CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: A battlefield somewhere in Europe during World War II. Allied forces are caught in a fierce crossfire with Nazi stormtroopers. Suddenly, a man with a shield appears. On the shield are the letters CKF. The man is dressed in a red, white and blue costume. It is MICHAEL ARRUDA.)
MA: Back, you evil forces of darkness! (There is stunned silence.) What’s the matter? Who did you expect? Captain America?
ALLIED SOLDIER: Well, yeah! Who the hell are you?
MA: I’m Michael Arruda, Cinema Knife Fighter, and humble movie reviewer!
SOLDIER: Big friggin deal! What the hell are you doing here on the battlefield?
MA: This is a review of the new film, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER. It’s not the actual movie. And so I’m not the real Captain America. I’m just reviewing the movie.
SOLDIER: Well, tell that to that guy!
(A man in a RED SKULL costume stands before them holding a massive ray gun. It is L.L. SOARES. Suddenly, the ray gun goes off and hits some of the fighting soldiers, smashing them to atoms).
MA: Whoa! You take these characters much too seriously! You weren’t supposed to actually shoot anybody.
LS: It went off accidentally. Besides, I’m supposed to be the Red Skull. What do you expect me to do? Hand out candy?
MA: Okay. You have a point.
LS: By the way, no Allied Soldiers were harmed in this reenactment. The ray gun only hit Nazis.
Okay, let’s get started.
MA: Sure thing. I’ll start us off.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011) is the latest Marvel superhero movie, and the latest to tie in with next year’s highly anticipated superhero team extravaganza, THE AVENGERS.
It’s World War II, and young Steve Rogers wants desperately to enlist and help the American cause, but he’s having a difficult time getting accepted into the army because he’s both scrawny and unhealthy. He has asthma, for starters, along with a host of other maladies. However, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) is attracted to the young man’s earnestness and persistence, and he offers Steve a chance to get into the army, as a test subject to one of his experiments.
LS: The Super Soldier program!
MA: The experiment is a success, as it turns Rogers into a new man (Chris Evans) who is muscular, strong, and nearly unstoppable. As Erskine explains it, his formula takes a good man and changes him into a better man, but it also could take a bad man and make him worse, which is exactly what has already happened, as back in Nazi Germany, the brilliant and demented Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) was Erskine’s first test subject (of course, over there, Erskine was forced to do this) and it turned him into the supervillain, the Red Skull.
With his newfound strength, Steve soon dons a costume and becomes Captain America, and helped by British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), and millionaire Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), he takes on the Red Skull in order to save the world.
LS: Yeah, Atwell is the love interest. Tommy Lee Jones is good, but playing yet another war-weary officer, and Dominic Cooper plays the inventor father of Tony Stark, who we know better as IRON MAN.
MA: I thought CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER was a very good movie, and I enjoyed it a lot. However, that being said, it wasn’t quite as good as I expected it to be.
First off, I loved the look of this movie. It really did a good job recreating the World War II era, and many times I felt as if I were looking at a moving painting of the United States circa the early 1940s. The film is a feast for the eyes. It also captured the emotions of what it was like to be an American during World War II.
LS: Yeah, this movie did a good job of capturing the time period. A few times I thought that it almost felt like a recruiting commercial for the Army – except these really are the roots of the character. Captain America was created by writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby back in 1941 when Marvel Comics was called Timely Comics, and he was meant from the start to be a hero to punch out Hitler and help our boys win World War II.
MA: I also really enjoyed the Captain America character. He’s a very likeable superhero, and he’s easy to root for. I thought Chris Evans delivered a solid performance. I liked him better here than as the Human Torch in the FANTASTIC FOUR movies. Surrounded by extravagant special effects in a superhero fantasy world, Evans made both Steve Rogers and Captain America very believable.
LS: Yeah, I thought Evans did a good job, too. Even if Captain America is kind of a goody goody character, like Superman. The movie is pretty faithful to the comics, as far as the character’s origin story. And yeah, this is a bit more substantial role than the Human Torch, where he just made wise-cracks – he’s the lead character here instead of just another member of a team. He was cocky and “hot-headed” as the Torch, but he was supposed to be. Here, he plays good and earnest pretty well, too.
MA: The film enjoyed less success with its villain, the Red Skull. While I loved the look of the Red Skull a lot—.
LS: Gee, thanks!
MA: Not you! The real Red Skull! Though your make-up looks pretty good too.
Anyway, the Red Skull was really cool-looking—and while Hugo Weaving delivered a very good performance—the character doesn’t really get to do all that much as a villain in this movie. Most of the film, he’s on the run. He’s really not in control for very long. I wish Red Skull had been more of a menace here, a la the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008). I also preferred Kevin Bacon’s villain Sebastian Shaw in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011) to the Red Skull.
