Friday, July 22, 2011

A Dull Captain America; A Thunderous Thor

Growing up, my preference in comic books was always geared towards the Marvel Comics universe and not the D.C. Comics’ one. With the exception of the Justice League of America and Batman, I felt that the adventures of Marvel’s Spider-Man, Captain America, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk and The Mighty Thor, with their colourful villains, complex protagonists and the grittiness of a thinly disguised Earth, trumped the mostly bland D.C. heroes and heroines. That includes, I must confess, Superman and Wonder Woman. Batman, though, with his dark psychological back story (his parents murdered before his eyes) and its nuanced present (where Gotham City’s attitude towards its costumed protector was profoundly ambivalent) seemed more in line with Marvel's layered complexity. And the first two Batman movies, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), both directed by Tim Burton, certainly were impressive achievements. So was the masterful Superman 2 (1980) and aspects of Superman (1978). Over the years, however, most of the many Marvel film adaptations, with one notable exception, never quite jelled into fine or memorable movies, though their cinematic ingredients ought to have ensured otherwise.

The exception was Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (2004), which coalesced into a finely acted and directed tale. It perfectly captured Peter Parker’s conflicted nature: a normal teenager trying to balance a work and love life with the responsibility he considered that he owed his late Uncle Ben. In the story, he had to cope with the intense guilt brought on because he failed to use his superpowers to save Ben out of the sheer selfishness of not getting involved in the affairs of man. The rest of the Marvel movies, including the first and third Spider-Man flicks, fell short of that masterpiece. Filmmakers either picked some of the duller Marvel superheroes, Daredevil (2002) and Iron Man (2007), to adapt to the screen, or the directors botched the projects (Fantastic Four (2005)) or both (Iron Man). A few of the movies, the provocative first Hulk (2003), directed by Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Bryan Singer’s well-acted and well-characterized X-Men (2000) and X2 (2003) fell somewhere in the qualitative middle. The summer of 2011 marks a revamp of the X-Men franchise (X-Men: First Class, a prequel to the previous movies, which I have not seen) and the premiere of both Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, which opens today. Despite its faithfulness to its source material, Captain America: The First Avenger is one of the most innocuous and forgettable of all the Marvel movies.

Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell and Chris Evans
Interestingly, Captain America was the first Marvel superhero to be adapted to film, in a 1944 serial. The new Captain America: The First Avenger (unfortunately shortened to just The First Avenger in Russia, Ukraine and South Korea for political reasons) goes back to the beginnings of the character. First, however, it begins in the present when a plane containing the preserved-in-ice figure of Captain America, aka Steve Rogers, is discovered in the Arctic. How he got there forms the gist of the story. Essentially, the story line follows Rogers (Chris Evans), the proverbial 98-pound weakling, who keeps getting rejected whenever he tries to enlist in the U.S. Army, to the amusement and relief of his best friend, James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan). But German émigré scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) notices something in the determined Rogers and decides that he will be the first prototype in an experiment to create a hugely bulked-up super-powered soldier, much to the disgust of Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), head of the U.S. government’s Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR), who thinks there are better, fitter and stronger candidates for that role. British officer Peggy Carter (Hailey Atwell) of the SSR feels differently however and, aided by Howard Hughes-like inventor/pilot Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), whose son Tony would go on to be Iron Man, is determined to help Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, go up against the Nazis. Beyond the Nazis, there's also a renegade scientist Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), also super powered, who wants to harness the occult powers of the Norse Gods and remake the world by destroying major world capitals, including Berlin.

Hugo Weaving, aka The Red Skull.
Directed by Joe Johnston (Jumanji; Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,) and scripted by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Captain America: The First Avenger isn’t a terrible movie, by any means. It’s well made and intelligent enough but it pretty much lacks a cinematic pulse. In other words, it’s deadly dull. (Johnston’s The Rocketeer, an adventure also set around the time of WWII, was way more fun.) The movie’s world view is a trifle simplistic – it falsely gives the impression that the U.S. Army was integrated during World War Two and quite accepting of Japanese-American soldiers. It's also a bit illogical. Why don’t the Nazis, too, challenge Red Skull when he makes his intentions clear? 

As for the cast, they’re mostly adequate but not working at the top of their acting powers. Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones have been better in so many other films. Evans, who also played The Human Torch in the execrable Fantastic Four, is bland. The film newcomer Atwell, as the pretty and feisty Carter, is generic. (If the filmmakers had enticed someone with the range of a Kate Winslet to play Carter, it would have goosed the film tremendously.) Only Hugo Weaving (Proof, The Matrix movies), as the deformed red-skinned Red Skull, brings some gravitas and menace to his part; he’s a memorable Marvel villain, though the comic book version of the Red Skull was more of a die-hard Nazi. And while Johnston's enjoyable CGI laden kid's movies, Jumanji and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, demonstrated his comfort with special effects, Captain America operates on a more epic scale which highlights his deficiencies as a moviemaker. The film's battle sequences are particularly ineffective and slipshod. Incidentally, I saw the 3D version of the movie but as usual with the many Hollywood productions that add this process to the finished film, it brings nothing fresh or innovative to the table.

