Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Movie Review: "Captain America: The First Avenger"

The Star-Spangled Man with a Plan!

In a summer full of comic book hero flicks ranging from the excellent ("X-Men: First Class") to the good ("Thor") to the laughably bad ("Green Lantern"), here's finally a rip-roaring flick with all the colorful comic book fun and adventure that we've all been waiting for.  Marvel's "Captain America" delivers the summer popcorn movie pleasure with panache, unironic good guys-versus-bad guys action, an excellent supporting cast, and a surprisingly charming retro 1940s vibe complete with a splashy song-and-dance number and newsreel homages.  It's Marvel's best comic book superhero movie since 2008's scintillating "Iron Man," and like that predecessor, this movie is, in terms of its hero, almost as much of a delightful revelation, and in terms of some underlying ideas just as ultimately substantive once the rollicking adventure is over.

The Premise:
Set in the midst of World War II, the storyline focuses on Steve Rogers, "a kid from Brooklyn" (as he says) and a 90-pound asthmatic weakling with the fearless heart of a lion who joins the war effort and takes part in an experimental program that turns him into a "super soldier."

The Cast:
The movie boasts an astutely cast roster that adds texture and depth to the narrative.  The names of the supporting cast alone are a roll call of some serious talent: Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones.  Hugo Weaving makes quite a striking villain as Johann Schmidt, sometime Nazi and eventual leader of his own villainous HYDRA organization attempting to out-Nazi the Nazis, and Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter is a "beautiful dame," as one character calls her, but also so much more than that love interest stock character. (In a nice touch, in the credits her name appears superimposed on top of the iconic Rosie the Riveter "We Can Do It" poster -- well played, people).  I was pleased to see Sebastian Stan, lately so good in the now-canceled TV series "Kings," as Bucky Barnes, Captain America's friend from boyhood, and Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark -- yes, the Howard Stark, father of Tony. Let's just say Tony is a chip off the old mustached, charmingly roguish block.  Chris Evans is the lead, and he does a fine job as a hero whose upstanding character drives him more than his physical strength or talents.

On Ideas:
There's a lot going on here, but I'll just note a few things that struck me.  One is the theme of courage and praise of the little guy with a big heart.  There's also the thread exploring power and its uses, abuses, and the substance of those who have it and wield it. Check out Steve's answer when someone asks him if he wants to kill Nazis.

There's also the understated theme of unity in the cause of freedom.  Captain America does not fight alone; he goes into battle with a group of Allied friends that in itself is about inclusion.  Aside from his American friends, there is also a Brit, a Frenchman, an African-American, and -- most piquantly of all, a Japanese-American.  There is one moment that caught my attention in particular -- when Evans' character Steve Rogers first meets Jim Morita (played by Kenneth Choi).  Rogers says nothing but takes a second, rather surprised look, and Morita responds by pulling out his US Army dog tags and saying gruffly, "I'm from Fresno, ace!"  After that, he is as much a part of Rogers' circle of friends as anybody else.  If you're a bit fuzzy about the historical context, go look up the 442nd Infantry.  

(UPDATE: And before anyone complains, yes, I know that the Army was racially segregated in WWII and would be until Truman abolished it in 1948!  He did it with Executive Order 9981.  My point is that the movie anticipates this in order to make a point.  It depicts Captain America's posse of good guys as it should be, not as it historically was constrained to be.  That posse of good guys is in part metaphorical -- in the fight against evil (and Red Skull is so utterly depraved that not even the Nazis are evil enough for him), good guys are all decent people regardless of color or creed or other factors of obvious difference.)

By the way, I hardly need to tell you this, but since the movie is by Marvel you know to do two things: (1) Look for a cameo by Stan Lee and (2) Wait for the bonus scene after the credits roll.  This time around, the extra scene is a particular treat because it has an appearance by several other Avengers including *spoiler alert! * the charismatic millionaire industrialist loose cannon that La Parisienne and I love best, along with an intriguing look at Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye and the reappearance of Tom Hiddleston as Loki.

The Verdict:

MM gives "Captain America" a grade of A.

Rotten Tomatoes gives this movie a Fresh rating of 75%.

"Captain America" runs 125 minutes and is rated PG-13 for action sequences, violence, and some frightening images.

UPDATE: Check out this review at io9.  Also this that makes a few nice points about Agent Peggy Carter.

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