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When Captain America throws his mighty shield,

All those who chose to oppose his shield must yield.

 If he’s led to a fight and a duel is due, 

Then the red and white and the blue’ll come through

When Captain America throws his mighty shield.
 

I love starting a review with a bracing Marvel Superheroes sing-a-long.  Reruns of the primitively animated series were a childhood staple, having grown up reading the Benday-dotted adventures of the cartoon’s subjects.  For as peppy as the Captain America theme song was, ol’ Cap himself didn’t do much for me.  Despite having one of the most intriguing villains in the Marvel Universe; the whole World War II setting didn’t ignite my kindergarten sensibilities like, say, Spider-Man, a kid from nearby Queens, or the Fantastic Four, whose Baxter Building could’ve been any skyscraper in Midtown.  Happily, the rich premise of the patriotic super soldier’s origins is practically made for a cinematic adaptation, and so half the work is done in the quest to make a success out of the live-action Captain America.

Another thing I recall from those comics were the ads in the back pages for a workout book by a bodybuilder called Charles Atlas; “The Insult That Made a MAN Out of Mac.” The ad regaled us (in panel form, of course) with the pathetic tale of a fellow harassed by the local beach bully for his slender, rib-exposing physique and burdened with an unsupportive girlfriend. “Mac” sends away for the Atlas book and “later,” as if kissed by the steroid fairy, Mac returns to the scene of the crime fully pumped up and delivers an assault-charge-worthy beat down to his old tormentor.  The first part of this story is the life of Steve Rogers, Brooklyn-born hero of our film (Actually, according to the comic, he’s from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but…).  To say Steve is a 97-pound weakling is to overstate it by about 93 pounds.  Short, pale and puny, Steve is a skinny malink who is the target of bullies everywhere and universally ignored by the entire female gender.  Little does anyone who writes off the thin guy know that inside this undersized frame beats the heart of a lion paired with the tenaciousness of a tick.  We first meet Steve in 1942, desperate to do his bit, being 4F-ed out of his third recruiting center.  Steve wants in the war so badly he risks arrest by falsifying his identity to apply, hoping that someone will give him a chance to serve his country.  He gets that chance in a most unusual way: A brilliant émigré scientist sees what others don’t in the boy and decides to give the kid the opportunity to match his body to his guts with a secret formula meant to create a Super Soldier; harder, better, faster, stronger, etc., and boy, does it work.  The new Steve Rogers is scarcely recognisable, having grown about three feet taller and about 150 pounds of chiseled muscle heavier.  Of course, as the formula is quite a coveted thing, Nazi spies try to abscond with it; giving Steve’s new body and powers a trial by fire.  The spy, who turns out to be less of a Nazi than aligned to a shady European coven called Hydra, has managed to destroy all hope of the Super Soldier serum being reproduced; leaving Steve a supernaturally strong orphan as he was meant to be only the first in an army of likewise recreated men.  The initiative abandoned; Steve’s heroic caper only serves to make him a walking recruitment commercial, complete with jingles, chorus girls and a new identity, Captain America, which does naught to endear him to the guys in the trenches.  One of those GI’s happens to be Steve’s best friend from the neighbourhood, Bucky, who’s gone missing with his troops behind enemy lines with no hope of rescue.  Steve isn’t going to let a few tanks and a couple thousand gun-toting Nazis stop him from getting his pal back and freeing the rest of the soldiers.  His daring infiltration of the enemy’s stronghold brings him to the attention of the one pulling all of Hydra’s goose-stepping strings.  Johann Schmidt is a man with an even broader vision than his supposed boss, Adolf Hitler.  The authoritative man with a strange skin condition that appears to give him gills on each side of his head, is after something Der Führer could never conceive of; mystic cubes of harnessable energy which will power weapons and vehicles so far advanced, no army in the world could stand up to their destructive power.  After retrieving the troops, Rogers leads a team to stop Schmidt’s plans and discovers that he and Schmidt share something in common.  Schmidt was a recipient of an early version of the Super Soldier formula, which had a very rosy effect on his complexion.  The formula serves to intensify the personality of the receiver and where Steve is all patriotism, selflessness and courage; Schmidt’s insanity and lust for power was likewise increased.  The heart of a lion or the mind of a madman, which will win out and tip the balance of the war?

