Friday, July 29, 2011

"Captain America: The First Avenger"

I have something of an inconsistent relationship with superhero comics. While I sometimes find the ideas and characters compelling the narratives often lend themselves towards cheap, repetitive thrills and rather lame science fantasy. For every Watchmen, which effectively showed that superhero comics could be a serious artform with a multilayered narrative and a number of valuable social and literary messages, you have a ream of comic lines which are just melodramatic romps with lots of explosions, people holding shocked expressions on their faces and unsurprising twist endings where people who were supposed to be dead or absent show up for a final frame full-page profile shot. It makes it hard to take the medium seriously when it's so often pulpy or unfulfilling. It's no wonder, then, that I have an equally strained relationship with superhero films. I'll admit I'm not a reader of Marvel comics; as ridiculous as DC is I find something reassuring about the safe and relatively trustworthy presence of Batman which simply lacks an appropriate equivalent in Marvel's circles. The handful of Marvel works I've read have left me thinking that when push comes to shove they're probably no better and that I'd be better off sticking to the DC characters with whom I at least have familiarity to get me by.
However this has never stopped me from viewing the film adaptations of Marvel superhero comics, and they seem to have managed a relatively consistent quality-to-quantity ratio recently. The first Iron Man was a pretty solid introduction, and while Iron Man 2 suffered from being more of the same and thus less notable a few other good ones like X-Men: First Class have kept me reasonably interested. In the lead up to this big Avengers tie-in Marvel has been planning they've done Thor too, which was okay but felt kind of rushed, and the now semi-redundant The Incredible Hulk which was... just okay. As for the previous series of X-Men films which would be virtually unwatchable without Ian McKellen carrying the rest of the cast (including Patrick Stewart, unfortunately) and the Spider-Man trilogy, of which I only saw the second and thought it was crap in spite of everyone apparently loving it, well, let's just not mention those. They seem, however, to be doing a decent job with their Avengers-related films. Not amazing or anything, but decent.
"Decent" pretty much sums up Captain America: The First Avenger. It's solid, it's robust, it's got enough action and enough laughs and enough romance and enough seriousness to get the job done without exactly pushing any major envelopes. It's kind of like Captain America himself. He's a big strong guy who can jump ten feet and outrun a car but he's not flying, throwing tanks through the air or shooting lightning at people. He's portrayed with similar stoicness by Chris "That's Actually Hilarious" Evans, who gives us a reasonably naturalistic performance. We get the impression that Steve Rogers aka Captain America is a kind of idealistic guy with a healthy dose of courage and a good heart but we never really have it shoved down our throats, which is nice. What we see the most is his humility and altruism which of course serve as an ideal counterpoint to his opponent, Red Skull.
While you would think that the classic comic book villain horrifying visage would already make Red Skull fairly hard to swallow the fact that he's played by Hugo Weaving, who is a massive ham sandwich on rye bread with cheese and a dash of mustard, turns him into an unfathomable caricature of the tallest order. We have absolutely no sympathy with this villain, nor does he have understandable motivations. Occasionally people say he's "nuts" but that's about it. He speaks in an outrageously exaggerated pseudo-German accent and has some diabolical plan to take over the world. Or destroy the world. One of those two. He seems to go for the 'destroying' option towards the end but it's suggested that he still wants to take over as well. He gets some kind of magic energy from a cube which I think may have been in the Thor post-credits sequence but it's never really explained and that lets him build distintegration cannons and some kind of super plane called the Valkyrie which has bombs that can wipe out whole cities... I think. No one ever says that but you see these flying bomb things with city names on it so I guess that was the plan. He also has Toby Jones, who seems to have scored decent secondary roles in loads of films lately, as his evil scientist offsider who inevitably gets cold feet. One day can't we have a villain and chief henchman team who actually get along? It's not helped by the unfathomable motives of Red Skull.
Of course this segues into the whole plot about taking down Red Skull. Despite being a World War Two film the actual German forces are conspicuously absent for virtually all of it. The swastika is only displayed a handful of times in the first half of the film and at a conveniently early juncture Red Skull's nefarious organisation, HYDRA, goes rogue from its Nazi affiliation and starts operating their own agenda. This accomodates a huge private army and numerous facilities. If Nazi Germany barely had the resources to stand on its own, where is HYDRA getting all the metal for planes and the recruits for soldiers and so on once they sever ties with Hitler? Good outsourcing? It reduces the sense of plausibility when we have this ridiculously cheesy evil organisation like SPECTRE on steroids with so much gear in the middle of the war. This is problematic because as mentioned before Captain America is