LS: I liked the Red Skull and I think he was a formidable villain—I mean, he wasn’t happy to just be one of Hitler’s minions, he wanted to take over the world for himself, and his plan for world domination was pretty ambitious. I thought he was a lot more interesting than the many Iron Man clones that IRON MAN has fought in his movies (Whiplash, the only villain who was interesting, also wasn’t given much to do).
But you’re right, while I liked Weaving’s performance—and I liked it better than you—I agree that he seems to be fleeing the scene of a battle 80 percent of the time. There is a decent brawl between Cap and the Skull toward the end, though.
Oh, and while the Red Skull here looks a lot like he does in the comics, since it was a movie, he also reminded me a bit of Dr. Anton Phibes, the skull-faced bad guy Vincent Price played in THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971) and DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (1972).
MA: Yeah, he did resemble Dr. Phibes.
Hayley Atwell is beautiful and tough as Peggy Carter, and she’s fun character. I also really enjoyed Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Chester Phillips. Phillips is a wise-cracking military man, but he nonetheless has the best interests of his men at heart.
LS: Yeah, I agree with you about Atwell, although it sure took them a long time even to have their first kiss! And I liked Tommy Lee Jones, but like I said before, it feels like he’s played this character several times before.
MA: Stanley Tucci is also excellent as Dr. Abraham Erskine. It’s another fine performance by Tucci.
Dominic Cooper delivered a nice performance as Howard Stark, the man who would become Tony Stark’s (Iron Man’s) father. The Iron Man connection here was fun.
LS: Yeah, Marvel is using these movies as a way to intertwine all of the origins of their various characters in ways they didn’t foresee in the original comic books. Even the supernaturally powerful weapon the Red Skull is using to rule the world is from the comics. He calls it a “tesseract” early in the movie (which is a four-dimensional cube) and alludes to it being an artifact that was stolen from the god Odin (which brings us back to THOR). But in the comics it was called “The Cosmic Cube” and led to a major battle between good guys and bad guys back in the 1970s. We also get a brief explanation of Captain America’s shield, which was here created by Tony Stark’s father.
There’s also Sebastian Stan as “Bucky” Barnes, who was Captain America’s kid sidekick in the old comics. Kind of like Robin to Cap’s Batman. But here, they’re childhood friends and it’s kind of fun how, when the movie starts, Barnes is the one protecting Rogers, and later on their roles are reversed.
And of course, to bring us full circle, the movie begins with Captain America being found frozen in the the Arctic in modern-day, almost 70 years after the events of the movie. In the comics, the Avengers found him floating in suspended animation in an iceberg way back in AVENGERS # 4 (1964).
MA: The rest of the characters weren’t as fleshed out as they could have been. I wanted to know more about Captain America’s special team of soldiers. While they looked interesting, we never learn much about them, and so their battle scenes together are never that compelling.
LS: Yeah, that group of soldiers who join Captain America in battle don’t explicitly introduce themselves, but they’re clearly meant to be Nick Fury’s old unit back when he was Sgt. Fury, They were called his “Howling Commandos”—one of the few war comics Marvel put out in the 60s (in a sea of superhero titles) that took place during World War II—before they turned Fury into a modern-day James Bond type character, leading S.H.I.E.L.D, a little later in the decade. Long-time Marvel fans would probably recognize “Commando” Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough), with his signature bowler hat and mustache, right away.
MA: The action scenes, while nice to look at, weren’t overly exciting or memorable. I liked the train sequence, where Captain America and his men have to slide down a rope onto a racing train, and there were also a couple of cool chase scenes, one involving motorcycles, but other than this, the battle scenes didn’t do much for me. I also thought the ending, the battle between Captain America and Red Skull, was anticlimactic.
LS: I liked the train scene too, but liked the final battle between the two enemies a lot more than you did.
MA: Director Joe Johnston gets mixed results with CAPTAIN AMERICA. The movie looks great and it’s well-paced, but the action scenes for the most part are just OK. Johnston also directed THE WOLFMAN (2010), and that was another movie that looked great but could have used more memorable scenes.
LS: I liked THE WOLFMAN a lot. I think even a little better than CAPTAIN AMERICA. But Johnston does a good job here, too.
MA: I think they were about equal, but THE WOLFMAN definitely had more bite (heh heh).
(The WOLFMAN suddenly appears behind MA and growls menacingly).
MA: On second thought, THE WOLFMAN might have been a hair better.
(WOLFMAN pats MA on the head approvingly, howls, and leaps away).
LS: What a suck- up!
MA: The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is OK. The story is fine, and the dialogue isn’t bad, but the characters, other than Captain America, aren’t fleshed out much. I enjoyed the script for X-MEN: FIRST CLASS much better, because it did a better job defining both its main characters and supporting characters.
LS: And there were a lot of them!
MA: The 3D effects weren’t bad. I enjoyed seeing CAPTAIN AMERICA in 3D, but I bet it looked just as good in 2D.