We already know, but it’s fun to suspend your disbelief a little.  Though one of the leading characters in the Marvel Universe, I’m unsure how familiar the non-comic book reading public are with Cap.  Also, a hero who is mostly a revenant of World War II?  How well would this character fit into the modern world of the upcoming superhero fest, The Avengers alongside Iron Man and the Hulk?  The Captain America movie is a great crash course in the legend of Steve Rogers and why he’s so revered amongst comic fans.  While Rogers is the beneficiary of the Super Soldier serum, which does give him amped up strength, speed, endurance, etc., it’s not like he’s the Hulk, with crazy gamma-ray strength, has an metal suit full of excellent gizmos like Iron Man, or even has the unpredictable, way-out powers of the radioactivity-spawned Spider-Man or Fantastic Four.  Cap’s got limitations.  The film’s way around that is to focus on Rogers’ courageous heart and natural leadership.  Much is made of his transition from peewee to powerhouse, and not allowing his newfound strength and fame to change the decent schmoe he was before he got all buff.  There’s a ton of jokes at skinny Steve’s expense, but most have to do with the slight guy’s refusal to let his size determine his future.  The script’s dialog is sharp and funny with Tommy Lee Jones as a cantankerous army Colonel rattling off line after line of scathing underestimation.  Stanley Tucci’s refugee German scientist is a deadpan Jiminy Cricket to the pre-transformed Rogers.  The look of the film is aces; with faded palettes in Steve’s old neighbourhood, bursting into bright, comic book colourful, shiny art deco at the World Expo, where we meet Howard Stark, Tony’s daddy, hawking cars of the future and flirting with anything in a pair of backseamed stockings.  The gritty grays of the war scenes are also effective and give them a caught in time feel.  What is strangely out of time is the inclusion of Captain America’s ham-fistedly PC multiracial special forces, and one member of the team who looks like something more out of the 1890’s than the 1940’s, with permanently affixed derby, striped sweater and broad handlebar mustache.  Another odd thing for me was the look of our big bad; Schmidt’s alias, the Red Skull.  His initial reveal is pretty neat, but the more I looked at the perfectly round skull, piercing eyes and serious attitude, the more I felt I was looking at Samuel L. Jackson sporting some bad spray-on tan rather than the brilliant Hugo Weaving, who wears his normal face for half the show.  Hayley Atwell is one of my favourite Marvel movie women ever as an inexplicably British agent who’s as tough as any of the soldiers around her.  Atwell’s Peggy Carter is smart, brave and miracle of miracles, isn’t a plot device existing to be rescued (- outside of being shoved from the path of a speeding car whose driver she was shooting), she also absolutely believes in Steve, supporting him when he goes rogue to save the troops.  Last is our hero, Captain America, played by Chris Evans, and since this isn’t his first time at the Marvel Superhero rodeo (He was the Human Torch in those dreadful Fantastic Four films), he changes it up to play the entirely egoless, red, white and blue-blooded Steve Rogers.  Strangely enough, as nice as it is to see the dedication Evans put into his training to be the gorgeously muscled Super Soldier, the most drab parts of the film are watching Cap do battle with the Nazi/Hydra troops.  While perfectly adequate, there’s nothing new in the special effects that would add to the fighting, except for Cap’s iconic, frisbee-esque, star-spangled shield.  Actually, once he’s off being Captain America, Steve Rogers becomes rather boring, showing precious little of the sparky personality that lit up the film’s first half when he was a twig.  The last act is made up of lots of wartime action, including dogfights with the Red Skull’s stealthy planes of the future.  Towards the film’s end, Rogers must make a life or death decision that may save the world - or at least Brooklyn.  The moment between Cap - surely committing a kamikaze mission - on the plane’s radio with Peggy reminded me a little of the 1946 Michael Powell classic, “A Matter of Life and Death”.  Appropriately surreal as that film, Captain America’s twist ending brings back the link between all the potential Avengers, Sam Jackson as Sgt. Nick Fury (- and allegedly not the Red Skull) in a now-expected cameo.

Despite a far stronger first act, this is a fun and snappy introduction to one of the seminal heroes of the Marvel Universe and a nice last note before next year’s Avengers film.  Captain America is one of the more successful of the Marvel superhero movies.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

July 22nd, 2011

 

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  Paramount Pictures)

 

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