Consider Your Period Piece Blown to Pieces: Captain America: The First Avenger

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You’ve got to hand it to Marvel for figuring a few things out recently. While their Big Two competitor gleefully jettisons 70 years of questionable costume changes and Kraft single one-liners, Marvel’s gone back to their roots with stellar results. Their streak continues with the good old new-fashioned Captain America. Retro is always in style, and a dose of gee-wizardry can go a long way, particularly if you’re harkening to old school heroics for summer box-office fun. Don’t call Captain America a period piece, though; it’ll knock your period to pieces. Sincere, fun, and earnest without verging on treacly, the Cap’s big trip to the big screen has a potent mix of the retro winking and newfangled action that is Golden Age adaptation at its best.

Captain America‘s greatest achievement is the balance it strikes between message and method. Director Joe Johnston, best known for Jumanji, Hidalgo, and The Rocketeer, certainly knows his way around scripts splattered with VFX, and knows to keep his focus on the minds as well as the bodies in motion. In our complex, modern world, the 1940s-era Cap could have presented something of a challenge to portray. Luckily, Johnston stuck with a formula both familiar and flexible. As one friend put it to me, “it’s a bit like a solid World War II movie that happens to have Captain America in it,” and they’re not wrong. (And that’s not a bad thing.) The heroics here come off as less “rah-rah America,” and more “booooo, genocide,” a tone that’s cerebral as well as canonical. The writing never mentions “America” as the reason for Steve Rogers’ devotion to the cause, but instead cites an inner determination to keep bullies from the little guy, even when “the little guy” is the rest of Europe. By keeping the focus on Steve himself, we get a close look at a hero’s journey where we’re on board for every step, from humble beginning to bittersweet “to be continued.”

In toying with the traditional pieces of the superhero movie jigsaw, rather than relying on them, Captain America avoids the saccharine glaze that would have been its death knell. Take one comedic moment where a kid hostage is thrown into a river as a distraction for the Cap as he chases a spy. When Rogers goes to save the kid, the boy yells “Go get him! I can swim!” Less comedic, but equally well-handled, are the heartfelt discussions between Stanley Tucci‘s exiled scientist and Rogers. Places where a less deft hand might have tipped the scales with overwrought taglines about heroism (we’re looking at you, Spider-Man) are approached afresh, and are careful not to repeat themselves. Instead of taking the easy road at every turn, the smart script is tightly packed with little nods and careful moments to ensure that people are what remain most important among all the whizzing and banging of otherworldly armaments.

As we are all no doubt aware by this time, Captain America: The First of Many Colons … I mean, The First Avenger, tracks young 1940s-era Brooklynite Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in his wildly unsuccessful attempts to join the U.S. military. Compelled by more than a patriotic zeal for knocking out Nazis on the jaw, Rogers is desperate to join the fight that both of his parents died for, and save the world in a small-scale, realistic way by doing his part for the Allies. His only problem is that he’s a matchstick of a man; short, skinny, and verging on sickly. He finally gets his chance in an opportunity presented by one Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), to participate in an experimental serum therapy that will make him better, faster, stronger … and taller. The rest, as they say, is midnight showing history.

It’s too bad for Steve that his enemies on the other side have undergone similar upgrades, with different results. In his turn as the Cap’s antagonist for this outing, Hugo Weaving‘s Dr. Johann Schmidt AKA Red Skull, leader of HYDRA, is the least interesting part of the film. He struts, he mutters about magic and technology, but he lacks a certain crispness that would have made Schmidt believable. Here’s the none-too-rare villain who’s more intimidating with his mask in place, eliciting shudders only when it slips just enough to give us a glimpse of what lies beneath. But Weaving’s character is largely here to supply a tenuous connection to the other movies in the universe-building leading up to The Avengers. It’s a magic cube he refers to as the Tesseract that he’s after, an artifact that was once the prize of Odin’s treasure chamber. It’s easy to lose, supplies limitless power, and you can bet your IMAX tickets right now that it will be showing up in a theater near you come next summer.

