Captain America is the best superhero movie since The Dark Knight.
Now before people start screaming for my head or ordering a straight jacket, let me explain what I mean. Watching Captain America something clicked for me, something that finally made me understand the ups and downs of this genre. You can only tell a comic book tale in two ways, either completely realistically or as a complete fantasy. The Dark Knight was the first, Captain America the latter. So while Dark Knight is a superior film, Captain America is just as good of a comic book film. Captain America works because it realizes it’s a comic book and never strays from that idea.
I’m actually interested in how Captain America will blend with the more action heavy and “realistic” heroes in The Avengers. Iron Man, it’s sequel, the Hulk and Thor all tried to straddle both the realism and fantasy lines and that’s where they failed. When a comic book movie doesn’t choose a type, it never settles on what it wants to be and usually becomes a mess. Iron Man started as a comedy, then tried to become an action film, it never really became a comic book movie so it felt, for lack of a better term, off. The sequel decided to be a straight action film but what was happening was too out of the range of those films so nothing quite gelled. It also suffered from being crammed with too much and losing focus.
The Hulk did a great job of grounding itself in reality but that just doesn’t work with the subject matter. It should have been a total comic book fantasy, without all this pretentious human drama that seemed out of place. Thor has done the best so far but got anchored by a love story that had no place and didn’t work. The fantastic and comic book elements of Thor were great, the attempt to also include the realistic aspects fell flat. Green Lantern, well, that’s just what happens when people shit on the source material.
But I digress. Back to the review.
First off, I owe Chris Evans a huge apology. He nails the character of Steve Rogers across the board. There is no trace of the sarcastic frat boy jerk that played the Human Torch. It’s clear Evans understands the core of who Steve Rogers is, that it isn’t about the power but rather that Steve Rogers represents the best in all of us. Evans not only plays that idea perfectly, he manages to do it during the awkward scenes where it’s only his face digitally placed upon the body of a short and very skinny stand in. For those afraid the digital Chris Evans on the stand in would look silly, it’s about a 90/10 split. Most of the time its fine, but when it looks off it looks disturbingly like Steve Rogers has a broken neck..
Stanley Tucci is wonderful as Abraham Erksine, the peaceful German scientist whose super solider serum was, against his will, originally used by Nazi scientist Johann Schmidt. Schmidt’s reaction to the serum turns him into the Red Skull, a super human enemy that Erksine feels responsible for creating. Without ever saying it, Tucci lets us know that his faith in Steve Rogers comes from how well he knows true evil that he can know just as well true good. It makes Steve Rogers commitment to always doing the right thing that much more believable. When Evans becomes Captain America he remains the good man he was before the serum, one who is ill at ease with his new powers. His journey from that man to the hero he will become is not only charming and funny, but also allows a nod to the cover of Captain America #1.
Some were nervous that Rockateer director Joe Johnston wouldn’t be able to pull off Captain America. I’ll admit, I was nervous to, but Johnston has made a beautiful ode to not only the hero but also Golden Age comics. Johnston understands that he’s doing the fantasy comic book movie and he never loses that tone. The film is shot like an old 40s war film combined with a fantasy comic book element. The previews for Captain America have drawn some fire for the action sequences. When Cap jumps or hits a bad guy it looks over-the-top, as if all done with wires. Within the context of the film it works perfectly and allows us all to know we’re watching a comic book come to life.
One of the best decisions Johnston makes is to play down the love interest. There is romance here but it’s kept to the side, making the end that much more tragic. Actress Hayley Atwell (as Peggy Carter) and Chris Evans do a great job of keeping their feelings just under the surface. Coupled with some nice touches from Joe Johnston, the relationship feels real but never gets in the way of the story. I was particularly pleased that Johnston and the screenwriters chose to have Peggy Carter really begin to feel something for Steve Rogers when he was still small and puny. It added a depth to her character that all the exposition in the world couldn’t have mustered.
The real secret weapon in Captain America is Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull. Trying to create a scary villain that feels like a real threat is difficult in a film with such an old school vibe. We live in an era of Saw and Silence Of The Lambs, so something like the Red Skull is hard pressed to be truly scary. Weaving accomplishes this by letting it all hang out in his performance. His Red Skull is so off balance and insane with power that you’re never sure what his next move is. Weaving is so good here that he makes the Red Skull a formidable villain without any real violence. Sure he’s going to destroy the world, but he’s using the power of the Cosmic Cube, which is scary but only in a very comic book way. It’s the complete dedication to the story that makes Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull so wonderful.
The rest of the cast is also first rate. Tommy Lee Jones is perfect as Colonel Chester Philips, the military leader that directs Captain America. Dominic Cooper’s Howard Stark is something people should really pay attention to. Cooper does some small things that mimic Robert Downey JR’s Tony Stark. You can see the father and son trait between them. Toby Jones holds his own against Hugo Weaving as Dr. Arnim Zola, The Skulls’ head scientist and even manages to steal some scenes.
Aside from the cast, the real power to how good Captain America is comes from the respect the filmmakers have for the source material. Everything you need to make a successful comic book film is within the pages of the comics themselves. When you stray from that, the movie is always off; it always fails to capture what makes these characters last for generations. Don’t get me wrong, there are changes to the original story in Captain America, but none of them disrespect the source material. Much as having The Joker in Dark Knight wear make-up instead of being burned to look like a clown, Joe Johnston makes several little tweaks so that the story is more palatable to a mass audience and the story flows easier. None of what he does feels like it couldn’t have actually been in the comic originally. Johnston with his direction and Evans with his acting maintain the source material’s integrity and that is what has Captain America standing head and shoulders above the competition.
For comic book geeks like myself, there are lots of little bonuses. For instance we get Dum Dum Dugan, Gabe Jones and Jim Morita. If you’re paying attention there is a funny nod to Evans’ turn as the Human Torch and the big Iron Man 2 Starkfest scene when Tony flies down to the dancing girls. I was impressed with how the story stayed true to the forties era war film vibe, but never lost sight of being part of a bigger picture. When Captain America wakes up in the modern age, it fits right in with the rest of the films. I was concerned when Evans’ Cap met Samuel Jackson’s Nick Fury it wouldn’t gel, but it does. Part of that is how Captain America opens; it’s a smart move that sets the tone for the end as well.
Everything isn’t perfect with Captain America, there is one glaring issue that will have purists bitching and moaning. Bucky Barnes. The story of Caps’ right hand man is completely different than the comic. To start, Bucky is a friend of Steve Rogers pre-Captain America, one who often comes to the rescue of Rogers when he’s getting beaten up.
Probably the biggest problem with the whole Bucky subplot is how he dies. It just sort of happens, and a little too quickly. Anybody expecting to see Bucky in a mask fighting by Caps’ side will be sorely disappointed, especially with the death. I will say that where the death happens could, in a comic book way, give rise to the Winter Soldier, but that’s a really outside chance. The Bucky problem isn’t huge, but the fact that the rest of the movie is so good makes it stick out like a sore thumb. The post credits Avengers trailer does a lot with a little. It generates some real excitement for the movie without showing much at all.
Captain America is one of the best surprises of the entire lot of superhero movies. I went into this film expecting to feel the same blind hatred I did when I left Green Lantern. Instead I found a movie that had me cheering, rooting for the hero and feeling like I was thirteen years old again. As the comic movie genre goes forward, I think directors and writers will look to the Dark Knight and Captain America to figure out which style of movie they want to make and how to make it. Both are prime examples of how comic book movies should always be handled.