Saturday, July 11, 2015

Review: "Captain America: The First Avenger"

After promising to highlight the MCU's biggest problem during the Recap, I feel like a click bait site.

You know, like...

Top Seven Problems with the Marvel Films! (You won't BELIEVE number three!)

But alas, there's a problem that keeps popping up. Iron Man 2, Captain America, Age of Ultron.... It needs to be addressed.

First of all: Not enough Agent Carter.
This movie is simultaneously too bare-bones and too overfilled.

Bear with me on this, because it ties in to one of the main problems with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

First of all, World War 2 sci-fi is nothing new. Wolfenstein, Atomic Robo, Hellboy.... Seeing Nazis wielding improbable weapons of pseudoscience is absolutely nothing new. Seeing World War 2 sci-fi on the big screen featuring Marvel's characters is nice to see, but when the novelty wears off, you're left with an okay superhero movie mixed with an okay World War 2 sci-fi movie. The novelty of the WW2 characters is pretty cool, but it's a far cry from the Oppenheimer-esque characters studies of the Iron Man films, or the fantastically Shakespearean Thor film.

There was nothing particularly unique about HYDRA's scheme to win the war, although the fact that they ended up betraying the Nazis for their own cause makes for a minor twist in the proceedings.

I think that, overall, the decision to have HYDRA betray the Nazis and try to take over for themselves was a good one. It gave the film a reason to actually have Captain America by adding a secret front to the war while the real life heroes were doing the real life military operations.

But the Nazi superscience was a tad underwhelming. Lasers and bombs. Nothing particularly special or memorable. And other than some planes and tanks based on real Nazi superscience (like the Horten H XVIII bomber and Triebflügeljäger fighter plane), HYDRA's tech wasn't really anything to write home about.

Mainly, the Nazi science in this film was just a was to show the audience how powerful the Tesseract is for its return in the next film. And that brings me to the biggest problem with the MCU.

It hurt Iron Man 2, and it hurt Captain America. And it kept going into Phase 2, and will probably show up in Phase 3.


Marvel seems to have a problem with focusing on making one movie at a time. They seem to lose interest in making their movie in favor of setting up stuff for the next movie.

The MCU is split up into "Phases," with each Phase ending in a big ol' finale. Phase One ends with The Avengers. And this presents a problem.

Iron Man was created with no real plans for exactly what would happen in The Avengers. Just that The Avengers would happen somehow. But by the time Thor was being made, and especially Captain America, the plans for the big Chitauri invasion led by Loki were pretty much decided upon.

So the MCU films started leading up to the big finale. And with Captain America, this presented more of a problem than it did for Iron Man 2.

They weren't so much "writing a story" as they were "creating a story that fits within the pre-existing plans for The Avengers." It's not that they had a story they wanted to tell, but Captain America was simply the final box they had to tick before they could get started on the movie they really wanted to make.

I mean, it's called The First Avenger, for crying out loud. They had Avengers on the brain.
And this problem keeps happening.

Age of Ultron, which I'll reserve final judgement on until I've seen the promised Director's Cut, has the same problem. There's a genocidal robot on the loose, but all the filmmakers care about is giving Thor visions of Thor: Ragnarok and splitting up the team for Captain America: Civil War. And let's not get started on how they've decided that Infinity Stones are behind everything so they can set up their Infinity War two-parter.

And if the pattern keeps up, then Black Panther and Inhumans are going to suck.
If there was not an obligation to make The Avengers next, then Captain America would have saved the day and gone on to go kick Baron Zemo's butt in a sequel.

This whole movie was basically reverse-engineered to end up with Captain America in the ice. And they got a fine movie out of it, albeit one that sacrificed depth to the present enemies and situation in order to set up a future enemy and situation, making the movie a tad barebones.

But at the same time, the film is overstuffed with everything. I feel like the writers were thinking, "Okay, we only get one World War 2 movie, so let's cram it full of references to all the WW2 stuff!" And it's because of that reason that the Howling Commandos aren't as fleshed out as they should be. It's because of that reason that a lot of the bulk of the anti-HYDRA effort is shown in montage form. It's because of that reason that they had to fit every single plot point that ever happened during Marvel's WW2 comics into a single movie.

