Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Saturday, July 23, 2011 at 12:41PM
Ian Simmons in Captain America: The First Avenger [2011]

Red, White, and Blah

Captain America: The First Avenger is the perfect metaphor for modern American attitudes about war: a theme-park attraction that turns real-life monsters into cartoon characters, made for an audience who's seen more 3D movies than news broadcasts. I get that this is a summer blockbuster about a superhero, but director Joe Johnston and his creative team ditch the entire point of his main character in order to squeeze him through the Marvel Studios Origin Movie filter. The result is a film whose biggest offense is not glossing over history, but being really, really boring.

Things start out promisingly enough. A team of scientists discovers a mysterious craft in Antarctica. After breaking in, one of the men findss a long-lost red, white, and blue shield buried in a block of ice. We flash back to a Norway village in 1943, where Adolf Hitler's top Nazi scientist, Johann Schmitdt (Hugo Weaving), has made a discovery of his own: a cosmic cube hidden for centuries, which legend says was left on Earth by the gods.

This is a fascinating development that ties directly into Marvel's Thor movie. The revelation of the cube and the hints at who it belonged to and what it could mean for humanity are more interesting than the entirety of that picture. It's especially dangerous in the hands of Schmidt, who plans to use it to overthrow his boss and claim the world for himself (I should mention that either due to political correctness or brand messaging, Nazism as a movement is pretty much swept under the carpet in this movie--replaced by its Schmidt-run, fictitious research division, Hydra).

Meanwhile, in New York, a scrawny, ultra-patriotic kid named Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) tries for the fourth or fifth time to enlist in the military. He's turned down due to health issues and because he's about sixty pounds under-weight. His best friend, Bucky (Sebastian Stan), has just received orders to report to England, and while on a double-date, Steve visits the recruiting center at a technology expo to give himself one last shot. He draws the attention of a German scientist working for the U.S. government named Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who's taken with Rogers' determination and sincerity.

Soon, Rogers has been enrolled in the Super Soldier Program, a boot camp meant to condition top recruits ahead of a secret injection of fluids and gamma rays (or something) that will make them super-human fighters. He meets the hard-ass Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and the sufficiently British Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), both of whom are reluctant to believe that Rogers is anything special. But after a trip to inventor/industrialist Howard Stark's (Dominic Cooper) lab, Rogers becomes a muscle-bound, quick-healing wonder-specimen. Unfortunately for the Super Soldier Program, a German spy assassinates Dr. Erskine before he can replicate the formula.

For some reason (I suspect to pad the run-time), Rogers spends several months touring the country as a sort of side-show spokesman for war bonds. He dresses in a cheap version of the Captain America suit known to comics lovers, and speaks awkwardly to puzzled crowds while standing in front of star-spangled chorus girls. On a rare trip overseas, he learns that Bucky's unit, along with hundreds of other coalition soldiers, have been captured by Hydra and are being used as slave labor in one of Schmidt's compounds.

With help from Peggy and Stark, and against the wishes of grumpy Col. Phillips (odd how the main cast always ends up hanging around each other), Rogers parachutes behind enemy lines and liberates the base. The freed soldiers bust out, commandeering strange, new tanks and guns that Schmidt has imbued with the power of the cosmic cube. Schmidt escapes, but not before revealing his true identity as one of Erskine's first test subjects. The formula hadn't been worked out yet, resulting not only in super-strength but also a grotesque skin mutation that turned him into The Red Skull (up until this point, he'd been wearing a Hugo Weaving mask).

This brings us to the middle of the movie, and I don't need to go any further. Captain America is so generic that you should be able to figure out the remaining sixty minutes based on the cliches I've already discussed. Really, Marvel has made this exact same movie half a dozen times or more; from X-Men to Spider-Man to Iron Man to Thor (Unlikely Hero becomes hero thanks to technology/magic; Evil Genius falls victim to technology/magic, becomes bent on world domination; Hero protects Sassy Love Interest and The Common Man from Evil Genius to make up for failing to save Bestower of Technology/Magic; Evil Genius "dies", usually not via direct action on the part of the Hero--self-defense is a great alibi).

