July 24, 2011

Movie Monday: Captain America

"What happened to you?"
"I joined the Army."

We went to see Captain America Saturday night. When I first heard the nebulous "they" were making a movie about Captain America (before I knew about the grande Avenger scheme) I was trepidatious. Hollywood, make Captain America? I remember people sharing my concerns that he would turn into "Captain United Nations," or like Superman Returns, be about "Truth, Justice and....that other stuff." I've been disappointed enough to know that "these people" can't be trusted. So, when I saw the Captain America trailer before Transformers a couple of weeks ago, I was blown away. This might actually be....good. I read several reviews over the weekend before we saw the movie, ranging from less-than-enthusiastic to gushing, so my expectations were still mitigated going in. Disclaimer: I haven't had any experience with the Captain America universe prior to this movie. And I have to say, even though some of the criticism was warranted, I was pleasantly surprised. Captain America definitely met and in places exceeded my expectations.

Set in WWII, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a literal 90-pound weakling, the son of a KIA infantryman and an Army nurse. He tries to enlist in five different recruiting stations and is turned down every time due to multiple health issues. Steve is finally allowed to enlist thanks to German expatriate scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) who sees a big heart inside a little body. He is then put through an experimental procedure which morphs him from a scrawny kid into...Chris Evans.

Unfortunately, he isn't then sent to the lines to fight. A politician finds him and convinces the Army to turn him into The Star Spangled Man, a USO performer traveling the country selling war bonds. Because those are his orders, he does it, humiliating as it is. Finally, through a series of right-place-right-time incidents, he is given the chance to engage the enemy and his true worth is proven.

Meanwhile, evil Nazi scientist (are there any others) Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) is working on harnessing a supernatural power in order to create his own super army, and in the process, goes insane, breaks from the Nazi ranks and begins his own crusade to conquer the world. Captain America's mission is to find and kill this Schmidt before it's too late.

Whew. And I left a lot out, too.

The theme of this movie was what I loved the most, and happened to dovetail with an interchange I had on Twitter the other day: strength doesn't come from muscles, it comes from character. There's a scene where Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, who steals every scene he's in) is trying to convince Erskine to use one of the other soldiers for his experiment, one who is bigger and stronger, that that is the kind of soldier who should be turned into a super soldier. To prove his point, he throws a (dead) grenade onto the parade ground to test how the soldiers react. All the soldiers run, except for one who jumps on the grenade to protect the others: 90-pound weakling Rogers.

Throughout the movie, the juxtaposition of external versus internal strength is the real story. Schmidt couldn't handle the power he was seeking because he had no internal strength, whereas it's not Captain America's muscles and physical super-strength that saved the day, it is his integrity amd selfless strength of character.

Listen, I loved Batman, Iron Man, Green Lantern and all the other reboots as much as anyone (and more than some), but the same old story of the selfish slacker who becomes a hero because he's forced to be one is, well, same and old. Here instead, we have a man who is a hero because he has a hero's heart, and we love seeing him be given the opportunity to become that hero physically, as well.

Before the procedure, Erskine tells Rogers that he was chosen because he was a good man, and that it's more important to be a good man that it is to be a soldier, and that by being a good man, he will be a great soldier. That was, unsurprisingly, one of the criticisms from the more "elite" reviewers, that Captain America isn't conflicted and nuanced. But that's the point. When it comes to right and wrong, there isn't much conflict or nuance. The Nazis were bad and needed to be stopped. You don't abandon your friends. You love your country and protect it. You treat all people with respect, regardless of where they come from or how many muscles they have.

Another example is Captain America's love interest, Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). A UK military liaison, she is part of the team that brings in Rogers for his training. Carter is an enigma in modern movies. Most female characters today - heck, nearly all of them - are only shown as "strong" through unrealistic hand-to-hand fight scenes with men twice their size or through, pardon me, being a b*tch. And if that fails, they take off their clothes to get what they want. None of these are Carter. She is a truly strong woman. She's beautiful, but she's not a stick figure with sallow cheeks. She looked like the women of her period - feminine, full-figured and graceful. She doesn't use her body to get her way, she doesn't punch a wall to intimidate. But she doesn't take any crap, either. She simply does what she knows - or sometimes, guesses - is the right thing to do. She doesn't waste time with whining, pouting or purring. I don't think she even raised her voice once. She is just plain classy. More of this, please, Hollywood.

Finally, these two are contrasted with the evil Red Skull, Schmidt. His goal from the beginning of the movie is to amass strength through any and all means necessary, to the point that it consumes him. He doesn't care about the value of inner strength, strength of character. Only external force. His search for the √úbermensch, the super soldier, winds up destroying him. One of the great ironies of the movie is that the thing he is seeking to create and control - a physically powerful Aryan blonde-haired blue-eyed super soldier - is who defeats him. I don't know if that was intentional, but I sure hope it was. All of these elements work together to bring home the point that the pursuit of physical strength is inferior to integrity, courage, fidelity and honor.

The actual cinematography is beautiful, as well. The colors are all nicely muted to soft beiges and greys, thus making Captain America's red, white and blue uniform all the more striking, and also to cast a haze of nostalgia over the period. There were also fun action sequences, intelligent humor (most of which from a fantastically-cast Tommy Lee Jones) and plenty of flag-waving. One of my favorite lines in the movie is where the Red Skull tells Captain America, "I have seen the future, and there are no flags." "Not in my future," Captain America responds. Hooah.

