Friday, July 22, 2011

Cap Ranks with the Best -- Reflections on "Captain America: First Avenger" (2011)

Good thing his suit is CGI-retardant.
Here's the list of the great superhero films:

1. The Dark Knight
2. Spiderman 2
3. X2
4. Iron Man
5. Superman 2

Maybe it's because I'm giddy with enjoyment, or because my love for the hero goes all the way back to the halcyon days of my youth, but I'm ready to place Captain America: The First Avenger at number 5, ahead of the classic Superman 2 and all it's Zod-related goodness.

Captain America is, simply put, a delight. It's an old fashioned superhero yarn with none of the cynicism, none of the angst, and none of the pretension most of the recent crop of comic book films have had. It tells a straightforward story, doesn't bog us down in tons of tedious details, and gives us a protagonist we not only can root for, but love.

The last time I fell in love with a hero in a movie was Tony Stark in the first Iron Man, but that was because he was so charismatic that I fell under his spell. Steve Rogers, on the other hand, is the quintessential underdog whom, even after he's been augmented by the Super Soldier experiment, still manages to remain humble, genuine and good. It's not the wholesome goodness of Christopher Reeves' Clark Kent/Superman; it's a rugged goodness, like that of an honorable knight.

Besides the protagonist, though, there is much to love about this film. From the set design to the inspiring score by Alan Silvestri to the excellent character performances by Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Hugo Weaving and Hayley Atwell, Captain America is a comic book/movie fan's treat.

Basics: Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a 90-lb. weakling who has the heart of a warrior. He wants nothing more than to become a soldier to fight the Nazis in World War II, but due to a series of ailements, the least of which is ashtma, Steve continually gets rejected 4F. After meeting scientist Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), Steve is accepted into the military to be a part of an experiment to create super soldiers. The experiment works and he becomes Captain America, a great American hero. From there he falls in love, meets a slew of friends and comrades-in-arms, and goes toe-to-toe with the nefarious Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).

Classic Storytelling Techniques: One of the best things about Captain America is the use of montage to show the passing of time. It helps solve the problem most superhero origin stories have, which is having to front load exposition just to make the main story understandable (this is why so many of the best superhero films are sequels, because sequels don't have this problem). Once Steve becomes Cap, director Joe Johnston uses montages to show how Steve develops as a character. He doesn't get the chance to immediately become a hero, being given the choice to either become a laboratory guinea pig, or become a costumed spokesman for war bonds. Later, we get another montage showing his pursuit of the Red Skull's Hydra bases, which results in some fun explosions and special effects without the tedious necessity of setting up each mission. The use of these montages is very similar to 1940s/50s war films and not only propels this story, but serves as a wonderful tribute to the golden age of cinema.

A Strong Female Presence: One of the biggest problems with superhero films in general is the lack of strong female characters. Usually, most superheroes are men, so the women are delegated to basic roles, like supporting friend and love interest. They often get the lamest dialogue and become plot props of the woman-in-peril variety. Even in the best superhero films, like The Dark Knight and Spiderman 2 we see this happen. In Captain America, the female lead, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is more than a love interest. She's a British agent on assignment to assist the American Army. She is highly trained, holds her own against the men, and yet is still allowed to be feminine. Atwell plays Carter with a remarkable external strength that belies an inner sensitivity. The way the film builds her relationship with Steve Rogers is beautiful, and makes the pay off both memorable and tragic. It's rare that you can call a female in a male superhero movie essential, but Peggy Carter absolutely is.

Avengers Assemble!: One of my biggest concerns about Captain America when I first learned that it would be set in the 1940s was how they would connect his character to The Avengers film coming next year. After all, Iron Man, Hulk and Thor all took place in the current timeline and all had interactions with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Well, I should have be a bit more trusting. Not only does Captain America connect cleanly to The Avengers, it establishes a context for the team's existence, and gives the cinematic Marvel Universe a history. I like how Tony Stark's father plays a central role in the creation of Cap and his fight against Hydra. And I love how the conclusion of the film sets the stage for not only Cap's involvement in the Avengers, but the evolution of his character. All this, plus The Avengers trailer tagged on to the end of the credits make me extremely excited for next summer.

I will no doubt have to re-watch Captain America a few more times to determine where it fits in the pantheon of super hero movies, but the fact that I'm so avid to see it again assures me that it does indeed rank right up there with the best.

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