Friday, August 19, 2011

Flame On, Captain America

Way back in the year 2000 a movie based on popular comic book characters from either the two titans Marvel or DC seemed like the fevered dream of a madman.  Or at least, an occurence few and far between.  This was fortunate for viewing audiences the world over and the safety of the space time continuum itself after our World endured a terrible, unrighteous onslaught that ranged from the palpable (the 1989 BATMAN, BLADE) to the terrible (take your pick of any SUPERMAN film starring Christopher Reeves) to the insultingly awful (the 1990 CAPTAIN AMERICA, the 1989 PUNISHER starring Dolph Lundgren) to the Crime Against Humanity (BATMAN & ROBIN).  The extent of what most of these films accomplished was a lot of neck injuries brought on by excessive head shaking, the emmergence of the Psychiatric Revolution as thousands of adults who had been severely traumatized as children by this shit sought out professional help, and a general lack of faith in the essential goodness of humanity.

Part of the problem -at least- was the fact that movies based on comic books were not treated seriously, or at least not handled with the care given to "legitimate cinema."  Over the years comic books came to be seen as somehow less valid (often thought of as juvenile, and hence somehow less substantial) than other forms of literature and art.  This bias overflowed into the movie industry who seemed not to take their source material seriously when it came to comic book properties.  This was not only grossly and blatantly disrespectful to the men and women who took the time to creat these detailed worlds and characters but also to the legions of fans who appreciated these works on both a visceral and intellectual level.  Even superhero flicks that garnered a fair amount of commmercial success like SUPERMAN or BATMAN took gross liberties with the characters that made little to no sense in hindsight other than giving a big, old fashioned Fuck You to audiences, fans (of the comics), and free-thinking people the world over.

Finally in 2000 Marvel struck a blow in cinema that would change the course of the sub-genre forver (or at least the next ten to twenty years).  X-MEN was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world and immediately caused an entire generation to collectively jizz in its pants.  Here, finally, was an intelligently-written, finely-crafted film based on comic book characters that took itself seriously, paid homage to the source material and the fans thereof, and treated its audience with some modicom of respect and didn't make me want to put a hole in my head with my Black and Decker drill in an attempt to erase the terrible memory of the thing from my brain immediately after watching it.  With Marvel at a stage in the game to retain a lot more control over her characters as they ventured into other forms of media (ie. they had a shit-ton of money) things went exceedingly well, despite a partnership with Fox.  X-MEN starred an A-List cast and was directed by Bryan Singer the maverick who brought us THE USUAL SUSPECTS.

I know there's probably a lot of hardcore geeks out there who insist on liking shit just for the sake o starting arguments, but X-MEN really marked a turning point in the development of comic book movies.  All of the sudden they became a force to be reconned with and grabbed the attention of studio execs who started drooling all over whatever transvestite hookers they were doing cocaine off the scrotums of at the thought of all the money they could make from this shit.  The success of X-MEN really paved the way for the best super hero films ever made including SPIDER-MAN, X2, IRON MAN, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, WATCHMEN, and of course climaxing with BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT (although any movie starring Christian Bale and written and directed by Christopher Nolan are completely doomed to extreme, dirty success and are really an entire genre of films in their own right).  Of course the flip side of that coin is that in their rush to make as much fucking money as possible studios began pumping out comic book movies at a blistering pace and in their haste to make a fast buck we've been subjected to a wide array of post-X-MEN goat shit from GHOST RIDER, to two more horrible PUNISHER MOVIES, to CATWOMAN, and two FANTATIC FOUR movies that made the unreleased 1994 version look like fucking SCHINDLER'S LIST by comparison.

Lately Marvel has really stepped up its game.  Not necessarily in terms of quality, but in terms of concept.  Their pantheon of characters is reminiscent -in terms of functionality and theory- of ancient Greek and Roman mythology.  The Ancients had thousands of stories about their gods and goddesses and even while a story about Demeter would have herown stories they would inexorably be linked to the rest of the pantheon.  That is to say a story about Ares would invariably involve Zeus or Aphrodite or one of the others.  They would have crossover characters.  It's like a story about Wolverine starting off at the mansion with Professor X and Cylcops and Rogue (fuck, Rogue is hot in the comics) and then he goes off and fights The Juggernaught for a while.  The folks over at Marvel and DC have invested a lot of time and money into developing their respective universes of characters with all their threads of interconnectivity so it makes a lot of sense that they finally started doing this with their movie franchises (with the exception of Nolan's Bat-universe, which is a universe uno itself and so not bound by our mortal concepts of right and wrong).

