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Captain America (The Non-Comic Geek Review)

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Edge: But anyway you will be a good test subject for how Captain America and the Marvel movies hold up against non-comic geeks.
Me: Suddenly I feel like a hamster
Edge: Nope, white mouse. We don’t experiment on hamsters

Such was the conversation I had with Edge two days before watching Captain America. He suggested I attempt to catch up with the other Avengers movies (e.g. Ironman, Thor) before watching Captain but there just wasn’t enough time to do that so I went into the movie as quite a blank slate, with only minor notes in my head about the whole thing – a lab rat from the “movie fan, but not comic book geek” segment of the population.

First, a summary:

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is, quite literally, the little guy. It is 1942, the time of World War II, and Rogers badly wants to fight for his country despite being rejected by the army several times because he is just too weak. Rogers’ determination and character intrigues Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a military scientist, who eventually chooses him for a special experiment in creating a super soldier, much to the dismay of commanding officer, Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones). The experiment is a success, but Dr. Erskine is killed by a spy from the Nazi deep science unit, HYDRA, which is helmed by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) who is in possession of a Norse artifact that he is using to power his weapons. Ignored by Colonel Phillips, Rogers becomes “Captain America”, a propoganda figure who tours the country, performing and raising funds for the military. The American soldiers disdain him for being a mere performer, but Captain America proves his mettle and lives up to his name by going alone behind enemy lines and rescuing 400 POWs. From that point on, the Captain rapidly becomes a pain in the neck for Schmidt and the battle is on!

The movie turned out to be much more fun than I thought it would be. The story was compact and easy enough to follow, even without knowing all the intricate backstories that tie Captain America in with the other Marvel superheroes – though anyone who has at least superficial knowledge of Ironman will probably be able to figure out that Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) is Tony Stark’s dad. Captain America‘s ending is somewhat bittersweet; it leaves you with a pang of sympathy for him . In a way it is little more than a prelude to The Avengers and some people might find Captain has an unsatisfactory ending. But considering that it is meant to be an introduction to the character and is the last of the films leading up to Avengers, I think it is satisfactory – a little bit of a sad ending, but since it has managed to make me curious about The Avengers next year when he joins the other Marvel superheroes under the leadership of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)… Job well done, Joe Johnston.

Included in the film are little nods to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi with a line from Schmidt (“and de Fuhrer digs for trinkets in ze desert”) and a sequence reminiscent of the speederbike chase through Endor’s forest. This seems appropriate given the director’s involvement in Raiders (visual effects) and Star Wars (concept art). I didn’t catch the Raiders reference immediately – Edge pointed that out to me later – but I did notice the speederbike chase similarities! Ha.

Also something of a borrowed tactic from Star Wars and other similar movies was the way HYDRA’s soldiers were largely faceless entities (they wore helmets pretty much all the time). The lack of individuality – of human faces to relate to – makes it “easier” for the viewers to cheer the good guys on because then the enemy is perceived as even more evil, and perhaps even non-human due to the lack of faces.

The advantage that Captain America has over most superheroes, I think, is his sheer “normalcy.” He isn’t normal in that he has been given a biological boost with Erskine’s serum, but at the same time he is not invulnerable, he is not filthy rich, he cannot fly, cannot cling to walls, does not have X-ray vision, is not telepathic, cannot manipulate weather or metal, cannot teleport… Steve Rogers has superhuman abilities, but ultimately he is still human. He’s like an Olympic athlete on highly unusual (and apparently permanent) steroids – he can run and swim faster, jump higher, and is stronger than a normal person, but he isn’t at Superman’s level. Spider-man was an accident, Superman is an alien, the X-men are born with those genetic mutations, Ironman and Batman have technology and wealth to help them along. But Captain America is very much human, was not the result of an accident or a mutation, and did not have the advantages of inherited money and power. Maybe that’s part of what makes him likeable – he’s the everyman, the little guy and the nice guy, but determination and a huge stroke of luck in meeting just the right person helped propel him to superhero status.

