|CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER: A Star with Stripes Forever|
|Written by Will “The Thrill” Viharo|
Next to Batman and Spider-Man, Captain America is my favorite comic book hero, so this review is written from a longtime, hardcore fan’s perspective. I was particularly fond of the Steve Englehart/Sal Buscema era from the mid-1970s, when I actually read comic books, making it my personal Marvel/DC Golden Age and my main point of reference. So I’ve been greatly anticipating the latest, and biggest, adaptation of Cap yet, following decades of hit and (mostly) miss attempts, including a pretty exciting (if revisionist) 1940s Republic serial; a fairly fun if simply animated 1960s cartoon series; an infamously bad pair of 1970s TV movies; and a 1990 straight-to-video misfire starring JD Salinger’s son, Matthew, which was the most interesting thing about it. Cap is way overdue for some serious cinematic respect, and director Joe Johnston, who previously made one of the best comic adaptations ever, 1991’s The Rocketeer, as well as the recent, woefully under-rated remake of The Wolfman, finally does the character justice - for the most part. I just wish he’d hired geekier costume designers, but more on that later. First, let’s focus on what the filmmakers got delightfully right, which far outnumber the one or two things they blew, hence the five star rating:
The casting: despite some mild trepidation, largely due to the fact he’d already been perfectly cast as wiseass Johnny Storm/The Human Torch, a totally different type of Marvel hero, Chris Evans totally nails this guy, inside and out. As Steve Rogers, he instantly wins our support in his skinny, 98-pound weakling “Benjamin Buttonized” phase (the CGI effect is flawlessly executed), and carries our empathy through and beyond his scientifically-induced super soldier metamorphosis, proving strength of character is as significant as physical prowess when it come to being any kind of successful hero, much less a super one. Hugo Weaving is the ideal arch-nemesis Schmidt Johann, better known as the Red Skull, expertly exuding a truly intimidating sense of pure evil (making Hitler, who never shows his face in the film, come off like small fry in comparison), combined with an authentically rendered visage and over-the-top persona lifted straight from the comics. I love how you get to see his ghoulish-if-cartoonish makeup for most of the movie, because that’s the way it should be with a supervillain. Hayley Atwill as Steve’s would-be love interest is a tough-as-nails pinup beauty, a Varga girl with attitude, like a sexy-but-strong 1940s dame should be. Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci are solid in their supporting roles, and everyone is operating on the same page, making it a very effective ensemble.
The story: beautifully told and remarkably faithful to its roots, striking a subtle note of self-seriousness while maintaining its epic B movie sensibilities, sometimes verging on pure period pulp (I’d personally have preferred it much pulpier, but I know the studio considers guys like me a minority to be ignored, not a sizable base to placate). The overall tone is surprisingly but suitably somber, given the wartime setting, but laced with just the right amount of old-fashioned humor (unlike the much sharper-tongued “Irony” Man). The denouement is fraught with genuine pathos, too. The set designs and cinematography manage to evoke the 1940s without wallowing in kitschy nostalgia (though actually I’d have preferred that, too), and the pacing is fairly brisk, though as usual with origin stories, the proceedings sometimes get bogged down with scenes of necessary if tedious exposition that can cause restlessness in an audience ready to rock already. The requisite patriotic jingoism is also contextual, sidestepping redneck nationalism in favor of Just Plain World Peace, a carefully calculated, conscientious choice of message.When asked if he wants to enlist so he can “kill Nazis,” pr-Cap Steve Rogers carefully reflects and replies, “I just don’t like bullies; I don’t care where they’re from.” Later, as Captain America, he assembled a ragtag team of rescued POWs that echo the multi-ethnic (and goofy) gang of “Hogan’s Heroes.” Well done.
The action: again, right on the money. Watching Cap punching out the formidable forces of Hydra (man, they were some bitchin’ badasses), wielding his mighty shield while deflecting bullets, fire-blasts and insidious death rays, sailing athletically through the air, and performing other feats of superhuman strength was all quite gratifying. These scenes in particular really worked in translating the wild world of the comic books to the less flexible and more challenging medium of film. Even the sound of Cap’s shield clanging as it made contact with its targets provided just the right touch of comic book realism. Bingo and kudos all around.
The costume: My main, major and really only complaint is Cap’s baggy, unconvincing and just plain lame costume design, followed by the fact his sidekick Bucky, while very well cast (Sebastian Stan, too quickly dispatched), doesn’t even bother to suit up at all. When Steve says “I have some ideas for the costume,” and we cut to a scene of him actually wearing it in action, there should’ve been a collective “wow” rather than a big “meh.” It looks like just another lazy variation of the truly amusing (and yet strangely more faithful) “PJs” he’s forced to wear in his USO shows, except he wears a helmet (shades of Reb Brown, shudder) and worse, cargo pants (ugh). I understand they were going for a “realistic” approximation of the original comic book costume, but for my money, the more they deviate from the visual cues of the comics, the further off track the they go. The best superhero movies most closely resemble their comic book roots (Superman, Spiderman, Iron Man, Green Lantern, and even Thor, despite the fact he didn’t wear his winged helmet out in the field.) One exception: Chris Nolan somehow gets away with continuing Batman’s ridiculously fetishistic “black rubber” outfit (thankfully minus the nipples) because the noir world he creates is so compelling, but I still prefer Adam West’s batsuit any day, because it looks much more like the original comic book. To be honest, I can’t really appreciate any of the otherwise well-done X-Men movies too much because the mutants refused to wear their masks and yellow spandex, opting instead for the standard black leather, the new superhero equivalent of conformist “regular people” garb like baggy pants and sports team T-shirts. My simple criteria for this genre: if you’re making a comic book movie, make it look just like the comic book it’s based on. I guess the contemporary breed of zip-up jumpsuits makes it easier for the heroes to take a bathroom break. Sitting on the toilet with one’s tights around one’s ankles isn’t an appealing image. Though you assume it has to happen sometimes.
Captain America’s Universe as presented in this film is carefully constructed to sync up both with the other recent (and contemporarily set) Marvel movies, most notably with the inclusion of Howard Stark (Iron Man’s dad) into his established mythos, as well with our own “real world,” even though its version of WW2 history is even more revisionist than Inglorious Basterds. Cap’s outfit here (which I will begrudgingly accept and overlook post-rant, but only as a flawed, work-in-progress prototype) makes him look more like a soldier dressing up as Captain America with stuff he found lying around the base than the actual Captain America. I trust his updated costume in The Avengers will be truer to the familiar red-white-and-blue tights we all know and love.
By the way, the customary teaser following the trailers (recently leaked in a badly shot bootleg) will give most of the audience a simultaneous geek-gasm. For Captain America, if not for America itself, it looks like the best is yet to come.
Will "the Thrill" Viharo is a freelance writer, host of the film series “Forbidden Thrills” at Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge, and creator of the long running cult movie cabaret “Thrillville.” He lives in Alameda, CA with his wife Monica “Tiki Goddess” Cortes and their two cats. His pulp novels “A Mermaid Drowns in the Midnight Lounge,” “Lavender Blonde,” “Chumpy Walnut,” “Down a Dark Alley," and the "Vic Valentine, Private Eye" series are now available at http://www.thrillville.net/fiction/index.html