by Dan Fields
First published July 23, 2011 by the California Literary Review
Must Be the Recession…
Captain America has a lot riding on his shoulders, not merely in his own war-torn world but in the dangerously ambitious Marvel Studios project of bringing the Avengers and their various associates together in a convoluted crossover web of summer blockbusters. The difficult truth is that since Jon Favreau’s runaway smash Iron Man, each successive entry has brought the average of the franchise down.
Sadly, Captain America is no exception. For a movie about super soldiers, world domination, and rogue Nazi occultists, it packs surprisingly little punch. The flaw is not in the premise, but in the execution. Long stretches go by without a joke sticking, a blow landing, or an emotion ringing true. Thor was no masterpiece, but at least Kenneth Branagh had the sense to keep things in constant motion, and managed to make a movie as exciting as it was silly.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, whose presence here hopefully means no more Fantastic Four movies) is a noble but shrimpy little guy whose repeated failure to enlist in the war against Hitler drags him down into a mighty deep slump. His best friend is shipping out, and he feels worthless and unmanly as 4F guarding the home front. Luckily for him, he catches the eye of a kindly scientist (Stanley Tucci) whose top secret military project requires a man of strong character. Despite the protests of the military brass (Tommy Lee Jones, given very little to do), Rogers is allowed to enlist as part of an experimental treatment designed to make him into a fighting machine.
The good news is that it works. The bad news is that the story loses focus shortly after. After a maudlin prologue which plods along like a Peter Parker nightmare, the story suddenly gets keen and clever for a brief period. Relegated to promoting war bonds with his tremendous new physique, despite his proven ability to run, jump, and punch with superhuman strength, “Captain America” Rogers realizes he has been swindled by bureaucrats and is no closer to his dream… until he decides to prove himself with a brave and unauthorized solo mission.
In a parallel storyline, Third Reich sorcerer Johann Schmidt has harnessed the power of an otherworldly energy source to power his own super-destructive fighting force, HYDRA (whose similarity to GI Joe’s COBRA I never realized until seeing this film). It is no big spoiler to reveal that Schmidt is in fact the disfigured villain Red Skull, whose own astounding power is a perverted prototype of Captain America’s, making them dangerously equal in strength and diametrically opposed in character. Red Skull has been using Nazi subsidization as a springboard to his own ambitions of conquest and destruction.
Hugo Weaving brings a nice, cold menace to the role, though jacking up his insanity would not have gone amiss. This is never a bad idea in a superhero film, particularly when your hero is not crazy and scary, like Batman. Even as a non-German speaker I pronounce his accent superb because he sounds just like an angry Werner Herzog. His assistant is former Nazi scientist Dr. Arnim Zola, played by Toby Jones. In truth, the myopic and cowardly Zola is the most entertaining character in the film. A cursory familiarity with his comic book character arc makes me quite curious to see where and when he shows up next in the franchise. These two characters are more fully rendered than any on the other side. Did they ever consider offering the role of Tony Stark’s visionary father to Robert Downey, Jr. merely to add more quirky flavor to the American war effort? They should have. He might have really enjoyed playing a 1940s version of his Iron Man character, and we would have enjoyed watching.
The story arc as established here, centered around the well-matched rivals Captain America and Red Skull, has the potential to be tremendous fun. It is pretty fun, in short bursts, but the action sequences and the dramatic interludes feel like scenes from different films, spliced carelessly together. Soon after Rogers makes his transformation, the story of the little guy standing up for justice and freedom veers with precious little grace into a butt-kicking contest for the sake of nothing more than kicking butts. The constant attempts to show Captain America’s tender and noble side, especially his wooden romance with military liaison Peggy Carter, soon become annoying distractions even though they are in large part the point of the story. Inconsistency of tone makes this movie frustrating. With not enough action in the first half, and not enough wit in the second, it never manages to be completely immersive.
Talking of Peggy Carter, she ought to be a stronger character. Captain America’s love interest is as crucial as Red Skull’s sidekick, at least, but this film gives her little to do but get whistled at by GIs, and occasionally give Steve Rogers a long, doe-eyed look. She is not convincingly badass, or as delightfully aloof as Gwyneth Paltrow in… you guessed it again… Iron Man.
To succeed more or less as written, this film ought to have been exponentially overdeveloped as either a spoof of the bright-smile, combed-hair all-American hero of wartime propaganda films, or simply as a nonstop parade of violent and thrilling cavalry charges. Unfortunately, you cannot make Robocop and The Rocketeer at the same time, but the stop-and-go pace of Joe Johnston’s film seems to suggest that he tried. Whoever edited the theatrical trailers for Captain America: The First Avenger ought to get a raise, as the only crew member who indisputably outdid himself.
The best we can hope for is that The Avengers, who will soon step out together in their own superhero ensemble movie, will draw on one another’s strengths and blow us away. Now that each is free of his ponderous origin story, all they have to do is get the bad guys, over and over again for hours. If nothing else, it will be a heck of a year for the popcorn industry. The Avengers probably looks better on paper than it will on the screen, but aren’t these stories supposed to give us hope? In this case, they give us hope for better stories.