Thursday, May 17, 2012

Captain America: The First Avenger Movie Review

When Steve Rogers is brought in to a super secret military lab via a secret passage in a Brooklyn shop, you have to ask yourself how efficacious it is to have a super secret military lab replete with doctors, scientists, senators and military police who all had to enter via a secret passage in a Brooklyn shop. Aren’t they at all concerned that anyone spying on them might wonder why none of these several dozen people ever exit this magical retail establishment? All I ask of action movies besides being exciting and fun and written in a way that suggest the screenwriters didn’t sleep walk their way through it, is that the story makes some logical sense on its own terms. For the most part Captain America: The First Avenger passes the last test. The first ones could use a bit of work.

Chris Evans plays Steve Rogers, a scrawny wimp from Brooklyn who desperately wants to join the US military so he can go kill some Nazis (if only there were any Nazis to kill in this movie, but more on that later). Unfortunately he’s so underweight and riddled with chronic illnesses he’s rated 4F every place he tries to enlist. Evans has really bulked out for the role of Captain America, but how do you get a beefy, six feet tall, 200 pound man to look eight inches shorter and 100 pounds lighter? Special effects wizardry of course! Never mind tried and true techniques involving camera tricks and forced perspective when you have computers at your disposal. Reportedly a process that shrunk images of Evans’ actual body down was used rather than superimposing Evans’ head on another actor’s body. I remain somewhat incredulous because there was an incredible uncanny effect in the way his head seemed to move independently from his body. Evans himself has said that they wanted it to look realistic and not distract from the story. Guess what? I was distracted. Maybe they achieved the effect like he says, but something in the process produced a creature that is barely human, a body that is not connected to its head through any biological means I’m aware of.

What Steve Rogers has a lot of is heart, however, and this doesn’t go unnoticed by the kindly German Doctor Erskine (Stanley Tucci) formerly of the Third Reich. Erskine has been developing a serum that could create an army of super soldiers. Presumably, this is the same serum that turns Emil Blonsky into The Abomination in The Incredible Hulk. Before escaping Not Nazi Germany (more on that later), a crazy Not Nazi named Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving with a juicy German accent) injected himself with a version of the serum that was not quite ready. Erskine explains that the serum not only amplifies physical characteristics, but also personality. Hence the reason Erskine wants a puny weakling as a test subject. He’s always been a victim and has a desire to rid the world of bullies. And of course it’s best to think of Nazis as nothing more than big bullies (that would be if there were any Nazis in this movie, but more on that later).

Ultimately after becoming Captain America and doing a national tour to sell War Bonds, Rogers travels to Europe where his task will be to stop Schmidt from harnessing the power of the Tesseract – “the jewel of Odin’s treasure room” – which he finds in a Nowegian castle, to complete his plan for world domination. There’s a whiff of Raiders of the Lost Ark here with a Nazi-like figure (more to come) searching for supernatural treasures to wield supreme power. It came as no surprise to me to learn that director Joe Johnston was an art director on Raiders. Schmidt obviously didn’t learn the lessons of those Nazis whose faces melted when they stared into the face of God, but he will.

Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley have done what they can with a story designed as an origin story to move Captain America from the 1940s to the present day so he can team up in The Avengers. On their worst day, they’re ten times better than anything in Thor. But the meddling studio has gone and whitewashed history and sidestepped major social issues in a serious and unforgivable way. To begin with, Captain America’s team of army recruits includes a black man (Derek Luke) and a Japenese-American (Kenneth Choi) in a time when the US Army was segregated. Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps during WWII – an embarrassing black mark in our history that only received an official apology 50 years later. Black soldiers served in their own units and saw very little combat during the war. To have these two men (in addition to other nameless black soldiers sprinkled around as extras) is to ignore the very real hypocrisy of a country fighting a war against a madman obsessed with the idea of racial superiority all while tacitly endorsing the notion that men of different ethnicities were inherently inferior to white people. Also, that the love interest Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is a British intelligence officer responsible for training American soldiers is just a little bit nuts. It’s a really tough pill to swallow watching a woman – not even an American woman – training any soldiers, let alone American soldiers, for anything during WWII. But then Tommy Lee Jones shows up doing his Tommy Lee Jones thing as a gruff Colonel and all is right as rain.

It’s easy to use the “it’s just an action movie based on a comic book” excuse, but this stuff matters. It really does. Captain America is not offering a ‘what if’ alternate version of history like Watchmen does. The comic book was always as grounded in reality as could be considering we’re talking about a super soldier wearing red, white and blue spandex and carrying a shield made from a fictional metal. Captain America fought Nazis and Hitler during WWII before moving on to the Soviets during the Cold War, which brings me to my next and much more important point regarding the whitewashing of history: there are no Nazis in this movie! Or rather there are no Swastikas or Iron Crosses. Nor for that matter are there any American insignias on the soldiers’ uniforms. It seems all symbolic references to the national or political allegiances of any characters in this film have been erased for the sake of increasing worldwide box office potential. There’s enough anti-American sentiment in Europe and more than enough in the Middle East that I suppose the presence of American flags would send audiences into apoplexy. I hope they didn’t notice the title of the damn movie.

All references to Nazis and Nazism have been replaced by Hydra, presumably a division of the Nazi hierarchy that focuses on new technologies and weapons development. No one ever utters the words “Heil Hitler” in Captain America. We only hear “Hail Hydra.” In fact, Schmidt is considered off the wall even by the moderate Nazi standards. Because the Nazi regime didn’t have any demented scientists working under the Fuhrer’s approval. This is most disappointing because the Nazis have always been great go-to bad guys. I fear this is a sign that the universal hatred toward Nazism is dissipating. When Hollywood starts kowtowing to lovers of the Fuhrer, there are much greater problems on the horizon than whether or not Captain America is a good movie or not. It may not be a very good movie, but it’s one hell of a trailer for The Avengers.

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