and easily better than anything Marvel Studios has done up to this point (I’ve really cooled on Iron Man in the time since its release).  I really wish I liked it more than I do.

*Against my will, I saw this in 3D.  I’m staunchly against the process, both because of its gimmicky nature and because of how it unnecessarily dims the image you’re watching; theater projectors are dim enough without sticking two filters in the way.  I didn’t think Captain America benefited much from the process, but I don’t think it really detracted either.  There were a few scenes where it did add some height and depth that helped convey certain moods, but nothing that merited the extra cost of seeing it in the 3D format.

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