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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Captain America: The First Avenger

Here we go again on Fishing in the Discount Bin.  I watch a movie, and blog about it.  You know, it's kinda my thing.  I've been re-visiting Marvel's Phase I, and today I get to Captain America: The First Avenger.  I actually watched it and wrote this on January 29, 2018.

I've always had a soft spot for Captain America.  When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I got a Captain America action figure for my birthday, and he was my constant companion for that summer.  When Marvel announced that he was going to be part of their Phase I and that they'd be sticking to his World War II origin story, I was thrilled.  Two of my favourite guilty pleasure films are The Shadow and The Rocketeer, so it's given me a fascination with period piece superhero films.  Throw in that they got The Rocketeer's director Joe Johnston to direct, and I was sold. 

And the finished product is, well, good but not great. 

I mean, Johnston really loves his montages.  We get so many montages, of Cap's rise to fame as a symbol of American patriotism, of him kicking ass across the European theatre, a flashback montage to Red Skull's origin.  It would have been nice to have less montages and more ass-kicking. 

And there are some parts that do seem phoned in.  Like Tommy Lee Jones as Col. Phillips, Captain America's CO during the war.  Jones pretty much admitted to phoning it in, describing the role as "the crusty old general who barks orders.  What's to know?"  And also, Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull.  Fantastic casting, great make-up, but Weaving plays him as generic Nazi villain #742.  Red Skull is one of the most iconic villains in the Marvel pantheon.  He deserved better. 

But we do get some great, especially as Chris Evans instantly owns it as Steve Rogers.  And we also get those amazing special effects in the first act to shrink Rogers down to a literal 98 pound weakling.  It's the onset of World War II, and Rogers is desperate to enlist and do his part.  But, being a 98 pound weakling with a laundry list of medical conditions always gets him rejected.  His lifelong buddy, Bucky Barnes, is about to ship out, and at the 1942 Stark Expo (Ha!  Link to Iron Man 2!) he tries to enlist one last time (rejecting the woman that Bucky set him up with, Clara Oswald!), and after overhearing a conversation between Bucky and Steve, and after asking a few questions himself, Steve finally enlists thanks to Dr. Erskine. 

For you see, Dr. Erskine is heading up a special project for a branch of the army known as the SSR - the Strategic Scientific Reserve.  They hope to create a super-soldier, and Erskine is convinced that Rogers is the perfect candidate.  After our training montage, and proving himself to SSR superiors Col. Phillips and Agent Peggy Carter from the UK, Rogers undergoes the procedure, and becomes Captain America!

I remember listening to the running commentary on this film.  It's rare to hear directors name-check other superhero films on these commentaries, but Johnston talks quite a bit on how they tried to make Rogers' transformation into Captain America different from another super-soldier creation scene from a Marvel movie...Wolverine getting his adamantium bones in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  As Johnston describes it, Wolverine's origin was clandestine, and therefore done in dark places with cobbled-together equipment.  But Captain America's origin was done with the full might of government resources, and therefore meant to look more like "the Moon landing." 

But alas, it seems that Rogers will be the only super-soldier, as the entire facility is promptly destroyed by one of the Red Skull's agents, and Dr. Erskine is murdered, taking the secrets of the super-soldier process to his grave.  Now this, many have picked up on.  When they made these films, there's some striking similarities to Iron Man, specifically how the relationship between Rogers and Dr. Erskine mirrors the relationship between Tony Stark and his fellow captive, Yinsen.  Hell, even the death scenes are shot from similar angles.  What can be said?  Marvel already knew what was working for them. 

So, is Rogers deployed to the front lines to start taking down Nazis?  No!  With the death of Erskine, he's kept back in the States, so scientists can try to reverse-engineer the process.  Still wanting to serve, though, a senator brands Rogers as "Captain America," and he goes on tour to promote the war effort.  Eventually, he does wind up on the front lines...as part of a USO show.  There, he reunites with Agent Carter and Col. Phillips, and  he's despondent.  While he made it to the front lines, it's not exactly what he signed up for. 

But fate intervenes!  Cap gets word that his buddy Bucky has been captured, and with Agent Carter's help, goes rogue and launches his own rescue mission.  Cap saves Bucky (from being experimented on by HYDRA, thus setting up Bucky's transformation to the Winter Soldier), slugs it out with the Red Skull for the first time, proves his worth to Col. Phillips, and becomes the SSR's top commando. 

With Captain American on board, they finally take the fight to HYDRA -- the SSR's counterpart in the Nazi regime -- and its leader, the Red Skull.  The Red Skull's disfigurement is attributed to the Red Skull subjecting himself to an earlier version of Dr. Erskine's formula before Erskine defected. 

I should mention the Red Skull's plot.  He's come into possession of the Tesseract...a jewel of immense power.  In the comics, it was known as the Cosmic Cube.  In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it's the first Infinity Stone we've come across.  Using its immense power, the Red Skull has developed a whole cache of futuristic weapons, and is ready to split off from the Nazis and form his own world-conquering unit. 

And so the fight is on between Captain America and the Red Skull via the ultimate weapon...the montage!  Before it all comes down to a final battle on the Red Skull's massive flying wing of world domination. 

But yeah, I kind of dismissed it before as lots of phoned-in parts, but there's lots of good stuff, too.  Chris Evans immediately owns the role of Steve Rogers/Captain America.  Thanks mainly to Haley Atwell's wonderful performance, Agent Carter went on to become one of the first breakout characters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, eventually getting two season of a really good TV show.  There's some spectacular production design, as we see all kinds of futuristic weapons of war that seem quite at home in the World War II setting. 

And let's not forget the music.  I know the Marvel movies get a lot of flak for their scores, but I think Alan Silvestri's Captain America theme is the first truly memorable score of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Of course, Silvestri went on to do the music for The Avengers, too, and whenever Silvestri worked into the Avengers score (most noticeably when Cap confronts Loki in Germany), I couldn't help but smile a little. 

But yeah.  Captain America: The First Avenger was a great introduction to Cap in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Oh, and one last thing.  When the Red Skull first gets his hands on the Tesseract, he matters, "And the fuher digs for trinkets in the desert."  This has long been interpreted to be a reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the Nazis that dug up the Ark of the Covenant.  And now that Disney owns both Marvel and Lucasfilm, you just know they can make the Captain America/Indiana Jones team-up happen. 

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