A Short Rant about Captain America: The First Avenger

I’ve a long-held policy: “you don’t review it in a week, forget about doing a long review”, because after a week I tend to forget whatever it was I wanted to say about the movie.  That being said, I still have some thoughts bouncing around my concrete lined skull about  Captain America:  The First Avenger.  So here’s a short review that verges on a rant.

“Hey, let’s pair a two-fisted fighter with immobile opponents! That’ll be super exciting!”

Joe Johnston of Rocketeer fame (does that count as fame?) directed this, and its exactly what you’d think you’d get if you took a guy who made a fun but underwhelming pulp hero flick and had him direct yet another Marvel “prequel for a film that wasn’t made yet” movie.  Which is to say, a fun, and entertaining film that doesn’t reach the full potential of its cast, main character, or the money .  It’s a shame because lead Chris Evans makes for a better Captain than I’d have expected, the supporting cast is great, and there’s enough that goes right to make things that go wrong very noticeable.  What are they?

Captain America and Bucky: The First Fight Club

1)  Marvel is stuffing  200 lbs of comic history into a 10 lb bag.  You just can’t include this many characters, plus visual references to 70 years of comics into two hours.  These guys need to learn to pick a few salient points and characters make a good movie first, and leave the referencing of as much stuff as possible from the comics for longer form endeavors, like the fun cartoon they’re running now on some third stringer Disney channel.  I’ve seen not one but two animated introductions to Captain America that fulfill the “prequel” functions of this film in a much shorter time.  I kept thinking about Raiders of the Lost Ark (referencing it in dialogue didn’t help gentlemen), which has six, and if we’re being generous and include the head German officer and that eye patch guy, eight major characters.  Captain America, in contrast, includes as many as fifteen: Steve Rogers, Bucky, Peggy Carter, Colonel Phillips, The Red Skull, Arnim Zola, Howard Stark, Dr, Erskine, “Dum Dum” Dugan and Easy Company, Senator Brandt, and Steve’s nemesis in training. Indy’s most important interactions are with Belloq and Marian alone, but Steve Rogers should have strong relationships with Bucky, Carter, The Red Skull, and Dr. Erskine.  There’s just too much going on there to include unnecessary characters like Howard Stark, who seems to be there just for “continuity” purposes and adds little to the proceedings.  I also question why we needed the bookends covering Captain America’s demise, since they could easily be a great intro to Avengers.  Hell, end on a cliff hanger, it’d be in keeping with the episodic nature of comics!

“Did you say step three was that I open the box?”

2)  The Red Skull is not just a madman with science skills and a fighting abilities to rival Cap’s.  He’s not the leader of a splinter organization that answers only to him; he’s a true Nazi and a loyal follower of Der Fuhrer, even if he makes Hitler nervous.  If we’re at the point where we can’t have Nazis as villains in a comic book/pulp adventure story because the kids don’t know who Nazis are, we’re fucked.  Why exactly were they left out?  You can’t make the Red Skull just another megalomaniac, because it really takes away what makes him a perfect foil for Captain America.  There’s also the simple fact that a shadowy super science organization is no substitute for Nazis in terms of a great force of evil to fight against, and Hydra doesn’t serve as an excuse to give Captain America worthy opponents; mostly it just was an excuse to use weapons and uniforms that look more modern/sci-fi.

3)  Overuse of CG:  I understand you need CG for the super science stuff.  I know you need CG for some of the backgrounds.  You need CG for the transformations.  Yes.  You do not need CG for the majority of the fights in this film.  Captain America has no superpowers aside from his fancy magic shield that can’t break and functions like a boomerang for some reason (which it makes perfect sense to enhance with CG).  For the bulk of Captain America fights, the inspiration should be classic action films-yes, Raiders with its Rube Goldberg fight scenes, but even things like the older, stunt laden James Bond films.  Scenes that recalled the best of the past.  Instead, outside of the first sequence, the action scenes lacked oomph and a big part of the problem was the overuse of CG, which took a more down to Earth hero and made him a cartoon.  Of course, Joe Johnston is no Spielberg, but the over-reliance on (quite frankly, often shitty) CG didn’t help.  Spend some money on location shooting, some nice big sets, put in fewer characters, focus the story, get some nicely choreographed action and stunts in there and you might have something.

I should be clear: for all my criticism, I found this to be a perfectly enjoyable afternoon at the theater.  The audience, which featured a large number of boys under ten, had a ball with it, and I must confess I left the theater pumped for the next Avengers movie, despite my misgivings.  As it is, Captain America is a fun superhero movie; the only shame is it could (and probably should) have been a great superhero movie, and a good (or even great) adventure or war film, depending on how they spun it.                                                                                                                  -Morts

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2 comments on “A Short Rant about Captain America: The First Avenger

  1. 1)Ab. So. Lutely. This was my major problem with every Marvel movie since…well, X-Men, really. But things started to become acute in The Incredible Hulk. Iron Man avoided this trend by (shocker of shockers) choosing to tell one goddamn story at a time. I think Jon Favreau’s continued insistence on doing just that led Marvel to push him off of Iron Man 3.