LS: I saw it in 3D because it was the most convenient show time for me, but I felt robbed, as usual. Except for a few actions scenes where Captain America hurls his shield directly at the screen (and there aren’t many of these) the 3D aspect is hardly used at all. I felt it was completely wasted here. Yet again.
MA: You’re right. The film doesn’t take advantage of the 3D effects with any degree of satisfaction. Other than the depth factor, the 3D doesn’t add much.
I also thought the second half of the film was rushed. We never get to see Red Skull be all that evil. At one point he blows away some Nazi officers. Hmm, that’s pretty good, actually! We also never really see Captain America be tested. Everything he does succeeds. Victory comes easy for him. There’s not much conflict in CAPTAIN AMERICA, and the movie suffers for it.
LS: You thought it felt rushed? I thought, at over two hours, this movie seemed a bit too long. A 90 minute action-packed CAPTAIN AMERICA movie would have been a big improvement. I have no idea why all these superhero movies think they’re powerful epics that need such long running times. If it were shorter and faster-paced, I would have liked it more.
MA: Still, I really enjoyed CAPTAIN AMERICA. It’s not as good as X-MEN: FIRST CLASS which came out earlier this summer, as that movie had a better script, nor is it as good as the two movies that have set the bar for me for excellence in superhero movies, THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) and IRON MAN (2008). THE DARK KNIGHT had the Joker, and Red Skull is nowhere near as effective a villain, and IRON MAN had Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, and while Chris Evans is very good as Captain America, he doesn’t carry this movie the way Downey Jr. carried IRON MAN.
LS: Well, the main reason for that is because Tony Stark and Steve Rogers are very different characters. Because of his rich playboy persona, IRON MAN is always going to be more interesting than someone like the super-earnest Rogers. If Evans had turned in a similar performance to the one Downey gave in IRON MAN, well, then it wouldn’t have been CAPTAIN AMERICA.
MA: True, but as goody-goody Captain America, he still could have carried the movie, and as good as Evans was in the role, he doesn’t carry the movie. Let’s compare his Captain America to Christopher Reeve’s SUPERMAN for a moment. Superman is also a straight-forward earnest superhero, and I think Christopher Reeve in the first SUPERMAN movie (1978) made more of a splash in that film than Evans does here.
LS: Okay, he’s not Christopher Reeve at his prime, but I think Evans was fine. So was Weaving. But I did think the movie was a bit too slowly paced at times, especially in the middle. I liked this one and thought it was yet another decent superhero movie from Marvel Studios, but unfortunately, I’m starting to get a bit tired of the formula. All of these movies are starting to seem way too similar, and there are absolutely no surprises to be had, and for that reason I was a bit more bored during CAPTAIN AMERICA than I was during some of the previous Marvel movies.
MA: I give CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER – three knives.
LS: I’m starting to find these movies rather formulaic. It’s not the fault of the filmmakers as much as Marvel’s philosophy – but these last few movies have seemed to be very “cookie cutter.” You go into a Marvel superhero flick knowing exactly what you’re getting. In one way that’s good, because you know there’s a bit more quality control than other franchises, but at the same time, it’s getting harder and harder to maintain excitement for these movies.
That said, I guess I give CAPTAIN AMERICA three knives, too. It was just as good as something like THOR, which I also gave three knives to. It was good, but not great.
MA: I still found this one pretty satisfying, though.
LS: By the way, this is yet another movie where you have to sit through ten minutes of end credits to get to a “secret scene” at the end. Yet another piece of the puzzle leading us to next year’s AVENGERS movie. And it even includes a big preview of that upcoming movie. So, if you’re a fan, you might want to stick around. That said, I am getting SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO tired of having to sit through tons of boring credits every time I watch a Marvel movie.
MA: Well, don’t stay. Nobody’s forcing you to stay until the very end. I for one like these end-credits surprises.
LS: I almost am starting to hate the “Marvel Secret Scene” as much as 3D. So, there!
MA: Okay. You obviously feel stronger about it than I do. Anyway, looks like our job is done here.
LS: Yeah, let’s wrap up the role-playing and get a beer. (They both take off their masks)
(The WOLFMAN returns, holding a beer in each hand. He hands one to LS and the other to MA.)
LS: Gee, thanks, Wolfy!
MA: But what are you going to drink?
(WOLFMAN looks at them with narrow menacing eyes.)
MA: Remember, you’re a werewolf, not a vampire!
LS: I don’t think that matters. (Points to MA) Remember, he’s the one who didn’t like your movie as much as I did.
(WOLFMAN howls, then growls ferociously before leaping over them, attacking and devouring a group of Nazi soldiers who’d been sneaking up behind them.)
MA: Looks like Captain America has a new ally. Hmm. A Marvel/Universal tie-in. I wonder?
LS: Shut up and drink your beer, already, before it gets warm!
© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER – 3 knives
LL Soares gives CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER – 3 knives