The chief problem with the picture, I think, is that the Captain America I grew up reading in the tumultuous 1960s was dealing with the dichotomy of being a symbol of an idealized America he believed in with all his heart. It was also set against the troubled backdrop of a country in racial, ideological and political turmoil, which challenged Rogers’ vision of the Star and Stripes. WWII America, however, was on the right side of a moral conflict, thus robbing Captain America – and the film – of the dual identity conflict which so affected him. The best the movie can come up with is having his fellow soldiers not taking him seriously until he gets bloodied in battle. That’s not much of a hook to rivet film-goers. Only the promise of a sequel set in the present, in a polarized post 9/11 America, could bring me back to the series. But truth be told, if a second solo Captain America movie (Evans will appear as his character in the Joss Whedon-directed The Avengers alongside Thor, Hulk, Spider-Man and Iron Man) doesn’t materialize, it won’t be a great disappointment.

Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman in Thor
Fortunately, the movie adaptation of Marvel Comic’s Thor, which came out earlier this summer, is another story. It’s a highly entertaining, clever and exciting film, starring Chris Hemsworth – best known as James T. Kirk’s father in the revamped Star Trek – as the headstrong hammer-wielding Norse God, who is exiled from his home in Asgard, stripped of his powers and banished to Earth when he angers his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), by disobeying his orders. Thor lands in New Mexico, where he bumps up against astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her goofy assistant Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and her boss and mentor, Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård). He also encounters an agent from a fictional Marvel government spy agency called S.H.I.E.L.D. (Clark Gregg), who thinks that there’s something suspicious about the newcomer. Thor also has to deal with his half brother, Loki (Tim Hiddleston, who recently played F. Scott Fitzgerald in Woody Allens’s Midnight in Paris), who may or may not have his best interests at heart.

Though inadvertently echoing the first Superman movie, whereby a non-human adapts to our world and attracts a tough minded, independent woman/romantic interest in the process, Thor, which was written by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne, has more than a few original, unique elements of its own. Hemsworth possesses a sly charm as the bad-boy God and has great chemistry with the usually serious-minded Portman (Black Swan), who aces her atypical role in a comic book movie. The supporting cast also excels, and Shakespearean director Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing) guides the material as sure-footedly as he did his fine adaptations of the best of the Bard. A few scenes seem to be missing from the movie – Thor and Jane’s relationship moves too fast and his acclimatizing to Earth is a little too smooth – and, unusual for a Hollywood movie, the special effects are less than stellar. (Asgard looks like a low-rent version of the Lord of the Rings’ Middle Earth). But those are comparatively minor flaws in a fun-filled adventure. Unlike Captain America, and buoyed by a sneak peek of Thor 2 (2013), which follows after the end credits, this is one continuing superhero franchise I can gladly get behind.

Addendum: Split Personality: X-Men: First Class (Posted September 20, 2011)

James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender in X-Men: First Class

In terms of quality, X-Men: First Class, which was recently released on DVD, falls between Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. It's more entertaining than the latter, but not as smartly put together as the former. More significantly, this re-visit to the franchise about mutants at odds with humanity, in a prequel to the events in the previous three movies, is a highly schizophrenic movie, with two pairs of screenwriters each separately working on the screenplay. It's not surprising, then, that it alternates between being a thoughtful examination of outsiders trying to fit in and an explosives-laden, loud and empty-headed action flick, one where the sound mix drowns out the dialogue. And some of the acting, notably Mad Men's January Jones as a scantily clad, supposedly sexy villain, is pretty bad. She puts almost no inflection into her lines which limits her character's (sex) appeal.

This trend of too many writers working on scripts is becoming de rigueur in Hollywood as the studios attempt to sanitize their movies and thus remove any hint of originality, or guts, or anything that may discomfit the film-goer who wants a safe, predictable time at the movies. In fact, if not for the virtuoso acting of James McAvoy (Atonement) and Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds) as, respectively, Charles Xavier, the X-Men's inspirational but immature leader, and Erik Lensherr, aka Magneto, the Jewish mutant experimented upon by the Nazis and thus understandably bitter and mistrustful of humankind, X-Men: First Class would have mostly been a waste of time. They're well cast as the younger versions of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan -- you can imagine them turning into their future cinematic selves -- and at least for awhile director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) directs them with some sensitivity and tact, but then the special effects kick in and spoil the fun. Fans hoping for a successful re-boot of the X-Men series along the lines of what JJ Abrams did so well with Star Trek in 2009 will be sorely disappointed.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute and in September will be teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also in the fall, he'll be teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto . On Monday August 15 at the Carlton Cinemas at 7pm, Shlomo appears at the Toronto Film Society to introduce The Lost Moment (1947) and Raffles (1930). For details see

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