Cap's origin, the Howling Commandos, Bucky's death, the War on HYDRA, the Cap-cicle... no wonder actual details from WW2 are mostly left out.

If they had focused on making the best darn Captain America movie they could instead of making sure all the pieces were in place for The Avengers, then this could have really been something special. As it is, this movie is good. But not as great as it could have been.

Power. What it means, where it comes from, and who should wield it.

Does might give one power? Or is the will to do what's right the true power?

The movie leaves us with the message that true power is best wielded by those who not only respect it, but understand the importance of wielding it properly.

Red Skull, a man given immense physical power by the Super Soldier Serum, wreaks havoc with the power of HYDRA, only to find himself on the receiving end of the Tesseract's great power. Steve, who knows what it's like to be powerless, exemplifies how power should be used. For the little guys.

Might doesn't make right; might should assist what truly is right.

Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans)

Chris Evans usually plays smart asses. So this was breaking the typecasting in a very good way.

Steve is a good guy, through and through. He's a delicate wimp, but he never let that stop him from doing what's right. And once he got the muscles, he didn't change.

He didn't magically gain confidence, he was still the little gentleman from Brooklyn at heart. And it's easy to see how Agent Carter fell in love with him not for his muscles, but for who he was. The film is peppered with hints that she has a crush on the little guy, which Steve is a bit oblivious to for a while.

A shame, then, that the relationship is doomed to fail, what with beign frozen in ice and all.

I get the feeling that the writers didn't really know what to do with Cap's character before he becomes a fish-out-of-water. He never really has any sort of a character arc after he gets the muscles. Still, Evans's performance, is warm, human, and genuinely endearing. And a little adorkable.

Even Loki wants to be him.
James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan)
Bucky has gone from a kid sidekick to a professional sniper. From an often-kidnapped hostage to a butt-kicker. Bucky's oddly-serious characterization seems like he walked right out of Band of Brothers, which Sebastian Stan watched to get a feel for the role, alongside numerous World War 2 documentaries.

It would have been nice to see a couple more scenes between Bucky and Steve, but their friendship is established well enough before he gets killed off. And killed off he shall remain. After all, nobody stays dead except for Uncle Ben and Bucky. Right?

Agent Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell)
When you're dealing with characters like Superman or Captain America, who represent perfect male specimens in both body and mind, their partner must be an equal catch.

Superman gets the feisty, unflinching, Pulitzer-winning writer.

Captain America gets the bombshell who can beat you up while wearing a dress.

Haley Atwell based her performance on Ginger Rogers, and described the character thusly:
"She can do everything Captain America can do, but backwards and in high heels."

Agent Carter was merely a lost love interest of the good captain's in the comics. It really is amazing how much they fleshed out a nearly unseen character into one of the main action heroines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Take notes, writers. This is a perfect example of the ever-elusive "strong female character."

I'm already excited to start covering Agent Carter, but I'm afraid that will have to wait while I finish my Review. And also cover a couple other movies before then.

Howling Commandos
They all do fine jobs, but they're barely in the movie. As I said in the Recap, I'm not even sure their names are ever mentioned.

A darn waste of Marvel's iconic World War 2 heroes.

Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci)
Like Ho Yinsen, the character is quickly established in a way that makes us like him before he's killed off. And like Shaun Toub, Stanley Tucci's warmly human performance makes the character's death that much more of a tragedy. Not bad for a guy who only took the role so he could try out his German accent.

Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper)
A perfect bit of casting. After James Cann played the character for the photos in Iron Man, and John Slattery played the aged Howard in Iron Man 2, Dominic Cooper plays Howard Stark at the age we always see his son Tony at.

Howard is exactly what you'd expect. Arrogant, but with a roguish charm. Brilliant, but never taking himself seriously.

He even looks like his son.

I mean, seriously.
One of the best ancillary casting jobs in the MCU. While we really don't get to see as much of Howard here, there will be plenty more to come....

Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones)
It's Tommy Lee Jones, being Tommy Lee Jones. Entertaining as all get out, but nothing we haven't seen before in any movie he's ever been in.

Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones)
Toby Jones brings a certain affability to this evil scientist. As written, the character's a fairly bland mad scientist, but with Toby Jones giving subtle nuances to the character, he becomes a guy who wants nothing but to continue his work. He works for Schmidt not because he believes in the cause but because he believes in what he can do for the cause, especially with the power of the Tesseract.

Johann Schmidt/Red Skull (Hugo Weaving)
Hugo Weaving, once again, plays a guy named Smith. And he plays the Red Skull well. Delusions of grandeur, dreams of power, the whole bit.

While it's a good performance, there's not really anything that makes the character memorable apart from his distinctive look. I hate to accuse Weaving of phoning in his performance, seeing as how the man is a really dedicated actor.... but I don't think he was giving the same effort that he gave in other roles.

Having said that, the man is obviously making the most of his situation. While he might not be imbuing the character with hidden depths, Weaving is clearly having a great time going over-the-top as an evil Nazi scientist.

But despite the fun he seemed to be having chewing the scenery, Weaving has gone on record as saying that he wouldn't want to return to the role after how uncomfortable the makeup was, despite the ambiguous death of the character.

And after seeing what we could expect from a revived Red Skull in Avengers Assemble... I'm perfectly fine with the character staying dead.

Alan Silvestri gave us a good musical score, if nothing special. The only thing of real note is the song "Star Spangled Man" from Steve's time as a USO performer. It was written by none other than Disney music man Alan Menken, which means something to both Disney fans and music buffs.

The ever-so-slightly washed-out tones of the film serve to make the few vivid colors pop out in amazing beauty. And the special effects are phenomenal, especially the Red Skull and "skinny Steve."

The Red Skull was practical makeup enhanced by CGI, but Skinny Steve is a Marvel of CGI.

Chris Evans bulked up for the role, meaning that LOLA, a digital effects company, had to make him smaller. A stand-in was used and had his face replaced with Evans's digitally, but if Steve had to move around, they just drew dots on his chin so the other actors would know where Skinny Steve's eye level would be. Then they shrunk him digitally.

Or maybe P90-X does work.
They did such a good job that a lot of people thought that Chris Evan's actual bulky physique was the CGI.

But it's not. People checked.

"Oh, it's real alright."
And I have to give a shout-out to the Red Skull's car. Beautiful Elegant. Sleek. And nearly unable to turn in real life. So nearly every shot of it has it going in a straight line.

Best Character: Agent Carter
Why do you think she got her own show?

Best Actor: Stanley Tucci
Like Shaun Toub, he gets us to really connect with a guy who we all know is doomed to die.

Best Line: Anything that comes out of Tommy Lee Jones's mouth.

Final Thoughts
I like this movie more than I should. It's good, not great, but I can't help but love the 1940's sci-fi aesthetic. If you like that sort of thing, you'll probably get a kick out of this movie. For the average person with a passing interest in superheroes, it's really nothing special. There's a lot to like, but nothing for many people to love. It's a good film, but it pales in comparison to the likes of Iron Man and Thor.

And so, we've reached the end of an era. Paramount would no longer distribute the MCU films. From here on out, it was Marvel and Disney, all the way.

Next time, it'll be a new era.

Next time.... we assemble. See you then!


  1. I feel like I'm in the minority here, but I felt that the Agent Carter series was rather boring. There's nothing that really draws me to see it a second time again and I can barely remember anything majorly important or noteworthy out of the series. I mean, I do like the characters of Carter, Stark and Jarvis but overall it felt unsatisfying.

    Personally, I think the Cap movies are my favourite parts of the MCU. I love that Cap is this charming, great guy who really wants to do the right thing and make the world a better place.

    1. Aw, man; I haven't finished Agent Carter yet. I like what I've seen, but I was hoping for a little extra oomph at the end.

      As for Cap, I really like the fact that they didn't meddle as much in the second movie. The character of Steve Rogers is so well done that he deserved a movie that WASN'T concerned with leading up to another movie.