What's so surprising about Captain America is its lack of surprises. At this point in the Marvel Movie franchise, the studio and filmmakers should be treating these as much higher-stakes films. I'm reminded of the trailer I saw in front of this picture for The Amazing Spider-Man, a reboot of a series that's not even ten years old! And instead of continuing the adventures of Peter Parker, they're re-telling the origin story--again! Captain America falls into that same trap. Worse yet, because Rogers/Captain America is the same go-get-'em patriot at the beginning of the movie as he is at the end, he has no character arc, no conflict to hold the audience in suspense for over two hours. I understand this is a throwback to 1940s action serials and the original comics, but that doesn't mean screenwriters Christopher Markus and Steve McFeely had to go with a story that's just as old.

(Note: Though 2008's Iron Man is just as generic as the other Marvel films, Robert Downey, Jr.'s boozy, irreverent take on the traditional leading man went far in concealing the obvious mile-markers).

The movie makes even less sense (and, somehow, more) when considering that Johnston directed 1991's The Rocketeer. That was another 40's set pseudo-blockbuster about a guy who fights a Nazi-sympathizing industrialist. Both movies illustrate the director's hard-on for sexy dames and art-deco aesthetics, as well as his inability to devise a climax that doesn't involve two guys duking it out on a crashing airship.

So, with a personality-free protagonist and a plot as playful as Costco oatmeal, the question becomes: What's the point of this movie? The answer, of course, is to advertise next summer's Avengers team-up picture--the teaser trailer for which you'll see if you stick around for the post-credits sting. Captain America is a function more than a film. Everyone knows that The Avengers is coming out, which means that Captain America survives his fateful crash in Antarctica--thus sucking out all of the drama and emotion from the climactic scene where he sacrifices himself in order to avoid blowing up New York with a giant plane (yikes.).

The last three minutes of the movie, in which Steve Rogers wakes up in modern-day Manhattan and breaks free of a S.H.I.E.L.D. compound, are its most intriguing minutes, period. This should have been the beginning of a great story in which this patriotic relic must come to grips with a modern world rocked by the twin devils of terrorism and apathy. The origin story would have worked marvelously as flashback vignettes--underscoring the rise of a new, inspiring national symbol.

But as I said at the outset, that's probably too challenging an idea for summer-movie audiences. Captain America offers an optimistic, flag-waiving look at a bygone era without offering any commentary or perspective on the attitudes that inspired it. It's revisionist fluff marked by truly bizarre details like Rogers' core group of military buddies, who run just about the full ethnic/cultural spectrum; as well as a whitewashing of the reason the Nazis were such a threat in the first place. I guess exterminating six million Jews doesn't put asses in seats the way a silly-looking madman loading up laser guns with glowing, blue goo does. Still, again, I have to ask, "What's the point?"

Captain America: The First Avenger looks great (aside from the atrocious CGI used to make Evans look like a weakling; those effects artist should be forced to work on the next four Chipmunks sequels as pennance). It has a superb, highly invested cast--aside from Tommy Lee Jones, who looks like he's dog-paddling between meaningful projects. And the source material is so rich with story possibilities that the decisions here are positively baffling. It's like adapting Good Night Moon over A Catcher in the Rye.

None of this matters, though. If people had any sort of memory retention or taste in what they pay to see on the big screen, this brand of mediocre superhero movie would have died after Spider-Man 3. I'm not saying that every major motion picture has to be a civics lesson or aspire to have a profound cultural impact, but it would be nice if the people behind these loud, dumb monstrosities cared about something other than sales of action figures and limited-edition Coolata cups. Dollars don't equal quality, and I consider it my duty to God and country to point out that Captain America is an offensive waste of time, money, and talent.

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