Great Debate #3: Does Captain America: The First Avenger Suck?
With The Winter Soldier right around the corner, I take a look back at Captain America: The First Avenger and ask myself if this movie really does suck-ass. When seeing this movie, I was already a comic book and superhero fan, so I was going to enjoy some parts of it, there’s no doubt about that, but I’m not sure if the casual viewer gave this movie a chance compared to the beloved Iron Man franchise. Looking at the Marvel movies in general, I’m not sure which is the worst of the bunch, Thor the Original Snore, Iron Man 2: Stupidity Boogaloo, or this movie. Maybe I’m being too harsh, but the weaknesses stick out like a sore thumb. Maybe some people disagree.
I think this movie was envisioned the moment Marvel came up with their “movie universe” idea, where each of the main features would march their way across the yellow-brick road until they got to The Avengers. It is good planning, but leaves some of the features unsupported, existing only to bring us The Avengers. That’s what this movie’s one big problem is. Hell, the subtitle is The First Avenger for God’s sake.
The movie doesn’t follow the typical action movie formula. Or any formula for that matter. It doesn’t start with a big action set piece as in Star Wars and it certainly doesn’t end with a bang. Most of the characters are underdeveloped and some of the effects need help. Most of the movie is carried by Chris Evans, but even that isn’t saying much.
Stan Lee quite possibly gave Captain America the best shoe-in to modern day comics ever, ushering him in as a man-out-of-time, an untarnished patriot, and a genuine, unabashed hero. Captain America did have comics published during the 1940s, but war comics fell out of favor and Cap was sent off to limbo when his series was cancelled in 1954. This all changed in The Avengers #4, when the heroes unearthed Steve Rogers from ice, just as in the movie. Stan Lee had to invent, or rather, re-invent, a reason for this and it was perfect. In effect, they defrausted Cap and The Avengers were off. Not so, in this movie.
This movie is all backstory. The First Avenger glosses over what happened in The Avengers #4, the discovery of Steve Rogers in ice, in the first five minutes. They don’t deal with the man-out-of-time or his feelings or any of his confusion with the new world at all. Well, maybe at the end, but not much. That’s where the story is folks. They could have done so much with a classic 1940s guy stuck in the modern day, but instead, they spend the whole movie telling us the World War II history of Captain America. Why? The Avengers, of course.
The opener to The First Avenger does have its charm though. Seeing the Captain America shield in ice was so much of a fanboy moment that the ice scene was fine by me, mainly because of the length. But then they had to flashback to the 1940s.
I guess some backstory is necessary to understand who Steve Rogers is, how good his character is, and just why he became a hero. And we get that somewhat, but when the movie flashes back for the first time, we are introduced to some creepy Indiana Jones music as Hydra steals the cosmic cube, the Tesseract, which we learn, was the jewel of Odin’s treasure room. How it got into a monastary in Europe is not important, I guess, because the Tesseract is the macguffin central to The Avengers. That’s right, we don’t start with Steve Rogers in his own movie because building to The Avengers is more important.
We finally get to the backstory of Steve Rogers and Bucky ten minutes in, but they parade around the important elements. The important part of the origin story is that Steve fails to enlist, becomes part of a great experiment, and fights the war overseas as Captain America with his pals. Anyway, that’s all the backstory there is. And there certainly isn’t any Howard Stark in the original origin, but we have to shoe in more Avengers and Iron Man nostaglia, so they’re tacked on. We don’t get real details about the squad, his buddies, or even Bucky, beyond his importance as Steve’s best bud. We get a couple of personality moments, but there’s no true emotional discussions.
The best part of the first part of the movie is the experiment scene and Dr. Erskine. I think they cast a great actor to play Abraham Erskine, the scientist in charge of the supersoldier program that creates Captain America. He is played by Stanley Tucci. He is not German. He was born in New York, but has this look about him that makes it work and the German accent is believable. The special effects are also spot-on during this part of the movie and I actually might have believed Chris Evans was a small guy. The effects are great, unlike some of the CGI in later battle sequences.
A strong man, who has known power all his life, may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength. And knows compassion.
–Dr. Abraham Erskine
We also get introduced to another scientist loyal to Hydra in Arnim Zola, though I think the best scene for this character was with Tommy Lee Jones at the end of the movie. We didn’t really need much time with Zola or even any mention of him, but I can tell that the filmmakers are comic fans, so we get a reluctant evil scientist being reluctantly evil or something.
Speaking of Tommy Lee Jones,I’m not sure about his character and the ham-fisted attempt at comedy. They don’t show Steve Rogers and his anguish, his troubles, or his desire to be a well-respected soldier, instead they try their best to show how weak he is and how funny that must be. Yeah, hilarious.
Though I like Jones’ dialogue and his delivery, so there is that. I think he could have gone way over the top with jokes at Steve Rogers’ expense, but he treads that thin line and I was okay with it at the time. It wears on you though and there are other moments in the movie much better than that.
Even after Steve Rogers becomes Captain America, he is still not put into the war. This is a great part in the movie. I had never considered how a symbol like Captain America, complete in tights, might be used by the government. He and Agent Carter have some good moments and she reminds him that he is still the same person, despite the muscles. The rest of the action sequences are okay, but are quick and some don’t look very good, like when Cap jumps off an exploding tank. Also, the enemies are nameless, faceless, and the movie is more comic book like by the minute.
The action at the end is most definitely black-and-white comic strip fodder. Captain America is facing off against The Red Skull, who monologes into next week, and that is definitely comic book inspired, although fairly bad in this context. The Red Skull is a two-dimensional villain, there’s no getting around that. That’s purposeful in this movie and why he was created. To be a nazi super-dictator, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I’m not sure I’d want to see anything but good versus evil at this point. I want to see Captain America facing off against the Red Skull, and that’s what we got, so I guess I shouldn’t complain. I just wish it wasn’t so formulaic: hero gets captured, conveniently not killed, then villain monologues, the hero gets an advantage and the villain eventually escapes. Repeat ad naseaum for heroic, comic book filmmaking.
The ending of the film is also fairly weak and silly. Captain America punches more faceless, nameless men and forces his way on board a plane bound for the USA with bombs designated for US cities. He knows this because the targets are written on the side of the bombs in English, for some reason. The Red Skull then melts when he touches the Tesseract, for some reason. Captain America then ditches the plane in the ocean, for some reason. Everybody weeps. For some reason.
Then after two hours of backstory, we get a five minute man-out-of-time scene and it ends. That’s it. He’s in the present now and we have no idea how he feels about it, other than he misses his girlfriend. I guess that’s what the sequel is for, but I’m guessing they’ll skip right over that to get to the action, though you never know, the sequel could go a little deeper than what I am imagining. I hope so.
All in all, I would say Captain America: The First Avenger does not suck, but it’s definitely not that good. It is an average movie, with comic book action, comic book dialogue, and is a glorified two-hour advertisement for The Avengers in some parts. The villain is two-dimensional, as are Cap’s pals, and most of the emotion seems a little forced or too scripted. Chris Pine is the standout here, but I think Sebastian Stan held his scenes just as well. There needed to be more Stan in this movie, maybe instead of scenes with the relucant, evil Doctor Zola doing evil reluctantly. I should also note that Stanley Tucci brings a presence and a professionalism to the film that really makes the beginning of the film worthwhile, as opposed to the end. I think if they split the movie into one-half backstory and one-half modern man-out-of-time realization, it may have worked to give me those Avengers #4 moments I wanted, but then it may have been too long. In the end, I can see that Marvel movies have come a long way in developing films, so there’s hope that the sequel could be even better than the original.