I'm talking about THE AVENGERS is what I'm talking about.  While I'm still not completely sold on the idea despite millions of fanboys getting a boner after hearing its being helmed by Joss Whedon, who I'm still not sure why is the the darling of thousands of geeks the world over.  I just don't get the Whedon.  I have no idea why people love his shit.  So far he's done nothing that really stands out or has motivated me emotionally.  Seven years of BUFFY and four more of ANGEL were so excrutiatingly mundane and unextraordinary that... oh, I don't know where I intended to go with this when I started.  The point is Joss Whedon seems to be another entity who seems comprised entirely of hype, unfulfilled expectations, and pure delusion and the only emotion I can associate with Whedon is disappointment at not getting to see Sarah Michelle Gellar nude in a single goddamn episode.

Where was I?... Oh yes, THE AVENGERS, narrative continuity, and cinematic wet dreams.  While the AVENGERS movie might turn out to suck hardcore (right now I'd feel comfortable betting with about 50:50 odds) the concept -I feel, anyway- has actually strengthened the rest of the Marvel properties by forcing them to be more coherent.  They're all building up towards something, the same place, and so they have to maintain an ideological consistency.  The other side of the coin is that it may tend to take focus away from the individul characters in their standalone movies: a delicate line to be walked to be sure, and arguably crossed over many times in IRON MAN 2.  It's a fine line that can only be mastered by the best in the business, and unfortunately Marvel has not been dealing with that particular breed through the whole process.

What this concept has done has given movies like THE INCREDIBLE HULK, IRON MAN, THOR, and now CAPTAIN AMERICA a spine around which filmmakers might construct their creatures.  Similar threads tying them all together.  On a visceral level this resulted in pure fanboy fodder: shout-outs to other characters and such from other Marvel properties.  On a conceptual level it both shackled and focused the filmmakers of each property.  The individual writers and directors couldn't take the characters in too different a direction (thank the gods) as they all had to eventually tie together, which is somewhat limiting creatively.  However, it also forced the filmmakers to diferentiate their characters so that when they were all forced on screen together in 2012 it wasn't a bunch of Super Heroes on screen but different characters with different motivations.

While Marvel's movies have been passable, they're still just good and not great.  I hate to keep bringing up THE DARK KNIGHT (Actually I don't.  I fucking love that movie)  but it really set the bar not only for what a good superhero movie should be, but what a good movie in general should be.  Why other movies have settled for mediocrity instead of trying to reach as close as they can to that bar (but not pass it; that's impossible for anybody but Nolan himself) is beyond me.  I really dug IRON MAN and THE INCREDIBLE HULK, but I was kind of left wanting by IRON MAN 2 and THOR.  The last two were OK movies, but they could have been better, and really should have been better considering the talent involved.

CAPTAIN AMERICA lies somewhere in between on the spectrum: better than IRON MAN 2, not quite as good as IRON MAN.  While CAPTAIN AMERICA had its darker moments to be sure (it was set mostly during WWII after all) it didn't quite have the emotional core to make me care about its characters enough to stop me from laughing when Bucky died abruptly two thirds of the way into the film.

In fact I found myself laughing a lot during CAPTAIN AMERICA. I'm not sure why.  It wasn't terrible and it wasn't a intended (I don't think) to be a comedy.  But there were just so many times when I found myself laughing out loud in the movie theatre.  Like the aforemetioned death of Bucky.  Pretty much any time the Hydra soldiers did their salute.  I don't know why, but it just seemed ridiculous in some way I can't explain.  The introduction of the vibranium shield.  Other random times throughout the movie.  I remember liking the movie overall, though perhaps only a second viewing will tell the tale.  I suppose laughter is a good thing.  At least I was enjoying myself.  Right?

It was a miracle that this film wasn't just a complete pile of doshit, what with it being helmed by Joe Johnston whose career highpoints seem to be HONEY, I SHRUK THE KIDS and JUMANJI and who brought us both JURASSIC PARK III and the absolutely terrible WOLFMAN.  I don' know if it was luck or an intervetion by Odin himself but CAPTAIN AMERICA turned out all right.  It had a good mix of action and character development.  Or about as much character devlopment as you'd expect.

Actually it wasn't that bad (although, I'm not sure who I'm trying to convince).  Captain America (portrayed here by Chris Evans) turned out to be suprisingly badass.  It's set during wartime, so Captain America ends up killing more people than the Punisher did in his last two times out on film: but they're all Nazi's so it's cool.  Between Indianna Jones and Captain America it's surprising that the Nazi's got as far as they did.  There was actually a surprising amount of death in a summer blockbuster super hero PG-13 movie, although the depiction of most of the deaths (through means of a death ray that most of the Hydra troops carried) was obviously designed so as not to show the battleground littered with dead, bloody corpses.  (Also surprisingly absent were the whores...)  This was a rather unique and effective way to balance the need to depict a WWII battle (ie. lots o' death) and the (apparent) need to maintain a PG-13 rating in order to rack in the maximum amount o' cash.  Although I must say that total disintegration has always troubled me on some deep, emotional level.  There's something somehow unsettling about the idea of somebody shooting you with a laser beam that completely disintegrates your body on the subatomic level.  I don't know if it's the fact that your margain of survial narrows a great deal should you be facing an opponent with such a weapon (get shot in the arm with a bullet,you might survive: get shot anywhere with a death ray, it's automatic game over) or whether it's the fact I wouldn't be able to leave a good looking corpse or something else entirely.  It just creeps me out.

