SPOILERS AHEAD! SPOILERS AHEAD! SPOILERS AHEAD!
Some good action. That’s all Cap needed.
Marvel Studios’ Captain America: The First Avenger succeeds with character and fails with action. It’s funny – one of the prevailing narratives among movie critics these days is how so many Hollywood blockbusters concentrate on action without introducing us to any memorable characters, and here I am bemoaning a movie that (I believe) hits one good character note after another and manages to bring one of the trickiest Marvel properties to the big screen in fine form. Who cares if most of the action scenes are poorly conceived?
I’ll explain my grievances with the action scenes later, but first, let’s talk character. Joe Johnston’s movie has it in droves, and I’m not surprised. Legions of geeks (including me) applauded Marvel for tapping him to direct this, no doubt with fond memories of his 1991 superhero flick The Rocketeer in mind. I don’t know how well that movie’s aged, but Johnston clearly has a flair for period work, and Marvel had no choice but to place Cap in a heightened period setting to sell the character to audiences in time for next summer’s The Avengers. After all, Cap is destined to lead that team of superheroes.
But it takes more than a heightened period setting and an Alan Menken ditty to sell Cap. You also need to get Cap. So let me share the moment when I got Captain America. The panels below take place near the climax of the classic Marvel crossover event The Infinity Gauntlet. The purple-skinned guy is an interstellar tyrant named Thanos, and he’s just laid waste to half the universe and killed all of the major Marvel heroes. (Long story.) And who’s the last one standing? Captain America, who’s also the one guy on the battlefield with no powers to speak of.
Watch what he does:
The first time I read that scene, I got chills, because I figured out that Captain America’s purpose is to give you chills. He’s there to lead everyone to the gates of hell because he believes in his cause so entirely. And here’s the tricky part: Cap is a patriot, but he isn’t jingoistic. He believes in American ideals, but he isn’t an exceptionalist.
In other words, the last thing a Captain America movie should be is a ticker-tape parade for America. But the flip-side of that – a winking, sarcastic, postmodern riff on the character – wouldn’t work either.
Somehow, Johnston and his creative team get it just right, and my goodness – is Chris Evans ever the right guy for the part. His role as a square-jawed flyboy in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine suggested that he might make a good Steve Rogers, but Evans’ performance as Cap is far more impressive. Playing the square-jawed hero isn’t always the most glamorous job, but Evans turns Cap into a memorable character by simply playing him as a guy with a really, really big heart, and by Crom, there aren’t enough big-hearted performances onscreen anymore.
What do I mean by “big-hearted”? Well, for my money, a big-hearted person is guided by compassion and empathy. A big-hearted person can walk a mile in someone’s shoes. A big-hearted person will stand up to bullies and stick up for others.
Evans’ Steve Rogers has all of those traits, and the script (by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) reflects that. Case in point: When a character asks Steve if he wants “to kill some Nazis,” Steve responds: “I don’t want to kill anybody. But I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.”
It’s just the right note to hit, and it reflects the larger goodness about the Steve Rogers character – like any true American, his default setting is peace, and his last resort is violence. (If I sound like I’m getting political, I am.)
That line of dialogue also falls in step with the movie’s larger agenda to somehow appeal to overseas markets. I hate to be so snarky, but I have to give them kudos for making a movie that takes place in the European theater of World War Two, and the swastika barely makes an appearance. Instead, the screenwriters emphasized the villain’s role as an insurgent from within the Nazi party who had his own agenda. I wonder if it occurred to anyone in Rogers’ company to tell Washington that we were no longer at war with Germany?
There are lots of other good character moments, including many with Cap and the female lead, a British operative played by relative newcomer Hayley Atwell. One of the side-effects of a Captain America movie that recounts his 1940s origin is its unavoidable sad ending. Steve winds up frozen in ice until the modern day, and it’s a testament to this movie’s charm that Steve’s first (and last) kiss with Atwell’s operative is so bittersweet. Atwell herself brings humor and spark to what could have been a perfunctory role. The movie’s last line has legitimate power, too. That only happens if you’ve got strong characters onscreen.
But man – the action just doesn’t work.
CC2K staff writer (and American) Lance Carmichael attended this screening with me, and he astutely pointed out that many of the action sequences lacked clear goals. For example, there’s a sequence that starts off with promise: Cap and his retinue, the Howlin’ Commandos, are about to zipline onto the top of a speeding train! Whoo-hoo!
But wait. Why are they even attacking this train? They’re attacking it because it carries a potential source of intelligence (one of the villain’s sidekicks). But why is he on the train? Where was he going? If he’s such a valuable source of intelligence (as we later learn), why isn’t the villainous Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, delicious as expected) keeping him under lock and key?
The muddled storytelling isn’t the only problem. For all of the movie’s admirable efforts to recreate the high-energy, retro vibe of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Johnston only manages to stage one successful action sequence, and none of the movie’s action sequences come within a nautical mile of the masterfully executed set-pieces in Steven Spielberg’s classic.
Going back to the sequence on the train: As soon as they zipline onto the train, the action immediately shifts to its cramped innards, where an unmemorable slugfest plays out. Johnston also bewilderingly jumps into an action montage as soon as Cap dons his official costume for the first time. (A series of mini-action scenes were in order, I submit.)
Other action sequences lack flair. Johnston packs his movie with motorcycles, but fails to deliver a rousing motorbike chase on the order of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Another scene takes place in one of the Red Skull’s factories, and for some damn reason, when the Red Skull detects Cap’s presence, he blows the whole place up. Huh? Wasn’t all that equipment expensive? When Cap infiltrated his other facilities later in the movie, why didn’t he blow them up, too?
If I sound like I’m being hard on what is a perfectly good movie, let me remind everyone that we can have it all. We can have movies with great characters and incredible action. Joe Johnston clearly thinks so, too, because he spent all of Captain America trying to recreate one of the best.
He didn’t quite do it, but I still recommend Captain America, and here’s why: Remember when I said that Cap’s face-off with Thanos gives me chills?
So does this movie. I wish the action were better, but I’ll take the chills.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.