Captain America: First Avenger (2010): Joe Johnston’s Mediocre Adventure

With “Captain America: The First Avenger,” Paramount and Marvel complete the introduction of their individual comic book hero movies, which have included “Iron Man,” “The Hulk,” and earlier this year “Thor.” (There were two version of the Hulk story, neither very good.  The first, “Hulk,” starring Eric Bana, was directed by Ang Lee in 2003, the second “The Incredile Hulk,” featuring Edward norton was made by Marvel as a corrective to Lee’s edition).

For the record:

Iron Man: grade B+. Review: www.emanuellevy.com/review/iron-man-2/

Iron Man 2 grade B-. Review www.emanuellevy.com/review/iron-man-2-6/

Thor grade C+.  Review www.emanuellevy.com/review/thor/

There are two ways to look at the new picture, unremarkably directed by Joe Johnston, who shows problems with narrative (the flow of the storytelling), tone (it lacks wit and humor), and integrating the set-pieces (some quite good) into an engaging framework.

As a stand-alone picture, ”Captain America” is mediocre, pedestrian, and infantile, likely to appeal to very young and undiscriminating viewers. I have no doubts that, despite mixed-to-negative reviews, the movie would score big at the box-office this weekend.

Overall, “Captain America” is not as interesting or as entertaining as the first “Iron Man,” or even “Thor,” which was decent but no more (See links to my reviews above). This is  partly due to the kind of old-fashioned hero that the character represents, made even more square and bland by the casting of Chris Evans, who’s handsome but lack strong screen presence.

Still, the movie adds a necessary (almost obligatory) panel to the eagerly-anticipated “The Avengers,” which will be released next year, May 4, 2012 to be precise. “Captain America” doesn’t not include a postscript, a scene that hints at that anticipated event, unlike “Iron Man,” which made specific allusions to “The Avengers.” But we know it will happen–and look forward to it.

Some background is in order: Captain America, the alter ego of young patriot Steve Rogers, first appeared in March 1941, eight months prior to the U.S. entry into WWII. The comic book cover image showed a youngster with the American flag on his chest punching Hitler in the jaw. According to the press notes, this overt political statement by the creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, was initially controversial.  As the U.S. has not declared War yet, there were protest rallies at Madison Square Garden, and angry demonstrators attacked the two men, forcing the FBI to assign agents to the company’s offices.

In September 1963, two months before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Marvel Comics debuted “The Avengers,” a super group comprised of Marvel’s most beloved characters: Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Wasp, Ant-Man.  Captain America, a character created two decades earlier, later joined the group, when other members “left,” earning him the title “The First Avenger.”

In bringing “Captain America” to the big screen, one of the filmmakers’ dilemmas concerned the tale’s historical-political context, namely, whether or not to make the story a period piece, set in 1941, in the midst of WWII, or to try to contemporize the tale and make it more “relevant” and appealing to the primary target audience, present-day young viewers.

I think they have made the right decision.   The tale is set in 1941, two years into WWII (but before Pearl Harbor), with the entire world ravaged by a nasty escalating war. Patriotic Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) tries repeatedly to enlist in the military and fight alongside his peers in the Allied Forces. But to no avail, the young guy is rejected for medical and physical reasons; he barely weighs 98 pounds.  As compensation, he is accepted into an experimental program, which ultimately turns him into the Super-Soldier known as Captain America.

In this story, scripted haphazardly by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who penned “Chronicles of Narnia”), Captain America joins forces with his friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastain Stan) and the self-assured Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), under the command of Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), to wage war on the villain, the evil Hydra organization, the Nazi’s science division led by the tough and cruel Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).

One of the problems of “Captain America” as a movie is that, unlike “Iron Man,” and to a lesser extent ”Thor,” its secondary characters, both good and evil, are far more interesting and complex than the nominal hero, who’s square as Rogers to begin with and becomes even more vanilla once he is transformed.  And the fact that they are played by such colorful and eccentric actors as Tommy Lee Jones and Hugo Weaving makes this shortcoming all the more noticeable. (Some of the early “Batman” movies also suffered from this problem, especially when the villains were played by the likes of Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, and Danny DeVito).

“Captain America” might have been assigned to the wrong director, Joe Johnston, a vet with a rather poor track record, which includes the barely passable “The Rocketeer” (which some people like) and the truly terrible “Wolfman,” which even a brilliant actor like Benicio Del Toro couldn’t help.   It’s not a cardinal sin not to take any artistic risks, but Johnston has made an old-fashioned adventure, though not in cool retro way to generate rollicking fun.

As an action director, Johnston may lack the technical skills in orchestrating thrilling and dynamic CGI set-pieces, a must element for this kind of movie—especially in today’s market.  The various fights and gun battles lack energy and frills and they get increasingly repetitive. Worse, they tend to interrupt and disrupt the little dramatic momentum that the picture has by way of narrative, which is really slender and largely consists of clichés and shallow plot points.

Very much a boys flick, “Captain America” also suffers in the romantic department.  In the comic book, Peggy Carter is a much stronger character, a smart, independent femme, who stands  up to Steve Rogers, and occasionally puts him in his place. You also don’t get the notion in the movie that Peggy functions as sort of a moral compass for Steve as he embarks on his risky journey

Thus,  as the scientist’s sidekick, the part is so rudimentary and underwritten that actress Haylee Atlee can barely register any emotion (she might have been misguided by the director). And it doesn’t help that there is no real erotic tension between her and Steve.  Chris Evans is an appealing and likable actor, but he lacks dynamic persona and strong sex appeal.

Despite severe flaws in the writing and direction, there is some fun to be had.  Several highly competent character actors make their strong mark and enliven the proceedings.

The brilliant Tommy Lee Jones, who had also excelled as Two-Face in the otherwise undistinguished 1995 “Batman Forever,” is cast as Colonel Chester Phillips, Captain America’s commanding officer.  I can’t think of another American actor who navigates so smoothly between playing heroes, anti-heroes, and villains—all with great panache, disregarding the size of the part.

The versatile Aussie actor Hugo Weaving throws himself with gusto into playing Johann Schmidt/Red Skull, the nefarious head of Hydra. But perhaps most impressive of all is Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine, the creator of Project Rebirth, who selects Steve as the program’s first subject.

In truly brief scenes, Dominic Cooper, as the wealthy industrialist and inventor Howard Stark, and Toby Jones (who was so good as Capote in “Infamous”), as Arnim Zola, a Nazi-collaborating man, do what they can .

Side benefits: By grounding the story in the 1940s, viewers also get a sense of the early days of the Marvel Universe, which founder Martin Goodman began as Timely Publications in 1939.  As noted, the milieu was later populated by more exciting action heroes such as Iron Man, Hulk and Thor.  Marvel’s striking library continues to provide an invaluable source for Hollywood movies.