a hero who maintains a lot of his believability and humanity; he's clearly above human power but he's not alienated as some heroes are. It would have been a lot more effective in my opinion to have pitted him against the Axis as part of the actual war rather than some kind of side operation against this similar but ultimately unrelated secret army. At least having HYDRA working on its own avoids what I like to term the "Wolfenstein Nazi syndrome" where despite being stretched to the absolute limit in a hopeless battle they couldn't win somehow late-war Nazis are so often depicted with access to beyond-modern levels of technology squirrelled away in bunkers and stuff, but it's still implausibly powerful and well-equipped for a private organisation in the Forties. Speaking of which, the HYDRA troops even have this ridiculous "Hail HYDRA!" salute where they stick both hands in the air. It looks completely absurd and is impossible to take seriously. This whole thing should have been dropped. Instead we get the now-overdone Marvel film conceit where our hero must fight a villain who has the same powers as him but is evil. It happened with Stark versus Stane in Iron Man, Stark versus Vanko in Iron Man 2 (good power armour man versus bad power armour man), with Bruce Banner and Blonsky in The Incredible Hulk (good Hulk versus bad Hulk) and for all intents and purposes in Thor with Thor (good Norse god) versus Loki (bad Norse god). Now we have Captain America (good serum-enhanced soldier) versus Red Skull (bad serum-enhanced soldier). Time to come up with a new plot, guys!
This all serves as an uncomfortable juxtaposition to the rest of the film which, beyond Captain America's own enhancement, presents a reasonably realistic and only mildly romanticised depiction of the war. The montage sequence of Steve becoming a propaganda figure for the war bonds movement unaffiliated with the reality of the war is considerably effective and is rather unceremoniously and disappointingly dropped after the first part of the film the moment Steve attacks the first HYDRA base to rescue Bucky and is immediately established as a perfect combatant and leader. Again it comes back to the silliness of the main plot involving Red Skull and HYDRA which, while providing the suitably action-paced superhero fodder, is not nearly as compelling or interesting as the exploration of Steve's own character and the interesting contrast of his very science-fictiony super-soldier enhancement and the associated personal power and glamour with the harsh and bitter reality of the front lines. It might have been effective, for instance, to see Steve thrown into battle by his superiors strong but unskilled and inexperienced, how his individual power contrasts with Nazi military might or the hollowness of promotion and moneymaking compared to life-and-death in the field. Unfortunately however the ideas presented in the first half of the film, which are the best ones, never get borne to fruition. Similarly all of HYDRA's sci-fi weirdness makes the sci-fi enhancement of Steve seem relatively mundane and unopen to artistic scrutiny.
The other characters are fairly unremarkable. Tommy Lee Jones puts in an acceptable but relatively textbook performance as Colonel Phillips, Sebastian Stan's Bucky is sadly undeveloped due to a lack of screen time, and Captain America's team of all-Allied buddies are introduced too late to be particularly noteworthy. Stanley Tucci's Dr. Erskine is unfortunately a rather uninspired mentor-figure and on a nitpicky level I can't imagine anyone from that period having such dishevelled facial hair. Dominic Cooper's Howard Stark is another interesting character who doesn't get enough development. Too much time was wasted on stupid Red Skull scenes! Lastly Hayley Atwell's Peggy Carter, while of course very pretty in an extremely proper kind of way and given a few impressive moments is nonetheless a predictable romantic hook for Steve and similarly fulfils an incongruous and anachronistic action-girl stereotype of the kind so favoured in these kinds of films in a now-cliché and equally condescending attempt to avoid the 'Bond girl' dilemma. While all these actors give solid performances they don't get enough time to shine.
What Captain America boils down to, then, is a game of two halves. We have the rather compelling exploration of a superhero in the brutal scenario of the Second World War and a group of curious themes to be queried about the consequences of such a situation but it's sacrificed for a boring action-based plot surrounding HYDRA and the lamentable Red Skull. I know a superhero film like this shouldn't necessarily aim for great intellectual depth but in that case I shouldn't be teased with the tantalising hints of it we get in the first half of the film! It's a shame it becomes such a romp by the end. Similarly it looks like we'll have to wait until The Avengers to get a look at how an All-American Hero from the Forties might interact with the society and culture of the Twenty-first century and Samuel L Jackson's increasingly arbitrary appearances as Nick Fury are becoming quite needless. Unfortunately there's too much franchise direction in here. If a film like this had been made on its own and for its own sake it could have been something altogether more valuable. It's a good watch and is reasonably engaging but had it gone a step further into the artistic ground rather than the safe and comfortable retreat of action it could have pushed itself into the spotlight, like Steve Rogers in one of his bond drives, as a truly great film.

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