Saturday, July 23, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

In an age of so many comic book films being churned out like clockwork, it’s hard not to feel like they all start looking and feeling the same, especially with Marvel Studios’ grand ambitions for and Avengers crossover film, which forced all their in-house films that came before it to be tied into it in the big mashup. 
Enter Joe Johnston and his team of craftspeople. Captain America: The First Avenger is a serious breath of fresh air. Yes, it’s still a comic book film. But by keeping to it’s WWII period setting and injecting a completely different sensibility into the characters, story, and humor, it does what only Iron Man did before it: it focuses on character and story over Avengers-tie ins and really soars because of it. And it really is something special.
I’ll be honest and say that in a lot of ways, I’m almost more in love with the look and feel of this film than the film itself. Master craftsman Rick Heinrich’s production design is nothing short of stunning. Just as well, Anna B. Shephard’s costumes and Shelly Johnson’s amber-drenched cinematography palette are gorgeous and capture the period perfectly. Major kudos to the makeup artistis for their work on Red Skull. Alan Silvestri’s score knocks it out of the park, and Alan Menken’s “Star Spangled Man” American Propaganda song is wonderful. I also really appreciated just how much practical visual effects work was done, as opposed to being a bland CGI-fest like Green Lantern or even Thor (though it works more in the latter, as that movie was actually a lot of fun). 
Still, all of these fantastic below the line elements would just sit there on screen without good story and characters. Luckily, story and characters are something Johnston’s film delivers in spades. The actors all really stepped up their games here, creating fully realized, lived in portrayals that really sell the genuine nature of the characters. Chris Evans nails humility, which is no small feat. He was born to play Steve Rogers.
His female counterpart, Peggy Carter, played to pitch perfection by the beautiful and talented Hayley Atwell, is so crucial to making the film work that it’s hard to imagine it without her. She represents the strongest female character in a comic book film in years. She can go toe to toe with the boys in the action as a soldier and remains distinctly feminine all at once. Their love story is probably the best ever put in a recent superhero film. Only Superman/Lois Lane in the first two Superman films really compares. It works largely due to the script, but much of the responsibility rests on Evans’ and Atwell’s natural chemistry and authentic courtship. By the time they finally kiss, you can’t help but have a big smile on your face and cheer for them. 
Hugo Weaving is deliciously menacing as Red Skull. Likewise, Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones (the latter in particular) are clearly having a blast and steal the show in every scene they are in. If only every cast in a film like this were as game and having as much fun with the material as these actors. Casting is everything. 
What really makes Captain America work is simply the fact that it tells a good story and develops its characters. In a lot of ways, it is the antithesis of Iron Man, but but succeed by focusing on the titular character, rather than trying to force them to be tied into The Avengers. Both are superlative within the genre, but have complete opposite sensibilities. While Iron Man features a good deal of political commentary, irony, and satirical humor, Captain America thrives on its old school adventure yarn trappings. It’s a bit of Indiana Jones crossed with The Rocketeer. By embracing that style, it really captures the Americana essence of the character and mythos. It’s just a shame we won’t get to see more Captain America films set in WWII. For now, this one really, truly soars. If this sounds like an outright rave, that’s probably on purpose. Aside from a few moments of iffy CGI and one too many action montages, there’s nothing to complain about. The film is really something else.