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Marvel Movies Project: Captain America: The First Avenger

Movie poster for Captain America (2011).

Despite having the word “first” in its subtitle, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) is actually the last of the pre-Avengers setup movies. Captain America is the first Avenger chronologically speaking — although really, having been worshipped by the Vikings, Thor predates pretty much everyone — but he’s the last member of this Avengers team we’ll meet on screen.

Most of the events of this movie take place in the 1940s just after the United States’ entry into World War II. We meet the weakling Steve Rogers, who wanted nothing more than to serve his country but couldn’t because his small body betrayed him. (The puny Chris Evans special effects are amazing! How’d they do that? Here’s how.) Rogers’ determination to join the service catches the attention of Dr. Erskine, a scientist who’s working on a top secret super soldier serum project. Steve becomes the pilot subject for Erskine’s experiment and emerges from it with superhuman powers, which he immediately puts to good use chasing down an assassin who’s been sent in by the Germans to take out Dr. Erskine. This is one of the most entertaining discovery-of-powers sequences in the Marvel movieverse, almost up there with the first Spider-Man movie.

Denied the chance to go into active battle after Dr. Erskine’s death, Steve, in his new identity as Captain America, becomes a sort of mascot for the military. He travels around selling bonds and performing in a live stage show in which he punches out an actor playing Hitler — a reference to the cover of the very first Captain America comic book from 1941. Captain America Comics #1 came out about a year before Pearl Harbor, when many Americans were still opposed to the idea of entering the war. Joe Simon has said he and Jack Kirby conceived of Cap partly as a political statement regarding their feelings on the subject. (Michael Chabon draws on this story for inspiration in his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which is worth reading whether or not you’re a comic book fan — it’s a brilliant book.)

I really like that they decided to go the WWII flashback route and show Cap’s origins. This is a compelling story and it’s used to full effect in the film to show us everything that makes Steve such a special guy. Thor started out powerful and had to learn humility before he could become truly heroic; Steve Rogers earns his power by being noble almost to a fault. As Dr. Erskine tells Steve in the movie, he’s “not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”

The “goodness” which is Captain America’s most outstanding quality makes him one of Marvel’s most appealing characters, in my opinion, but also one of the most difficult to portray. It’s just a fact that in fiction, the evil/morally grey characters are often more interesting than the pillars of virtue. Look no further than X-Men: First Class for an example: Magneto blows everyone else out of the water. You can get around this “good = boring” problem by giving your shining hero a good enough problem to deal with. In Cap’s case, sometimes his solid character and strong principles become his problem; for example, Marvel’s Civil War storyline saw his belief in civil liberties lead him to take such a strong stand against the Superhuman Registration Act that he ended up in jail (and also dead, sort of). This is all fitting when you consider the character’s origin as Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s statement against American hesitance to get involved in Europe’s problems. In the case of Captain America: The First Avenger, Cap’s problem is his desire to prove himself in an actual combat situation and to eliminate Dr. Erskine’s big mistake, the Red Skull. (By the end of the movie, his problem will be overcoming the effects of his 70-year nap … but that’s a topic for another film.)

Chris Evans, back in the Marvel Universe post-Fantastic Four, is excellent as Steve Rogers. I’m not sure how he manages to be so good as both the egotistical playboy Johnny Storm and the unfailingly polite and noble Captain America. Maybe he’s just likable. Whatever it is, I’m glad they found him for this role; I had a lot of trouble imagining who on earth could convincingly play Cap.

The rest of the cast is also great: Colonel Phillips is an ideal Tommy Lee Jones role, and the Red Skull is an ideal Hugo Weaving role. I like Hayley Atwell and I think she’s very good as Peggy Carter. It makes me a little sad that there’s only one female character in this whole movie, but I can forgive it due to the World War II setting. Plus, Peggy is quite a solid character: she’s very competent at her job and her relationship with Steve is appealing.

The other thing I like a lot about this movie is the visual style, particularly the muted colours. It reminds me a little of the Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting run on the Captain America comics, which I really enjoyed. Brubaker and Epting get a special thanks in the movie’s credits, so perhaps the filmmakers did indeed have their work in mind. Probably: the sequel to this film is called Captain America: The Winter Soldier; that title comes from a storyline in the Brubaker-Epting comics in which Bucky, thought dead in the comics and in this movie, returns as an assassin called the Winter Soldier, having been brainwashed by the Soviets. So that’s something to look forward to.

Another thing to look forward to: Cap becoming a Capsicle and then being brought back to life by SHIELD is the final piece of the Avengers puzzle. The other major piece revealed in this film is the Cosmic Cube, aka the Tesseract, which becomes the central MacGuffin in The Avengers. The post-credits scene for this film is actually a shortened scene from The Avengers, and it’s followed by a sort of mini-trailer for the movie all this has been leading up to.

