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Ten Word or Less Review: A good but average American.

Comic book heroes are defined more by the costumes they wear.  They are defined by the faults and conflicts which drive them to put on spandex costumes in the first place.  Within the Marvel movie universe as it has been established to date, the popular theme among its heroes has been arrogance.  Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man, and Thor are on certain levels the same character.  Both are the well-to-do rich kids who have been so totally indulged their entire lives that their mental and/or physical strengths are robust to the point that blind narcissism is their crippling Achilles heel.  Confronted by their faults they suffer a crisis of conscience and have to change as people.  More simply said, both heroes are jerks who have learn to stop being jerks.  Both wind up fighting a big robot.  Simplistic to be sure but adequate enough material for light weight comic book flicks.  Now along comes Steve Rogers, AKA Captain America, the total opposite of both.  With the playbook flipped on its head what kind of arc does Marvel have in store for Rogers, the patriotic do-gooder out to thwart a power worse than Nazis?

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a 90 lbs. weakling urgently trying to join the army during WWII but being denied at every turn because of his puny physical prowess.  Upon a stroke of luck Steve’s plight is overheard by Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a military scientist looking for a candidate to turn into a super soldier.  Before Steve knows it he’s strapped into the kind of big metal tube a movie like this loves to slap a central character into.  Some minor digital mayhem ensues and voila!  Steve is transformed into Captain America and he’s free to punch the lights out of Hydra, an evil Nazi appendage run by the Red Skull, (Hugo Weaving), a mad genius who is harnessing an unknown power of the universe to create his allied soldier killing weapons.  Adventure ensues, battles are fought, soldiers are rescued, Nazi bad guys are pummeled and blown away, there’s even singing and dancing!  At a certain glance it all seems so perfect and fully formed.  So why does something feel so distancing about this thing?

As I sat watching Captain America and I kept lingering on why I did not like it more than did.  In addition to the attributes mentioned above it’s a very handsomely mounted production.  I will always give 30’s and 40’s set comic book heroes half a chance as you can never have enough vintage cars and retro aircraft humming around an adventure flick.  The performances are uniformly excellent from top to bottom.  Chris Evans as the Captain of the title is humility, honesty and admirable patriotism rolled into one swell and charming fellow.  Tommy Lee Jones causes his share of giggles as the gruffly humorous type of army general he can play to the hilt in his sleep.  Stanley Tucci is the benevolent scientist who sees the good in Rogers and knows it will make him a great hero.  Hayley Atwell is a delightful presence as the Captain’s unrequited romantic entanglement.  Rounding it all out is Hugo Weaving, turning in a near movie stealing performance as the menacing Red Skull.  He’s Voldemort with a bad sunburn.  The film could be no better cast as is.  But despite all the up’s, there’s one persistent thing lacking to the whole adventure.

Once Steve becomes Captain America, he has no further journey to take as a character.  The disconnect that sits quietly, but heavily, on Captain America’s shoulders is that its title character has a sweet nature, is good looking and is totally boring.  Captain America takes it’s time to get Steve Rogers into full blown Captain red, white and blue but once Steve overcomes his physical shortcomings, he’s set.  He has no emotional baggage to deal with or character deficiency to fight against.  He’s brave and aching to fight against evil which he does so with great zeal.  If this were the 50’s we’d be looking at Gregory Peck in a red, white and blue costume.  The heads at Marvel surely appreciated that they were getting to tell a classic piece of Americana, something totally different in tone from their existing properties, but what they failed to account for was the fact that their hero would cease to be interesting the minute he gets his muscles.  Evans charms to no end with his unfaltering humility but the simple fact remains that his character is wrapped up with a nice little patriotic bow on it by the movie’s halfway point.

Director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, October Sky) deserves a lot of credit for being subtly unorthodox in various ways.  The man clearly loves the era and genre he’s playing in and can’t fashion enough details to fill out his little corner of the Marvel universe.  He’s a step ahead of fellow Marvel movies in that his film actually feels like it takes places in a particular time and place.  Other Marvel films have been frustratingly devoid of any actual atmosphere or scope.  He also boldly chooses to be quite patient in telling Steve Rogers story.  The film doesn’t feel like empty exposition in between its action scenes.  Those action scenes are also punctuated with some surprisingly direct violence.  Lots of soldiers, bad guys and even an old lady buy it in hard hitting fashion.  But on the flip side of this Captain America is lacking any real show stopping set pieces.  Johnston has never been a master of staging great action and it’s a fairly large drawback when all is said and done.  Just a couple of wow moments would help tremendously, but alas they aren’t here.  Captain America is so completely even handed and mid-tempo from front to back that waiting for a pulse pounding moment eventually becomes a little frustrating.  Only in its final moments does Captain America really throw the audience for any kind of loop.  By ostensibly mimicking a little known movie from the 1940’s, Captain America finally arrives at a stirring emotional place we’ve been waiting for it to get to.  But once we’re there, the credits role.

Captain America may be a grand departure in many ways from its Marvel brethren but in one important way it feels just like the rest.  It’s a good shot at making something memorable for the audience but an integral element has been undercooked which trips up the effort as a whole.  Steve Rogers should never be given the mopey treatment, ala Batman, but a chink has to be found in his patriotic armor.  The movie gives us that, but only at the end when there’s no time left to explore the ramifications of what happens.  He can still be an interesting character to watch, we’ll simply have to wait and see if that’s allowed to develop.  Something tells me next year’s Avengers movie won’t be the time or place for that to happen.


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