You just can’t help liking Steve Rogers. (Well, I can’t help liking him anyway.) The man is upright and honest, clearly has a sense of responsibility to his friends and country and displays a good amount of courage and cleverness. That he starts off as a person who is bullied and overlooked by other people because of circumstances he can’t help (i.e. being scrawny and plagued with asthma and a whole list of other medical conditions) helps create sympathy for him. So when Dr. Erskine chooses him for his strength of character and goodness (because the serum amplifies not only physical ability, but also the intangible qualities of a man – “good becomes great, and bad becomes worse”), it feels like Steve deserves it.

Chris Evans does a good job of playing the nice guy here – he makes Steve Rogers/Captain America feel very likeable and easy to relate to. And, I must admit, he looks really good while doing so – even in his digitally altered “weakling” form. (I’ll get to talking about that particular bit of visual effects in a minute.) He made zero impression on me as Johnny Storm from Fantastic Four, though. I didn’t even recall that he was Johnny Storm until someone mentioned it to me after the movie. Did too good a job of being an obnoxious character, Edge suggested, and I think I have to agree. I dislike characters of that sort, so I probably erased him from my mind. Also, he was covered in flames most of the time in Fantastic Four so that probably didn’t help.

Whatever money was spent on the supporting cast didn’t go to waste. Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Hugo Weaving and Toby Jones (as Dr. Zola, Schmidt’s head scientist in HYDRA) turned out great performances. Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter and Dominic Cooper did all right, but there was nothing of great note there, I think.

I liked the Alan Silvestri music, especially the Captain America theme – bright, rousing marches usually appeal to me.  The Alan Menken piece, “Star Spangled Man”, was quite fun too. It sounded and felt very much like the typical American propoganda-type song of the WWII era. Have a listen:

When it comes to these superhero movies, the costumes play a huge role. Most comic book heroes have costumes that look considerably sillier on real people in a movie screen than they do on flat 2D characters on paper. The costume designers then have the difficult task of adapting a costume for screen so that it is believeable and also recognisable. Of late, I think many of them have done well and the same applies here. Captain America, the “Star Spangled Man”, basically has the star-spangled banner for a costume and yet it works. His stage show outfit was more ridiculous (as befitted his role as a rather ridiculous propoganda figurehead), but that was straight out of the comics and is an example of why comic book costumes shouldn’t be lifted exactly as they are from page to screen. Costume designer Anna Sheppard – who seems to specialise in 1940s costumes (her resumé includes Inglorious Basterds, The Pianist and Schindler’s List) – did well in adapting the Captain’s outfit. It was convincing, recognisable and logical. (The insistence on sticking with the stars and stripes motif was conveniently explained away in the script by Steve admitting that he’s developed a fond attachment to that silly stage costume. Good move.)

The effects work on Captain America was pretty good. Only the scene in the snowy mountains seemed a tiny bit iffy to me, but in general it was good stuff. I am most impressed, however, by the fact that the scrawny Steve Rogers was not a matter of Chris Evans’ head altered and super-imposed on a body double. It was a digitally-altered Chris Evans:

capt america vfx
Images from CGSociety.

Now that is awesome on so many levels. Lola VFX was the studio tasked with transforming the buff Chris Evans (now that I think about it, I prefer his Johnny Storm physique, though I like Steve Rogers about a million times more in general) into “Skinny Steve” and they did an amazing job of it. They mesh warped him down to size, which, if I comprehend it correctly, would have meant a lot of work – almost frame-by-frame stuff.  Even if background replacement was solved by shooting the scenes on green screen first, the mesh warping alone would have been tricky, especially when trying to keep the changes standard across different shots. My brain feels fried just trying to imagine the amount of work that went into just making him skinny…

But whether thin or buff, I think Steve Rogers/Captain America is one of the rare characters on screen these days who is really just good and admirable. I find there is a dearth of such characters in film today, and especially in live-action films. Darkness is pushed to the forefront and gritty “realism” is preferred. I say, if you want realism, watch the news. Plenty of darkness out there for real. A character whom I can say is good and admirable in the face of adversity, who benefits from being good, and who carries on being good is a breath of fresh air. And the film itself is a little like its title character – straightforward and engaging.

This non-comic book geek approves.

 

 

 

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