One of the most dazzling feats of technical wizardry in the movie has nothing to do with the blue cube of the Tesseract, but is instead the metapmorphesis of Evans’ body from its normally stocky heights into the skinny, shrunken limbs of pre-serum Steve Rogers. Steve’s small stature is quietly heartbreaking, from the way he lifts his chin when in line with other soldiers to gain height, to the hunched, but determined set of his shoulder blades as he gets strapped in to the experiment that turns him.

The real treat here, though, is Evans, thrown on the roulette of audience goodwill after his less-than-sparkling turn as Johnny Storm in the disasterous Fantastic Four diptych. Marvel must have been banking on fans’ short-term memories, but their gamble pays off; Evans makes good on making us forget. In his surprisingly sensitive take, his Rogers is a little guy with big heart, and remains so even when he’s a bigger guy. Evans is good at relating a sense of displacement in his new body, and remains somewhat awkward when out of combat for the rest of the film. His gaze stays sincere and unwavering when talking about what must be done, and it’s easy to both like Steve for his idealism, and want to buy into it even when it seems impossible. Adding great depth to what could have been a cardboard cutout of heroism makes the multiple tragedies and loses of he must endure hit home all the more.

It doesn’t hurt a bit that Evans has strong supporting players, including veterans like Tucci, as self-effacing humanist and inventor of the super soldier serum, Dr. Abraham Erskine. Also on hand is Tommy Lee Jones, sealing up the geek street cred begot by Men In Black, as the necessary cranky old General who can’t believe he’s got to deal with Nazis and superhumans at the same time. Playing British Agent Peggy Carter is relative newcomer Hayley Atwell, the love interest who is steely-eyed in a tough spot and soft-hearted when it comes to Rogers. Unlike even later-placed films like X-Men: First Class, the film’s screenwriters do well to stay away from making Carter’s character all about being woman foraging in a man’s world. Instead, they derive interest from her parries with Rogers and Lee Jones’ General Phillips. For the most part anyway; the one new recruit who questions her authority gets a hard right hook to the face. It’s in a few areas like this scene that the writers fall back on stale territory; we as the audience anticipate such an exchange from the moment she steps on screen — or they think we do — so it happens. A few cutting words might have done the same trick, without flaunting a glaring error in the film’s hardly faultless logic.

You see, it may be a fun gag, but, like so many other things, Carter’s punch-out goes against what the movie thinks it’s saying, and fails to do so again and again. Captain America‘s dialogue would have us believe that heart and mind should ultimately triumph over brute strength, but it’s a hard line to keep up as Rogers and his merry Allied men plow through entire battalions of nameless HYDRA soldiers, or blow up weapons factories wholesale, though some, as shown in an earlier sequence, are staffed by prisoners. Captain America‘s sure slide over its own hypocrisies is the one sour note in an otherwise sweet cinematic symphony.

Captain America may take place in the past, but its sensibilities are firmly entrenched in the here and now. Here’s a superhero origin story that’s aware of its tropes. By playing them out, the movie takes on a cast not unlike Michael Chabon‘s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, in that it’s both respectful of the genre’s conventions, and slick enough to run with them. Plenty of things go bang, and plenty of semi-Nazis get blown away, but the emphasis here is on the meaning behind the action. If that makes it a little old-fashioned, I’ll take old fashioned any summer day.

The Avengers Trailer

A quick note on the much-circulated and speculated-about stinger for The Avengers. If your friends weren’t nice enough to remind you to stay for the credits, all you’ve missed is the HD version of some head-scratching quick clips interspersed with black. Given that shooting’s barely begun on this megapicture, it’s not surprising that Joss Whedon and Marvel are playing this one close to the vest. The flashes provided are enough to whip us all into a hankering frenzy, though, with far more questions raised than answered.

Things to consider as we wait for more choice clues:

How does Tony Stark feel about magic?

Are Black Widow and Hawkeye getting overtime for this?

How come we can’t come up with a better signifier of angst and time passing than giving Thor longer hair?

What is Loki doing on top of a speeding car?

What’s that blue thing?

Hulk smash nothing?

Where are the frikkin’ aliens why aren’t there aliens I was told there would be aliens C’MON, JOSS.

Given the care put into crafting each of these tie-in features as its own unique flavor, it will be interesting to see how they play in the same space, not just in the same universe. All I can say is that, despite my best nasty critic efforts, I am absolutely, insanely excited. Oh, Whedon, you tease.

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