Captain America: The First Avenger (Paramount Pictures, PG-13)

Captain America has no sense of pace; we get one action-packed set piece after another but nothing builds, and the denouement is dispiritingly flat rather than thrilling.

 

 

I don’t have huge expectations for summer movies adapted from comic books. They’re generally meant to be escapist fun, a respite from our complex and often confusing world as well as an excuse to eat popcorn and drink sugary beverages in air-conditioned comfort. Besides, history has shown that we get at least ten Green Lanterns for every Dark Knight, and to hold expectations contrary to history is to set oneself up for probable disappointment.

But even popcorn fare should be held to standards, if not of profundity then of inventiveness and skill. Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger comes down right in the middle of the continuum between genius and idiotic, with the best efforts of a strong cast stymied by a meandering script and the most unimaginative CGI I’ve seen in some time (in a big budget movie, anyway). Throw in a bad retro-conversion to 3D as well as a blatant plug for future franchise installments and you’ve got a film that will mainly interest hardcore fans of the characters while the rest of us are better off reading a good book or watching a DVD at home. Assuming you have air conditioning, anyway, and if you don’t there are a lot of better movies playing this summer.

In case you’re not familiar with Cap, here’s a quick primer. He was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby and made his first appearance punching out Adolf Hitler on the cover of a March 1941 Time Comics (a predecessor to Marvel) issue. Note the date: well after the onset of World War II but before official American involvement in it. Cap’s patriotic costume and frequent assistance to the Allied war effort made him a popular character during the war but then he disappeared for about two decades afterwards, resurfacing as one of The Avengers in the early 1960s. He’s a rare man-made superhero; Steve Rogers, 98-lb weakling, became Captain America after being injected with an experimental serum meant to create super soldiers. After the injections he’s buff, toned, and gifted with athletic abilities but not superhuman powers; he’s as strong as the strongest man, as fast as the fastest man, and can heal injuries at an accelerated rate (which has the unfortunate side effect of making it impossible for him to get drunk), but his limits are basically those of the optimal human.

Captain America: The First Avenger has a frame story in the present day but most of the action takes place in 1942 as spindly, asthmatic Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, CGI’d down to a shadow of his true self) is desperately trying to enlist in the army. He keeps getting rejected for a variety of medical conditions until German émigré Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), impressed by his determination and all-around good-heartedness, selects him for a top-secret research project. Meanwhile back in Germany, Erskine’s evil counterpart Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) is attempting to harness the power of Scandinavian mythology and a mysterious cube to conquer the world, or something like that. Schmidt is the Big Bad of this film’s universe, your basic über-Nazi with a big black car and big black boots and a logo of a death’s head atop writhing snakes, the latter triggering memories of the SS-Totenkopfverbände. Steve’s transformation is successful but rather than use him as a weapon of war, the brass relegate to fundraising duty, plugging war bonds in a silly stage show alongside a bevy of scantily-clad chorus girls. Of course he won’t be satisfied remaining on the sidelines for long, but just in case you are planning to see this movie I won’t go into further details except to say that there’s lots of action and futuristic weapons and not a trace of irony or moral complexity in any of it.

The early scenes of Captain America are actually quite enjoyable. The period recreations are good and the characterizations winning, particularly Cap’s best friend "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan), the gruff Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and the ever-so-fetching Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Toby Jones is underused as Schmidt’s lackey but Dominic Cooper is perfectly charming as Howard Stark (yes, Iron Man’s father), whose technological expertise is crucial to many plot developments. Ordinary human emotions motivate the action in these scenes; we can feel Steve’s frustration in being 4-F’d and then in being relegated to a sideshow rather than participating in the fighting he so desperately craves. We can also feel Peggy Carter’s need to assert herself in a man’s world, the no-nonsense dedication of Phillips, and the easy confidence of Bucky who is loyal to his loser pal no matter how often he needs rescuing.

Once Cap starts acting as a superhero, he and everyone else turn into generic versions of their characters. The film’s flouting of the rules set up in the comic (among other things he can hurdle over a fence higher than his head and also can fly any airplane without training) robs the film of any suspense. H.G. Wells said something along the line of "if anything is possible, nothing is interesting," and that applies in spades to this film, which never lets you doubt for a minute that the franchise will make it to the next installment. Take away Superman’s kryptonite and his whole universe becomes a lot less interesting and something similar has happened with Captain America: it’s impossible to retain interest in the story because we already know the outcome. Captain America also has no sense of pace: we get one action-packed set piece after another but nothing builds, and the denouement is dispiritingly flat rather than thrilling.

If you get bored during this film (I certainly did, despite all the eye candy on screen) you can amuse yourself by deciding which of the characters has the worst German accent. Stanley Tucci makes a strong run for the honor despite his limited screen time while Toby Jones is so inconsistent he seems to switch nationalities in every appearance on screen. Hugo Weaving actually doesn’t do too badly in the Teutonic department but he’s saddled with a mask thatseems to have come out of Jim Carrey’s props closet and makes him look silly rather than scary.

Launching a character based on Captain America is a challenge because the character himself is so bland. However, it wasn’t necessary to make him quite so generic or to so blatantly plug next summer’s sequel. And don’t get me started on the 3D conversion thar makes the action look like it’s taking place inside an aquarium and the actors look like refugees from The Polar Express. If you are determined to see this film look for a theatre showing the 2D version, because 3D adds nothing while taking away quite a bit.│Sarah Boslaugh

 

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