But before we get to that, there’s still Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance to get through.

From Amour to Zero Dark Thirty: Oscars 2012

Oscar time is upon us once again and this year I’ve actually managed to see all the nominees in the major categories before the show. This may be a first for me! Here’s a quick rundown of some of my thoughts.

Best Picture

This is a pretty solid year for Best Picture nominees! Normally, there’s at least one movie on the list I can’t stand; this year, all nine are a-okay. I wasn’t crazy about Life of Pi but I didn’t think it was terrible or anything. My personal favourite is probably Les Misérables; however, I don’t think it’s the best of the nine. I just happen to love it despite its flaws. The cream of the crop, in my opinion, is Argo, which is a massively entertaining film that is both a funny Hollywood parody and a nailbiting action thriller. Argo looks like the frontrunner right now and I’m hoping it’ll continue its streak on Sunday night. Zero Dark Thirty, with its subtle non-commentary on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, is my second choice. The most impressive thing about this film is that it neither praises nor condemns those involved. Even the end result, the killing of Bin Laden, is not seen as a good thing or a bad thing. It just is.

I’ve been posting reviews of every movie I see over at Letterboxd since the beginning of 2012. Here are links to my reviews of the Best Picture nominees, in case you’re interested: Amour | Argo | Beasts of the Southern Wild | Django Unchained | Les Misérables | Life of Pi | Lincoln | Silver Linings Playbook | Zero Dark Thirty

Best Director

I’m guessing Steven Spielberg will take this, and I can’t complain about that. I thought he made a few strange choices in Lincoln, but overall I liked his quiet, low key handling of the dialogue-heavy script. No matter who wins, though, the story in this category is that Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow weren’t nominated for their outstanding work on Argo and Zero Dark Thirty respectively. These are both shocking omissions, especially given that Affleck won the Directors Guild award. The guild of directors thinks he’s the best director! AMPAS fail.

Best Actor

As soon as I heard Daniel Day-Lewis would be playing Abraham Lincoln in a film directed by Steven Spielberg, I assumed he would win an Oscar for it. This doesn’t come as a huge shock. But if he does win, which he no doubt will, he will absolutely deserve it. I don’t think any of the other nominees even comes close. It’s unfortunate that Jean-Louis Trintignant from Amour was passed over, however. He was excellent.

Best Actress

This is an interesting category. It’s the one that seemed most up in the air until the nominations were announced and I still find a couple of the inclusions a little odd. Naomi Watts is solid in The Impossible, but she’s out of action for a large part of the movie and I’m not sure how she managed to be included here. Little Quvenzhané Wallis was the sparkplug that made Beasts of the Southern Wild run, but you just know she has no chance of winning. Emmanuelle Riva is excellent in Amour, no question, but I thought she was more of a supporting character to Trintignant’s lead. It seems likely that Jennifer Lawrence will win this. I like her and I very much enjoyed her performance in Silver Linings Playbook. Jessica Chastain would also be a worthy winner for Zero Dark Thirty.

Best Supporting Actor

Five nominees, all previous Oscar winners — this is a solid category. I’m hoping Tommy Lee Jones will win for Lincoln because he was one of the best things about the film. I wish there could have been more than five nominees, though, because there are some excellent performances I feel were overlooked:

  • Ewan McGregor in The Impossible. Somehow, Naomi Watts is getting all the attention for this film, but McGregor is the one who provides its best, most moving moment: his heartbreaking, emotional phonecall home to England.
  • Christopher Walken in Seven Psychopaths. A great actor playing a great character with a lot of depth.
  • Leonardo DiCaprio and/or Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained. It might be a bit much to nominate every actor from Django, but these two would both have deserved it. I was saying all through 2012 that this would finally be Leo’s year because he was playing against type. Okay, so I was wrong about him winning the Oscar, but I wasn’t wrong about his performance. Jackson is also phenomenal and adds a lot of punch to a movie that at times lacks it.

Best Supporting Actress

Anne Hathaway is up against, uh, some other people … ? Really, though, this category is puzzling to me. Jacki Weaver was alright in Silver Linings Playbook, I guess, but she didn’t exactly have much to do. Helen Hunt has the nudity nomination. Amy Adams is very good in The Master, but I felt her character could have been more developed. I hated Sally Field’s performance in Lincoln, but I accept that no one else feels that way.

Anyway, Hathaway is good enough that I think she would win against much better competition, but I can’t help feeling the relative weakness of the two actress categories demonstrates the lack of solid roles for women. And that makes me sad.