Monday, August 8, 2011

Movie Review: Captain America

Directed by Joe Johnston. 2011.

Contains Spoilers!

Captain America sort of works. I think. Maybe. I don't know. I find it frustrating, infuriating even, when so much is wrong with a movie that you have a hard time deciding whether as a whole it even works or not, qua movie. Persevering, let us start with what works.

Captain America has one heck of a chorus line with more wagging gams than any flick since Gold Diggers of 1933. In fact it is so good and the scene is shot so well that it bears further comment. Early in the film when Steve Rogers has been given his super strength by the American government's experimental procedure but before he has gone to war the generals relegate the proto hero to campaigning for war bonds across the states. This montage, overflowing with images of Uncle Sam, burlesque fights with Adolf Hitler, kicking chorus girls, and straight out sloganeering is slightly off-putting in its effectiveness. Nonetheless it is spectacular, more so than the action scenes. In fact I think many viewers will feel that way. How many gun fights and enemy base infiltrations have people seen? And chorus lines?

There are not many ideas to speak of in Captain America. Here's one, sort of. According to the scientist who invented the serum, Steve Rogers is a good and simple man. He knows the value of strength because he used to be weak, unlike people who have always known strength. (The scientist does not like bullies.) This sounds like a meaningful aphorism, but is it true? Does someone doing good with strength he has always had mean more than someone who is, in fact, given strength, like Captain America? I don't think this is quite what they were trying to set up. Also, doesn't someone who has had power for a while already know how to control it? Maybe Captain America would have to learn that. Either way the idea does not really play out in the movie. In fact In fact the Skull took the treatment too, implying he used to be weak, or weaker than he became. Now what does that aphorism mean for the movie? What about power and corruption? I guess his newfound power didn't tempt Rogers. Or was it the case that the treatment just amplified your existing character, which in Rogers' case was fine because he was good? If so, that's a cheap evasion of the question about whether power corrupts.

Let's look at some other apparent significance. In a scene in which Rogers and his buddy Bucky, formerly the brawn of the duo, storm a Hydra train to capture a scientist, Rogers is knocked down and Bucky picks up the Captain America shield and starts to fight with it. He loses and dies. Again, that looks important, but is this reversal significant? What was Bucky's flaw? Was he really so lacking in awareness that he didn't see Rogers was despondent about his weakness? How do we know Bucky's strength was unearned? How did Rogers earn strength by being good? Why is it significant that Bucky lacked the strength to be victorious? Maybe we're supposed to see that finally he knew what it was like to struggle when he was not strong enough.  Well, the writers could have made this significant by having it happen before Rogers was fighting or even with some cheesy dialogue a la Spider-man, that "with great power comes great responsibility." Maybe they could have had Rogers, after Bucky's death, say, "I always wanted him to know what it was like to be weak. But now. . ." We don't get that, though. In fact there is not much continuity between scenes. Jay Bauman at the great Red Letter Media tersely called Captain America, "a series of things that happen." Indeed.

So in the absence of my ability to make sense of any of those ideas I am forced to conclude that Captain America is just good guys versus bad guys. The bad guys are Nazis, well sort of.  I didn't notice anything that identified them as Nazis and that's a rather embarrassing evasion. It reeks of political correctness when the Red Skull's troops shout, "Heil Hydra." So we can't even attribute any ideology to the bad guys. Yet the Skull spouts quasi-Nazi notions like, "We are beyond humanity." Who is he actually talking about here? Only he and Rogers had the treatment so he must mean them. So he's trying to persuade Rogers to join him? Maybe, but then he doesn't mean his men. (Don't tell them that!) Maybe he means that the powerful weapons his side has makes them better? So that makes them bullies, which makes the Americans the underdog. Although unlike in the doctor's aphorism they obviously didn't always have the powerful weapons but got them. So either the power made them evil or they were already evil. Based on our look at Rogers and the Red Skull and the fact that the war was underway already, the former doesn't seem plausible so the latter must be the case, which means the super powers shtick is just that, a shtick to allow for bigger explosions.

The action scenes play out like sequences from a video game. Duck, shoot, take cover, doge, reload, sprint. Things blow up. There are even mid-level bosses. Sheesh. The casting and performances are fine. The cinematography is good as is the color palette and there are some nice shots. The score is forgettable except for the jingle from the war bonds chorus. There's also a teensy bit of Wagner to make the bad guys seem ominous. The direction is competent. The script is garbage.

Overall, it's like World War II got turned into a comic book, then into a video game, and then halfway into a movie.

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