Friday, April 10, 2015

Countdown to Avengers: Age of Ultron—Captain America

The latest "Avengers" movie comes out on May first.  

For this month of Fridays before the premiere, we'll be re-running reviews of the movies that formed the stepping stones for this latest one, including this very integral part of the team—even though the Marvel Comics Group chose him to be put him into a feature film last. Maybe itt's because the character has had  a long jingoistic streak about him. Maybe it's because a character that is so star-spangled and patriotic might not "play" well in foreign countries (I mean "play" with foreign audiences, that's not a political statement—although it certainly could be one). 

He's the one Marvel character that dates back to the "Golden Age of Comics" in the 1940's and, so, had to be handled "just so" for him to be accepted by modern audiences. He is the nation's super-soldier: Captain America.

"When Captain America Throws His Mighty Shiiiield..."  (KLANG!)
"Yeah, I've Knocked Adolf Hitler Out Over 200 Times."

This is the one that needed to work.

It all hinges on this one and it would be a tough fight.  Captain America is the one Marvel A-lister who has seemed to defy the switch to other media. There were the '60's cartoons—basically limited-animation panels from the comics—a bad '90's film, a serial film, a couple of lousy TV movies. Next year's The Avengers extravaganza depends on the character, so this is the one to be nervous about.

"Cap" is Marvel's version of Superman, a Big Blue Boy Scout, but like DC's Big Guy, it's tough to write for him—the fight always has to come to him and a lot of the time he plays defense, he has no motivation other than an altruistic manner, and he's seemingly unstoppable, meaning the villains have to be more elaborate and more interesting than he is. Like Superman, the character is often changed—costume, identity, or even, when all else fails...killed. Up until this time, the few live-action CA interpretations have seemed like shielded "Six Million Dollar Man" episodes, cheap and stunted. It's tough to replicate the dramatic moves the character pulls in the comics (he's usually shown in mid-move, suspended, too) as opposed to Spider-man.  Captain America: The First Avenger has to work.
It does.  Like gangbusters.

Director Joe Johnston has been down this road before—he directed The Rocketeer, another WWII-era superhero flick, after all—but he's never made a film as good as this one (he made The Wolfman last year). CA:TFA takes the story back to its comic-book origin roots when it was created by street-wise kids Joe Simon* and Jack Kirby—fighting Nazi's and flying colors. At the same time, it pays affectionate tribute to past Cap incarnations, while delivering the action goods in a neat retro-futuristic environment, a bit like what Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow should have been.** 
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a 98 pound Brooklynite weakling (such things do exist, I've heard), who wants to join the Army and is constantly turned down for any number of good reasons and envious of his pal James "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan) who's off to fight in the European Theater with the 107th. In a note that ties in with locations from the Iron Man movies, Rogers goes to the New York World's Fair on a double-date with Bucky, and his G.I. "jones" is noticed by Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who gets the kid a hitch, and as a washout in training, signs him up for a "super-soldier" program that Hitler was very interested in before Erskine fled Germany. Meanwhile, half a world away, one of Erskine's test-subjects Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) is blitz-krieging around the world looking for ancient artifacts, ostensibly to help with Germany's war-effort, but secretly to gain ultimate power to form his own Reich, with his science group, Hydra.  Erskine's experiments on Schmidt have drastically disfigured him, but for Rogers, the attempts are a stunning success
Rogers wants to fight, but the government instead presses him into service as a war-bonds spokesman, as "Captain America," which goes over well at home, but is a joke to the soldiers on the line. Under the auspices of Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, who laconically nearly walks away with the movie) and Major Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell, plucky—she doesn't blink when she fires a gun), Rogers goes against orders and inserts himself into the fight, rescuing a squad of Hydra prisoners, including his pal Bucky and a motley crew of dog-faces familiar to anyone who's read the comics.
She doesn't blink...
The sight of The Howling Commandos brought a big smile to my face, but even without them, Johnston makes a fun, goofy film, with some nice war action mixed in with well-done super-hero antics, and shot along the lines of a film Johnston story-boarded early in his career, Raiders of the Lost Ark (with the occasional nod to Leni Riefenstahl). Johnston does some nice movie cross-referencing by making the character of Howard Stark, very Howard Hughes-like after his own The Rocketeer, and casting Dominic Cooper in the part, often resembling Leonardo DiCaprio from The Aviator. Chris Evans, who plays Steve Rogers, is a good funny actor, but he's tamped down here, playing everything completely straight and without irony, very much the Boy Scout. This is one of the better Marvel movies, and one of the better superhero movies to come out, as well.
Cap shields the Howling Commando's
As with the other Marvel films, stick around until after the credits for a big surprise, that will whet your appetite for next year. "Some assembly required."  Heh.
Wilhelm Alert @ 01:33

Cap finds he's entered a brave new world

*  As Stan Lee has his customary cameo in this film (he's good, too) it would have been nice—really nice—if Cap's REAL creator was included in the film. The legendary Jack Kirby died in 1994. Joe Simon died in 2011, long enough to see his co-creation hit the big screen and become a hit.

** It's a combination of Kirby-esque pod-forms, more suited for the 1960's, and lo-tech '40's dials and toggles (which spit sparks in duress), and my favorite joke in the film is the non-LED (not invented yet) countdown indicators used in the Red Skull's lab—as any timed pyro-technician will tell you, the only reason to have such a device is to build suspense in movie audiences.

