Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Patriot Games: Captain America review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.

Dir: Joe Johnston
Stars: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones, Dominic Cooper
Running Time: 124mins

On the final step before the long-anticipated release of The Avengers, Marvel's Captain America proves to be the most charming movie in their lineup to date, despite it being afflicted with many of the same problems which made the likes of The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 so tiresome. It helps that Captain's WW2 setting is both different enough from modern day and more familiar than Thor's slightly garish Asgard, allowing the movie to have a fresh look whilst not feeling too distant or alienating. Since the Second World War is a time that most of Captain's viewers will only recognise from photographs and reproductions, the science-fiction elements fit in relatively comfortably. History, after all, is just a story to those who haven't lived through it, so tweaking the elements making up its narrative - even if they are knowingly anachronistic - doesn't take too big a leap to adapt to.

The movie's key success is in the character writing and the performances, though. While there's absolutely nothing wrong with formula entertainment - I'm a fanatic for the Bond series, which virtually invented the big-budget cinematic formula - several of Marvel's movies have stuck so resolutely to the blueprint that they have felt overfamiliar to the point of meshing into one. Captain doesn't stray far either, but is populated by characters who come across as likeable and, most importantly, human. They may be involved with supernatural concepts, but in their vulnerabilities and determinations, they come across as people who have lived beyond the boundaries of the script. If other Marvel movies have been mechanically competent, Captain America is a mess in its structure but has the heart to compensate.
In Steve Rogers, the man who would be Captain, the movie has that rarest of creatures: a protagonist who is just inherently decent, a refreshingly earnest change from the anti-heroes in vogue right now. The case will almost certainly be made that his lack of edge makes him a less interesting character and that by the time he has been beefed up by Howard Stark's Super Soldier-O-Matic, he is an archetypal ideal of the flawless White Knight. This is true, to an extent, but not necessarily a bad thing: WW2 was a time when the moral boundaries were as close to black-and-white as they have ever been, so Rogers is in that respect emblematic both of his time and of the people he fights alongside, whose mission in life is to rid the world of one of the greatest evils it has ever known.

With his primary purpose to be an aspirational hero figure, his internal conflict is minor but will resonate with anyone who has struggled to live up to an ideal, either set by themselves or from outside. Rogers' personal challenges do not come through character flaws, but his trying to reconcile the good man he wants to be with the circumstances he finds himself in. Does a good man disobey the orders of his superiors? Should he lead the way, or follow the path of what he is told constitutes correct behaviour even when he believes otherwise? 

In Peggy Carter, he finds a kindred spirit who has spent her life fighting against the established norms - she is introduced in a rather-too-broad scene where a soldier heckles her for being a woman on the battlefield - through a desire she shares with him to be the best that she can be. Their romance is not born from big and dramatic moments, but a close friendship that slowly grows into something bigger. Although the scene where she walks in on him being kissed by a particularly forceful secretary is a clich├ęd misstep, theirs is one of the warmest screen romances in years. It is all rather chaste, limited to a single kiss, but in a backwards way this makes it more tender: theirs is a relationship which works on the level of two people connecting in spirit, rather than body. 

Chris Evans and the radiant Hayley Atwell make that bond authentic and mirror each other slightly in their performances, adding little tics (when Peggy sees Steve for the first time in his new body, she instinctively reaches out to feel his chest before realising what she is doing and quickly pulling back) which bring a great deal of humour and make the characters more endearing. The supporting cast are also a lot of fun, in particular Tommy Lee Jones as the grizzled Colonel who doggedly sticks to his ways even whilst finding himself perpetually baffled by the outlandish events happening all around him. He shares and respects Steve's belief in fighting for what is right, even while still seeing him as the ninety-pound weakling he couldn't quite believe had been accepted into his platoon. Jones' delivery is as desert-dry as ever, contrasting to scene-stealing effect with the story's every supernatural element and the exuberance of Dominic Cooper's Howard Stark, who doesn't get much to do but makes for an entertainingly over-the-top presence with every appearance.

On the villains' side, Toby Jones' Armin Zola provides an ungainly counterpart to Stark's natural dynamism. In a movie jam-packed full of stock characters - ones mostly used well enough to be fun, rather than tiresome - Zola is the Igor figure to Hugo Weaving's imminently hissable Johann Schmidt. Whilst an amusing pair, their characters are never developed far enough beyond that of villain and henchman to provide satisfying competition for the protagonists. Schmidt, who is near-literally a devil, is clearly intended as a dark reflection of Captain America's do-gooder spirit, but unlike the Captain, we are never given any sense of what drives him other than the usual lust for power. His scheme, and consequently the movie's main plot, is rather unclear: at first his intention seems to be for his weapons division, Hydra, to assume control of the Nazi armies, which doesn't have much dramatic weight because it simply involves swapping one set of villains for another. For the climax, this shifts to planning an attack on New York with his advanced weaponry, which has greater stakes but is introduced far too late to make them count.

Everything leading up to the reveal of Schmidt's grand plan(s) is origin work, which makes the movie feel like less of a story than a series of related events with no particular purpose other than to represent how Captain America grew into his hero-dom. There are no fewer than three montages, which are entertaining enough to keep the tone light and the pace brisk - and Steve Rogers is a likeable enough character that seeing his development into the Captain has a certain satisfaction - but have the same gimmicky, fast-forward feel as every other movie montage. 

The ending also leaves the slightly bitter taste that the movie's real purpose was to land the character in the right place and time that he could then star in The Avengers, rather than being a story worth telling in its own right. The tragic element is keenly felt thanks to Evans and Atwell doing such strong character work beforehand, but it otherwise all rings hollow. The Avengers continuity is thankfully otherwise unintrusive - though the lack of explanation for the Cosmic Cube is jarring - but it ends a movie whose sincerity has been its greatest strength on an unfortunately dishonest note. [ 6 ]


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