Friday, August 05, 2011

Captain America (Joe Johnston, 2011)


We don't need another hero


Joe Johnston's Captain America (there's more to the title, only I'm not that motivated) is fairly decent entertainment--moves at a lively pace, has a nice retro look, (circa late '30s to early '40s, complete with Unisphere and the 1939 World's Fair somehow teleported from Queens into Brooklyn), even surrounds itself with a royal flush of vivid supporting performances. Like its newly minted star Chris Evans (who plays the eponymous officer), the picture is a well-made example of standard-issue factory product, and just about as exciting.

You can tell Johnston has watched a few movies: the opening of the movie is a direct steal from the opening of Howard Hawks' 1951 horror thriller The Thing from Another World (well, Christian Nyby--but who's tracking?), where a giant craft has been discovered buried in the Arctic ice; the movie goes back some seventy years, borrowing the plotline of Buster Keaton's 1926 The General with scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, digitally reduced to chicken wishbone status) attempting again and again without much success to enlist in the army.

Hey--what worked for Keaton works just fine for Johnston, only with half the wit; Keaton for all his talent, however, did not have the assistance of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, grabbing this chance to sport a Teutonic accent) and his miraculous super-secret serum, designed to create an army of super-soldiers for the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR). The formula transforms Rogers into real-life Evans: blonde, blue-eyed, be-muscled, basically bland save for a hint of naïve idealism that Rogers once suggested, pre-transformation. A Nazi assassin kills Erskine and prevents further production of said super-soldiers; this disappoints SSR officer Col. Chester Philips (Tommy Lee Jones turning Philips' weary “why me?” attitude into consistent comic gold), who was promised the aforementioned army. Poor frustrated Philips refuses to recruit Rogers, and the hapless fellow ends up on a war bonds fundraising tour with a collection of leggy chorus girls, where he chafes at his mainly figurehead role (uh--the 2006 Flag of Our Fathers?); Rogers finally decides to take matters into his own hands by taking on a secret mission to penetrate and destroy a Nazi group turned renegade named Hydra, led by the nefarious Johann Schmidt, a.k.a. The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, in default Agent Smith mode, albeit more large-scale). The finale is a combination of, oh I don't know, everything from Inglourious Basterds (2009) and The Dirty Dozen (1967)--where crack teams of heros penetrate Nazi strongholds--to even Dr. Strangelove (1964), complete with nuclear devices decorated with names across their blunt noses, and the promise of some kind of German apocalypse. A coda set in present day momentarily evokes, of all things, the elaborate hoax in Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint, before turning into an extended trailer for Joss Whedon's upcoming The Avengers, due out next year.

Evans as Rogers, the sweetly heroic square-jawed Captain, embodies the movie's sweetly heroic, square-jawed appeal; if you like the type, you're going to fall for this movie. Frankly I'm marginally more interested in bad boys like Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark (in the Iron Man movies), though what really rocks my world are the nuttier visions of distinct filmmakers--or even just filmmakers who have gone above and beyond their usually bland selves to deliver something genuinely nutty (Ang Lee's Hulk (2003), which for my money is the best or at least the most interesting of Marvel's line of superhero pictures--though Sam Raimi's soap-opera Spiderman movies are an entertaining alternative).

It's all so terribly complicated, and not a little familiar--nostalgia for an innocent America (with the innocent notion that America's enemies only have to be punished with a pummeling) combined with a smart-aleck attitude (the war-bond tour has Rogers wearing the cheesiest red-white-and-blue wool costume I've ever seen, complete with little white turkey wings drooping from each side of the hood). Evans manages to subtly skewer his heroism while still playing it straight (a feat Christopher Reeve once managed to do in the Superman movies, in the '70s and '80s). 

The battles are meat-and-potatoes action filmmaking--Johnston obviously took his best ideas from the master himself, Jack Kirby--the canted angles, the fluid fight choreography, the endlessly varied uses to which a disclike shield can be put. Only thing missing is Kirby's exuberance, the sense of forces straining dramatically against each other with the fate of the universe at stake--all for our immediate viewing pleasure.

I don't know, I don't know--if you ask me, I much prefer Joss Whedon's 2008 online mini-musical: Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog. In the show's slim forty-minute running time I found more super-powered wit, heart, drama, tragedy and, yes, singable music than in all of Cap'n Crunch's two-hour-plus running time (or, for that matter, either of the Iron Man movies, the three Spider Man movies, the various X-Men movies, the Thor picture and the second Hulk flick--more than in all of Marvel's big-screen output, almost (I still kind of like the Ang Lee film)). I'd include Erik Matti's gloriously silly Gagamboy (Spiderboy, 2004) as being superior to all this Hollywood heroics and for good measure throw in Artemio Marquez's James Batman (1966)--and I haven't even begun to talk about superhero movies that I really like. In other words: why settle for blandly flavored if competently made factory product, when there's crazier stuff out there? Start looking folks. Elsewhere.

First published in Businessworld, 7.28.11

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