Directed by Joe Johnston
Expectations: High. Thor was great, and I hope this can lead me into The Avengers in a spectacular way.
Ever since I heard Marvel was producing an Avengers film with a Captain America film leading into it, I knew exactly how it should end. The Captain America origin storyline has a built-in cliffhanger that could naturally segue the character into the team structure of what the Avengers film must be. So imagine my surprise when the first scene in Captain America: The First Avenger uses this cliffhanger, effectively letting the air out of the balloon before it even gets the chance to fill up, or even introduce the balloon at all. Oh man, this can’t be a good sign.
Captain America wasn’t always the super soldier he’s now known as. He started as Steve Rogers, a 4F frail weakling who possesses such a desire to fight for his country that he tries anything he can to get another shot at the recruitment process. One of these times he catches the eye of a defected German scientist (played somewhat poorly by Stanley Tucci) who has developed a super serum that can turn Rogers into a beefed-up, Nazi-smashing version of himself. Thus is born Captain America.
Unfortunately my initial instincts were correct and Captain America is an overall disappointment. As soon as I heard it was to be directed by Joe Johnston, I lost pretty much all faith that this could be an interesting and well-made adaptation of Cap, and my sceptical thinking was not misguided. Johnston has never proved himself a competent director and Captain America isn’t doing him any favors either. Sure, this might satisfy the blockbuster crowd, but it’s hard for a jaded film and comic fan to get too excited about average shots filled with average dialogue and average acting (except for Tommy Lee Jones who is great, if unsurprising in his characterization) all tied together without any vision or innovation. It should be seen as a travesty that this film reminded me in any way of the 1990 adaptation, and it did multiple times.
I love a good international globe-trotting film, but one thing you gotta get right in these types of films is accents. I’d ideally prefer the casting of actors that natively speak the language their accent comes from, but if someone else can pull off a good enough accent I’m totally willing to accept it. Stanley Tucci is generally a great actor, but his German accent is definitely lacking. Hugo Weaving on the other hand is mostly good, with inflection that at times sounded exactly like the director with one of my favorite voices of all time, Werner Herzog. Of course this made me think of casting Herzog himself as Red Skull, or at least another native German speaker, and the good will Weaving built up for himself quickly crumbled. There’s plenty of good actors out there from all over the world that speak English and I hate that Hollywood audiences would rather eat up this type of trickery from a name/face they know as opposed to someone they’ve never heard of. Christoph Waltz immediately comes to mind and I must thank Tarantino for introducing us all to him.
The other thing you’ve gotta nail in a period piece is the period. I can’t say that I ever felt like I was watching a story play out in the 40s, more like an alternate 40s with all kinds of killer tech. Admittedly, this is what the film strives for instead of period accuracy, so it’s somewhat misguided and unfair of me to bag on this aspect but what can I say, it bothered me. It felt like there wasn’t enough 40s in the mix for me to buy it, and so consequently everything felt fake. This is one of the most transparent films in recent memory, especially in the opening half, where sets are obviously sets and the filmmakers seemingly don’t care. It reminds me in this way of Puppet Master: Axis of Evil, and that’s not a compliment, Cap.
And the FX! Holy shit, lots of issues here too. My first clue was when Steve Rogers would seemingly change sizes, going from looking like a midget to looking like a normal, skinny dude between shots, flipping back and forth within every early scene he’s in. It makes no sense and it one of the most laughable, inconsistent and ridiculous things in the film, and unfortunately Rogers doesn’t change into Cap until almost an hour into the film. Not exactly the best first impression to make on viewers. There’s also way too much CGI overall, going too over the top and bombastic than is needed. Visually, a lot of it reminded me of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, again, not a compliment, Cap.
As much as Red Skull is the classic Captain America villain, I don’t think he works in motion nearly as well as he does on the page, coming off as just another dude gone mad with power that seem to populate almost every superhero film. His presence, and the film in general, is campy as fuck, but because the film tries incredibly hard to be taken seriously, it doesn’t entertain as it should. I would have liked them to commit to one style or the other, resulting in a stronger overall film, but instead we’re left with this muddled, unsatisfying, serious but campy film.
That all being said, the last half hour is pretty fucking awesome! Finally, Cap is fully realized as a freedom-fighting defender of justice and it’s a joy to watch him backhand Hydra foot soldiers forty feet across the room and bank his shield off of shit and into their faces. This is everything my younger, comic-reading self envisioned a Captain America movie to be, and it’s a shame it only shows itself in the finale of the film. There’s even a moment towards the end when it seems like the dudes responsible for the FX on Thor stepped in and helped out, and this small moment is easily one of the best in the film.
So remember I mentioned that perfect cliffhanger that they could have ended on, but instead they opened with it? When I saw that opening, I at least hoped that Johnston would have the wisdom to bring it all around and subtly return to this in the closing moments, leaving a year-long cliffhanger until the release of The Avengers. Maybe they tested that version and people came out of the screening too depressed and unsure of their feelings. In any case, instead of any subtlety in handling the cliffhanger (and why, after watching the film, would I expect even a shred of subtlety), Johnston completely obliterates the cliffhanger and spells everything out. He ends the film on a scene that realistically should be one of the opening scenes to The Avengers and it leaves a real sour taste in my mouth. I still hope that The Avengers will deliver something special, but I won’t hold my breath.