Another kind of creepy thing was seeing Chris Evans' face superimposed or digitally grafted to another smaller, punier body.  Special effects have come so far and this effect was seemless.  Even creepier was seeing Hugo Weaving as Red Skull pulling off his own face in one scene.  As far as I know this was not special effects and Weaving pulled his own face off.  He's just that dedicated an actor.  Like when he learned how to asexually reproduce for the MATRIX movies.  The whole cast actually did a decent job.  This is Chris Evans' second forray into the superheroing job market having portrayed The Human Torch (AKA Johnny Storm) in the two shitty FANTASTIC FOUR movies, and thankfully his agent was actually right about this one.  I don't follow Evans' career a lot, but he did a good job here.  He bought a lot of street cred in my eyes for his appearance in SCOTT PILGRIM where he basically satirized the exact kind of action hero role that he earns his keep with and portrays here.  Tommy Lee Jones shows up as a gruff army commander for some reason.  I like Tommy Lee Jones.  Not like that.  That's all I have to say on that matter.  Another notable performance was Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, Tony Stark/Iron Man's father who has a fairly sizable role in the film.  Dude did a great job, and I don't know if it was the power of suggestion but Cooper seemed eerily perfect as the Elder Stark, and he seemed to look a lot like Robert Downey Jr. 

There were really two big things that really held this movie back (Well, technically three, but I can't blame the movie theatre for not providing me with a giant bag of weed and a bong shaped like Princess Leia's metal bra-clad tits.  Or can I...?): really choppy editing, and a pretty anti-climatic final battle.  There were some really strange, really abrupt cuts with really no seguey or build-up.  And they were always to these crazy action montages that had little to do with the main plot other than to show the general badassery of Captain America and his band of rag-tags.  And the final battle with Red Skull kind of just ended, again rather abruptly.  I felt kind of cheated.  It wasn't that the climax wasn't action-packed or enjoyable, but the climax has to stand out from the rest of the film and in an action film you really have to kick it up a notch (another blast from the spice weasel - BHAM!).

I can't believe it... your tits are bigger than mine!
The makes of this film tried to emulate the SPIDER-MAN franchise by attempting to incorporate some kind of central theme.  This is not a bad thing.  It really worked out well for Spidey, and for some reason "With great power comes great responsibility" stuck in the public consciousness so well that to this day people will still quote that shit.  Usually for comedic effect now, but still that's a pretty resilient little meme.  It also helped give substance to the movie.  CAPTAIN AMERICA kind of does the same thing with its "Why someone weak?  Because a weak man knows the value of strength, the value of power..." concept that crazy German defecter scientist guy (Stanley Tucci) gives Steve Rogers as to why he was picked for the project.  This is all well and good I suppose if the rest of the movie hadn't been trying to show how he was strong in other ways like with courage and intellect and stuff.  But I suppose you're not really manly until you can bench press a Buick.  Or crush walnuts with your pectorals.  I guess it kind of worked, though.

As you might have gathered I was not entirely blown away by this film nor was I completely disappointed by it.  If you're a fan of the Captain America comics you're probably still cleaning the jizz from your favourite pair of slacks if you've seen the movie and if you're not an avid reader of the source material then you'll probably get a kick out of a solid action flick.  I suppose I should comment on the costume which, for some unknown reason, sparked of som very hot debates on the interwebs.  The costume was a good translation into the "real world" with it basically being a modified military uniform with some spiffy colours added.  The movie also gives you a logical reason he chooses to wear that particular costume and why he uses the shield, because we needed that for some reason.  I guess I shouldn't complain.  This "grounding" of ridiculous ideas from comics in the "real world" or at least the "realm of relative plausability" is where I see Chrisopher Nolan's influence on the comic book movie genre for which we should all be thankful.

For some reason when I was watching this movie I kept thinking about Don Draper and what he'd think about this Captain America fellow, even though according to the timeline he would have only been a little kid at this point in history (though maybe Sterling Cooper handled the Captain's PR when he went on tour with his dancing Cap-ettes).  That had nothing to do with anything, really.  Just thought I'd throw that in there.  Alrght, enough of this crap.  Bottom line: go see this flick.  I give CAPTAIN AMERICA a 7/10 = One Horribly Scarred Red Head That Is Really Just Crying Out For Someone To Love It



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