Fighting the Past By the Present
By the Banks of the Ol' Watergate

The new "Captain America" movie out of Marvel Studios and Disney, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the first post-Avengers sequel that amounts to anything, or even attempts to do something of any significance beyond marking time, or being a tentpole-placeholder until the next group assemblage movie comes along.* But, instead of paying lip-service to The Avengers, or pinging off it, the new Cap movie largely ignores it and sets out on its own path, with a story that is very much associated with the first film, while not being dependent on it, for those who are just now joining the story. It's a neat little bit of story-gymnastics that would rival any of the stunt sequences of this movie, of which there are many and varied (some of which work and some of which are visual noise).

What makes Captain America (as jingoistic a character as there's been) unique, and, surprisingly, the most interesting of the Marvel film characters is his "other-ness." More so than the hipster Tony Stark, or the bland bulk of Thor, Captain America is a product of his time, which was World War II, when ideals were different.  Back then, there was a palpable belief in country, in government, in sacrifice, and in "doing the right thing." Steve "Captain America" Rogers has missed a lot of history while he was frozen in time and arctic ice. The first movie (The First Avenger) ended with his first glimpse of the brave new world he'd thawed into. The Avengers made use of his post-WWII ignorance, contrasting him with Stark's cynicism and making laughs out of his pop-culture ignorance ("Flying monkeys? I understand that reference," he says at one point). He's still a stranger in a strange land, but he's learning; in this movie, he carries a notebook for jotting down things he's missed and wants to investigate (see below).

Rogers (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson)
peer at something they don't like.
He needs to fill in a lot of gaps or else he'd wonder why the Triskelion—the headquarters of the National Security Agency S.H.I.E.L.D.—is located so close to the Watergate Hotel. After a brief jaunt around Washington D.C., Rogers (Chris Evans) and a clutch of SHIELD operatives (including The Black Widow—Natasha Romanoff, played by Scarlett Johansson) are called on a rescue mission for a hijacked ship. It becomes apparent after the pirates are taken down, that there's more to the mission than meets the one eye of SHIELD head Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, given a lot to do here). This leads to a tense stand-off between Fury and Rogers over a SHIELD project called "Insight," utilizing those flying battleships from The Avengers for some very high-level surveillance and attack capabilities. Rogers is aghast at the ships' annihilative first-strike capabilities, and reminds Fury that back in his day, he fought for freedom. "This isn't freedom," he says with no fashionable mock irony."This is fear."
"And this is a big ol' plane chasing you..."
The man behind the initiative is Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, relaxed and as low-key as he's been in years), and when Fury is taken out of action by a coordinated attack, he goes on the offensive, suspecting that Rogers, who appears to be tight-lipped about it, may be behind it and has gone rogue. He starts his own ironic "war on America" to stop Rogers, Romanoff, and a new ally, vet Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), aka "The Falcon," who go their own way to get to the bottom of the attack on Fury, and find the answers go back to old enemies...and old friends.
There's something unnerving...and vaguely thrilling..about seeing
Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Redford playing scenes together.
Of course, they do. It's bold to see the second chapter of the Captain America trilogy go so far as to re-shape so much bedrock in the Marvel movie Universe, and move so quickly to make Cap so much culturally removed from our times, but morally apart, as well. It simultaneously makes the character more of a rebel (the way we like our superheroes in movies, it seems) and more exemplary of a hero in the traditional role of a "big blue boy-scout."

That's a big leap to make. Also, a big leap is that the movie seems to revolve around the trope that "Nobody dies in comic books...ever"...and fairly consistently. One expects a cameo from Tommy Lee Jones at any moment (which doesn't happen).

"Woopsy." Shield-throwing works not so much...
The title refers to another rogue agent—The Winter Soldier—who crops up and is seemingly indestructible in a fight. He's this movie's "player on the other side" sharing more with the Captain than separates them—both are super-fast, are physically enhanced and have an indestructible metal component (Cap, his shield; the soldier his left arm) that are their "go-to" secret weapons when things get dicey—the type that, if they weren't on opposing sides and trying to kill each other, in another reality they might have been friends.
Clang!  Metal shield against metal arm.
These guys have a lot in common.
But, they're not friends now and the frequent clashes pose a challenge to the new directors Anthony and Joe Russo (they're mostly known for working on the TV show "Community" and the comedy You, Me and Dupree). So far, the heroics of Captain America have been visually limited—Joe Johnston and Joss Whedon had him running over vehicles a lot—but the gymnastics are more convoluted, both in action and in the way they're portrayed. The Russo's use every trick in the book (the occasional long shot, but mostly tight compositions, sometimes with every move having its own shot and angle, and edited in different ways, sometimes employing frame-skipping). Sometimes it works, but often there's a lack of perspective, so you have no idea how the war is going, so focused as they are on individual hit-points. One wishes that Johnston, who brought a sure directorial hand to the first film, could have been coaxed back for this one.

Stay to the end of the credits and you'll see not one, but two Easter egg sequences: the first, setting up two new members of "The Avengers," the other foreshadowing the confrontation for the third Captain America movie, which will be playing "super-chicken" in a couple years time with the Superman/Batman (and Wonder Woman) movie.

Two of the little jokes in CA: TWS—Nick Fury's tombstone has a familiar Bible quote in its pulp; Steve Rogers keeps a notebook of stuff he needs to catch up on.

* As opposed to Iron Man 3, which probably shouldn't have happened, and Thor: The Dark World, which was only a bit better than its first movie.

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