Review by Gary Liew, from the All Action, No Plot Movie Club
“When Marvel Studios announced its plan to make an Avengers movie, they sent every comic fanboy around the world into a state of delerium– hasn’t the idea of bringing together some of the most iconic Marvel comic-book characters for a team-up movie played on the mind of every comic reader at some point? The strategy was simple – introduce each of the main characters in their own stand-alone film that all share a single, parallel universe – then paying off that setup by uniting them all together in The Avengers. It would be the inevitable, evolutionary next step for comic-book adaptations. For those not in the know, the Avengers line-up for the movie will consist of Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow, led of course by Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury. It’s almost, but not quite the ‘classic’ line-up of the comics, but then again the Avengers line-up changed so often (I’ve seen Spiderman and even Wolverine in there from time to time) its hard to tell who should be in and who shouldn’t.
So, with Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and just recently Thor, Captain America is the last leg of that ambitious next-step, and ultimately the make-it or break-it of that entire concept of a superhero team-up movie. Certainly, much of that pressure rests on the shoulders of helmer Joe Johnston. His directorial output remains decidedly mixed – dismal efforts include Jurassic Park 3 and Wolfman – but also consists of such kiddy-fare classics like Jumanji and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids – as well as my childhood favourite – nostalgia-packed 90’s action-adventure romp The Rocketeer, which I caught at the theatre with my dad as a kid. So, alongside the witty character-study of Iron Man, the B-movie bone-crunching action fest The Incredible Hulk and the Shakespearian-drama/CGI spectacle that was Thor, how exactly does Captain America stack up?
In a summer filled with one comic-book movie after another, Captain America is a refreshingly old-school, pulpy action-adventure movie rife with nostalgia that is reminiscent of such classics as Raiders of the Lost Ark and the aforementioned Rocketeer. Johnston takes a straightforward, old-fashioned approach to story-telling – the classic Good vs Evil anchored by the romanticism of clear-cut heroism – and the end result is a film evocative of 80’s adventure films that is incredibly refreshing.
How so? Well for one, this is a film largely formed on the backbone of its titular character. Upholding truth, honour and justice, Cap is a classic hero in the old mould – void of any dark internal conflicts, daddy issues or misguided morality. Where it’s so easy for Cap to fall into being a one-note, boring cypher of the all “blah blah” American way – it is Chris Evans’ performance as Steve Rogers/ Cap that totally sells it. Chris wisely plays up the strengths of the no-nonsense, straight-laced, everyman quality that makes Cap easy to root for, yet imbues the subtlety of vulnerability in the pre-transformation, skinny, scrawny Steve Rogers layered with a courageous, selfless and wholesome earnestness that is so believable and endearing that the wow factor of him attaining Captain America’s physique (Chris Evans’ body in real life) is elevated because you believed in scrawny Steve. It’s no small feat. A woman in my theatre remarked that Captain America was the kind of man she would bring home to meet her mom. And I wholeheartedly agree.
Performances are top-notch all round. Stanley Tucci appears early on as German professor Dr. Erskine who takes note of Rogers’ finer characteristic qualities and eventually spearheads the Super Soldier project in a subtle but effective performance though a tad too brief. Tommy Lee Jones dons the serious scowl and gruff demeanour as Cap’s officer who establishes authority but appears to elicit the most laughter from the audience with his deadpan funny but honest one-liners. Hugo Weaving channels Agent Smith to play the one-dimensional and sometimes cartoonish main villain Red Skull, mostly effective when playing up to Johnston’s nostalgic sensibilities.
However it is Hayley Atwell as Agent Peggy Carter and Cap’s love interest who is a class act. Elegant, gorgeous and curvaceous, Hayley looks the classic pin-up siren pulled straight from the 40’s. Acting-wise, Hayley deftly balances her professionalism and maturity as a captain and her growing admiration for Cap without launching into “full on school-girl crush”, (a problem with Thor) making this one of the more memorable comic-book movie romances I have seen in a while. It helps that their relationship is also the emotional centerpiece of the plot, and thankfully time was devoted to properly flesh it out.
Where Johnston is most commendable for is not shying away from the camp and cheesiness associated with 80’s filmmaking. Instead, he wholly embraces it. The framework of 80’s story-telling can be littered with clichés, but here they are given a slight twist, playing on the conventions of those tropes. Then the score, by Alan Silvestri, is prominently sweeping with epic orchestral pieces reflective of that era. With the visual style, Johnston opts for a stylised and slightly exaggerated look to evoke a 40’s American period, using Art Deco sets to create a lingering retro vibe. This is most reflective in a well-choreographed musical number mid-point that is fashionably retro, and the somewhat patriotic Norman Rockwell inspired end-credits sequence.
Johnston also nicely handles the elements of the character’s patriotism and propagandised roots, understanding that Cap is a character lived vicariously by the American people affected by WWII, allowing us to relate to the cultural thinking of that period – without once losing focus on delivering an entertaining, fun popcorn action movie.
The film is not without flaws though. For a comic-book origin-story, the film does skimp on some of the more classic origin-story moments, like the discovery of superpowers, flaunting of said powers and adjusting to it. I recalled barely remembering what Cap’s enhanced capabilities are. How high can he jump? How fast can he run? How heavy can he lift? Some specifics would be helpful. Then there’s Cap’s costume. There’s barely any full-body shots to highlight the grandiose of a hero in costume, something that was done really well in Nolan’s Batman films and Iron Man. Although I do realise that Iron Man’s suit is a central feature in his films, I would have liked to see some heroic renderings of the costume. Also, I had gripes with certain plot elements and character relationships that felt rushed and underdeveloped, lessening the dramatic impact intended in some scenes.
Finally, how’s the action? Despite sub-par reviews, Incredible Hulk stands as the most stellar of Marvel movies in the action department for me, and helped tease some early Super Soldier action. Comparisons are hard to make – mainly a clash of two different directorial styles – while mostly competent, the action in Captain America is simply serviceable to the plot, but barely memorable. Certain set pieces don’t exactly play out the way they might have been suggested in the trailers. That said, when the action is on-screen, things are always fun and exciting, and Captain America’s shield makes for an interesting weapon that is cinematically cool, especially when used in a wide variety of creative ways to take out Nazi’s.
Fun and engaging without diminishing its old-school roots, Captain America is a throwback to the Indiana Jones/Star Wars adventure films of yesteryear. Easily the best comic-book movie this year, the flaws are easy to overlook – simply because the essence of the film at its core is ripe with interesting character relationships, great visual FX and competent action. Thanks to his faithfulness to the spirit of the source material, Joe Johnston succeeds in delivering us a solid, entertaining, nostalgic romp with Captain America, capping off (no pun intended) the Marvel movies leading up to next year’s much-anticipated Avengers.”
(P.S – Please stay after the credits for an incredibly awesome tease at the end. Let’s just say my theatre erupted – and I had to pick my jaw off the ground.)
All Action: 3/5
No Plot: 1.5/5 (Remember, the higher the score, the less plot it has!)
My rating: 4/5