Sunday, July 24, 2011

Review: "Captain America" is the Most Entertaining Adventure of the Summer

Film Rating: A+

One of my favorite films of all time is Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark; I have never seen a film more delightfully, unabashedly fun than Indiana Jones’ first adventure.  The endlessly inventive action is a major part of that, of course, but Raiders is a masterpiece because the fantastic set-pieces are performed by characters we love the moment they appear, inhabiting a world that is so close to our own yet so fantastically foreign at the same time, a world where magical things can happen and good and evil are defined with gleeful enthusiasm.  Raiders is the cinematic definition of fun, and while many have tried to imitate its success – Spielberg and Lucas included, on at least three occasions – no one has ever really come close to matching it.

Until now.

Joe Johnston’s Captain America took all of about thirty seconds to put a huge, goofy grin on my face, a smile as wide and enthusiastic as any I’ve ever worn in a movie theatre, and kept that grin there for two straight hours.  Harry Potter, I love you, but I have to confess…Captain America may just be my favorite movie of the year…Read why after the jump...

The Raiders of the Lost Ark connection isn’t just an analogy I came up with – it’s a comparison director Johnston wants the viewer to make.  When Spielberg made Raiders, he and George Lucas, who had already done this once before with Star Wars, took a look at an era of cinema where the first order of business was giving the audience a good time – the adventure serials of the 1940s – and used that as an inspiration for their story.  That’s why Raiders takes place during WWII, it’s why magic plays such a huge part in the story, and it’s why every scene climaxes with a cliffhanger, gluing the viewer to their seat in anticipation for the next scene, just as the serials would draw viewers back to the theatre the following week. 

Johnston too has looked to the past for inspiration, settling on Raiders as a blueprint, and so all the elements that influenced Spielberg and Lucas are on display here.  Captain America takes place at the height of WWII, magic – this time in the form of a cube, rather than a Holy Ark – drives the story along, the hero is wholesome and easy to root for, the villain is deliciously evil, ‘cliffhangers’ are used excellently, etc.  Early on in the film, one character makes a reference to the events of Raiders that very clearly ties Captain America in with Spielberg’s classic.  But what makes Captain America work so well is that it isn’t just an empty clone of Raiders.  These films very much exist in the same universe, and it’s a fun universe to begin with, but what’s most enjoyable is that we’re seeing a very different part of that universe, a part that stands tall based on its own captivating merits. 

There’s some superhero stuff in there too, of course.  The film’s subtitle (The First Avenger), the brilliant post-credits clip, and a consistent avalanche of easter eggs remind us that the universe we are meant to be thinking of is the Marvel Cinematic Universe; Captain America, after all, completes all the build-up for next summers The Avengers, the team-up of Iron Man, Thor, Cap, and the Hulk that Marvel has been establishing since 2008, and the film puts everything in place excellently.  Yet it does so with subtlety, something I felt Iron Man 2 and Thor both lacked; I’m as excited for The Avengers as anyone, but I was frustrated at how much time was given over to hyping the team-up while sacrificing narrative cohesion. 

This is most certainly not the case in Captain America, which manages to stand on its own as a wonderful superhero flick separate from thoughts of The Avengers or even future Captain sequels.  It often throws some very fun bones to the hardcore fans, but these flourishes never overwhelm the story, and the film concentrates first and foremost on being great on its own terms.  This, of course, is why I could spend 500 words talking about Raiders before ever using the word Avengers – the film has its own unique influences and style outside of the comics or the larger Marvel Universe, and once The Avengers is done, that’s what I want to see from this company moving forward. 

I hammer home the Raiders point because if you haven’t seen the film, then you can’t understand how incredibly important the 1940s setting is to the story.  We live in an era where we have very little to be patriotic about, where turning on the news only leaves one shaking their head in disgust.  WWII, however, is known as “The Good War” for a reason, whether the moniker is entirely true or not.  This was a time of national unity, where loving your country had absolutely nothing to do with politics or stature, and that love could be shared by all as everyone was encouraged to do their part in the war effort. 

For our title character, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), loving his country means joining the army.  He’s a short, asthmatic skinny kid from Brooklyn with no logical business being on the front lines, but he is determined to enlist.  He never backs down from a fight, and as he makes clear in one of the film’s best lines, he hates bullies – and he views Adolf Hitler as the biggest bully of them all.  While visiting the Stark Expo (one of the many fun ways the larger Marvel universe is used), Steve meets a kind scientist, Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who has developed a powerful serum he plans to test on one soldier, a serum that could change the outcome of the war. 

