Friday, July 22, 2011

Captain America (2011)

Posted by Kurt

On my way out of the theater around 3:00 this morning, I paused in the lobby to update my Facebook status with this: "Captain America was a fun-free lifeless nightmare, with CGI firmly in the uncanny valley and a barrage of non-jokes and stale ideas delivered in offensively volatile pan-Euro accents. I knew it would be in primary colors, but this was just condescending."  I'd like to take a little more time, now that I've had a couple of hours to sleep and chew on the ideas some more, to be more specific about why this movie is such a colossal failure on nearly every level of filmmaking and basic storytelling.

I have been a comic book fan for close to twenty years, and an active Captain America fan for most of those years.  Especially with Brubaker's stories in the last five years or so, I've been buying the comic not in the flimsy monthly issue format, nor in the more durable trade paperback format, but in the enormous 600+ page omnibus edition format, gigantic tomes that you can display on your bookshelf or conceal under your clothing to stop bullets.  Captain America stories can be really great, but the limitation is that the character himself isn't often the selling point. 

The basic origin story of Captain America is that Steve Rogers was a skinny kid who just wanted to serve his country in WWII, so he got picked for a special "comic book science" program that would pump him full of chemicals to make him big and strong.  This was a simpler time, so people in the 1940s were not troubled by this the way that we respond today in a world where athletes are shamed for steroid use.  Anyway, the new bulky Steve Rogers spent years running around the world and punching Nazis and other enemies of the U.S., in stories that were not subtle but were designed for the style of patriotism that was popular at the time.  Then he kind of faded from the spotlight for twenty years or so, until Marvel's new team of Avengers found the character frozen in ice and defrosted him so that he could be the dependable moral center on a team otherwise composed of misfits.  And for fifty years, that is what Captain America has done.  He doesn't make questionable ethical decisions, he doesn't kill people outside of wartime, he doesn't have extramarital sex (until maybe the last three or four years, actually, and even then he's an old-fashioned one-woman man in a setting where comics can often be much more sexually provocative). He leaps into scenes and punches the bad guy without any Batman-style lurking in shadows or Spider-Man-style personal angst.  He is honest and simple and true.

Which, of course, makes him incredibly boring.

That's why great Captain America stories aren't about the character himself.  They're about how 1940s values interact with and illuminate contemporary values.  They're about other heroes comparing themselves to the ideal superhero and owning their humanity as they see how they don't measure up.  They're about building up a supporting cast who is inspired by this living legend and still have to go about their daily jobs (which, in Marvel comics, often means running a spy agency or being a social worker by day who flies around in a bird suit by night).  Captain America stories work because they are about one firmly drawn figure of Good and the exploration of what that means for the rest of us.

This movie completely misses the point.  It's a long origin story for a character with a very simple origin.  After a brief present-day introduction, we flash back to the 1940s to see the Red Skull stomp around doing random nasty things as he chews scenery and snarls in a "German" accent (or sometimes "British" or "stupid").  Then we go to poor skinny Gollum Steve Rogers as he just wants to lend a hand, which takes far too long to make the point.  Then there's a sequence that actually has a little charm, as the skinny kid has some adventures in boot camp that show his heart and creativity, and while it's simplistic, it at least has some thought behind it.  We next go to an elaborate set to take what feels like twenty minutes to cover "and then he gets juiced up."  An action sequence follows, mostly Chris Evans in a tight shirt running and jumping in a very fake way.  At one point in this chase scene, a kid gets thrown off a pier into some water, and Steve Rogers turns to him, and the kid squeaks out, "Go get him!  I can swim!" The crowd around me burst into side-splitting laughter, and I had two thoughts, (1) "Wait, was that a joke?  That's not a joke!  This movie doesn't have any jokes." and (2) "If I were not surrounded by a crowd, I would walk out of the theater right now.  This movie is wretched."

