Monday, August 08, 2011

Heart of a hero

I'll come right out and say it: Captain America: The First Avenger is my favorite of all the Avengers movies. Iron Man rocked, Thor kicked ass, but Captain America blew me away. In my opinion, it's the most well-rounded and well-made of the trio (I'm not counting Iron Man 2), and as much as the film critic-wannabe in me tried to find fault with it, I just found myself simply enjoying it.

And maybe it's precisely because in spite of the summer blockbuster treatment and all the Avengers hype, Captain America is at the core a simple movie-- and very much in a positive way. There's a wonderfully old-school feel to it, not only because it's set in the 40s, not only thanks to the gorgeous almost-sepia tones of the cinematography, but more vitally due to the smooth, straightforward storytelling. Scrappy, scrawny kid transforms into super soldier, socks it to the bad guys, and gets the girl-- who doesn't love a good ol' underdog tale (pun not intended)?
This is the rare comic book film adaptation that doesn't use CGI and special effects as a crutch or diversionary tactic; in fact it's remarkably easy to overlook or even ignore the visual bells and whistles because the story by itself is so engaging.

Even the romantic angle of the plot is developed in a natural, non-cheesy manner. It helps that the character of Steve Rogers is so gosh-darn likeable, and it's easy to believe that any girl could fall for him... once he gets incredible pecs and abs. But of course the whole point is that it's what's inside that ripped bod that matters most, and Rogers' earnest determination, patriotism, and courage are conveyed surprisingly well by Chris Evans. I say "surprisingly" because before this, I strongly associated him with his role as the annoyingly smarmy Human Torch from the Fantastic Four films. As Captain America, Evans is subtle, sympathetic, and sincere-- quite different from Robert Downey Jr.'s wry Tony Stark and Chris Hemsworth's intense Thor (and the contrast bodes well for the upcoming Avengers movie).

But it's in the scenes where Evans plays the still-skinny, sickly Steve Rogers that he truly shines. Without spoiling anything for anyone who hasn't watched Captain America yet (although I saw it late enough as it is), I can say the best moment of the entire movie for me was the grenade scene, where Rogers is at boot camp under the command of gruff Col. Philips (Tommy Lee Jones). The scene is uncomplicated but smart, funny yet serious, and truly touching, all at the same time. It's brilliant, and exemplifies the spirit of not only the eponymous protagonist, but also the entire movie.

And may I just say how nice it is to see Tommy Lee Jones in action again? I've always thought of him as the quintessential supporting actor since The Fugitive, and in Captain America he is a welcome presence as the sarcastic, no-nonsense authority figure that is his bread and butter. Another talented actor tackling a tailor-made role is Hugo Weaving, as the villain Red Skull a.k.a. Johann Schmidt. It's hard to picture anyone else playing (and looking) the part as perfectly as he does. Props too to the ever-reliable Stanley Tucci for bringing a gentle humor and humanity to Dr. Erskine, who is instrumental in transforming Rogers into Cap. I loved Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, looking every inch like Tony's dad, mustache and all, but I did expect more witty one-liners as befitting a Stark. But of all the supporting players, I was most impressed with leading lady Hayley Atwell. She was the pleasant surprise of the movie for me (second to Evans). As Peggy Carter, she treads the fine line between femme fatale and eye candy with the right amount of grace and self-awareness, and as a result I had no trouble swallowing the idea that someone who looks like a pin-up girl could be a strong, capable army officer (whereas I still snicker at the notion of Blake Lively flying a fighter plane and running an aeronautics corporation).

Captain America delivers on all fronts: casting, acting, cinematography, screenplay, special effects, costumes, props (how awesome does Cap's shield look with those realistic scratches on the surface?) and set design are all excellent. It's an entertaining movie, a solid "origins" film, and a respectable comic book adaptation. Above all, like its hero, Captain America has a whole lot of heart. And ultimately, that's what what makes a story-- and a hero-- simply super.


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