From there, I think we all know the story – Steve’s heart impresses those in the program, he is injected with the serum, and is reborn as the tall, powerful Captain America.  But what makes the film work so well, and what makes the 1940s setting so essential, is that Steve is still Steve, no matter how buff he becomes or how ridiculous a costume he wears.  His love for America never diminishes or grows; it was there in spades from the start, and I don’t think audiences could ever follow this character if the story wasn’t set in during WWII, where Steve Rogers feels like a very organic creation.  One of the best examples of this comes in an amazingly fun sequence where, before Rogers is allowed to go on active duty, he is cast as a lead member of the propaganda machine, touring the country in costume convincing citizens to buy war bonds.  Think about this for a second – in the year 2011, anyone from the government putting a bunch of people in an auditorium and asking them for money would likely get shot.  But this sort of thing really did happen during WWII, and was part of our national identity; since the film commits to this time period with such earnestness, Steve Rogers works spectacularly as a character.

A lot of that also has to do with Chris Evans’ terrific lead performance.  He’s every bit as good as Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark or Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, but in a more understated way.  It would be easy for Evans to play Cap as a happy-go-lucky patriot, but that’s not the character.  Rogers isn’t a patriot on a whim, but because he grows up in an environment that makes him believe helping his country is his only viable option in life, and that makes him a very sincere creation.  Once Rogers has the tools necessary to be the savior of his nation, Evans starts having lots of fun in the role, but he never forgets the character’s roots, and his performance is as honest in the end as it is in the beginning.  Captain America has to be one of the harder superheroes to do well on the big screen, but everyone involved in bringing this character to life had exactly the right idea, creating a Cap whose warm heart also gives the film its soul.

As good as Evans is, he almost gets lost in the shuffle of wonderful supporting players; Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter is surely one of the most interesting love interests ever found in a superhero film.  She’s a strong-willed woman with a very kind heart, and Atwell herself seems to have been plucked right out of the forties.  Her romance with Rogers is the most organic one yet found in a Marvel flick, and a highlight of this film, as is the fatherly relationship between Rogers and Dr. Erkstine, played beautifully by Stanley Tucci.  Tommy Lee Jones gets to do everything he does best as Col. Chester Phillips, creating a hard-edged character who is smart, determined, and ultimately endearing.  Captain America’s team is composed of many fun characters, including Sebastian Shaw as sidekick Bucky Barnes, but his most entertaining ally is undoubtedly Howard Stark – Tony’s father – played by Dominic Cooper.  Hugo Weaving, meanwhile, seems to have had disgusting amounts of fun playing villain Johann Schmidt – aka Red Skull – and stays intimidating even under impressive layers of makeup. 

There are too many great characters and performances to count, and much of the fun of Captain America comes from watching the ensemble Johnston assembled interact.  The action is extremely impressive and exhilarating, especially whenever Cap busts out his iconic shield, but like Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film never forgets to center the action around these characters, to spend as much time on intimate moments as on explosions and flying shields.  The film wisely stays away from any brooding or dark turns, giving it a tone drastically different from many modern superhero flicks, but Johnston nevertheless understands that a movie can’t be fun if we aren’t invested in the characters.  Steve Rogers isn’t the only one with a big heart – the whole ensemble is spirited.

The same could be said for any element of the film.  This material seems to have challenged Alan Silvestri out of the lazy, auto-pilot composition streak he’s been on for a very long time, and he delivers his absolute best, most invigorating score since Back to the Future; unsurprisingly, his chief influence is John Williams’ classic Raiders music.  The film’s special effects are inspired, but you may not notice that while watching – they are seamless, and the CGI never draws attention to itself.  The most amazing effect involves making Chris Evans look short and skinny, but it’s such a convincing illusion that I didn’t think it must have been faked until buff Evans appears.  The script, by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, provides some great, snappy dialogue while avoiding nearly every trapping many superhero films fall to; they have crafted a well-paced origin story that is compelling on its own terms, without waiting for the sequel to deliver many of the biggest and best moments. 

And, of course, there’s director Joe Johnston at the heart of it all, delivering a visually spectacular picture with an unabashedly fun tone, a tone that could be compared to a comic-book just as easily as to Raiders.  Johnston, who got his start as a visual effects artist on films like Star Wars and, yes, Raiders, has waited a very long time to make a great blockbuster movie like this, and he doesn’t spoil a single second.  Logically speaking, a story about a man dressed as an American Flag fighting a crazed Nazi in lots of red makeup shouldn’t work.  At all.  That is a comic-book story through and through, and while it’s easy to get away with that in colorful pages of art, common sense tells us it shouldn’t work on the big-screen.

But it does work on the big-screen, and it works by embracing its roots wholeheartedly and looking to the most entertaining screen adventure of all time for guidance.  Johnston has crafted a film that is as confident in its ridiculous moments as it is in the serious ones, and as such, he’s delivered one of the most thoroughly fun experiences I’ve ever had in a theatre.  At several points, I found myself giggling hysterically not because the scenes were necessarily funny, but because I simply couldn’t believe what a good time I was having.  This is movie magic at its finest, a film I wished to revisit as soon as the credits rolled.  Marvel has never made a better movie, and few superhero movies can top this one – the only others in the discussion are Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight.  The bar has been set very high for The Avengers, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

1 comment:

  1. The first paragraph made me want to see Captain America - Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of my all time favorites also!