Then there's some more plot, but basically it's "Good guys do unsurprisingly good things, bad guys do weakly-motivated bad things."  There's a Stan Lee cameo (possibly his briefest cameo yet), and there's a hint at a moral message when most of the characters go off to fight real war while Cap has to stay behind and put on huge shows to sell bonds and raise money for the war effort.  There is no suggestion that he may actually be doing something good for which he is well-suited (weren't we debating just a few years ago that our military personnel overseas need better armored vehicles and personal protections? Would we really have said that a national celebrity would better have served the war effort by going to a desert to punch one bad guy instead of using his celebrity to ensure proper funding to support our troops?).  It's just an excuse to put on big USO shows and show Chris Evans looking mopey.

Finally, after we've all been suffering through this movie for longer than WWII actually took to fight, Steve Rogers puts on his Captain America costume and goes to Europe to punch some Nazis.  At which point the whole movie looks like the effects team cheated and just spliced in scenes from video games.  I get that the physics of throwing a shield don't work in real life (it's a big metal disc that you throw like a frisbee so that it cuts through ropes and bounces off walls and still doesn't cut your fingers off when you catch it on its way back to you), but can't the crew have used real shots of Chris Evans making throwing motions and then digitally added a shield later?  Did they have to make the whole scene an animation that looks real enough to be unsettling but not real enough to be real?  It's visually nauseating. 

And the characters don't get any better, either.  I compulsively hoard Humphrey Bogart movies, and I own far more than my share of narratively weak WWII propaganda flicks because I love Bogie, but this stupid movie is a new low for stock supporting characters.  Cap assembles a team of Dum Dum Dugan (and his three or four lines), a token black character, a token Asian character, a token British character, and a token French character, then after they each get a line, the movie just shows a montage of them roaming around blowing things up.  There's no real dialogue, there's no real sense of setting or a timeline or any dramatic tension, it's just mediocre explosions with an apathetically racially diverse group.

There's a Bucky scene like fans are expecting, and I credit the writers for shaking up the context a bit to try for a little surprise, but when they switch the iconic scene from the comics for a similarly iconic scene from Cliffhanger.. I wasn't the only person in the audience who laughed with contempt instead of crying about the tragedy.

Eventually, Captain America gets into his showdown with the Red Skull, and it's mediocre in every possible way.  No tension, no explanation of the Skull's motivations, and a stupid scene where a car runs down a plane.  There are some visual references to Thor that I wasn't expecting (this movie very much assumes that the viewer has seen Thor, which is a safe assumption but also invites comparisons to a much better movie.. which is unwise in a movie this bad).  And then the movie kind of ends, but with a quick jump back to the framing sequence from the beginning in a scene that will not surprise anyone who has ever seen a movie or read a book before.  And after the credits roll, we get a preview of the Avengers movie that isn't terribly arresting on its own but does make me nostalgic for the heady days of.. a month ago, maybe two months, when Marvel comic book movies were good.

I'm going to see Avengers, and I'm going to be kind in my assessment of Captain America as he appears in that film, but this flick was just abhorrent on nearly every level.  Again, it misses the point of a propaganda film that actually works as a film, especially in the supporting characters.  They're supposed to have the complexity that the main character isn't allowed to portray.  They're supposed to have surprise betrayals here and there, or doomed romances, or some kind of personal growth or change.  Honestly, other than Steve Rogers' muscles being bigger, and some of the characters maybe being dead, everyone at the end of this movie is in exactly the same personal space that he/she occupied in the first frames of the movie.  This is not a bad story - it's not even a story.  No surprises, no tension, nothing to provoke thought or emotion or wonder.  No sense of humor, nothing epic or intimate in scope, no reason to exist except as a placeholder before the Avengers movie. 

If I were making a Captain America movie, I would embrace the character's limitations.  The story would be set in the present-day, with sizable flashbacks to teach the viewers how he got this way (I mean, I could just have him say, "It's drugs," and then move on with his life, but I would be respectful), but the main movie would be a big action movie with a lively supporting cast.  The character would be honored for his nobility and the world would respond to that in ways that aren't always predictable.  At its heart, though, the movie would be about something.  It would have some kind of message or emotion or.. something.  Some reason that a viewer should care about this character.  The movie that Marvel has given us is a pungent waste of resources, created in an environment when so many other Marvel movies have been able to do more with characters who I like less.  It is a failure, and an offensive one.  I know that a review isn't going to stop anyone from seeing it, but I just can't let you show up without fair warning of how bad it's going to be.

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