Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Summer Movies: Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America surrounded by Hydra troopers. (Don't worry, he's got a plan!)
I'm way late writing about this, even though I saw it opening weekend, but it's still playing and it's my favorite movie of the summer so I still want to get my thoughts down.

This may seem like a pretty safe action-adventure film, but I think it was actually a bit daring. Besides being a period piece, the filmmakers chose to be true to Steve Rogers' character rather than doing a cliche action hero. It would have been easy to have him spend the film mowing down Nazis and making jokes -- "Hasta la vista, Hydra!" -- but instead Chris Evans plays Cap as thoughtful and earnest. Evans is totally believable, even in his pre-Cap phase where the CGI actually adds to his character rather than being a distraction. Someone, probably the Marvel writers, put a lot of thought into Steve's behavior: for instance, in the USO montage Steve gradually gets better as a performer even though it's an assignment he hates. He can't help himself; he has to do whatever job he's given to the best of his ability. I won't give away the secret of the movie's final scenes, but they feature some of Evans' best acting and the last line before the credits is my favorite line in the whole film. (After the credits is the "Avengers" trailer, which can be viewed online but not without giving away the ending to "Captain America". Well, not officially, anyway.)

Casting is always critical in comic-book movies -- I still say a major reason "Batman Begins" was so well received was because of Michael Caine -- and there are a couple of standouts here. Dr. Erskine, inventor of the super-soldier serum, is largely a cipher in the comics but Stanley Tucci brilliantly brings him to life as a kindly old man that you immediately fall in love with. Just like Caine as Alfred, the audience loves Tucci and Erskine cares about Steve Rogers, so that affection transfers over to the main character. Erskine's death scene -- spoiler, I guess, but I assume you're all familiar with Cap's origin -- is one of the best scenes in the film. Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Phillips gets to make a lot of the jokes that Captain America can't, and so we love him too. Hayley Atwell is great as Peggy Carter, and at least one woman I know was very taken with the love story between her and Steve. Dominic Cooper is perfectly cast as Howard Stark -- you actually believe he could be Robert Downey Jr's father -- but some of his story arc seems to have been cut from the film. (There's a sequence with him experimenting with one of the Red Skull's energy weapons that never goes anywhere, for instance.) And of course, Hugo Weaving is deliciously evil as Captain America's opposite number, but not so much that it unbalances things. I did like Sebastian Stan as Bucky, but honestly his character didn't make as much of an impact on me as the ones above.

The only comic creator cameo I noticed was Stan Lee's -- I know Ed Brubaker was invited to the set, but couldn't make it because of family issues -- and there's a cameo of a certain Invader in the World's Fair sequence if you don't blink. Appearances by Arnim Zola and the Howling Commandos are more than cameos, but not by much. (Both of them are great, though.)

I saw both the 2D and 3D versions -- on the same day (long story) -- and I much preferred the 2D version. Other than one shot of Cap's shield being thrown at the camera, the 3D didn't add anything and I still find it much muddier and darker to watch. There are a couple of Hydra deaths that are a little more violent than I would prefer for kids, but they go by really fast so I'd say this movie is OK for pretty much anybody old enough not to be bored by the talky parts.

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