Captain America: The First Avenger

"Are you two... Do you... Fondue?"

Captain America: The First Avenger is an attempt at a comic book movie as lighthearted romp. It’s certainly as weightless as one could hope. Disinterested in the angsty, morally fraught approach to the genre taken by Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan, Bryan Singer, Ang Lee, or even the comparatively breezy Jon Favreau, the producers at Marvel Studios hired traditionalist Joe Johnston to produce 125 minutes of unremarkable hokum.  He delivers. But is unremarkable hokum really what you’re after?

The first hour is at least serviceably charming. In a hilarious counterpoint to the CGI bulk-up of Eric Bana and Edward Norton in the various Hulk movies, Captain America downscales the buff Chris Evans into Steve Rogers – a brave, all-American kid who wants nothing more than to serve his country in World War II, but who happens to weigh 90 pounds and to have a page-long list of diseases and ailments. On his fifth attempt to enlist, he is spotted by German-American scientist Stanley Tucci, who enters him in an experimental Army program that injects him with a serum to double his size and vastly increase speed and strength. This origin story is deftly handled – funny where it needs to be, with a sleek period gloss (lots of chrome instrument panels sparking and the like) and just a touch of the sentimental. I liked Rogers’ relationship with his battle-bound best friend (Sebastian Stan), and his determination to serve strikes the right balance between cheesy recruitment-film material and semi-substantive characterization.

Then the plot kicks in, and the action starts, and what can I say? There are a lot of fights and chases, and much costumed, German-accented mugging by Hugo Weaving as a Nazi mad scientist who wants to harness the power of the gods using a magic cube, or something. (What gods? The Norse ones, I guess; Odin is mentioned at one point.) A foxy English officer played by Hayley Atwell provides the requisite love interest. Tommy Lee Jones shows up as our hero’s terse, no-nonsense boss. (Jones’ typically awesome line readings are a highlight – “General Patton! Has said!…”) Johnston directs the action with the unflashy competence for which he was presumably hired. The 3D is irritating, though not unbearably so.

It’s all fine. Captain America isn’t as aggressively stupid and contrived as Green Lantern, and makes marginally more sense than Thor. But there’s never the sense that any of it matters. The villain is bad and wants to do bad stuff. Captain America is good and wants to stop the villain from doing the bad stuff. There’s no sense of danger; the movie doesn’t even ask for an emotional investment. The closest it comes to offering something to absorb us is the relationship between Steve and his best buddy, but that subplot is dispatched shortly after the halfway point.

I realize that there’s a bias at work here. I’m a fan of the superhero movies that give their proceedings some real weight – the work of Raimi, Nolan, Singer, et al. To hear someone like Devin Faraci call Batman Begins a “slog” is galling to me: the fact that a comic book film aspires to mean something doesn’t make it a slog. Captain America isn’t interested in that, and it doesn’t have to be. But it doesn’t really do much else either. It’s funny, but only a little, and self-conscious cheese only goes so far. The action goes down easy, but there’s nothing remarkable or particularly exciting about it. I was content to watch, but I’ve already forgotten most of what I saw.

There’s a present-day wraparound sequence that serves as a trailer for next summer’s Joss Whedon-directed Avengers movie. It’s symptomatic of the problem that the film spends more time figuring out how to set up a different franchise than how to make us care about this one. Captain America is painless, and probably the second best of this summer’s woeful comic book slate, behind X-Men: First Class. But there’s no real good reason to see it.

 

-- Eugene Novikov

3 Comments

  1. Jonathan says:

    I agree with your assessment. The movie really was weightless. It could’ve used a few brutal fights or just more intensity. Instead we get Capt. America and his gang running atop a superfast train which, when measured against the stunning hanging-on-for-dear-life sequence at the end of Mission Impossible, comes off as way too casual. The movie was airy fun and Chris Evans is charismatic as hell but otherwise there was little audience investment. This is the type of movie where SPOILERS the villain kills himself, much like in the Indy movies, except this movie isn’t nearly as fun and clever as those.

  2. Dan says:

    I can agree in part with this review. However, to characterize this as lightweight because the director didn’t want to go where others have went is absurd. Cap is who Cap is. As an origin movie for this specific character who is the total embodiment of the American “good guy” it was exactly what it should have been. Did they sacrifice something in the story telling to tie this in to the next movie? Perhaps. But to compare the lack of angst, or moral dilemma from one comic book character to another is silly. He is after all Captain America, and at least in the movie, he is Cap in an America where his values are true and honorable and we could all use more leaders from the very top of our nation that had the clear understanding of what Cap idealizes.

    • Sure. But I guess there’s a further distinction between “lightweight” and “frivolous.” Raiders of the Lost Ark isn’t exactly angsty either, but it’s memorable and thrilling and awesome. There’s just nothing to the Cap’n. It’s not exciting. Beyond the (dubious, to me) thrill of seeing the comic book character expensively translated to the screen, why watch it?

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