    Howard Stark’s the finest example of this and his “finest” scene comes about halfway through the film. Here’s this guy, right? The most brilliant and creative industrial engineer on the entire Allied side of the war, if not the entire world, the Walt Disney of WMDs. How on God’s green and verdant Midgard does he get to walk around Occupied Italy in (what? 1943?) unsupervised? Where’s the massive military escort any high-value civilian rates in war zones run by smart people? One sniper in the woods is all it would take to end the Stark line right there, and Project: Rebirth would’ve wound up costing the U.S. two Super Scientists instead of one.

    So why is Stark in Italy anyway? Is he just following Steve around, doing research? Is he working with General Tommy Lee Jones on some weapon? If so, does he really need to be on the front line for that? There’s a very good reason Oppenheimer waited to visit Hiroshima until after they dropped the bomb. Then he steals a plane at Captain America’s behest and flies it behind enemy lines, which could very well be construed as treason. He only survives because, by the time Cap’s back with the Fanservice Commandos, we’ve pretty much forgotten about him and are already off to the montage.

    If you asked them, I’m sure Marvel would say they did it for “continuity,” but Howard’s presence actually pulled me out of the film by begging more questions than it answered. And even those were questions I never asked in the first place. I don’t care who rigged up power for the Vita Chamber. I don’t care if the Stark/Vanko arc reactor is derived from Asgardian tech or not.

    2) Is it sad that I prefer Scott Paulin Red Skull to Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull? I think that made me the saddest of all. But I’m always surprised by other people’s surprise that Red Skull’s no longer a Nazi. No one wants to sell Nazi action figures to kids.

    Well…okay…no one wants to get caught selling Nazi action figures to kids with a $200 million PG-13 action movie released in the middle of July. Honestly, I wish this had come out on the fourth and given Michael Bay the trouncing he so rightly deserved. IN AMERICA!

    3)Eleven years after Titanic and Phantom Menace, most actors just don’t know how to act against green backgrounds. And most directors don’t know how to talk them through the process. Either we all go back to on-location shooting, adopt the hybridized, Peter Jackson approach, or everyone needs to go back to school. Directors need to know exactly what they want from the human being in front of the camera and worry about the one behind the computer monitor later on.

    So, yeah…you pretty much nailed this one. Another case of cinematic blue balls for superhero fandom. Good thing (for Marvel) that we’re so used to it by now. Almost no one else seems to have noticed.

    Those first forty-five minutes though? Pretty darn awesome.

    • professormortis says:

      I don’t know-by Iron Man 2 Farveau was juggling too much himself, I think, and it really hurt the film. I don’t know why they would be dumb enough to get rid of him, but that’s too bad-I didn’t know he was off of the next one.

      As for Howard Stark, on the one I had I see your logical objections-but if we were going on pure logic, we wouldn’t have a comic book movie. My complaint is less that his behavior makes no sense, and more that his presence is an unnecessary distraction. If this was a modern movie, it might be fun to have Robert Downey Jr. make a cameo appearance, but having his totally random father (did Howard Stark even have a WWII history before this movie?) is, as you say a distraction with no payoff. More importantly, I agree: I don’t care or even get why you’d need Stark involved except to make it more “plausible” by having it all connected. I think that’s the idea. Clean up all the messes that 70 years of comics history, disconnected messes where there’s a super scientist around ever corner, left.

      Commercial considerations or no, the Red Skull needs to be a Nazi. I knew he wasn’t going in, but I didn’t realize they’d completely abandon his personality to do so….completely remove that attitude. How easy would it be to show it off since there are multiple “Untermensch” about for him to sneer at? Regardless, I am not sure your commercial considerations idea explains it as much as the “pathologically playing it safe and inoffensive” one. Going back to Raiders, they made action figures of the Nazis from that one, and no one even noticed.

      3) The actors are part of it, I agree but I don’t think the acting problem is the only one. I think it’s the overreach. Instead of just a REALLY BIG hanger with a REALLY BIG PLANE in it, we get a hanger that makes Blofeld’s volcano look like a fishing shack with upwards of 50 planes too big to ever fly. Instead of Captain America making a leap that only the greatest Olympian could make, he makes a jump Evel Knievel couldn’t make. The overreach makes everything too big to be real, and makes everything look like a video game. The worst, though, is when shots that any Z-Grade 1970s Euro WWII exploitation flick could pull off-say a half dozen guys sliding down a rope onto a moving train, and turns it into the stupidest looking thing this side of really awful matting in 1940s comedies. I’m starting to think that Hollywood has simply lost the know how to make these kind of basic scenes. Unfortunately, they’ve also killed off their International competition, and the competition that survives is using the same awful CG.
      Thanks for the kind words. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to notice this stuff and the crowd will turn on me, point, and let out unearthly screams.

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