Oh Captain, My Captain (America)
When it comes to comic book adaptations, on more than one occasion I've been known to utter the phrase "I just don't get what the big deal is about them." I almost always enjoy them (with a few notable exceptions) but I'm at a distinct disadvantage since I'm usually unfamiliar with the source material. Neither comics nor graphic novels were my geek buttons to push (at least not in the past) so beyond an "oh yeah I've heard of that guy" for the lesser known or "well, yeah, duh of course" for the high rollers, you know your Batmans and Supermans and Spider Mans of the world, I paid them about as much attention as any of your average popcorn movies.
I prepared myself to take Captain America, the latest origin story of Marvel's Avengers series, with a similar grain of salt. I was already nervous, attempting to buffer my expectations, after having experienced an entire range of emotions, just with this summer's releases of adaptations. X-Men: First Class being on the top end of the spectrum, Thor resting comfortably in the middle and Green Lantern rotting away, experiencing only the saddest and most boring of existences at the bottom end of said spectrum. Captain America, as far as I was concerned was a chancy roll of the dice. The good news was that the odds were already tilted towards favorable, with the casting of Chris Evans and the gratuitous shirtless scene in the previews. I would honestly pay at least $4.00 just to see that shot, so what was there to lose by going on cheap Tuesday? It turns out Captain America is a pretty solid bet for anyone who feels bogged down by the current state of the summer release schedule.
Opening with a present day sequence set on a frozen tundra, the discovery of an oddly shaped flying machine and Captain America's long-frozen shield leads into a fade that then firmly plants us in World War II era New York. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a skinny kid who just wants to do the right thing. He stands up to bullies, he shushes the loudmouths in movie theaters, I'm guessing he walks old ladies across the road, and of course, he want to enlist in the army. Despite sticking out like a sore thumb and being deemed a scrawny asthmatic by his naysaying colonel (Tommy Lee Jones) Rogers proves to be clever, practical, and most importantly, a good guy. We're talking the underdoggiest of underdogs, but as in all great characters, these minor roadblocks have only helped to provide him with the moral fiber that the rest of us mere humans can only aspire to. Luckily, there's a serum, created by Dr. Abraham Erskine (the wonderfully accented, slightly impish Stanley Tucci) that can finally match his inner man and outer man. If I can say so, what an outer man he proves to be, as Peggy (Hayley Atwell) a British agent working with the US Army, can attest. Why she insists on handing him that tee shirt, I'll never understand, but good for you Peggy for showing such modesty and restraint.
After a quick detour of bond-raising, during which he earns the nickname Captain America, Rogers takes his chances on the front line to rescue his friend "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan). As a sidenote, I freaking love comic book character names. After his daring rescue results in the salvation of other prisoners of war, Captain America is allowed his own mission of finding and destroying the weapons warehouses of one dastardly Johann Schmidt (the always deliciously villainous Hugo Weaving). Schmidt has decided to take the pure evilness of being a Nazi and ratchet it up a couple of notches by also fashioning himself as a modern-day, world-destruction-seeking diety, mostly because of some terrible side effects he experienced with one of Erskine's test serums. These side effects include loss of appetite, headache, sore throat (I'm assuming) as well as loss of nose and human face, and a distinct discoloration of the skin, which of course, lead to the name Red Skull. As you can imagine, what results is a simple, streamlined, yet highly entertaining good versus evil tale.
To me, the success of the film is this simplicity. Nothing is overly complicated and the setting is absolutely perfect for this story. All of the pieces set themselves up perfectly. The hero is heroic without being a jerk about it, the villain is so evil that he's slightly over the top (think any Bond villain, but also add in the Nazi factor) which makes for a satisfactory confrontation and there are no sidetracking storylines. What they do, with great success, is what I was always told to do with writing, especially for standardized tests: KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid...I'm sure it's since been changed to something much less derogatory because kids these days are too sensitive, but whatever your formula, you know what I'm saying). However, the reason they can keep the storyline so simple is because there are so many other factors going on, that the entertainment value never wanes.
The cast is top notch; even the lesser featured men of Rogers "platoon" is filled with people you recognize and characters that I sometimes wished had MORE of a part. The characters are appealing, the music (by the almost always wonderful Alan Silvestri with a little help from Alan Menken) is engaging and perfectly fitting and the visual style is, well, kind of gorgeous to look at. In stark contrast to Kenneth Branagh's Thor, which was so bright on Earth and so lushly gleaming on Asgard, as well as the easy realism of Iron Man, Captain America floats somewhere between the dreamy, drawn world of the comic book and the gritty blue-grey drabness of war, with the most color coming off of our hero's costume or glinting off of his trusty shield. The setting does indeed make the Red Skull even redder, it seems. Overall, Joe Johnston is able to achieve a tone that is just slightly melodramatic, but completely and wonderfully in the vein of those wartime news stories that we both see as the audience and watch WITH the audience in the film.
While I was always going to love Evans as the lead (I feel like his "big name" films have always managed to flop somehow, despite him being the best part of them) I was surprised at how much I also liked Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, the no-nonsense, yet feminine romantic interest. It's a rare thing to have a woman who is shown as being both capable and emotionally vulnerable in these roles, and having just come off of a discussion about how I find Mary Jane to be completely useless in general, and more specifically, to Spidey, I enjoyed seeing a movie where I was able to go "now THAT'S the kind of female roles we should be applauding!" The chemistry is there and believable without being an annoyance or a distraction. It was more Stark and Potts than Thor and Jane (part of what I found annoying about that film, even though I'm a huge fan of Natalie Portman).
With all of these things working for it, as well as solid writing that both manages to avoid pitfalls while subtly winking at the over-the-top nature inherent to comic books, I'd say that this, all in all, is just a really fascinating study on the making of a superhero and what a superhero is really made of.