Captain America: The First Avenger (review)

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Sweet Lad of Liberty

It’s now a tossup whether the best comic-book superhero movie of 2011 is X-Men: First Class or Captain America: First Avenger… But I’m leaning toward Captain America.
It’s all about nostalgia, see. X-Men invokes a cool 60s vibe that is undeniably riveting at the moment, but the cool comes from a surface calm combined with undercurrents of grumbling discontent. That’s not a bad thing — it’s a just-right reexamination of an era for its contradictions and heretofore unacknowledged complexities. (See also: Mad Men.) But it’s still, you know, a complicated, shades-of-gray thing.

Captain America, though? Whew. At a time when America is at war on multiple fronts against not definable enemies but against nebulous notions — “terror”; “drugs” — wars that have no endpoint in sight, wars whose endpoints aren’t even pinpointable, it’s almost comforting to look back at a time when a sense of purpose was palpable, one’s duty was clear, and the objective was obvious. It makes even more sense as that time — in this case, World War II — begins to move out of living memory for the vast majority of people living with the current wars. Which means the complications and the shades of gray of that time are easier to discount in the face of the appealing black-and-whiteness of it.

That’s the undercurrent of the enormously entertaining appeal of Captain America: the black-and-white has become popcorn, but popcorn that just feels so very right in a way that today does not. All the shorthand of WWII — Nazis are bad; GIs are heroes; science will win the war — can go unspoken and unquestioned, and then serve to quietly bolster the fantasy of it, particularly since director Joe Johnston is so deft and witty in deploying it. (He didn’t do anything so crafty with his The Wolfman last year, but his Hidalgo was similarly satisfyingly pulp-fantastic.) The retro-future skyline of his 1942 Manhattan is cheering and poignant at the same time, recalling the promise of a future that ended up going in a different direction, and now feels lost at a time when we see the American century slipping away into the hands of others. The secret American laboratory — in Brooklyn! — where runty and asthmatic but brave and compassionate army recruit Steve Rogers is transformed — by science! — into big and strong but still brave and compassionate “Captain America” mightn’t have existed, but it could have. (The A-bomb started in good ol’ NYC, didn’t it?) The secret Nazi submarine — in Brooklyn! — has a pulpy edge of existential threat that cuts deep in a way that grabs its power from the collective nightmares of both the black-and-white of WWII pulp intrigue and from the incursion of 9/11. It didn’t happen then… but it might have.

It’s also why the gloss of scientifictional nonsense here feels right, too. If steampunk represents a yearning for the less thorny future the Victorians saw for themselves, one of pleasant (and eco-friendly) zeppelins and hearty adventure rather than horrific new ways of waging war and destroying the environment, then so does the vacuumpunk of Captain America: the future as 1940s tech might have seen it (which has been springing up in other places, too; it suffuses the stylistic ethos of the new Doctor Who, for instance). Here we have early CCTV and analog countdown clocks, but also the organic tang of leather and canvas fatigues, of “Vita Rays” (they sound so healthy!), of Nazi troopers in uniforms that turn them cyborgish, of the promise of Howard Stark’s flying car, coming to showrooms in 1943. The future, it was going to be so, you know, futuristic!

That’s still all just the canvas, however, upon which the story works in such a deep-down, toes-curlingly rewarding and agreeable way. Chris Evans (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Losers) is powerfully sweet and hugely touching as runt-turned-god Steve Rogers: you will believe that a man of steel can be a softie whose eyes well up not just because he’s sad but because he’s able to allow himself to be sad; who laments the loss of his ability to get drunk — his new supermetabolism prevents this — when he needs to forget the things that make him sad. (Also worth noting: the CGI that turns the buff Evans into runty Steve early in the film could well be the most inventive use of the technology yet; it doesn’t just make FX easier to create, it allows for the telling of story it would have been infinitely harder to tell convincingly just a few years ago.) Steve may be darn near physically invulnerable, at least compared to the unenhanced GIs around him, but his spirit is most definitely not impervious, and Evans is unexpectedly and suddenly an actor perceptive enough and subtle enough to underplay strong emotion on the surface of his character while also letting us see how it roils within him.

Evans is also wonderfully funny, in a sly, deadpan sort of way (as he has always been). It’s a perfect compliment to the same quality in Tommy Lee Jones (No Country for Old Men, A Prairie Home Companion), who almost steals the movie as the army colonel running the experimental supersoldier program Rogers gets recruited into. Stanley Tucci (Burlesque, Easy A) also almost steals the movie as the ex-pat German scientist running the supersoldier program. Hugo Weaving (Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Oranges and Sunshine) also almost steals the movie as the Nazi nutjob who’s looking to out-Hitler Hitler… especially with his hilariously droll evil-Werner Herzog accent. Everyone here is simply perfectly perfect, in fact: Hayley Atwell (The Duchess, Brideshead Revisited) as the tough-girl British agent; Dominic Cooper (An Education, Mamma Mia!) as Stark, the engineering brains of the supersoldier program; and in smaller roles, Toby Jones (Your Highness, Doctor Who) as a Nazi scientist, Richard Armitage (Robin Hood) as a German spy, and Sebastian Stan (Black Swan, Hot Tub Time Machine) as Steve’s best friend from back in Brooklyn. There’s a palpable sense here of a gang of really smart actors having a lot of really conspicuous fun in a very generous way, pouring their fun into a joint project rather than stealing a spotlight for themselves. It makes for a movie that, while it is inherently silly in a lot of ways, demands to be treated with a lot of respect.

I don’t know how well Captain America, with his clean-cut, clear-cut WWII sense of purpose, will fit in to the complicated 2012 world when he joins The Avengers next year. But that’s a year away. For now, there is something really kick-ass satisfying in watching him mess around in 1942. Even if it is all a fantasy. Or maybe because it’s all a fantasy. Escape you don’t have to turn your brain off for is a wonderful thing.

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