One of the criticisms I thought was off-mark was one that said the movie portrayed American soldiers in a less-than-positive light. I don't see that at all. The story revolves around a man wanting to join the Army more badly than anyone I've ever met. As Erskine puts it, "It's not the five rejections that interest me. It's the five tries." That alone, in my opinion, represents our military well, especially considering today's service members - the majority of them - joined during a time of active war on multiple fronts, just as Rogers attempted to do. The other soldiers we get to know are brave, good-humored and loyal to each other and their country.

The only scene where I can imagine someone got the impression that the soldiers were portrayed negatively is a scene where Rogers is in a USO show at a FOB in Italy. There he is, standing there in his cheesy USO costume talking to the soldiers about taking on the Nazis, and they jeer and mock him, throwing food at him and telling him to get off the stage. A few minutes later, we find out that the audience was made up of a unit that just returned from an engagement where they lost 75% of their men to death or capture. You know what - I wouldn't expect them to react any differently to a live-action cartoon character trying to give them a pep talk. That wasn't an aspersion on our troops, that was verisimilitude. That was realistic. And I appreciated the scene being there.

My only criticisms of the movie are spoilerish in nature, so if you don't want to read, skip the bulleted section below:

  • "Captain America" gave us a great hero and several other really good, heroic figures. The problem is, in my opinion, the villain wasn't...villainy...enough in contrast. While the Red Skull is maniacal and bent on world domination, there's not much more to him than that. And I don't mean "nuance." I mean, I wasn't really scared of him. At the beginning of the movie, he threatens to burn down an entire village unless an old man helps him. Now, since he's wearing a Nazi uniform, we know that he's likely to burn the village down anyway. But the scene could have been played in such a way that left a question in our minds, thus heightening the impact when he does, in fact, turn and give the order to open fire. However, Schmidt is so dead-pan in his delivery, there's no real punch. And anyway, he a psychotic Nazi officer seeking world domination - there's really not much he could do to shock us. There needed to be something more than your typical "bad guy" moves, like burning an innocent village. There needed to be the psychological effect as well, and that's where the movie missed out.

  • The other issue - and this is a huge spoiler - is the ending. It's not a "happily-ever-after" for our leading man and leading lady. It doesn't have to be, you can have fantastic movies where the love story doesn't "work out" in the end. (Casablanca) But when we hear Steve and Peggy say goodbye, you're sorry it turned out this way, but it doesn't really sting. I contrast it to the opening sequence of the new Star Trek movie. When George Kirk tells his wife he's not going to be there to help them raise their son, I bawl like a baby every time. I'm tearing up now just thinking about it. There is a similar scene at the end of Captain America, and in comparison, it flatlines emotionally. Part of that may be because we are basically told how the movie will end in the opening scene, so I figured out what was going to happen about 3 minutes before it did. That certainly lessened the emotional impact. But even still, you can know what's going to happen and still be moved. I mean, every time I watch Star Trek, I know George Kirk isn't lasting past the first five minutes. Perhaps it's because the opening scene gives it away. Perhaps it's because we didn't get to really see a relationship between the two, just the possibility of one. Either way, it's a shame that scene wasn't stronger.

All that to say, I really, really enjoyed this movie. It's not flawless, but it's great fun and gives you a great hero to root for. Let me know what you think. And be sure to stay after the credits!!


  1. I loved this movie and your review was pretty dead-on =)

  2. I really want to see this! Your review makes it sound really good.

  3. We saw it Saturday night too and LOVED it!

    I am a sucker for any "superhero" movie. I thought this was incredibly well-made and loved the casting.

    Doesn't hurt that Chris Evans is smoking hot too ;)

  4. First, I love reading your reviews even if I don't care about the movie. Your writing is always interesting!

    This movie, however, is one I want to see. Thanks for the review!

  5. I LOVED this movie! This was a good review! I especially agree with your assessment of Peggy--She was super classy! Also, about the ending--I figured the movie ended that way because that is how it was in the comics. My brother, however, didn't know that, and he actually got angry--he ranted about it the whole way home. I think he had a crush on Peggy. Haha.

  6. Agreed with everything. Especially the fact that I didn't feel bad that Rogers and Carter were never going to see each other again. This may be because I was ecstatic to see Natalie Dormer in this movie (The women who kissed Rogers). I LOVE her.

    But that being said, Caters character was exactly the type of women I would respect in a movie. You're right. She isn't some bombshell vixen who is so obnoxious it ruins the film (Transformers). Or some hot shot know it all who tries to intimidate her love interest, like most comic book movies.

    Overall, I enjoyed the movie. It was the typical comic book movie that everyone tends to love. However, I think I am more excited about The Avengers movie coming out. I think I am more of an Iron Man fan, and can't wait to have him back.

    Great Review.

  7. I loved the movie too! And your review! :)

  8. Captain America has been my favorite super hero for about 15 years now and I think they did a marvelous job bringing him to the big screen.

    In regards to your comments regarding the Red Skull, I think one thing that made him less intimidating is the lack of focus they gave to the Cosmic Cube (what they called the Tesaract in the movie). Basically we just see it as a weapon and not pure cosmic essence. Red Skull's pursuit of this power is one of the things that has long defined him, but the movie hands it to him right away... skipping over the tenacious and relentless pursuit.

    I really hope they make another Cap movie (there are rumors floating about already) and set it in present day. The final scene before the credits didn't really do the movie justice regarding the amount of loss he suffered.

    Glad you liked it.

  9. JG, I don't want to give anything away, but congrats! I just saw an article "pending."

  10. Good grief jaci. verisimilitude? You made me scramble for a dictionary. A writer has not done that in over 15 years. Well done.


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