Friday, July 22, 2011

Review: Let’s Hear It for ‘Captain America’

A year ago Big Hollywood's John Nolte expressed his “predictable heartbreak,” and I did likewise, over disappointing interview comments by Captain America: The First Avenger director Joe Johnston. They seemed desperately designed to reassure his patriotism-hating peers in Hollywood that his superhero “wants to serve his country, but he’s not this sort of jingoistic American flag-waver. He’s just a good person.”

As recently as last week, the film’s star Chris Evans chimed in with more apologies about his intrinsically patriotic character. “He might wear the red, white and blue, but I don’t think this is all about America. It is what America stands for. It could be called ‘Captain Good.’” You read that right. Captain Good.

The Los Angeles Times echoed the hand-wringing that a film with “America” in the title and a protagonist swathed in red, white, and blue might not be groveling enough to suit their leftist self-loathing:

Of course, setting ‘Captain America’ in the storied past [WWII] helps avoid some of the more charged political questions that accompany releasing a patriotically themed production around the world at a time when the U.S. is perceived in certain places as somewhat less than heroic.

As I settled in my seat last Tuesday at the world premiere of Captain America (next to my esteemed Big Hollywood colleague Alex Marlow, who posted his own review yesterday), my expectation – based on all the pre-emptive apologies from the filmmakers and critics – was that I was about to witness Hollywood’s ruination of the most iconic of American comic book heroes.

I’m not a fanboy steeped enough in the Marvel mythology to judge whether or not Captain America betrays the comic-book purists in the audience, so I’ll leave that aspect to other reviewers. My only interest was in answering what Big Hollywood readers’ inquiring minds want to know: Is Captain America a stirring action flick or a dud? Can conservatives enjoy it without reservation, or is it spring-loaded with the usual anti-American sucker punches we document so often on this site?

Chris Evans plays Steve Rogers, a 90-lb. asthmatic whose 4F physical status prevents him from fulfilling his driving desire to help combat the Nazi menace. “There are men laying down their lives. I can’t do any less,” says the selfless, determined son of a dead war hero. Then a defected German scientist (Stanley Tucci) selects Rogers for an experimental serum that transforms him into an insanely buff secret weapon – but the powers that be don’t quite know what to do with him. So Rogers ends up instead in tights as “the Star-Spangled Man” on a humiliating USO tour at home and abroad, peddling war bonds.

After he proves his mettle by seizing the opportunity to rescue hundreds of American POWs, he’s suited up in a battle-ready version of his USO outfit with an impenetrable Star-Spangled shield. He sets forth to confront the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a Nazi megalomaniac with even bigger ambitions than Hitler, and who has acquired a mysterious power that threatens to lay waste to American cities. Big action ensues.

Enough synopsis, you say – does the film get a thumbs-up or not? I think this dismissive description from The Hollywood Reporter unwittingly says it best:

Sticking to its simplistic, patriotic origins, where a muscular red, white and blue GI slugging Adolf Hitler in the jaw is all that’s required, Captain America trafficks in red-blooded heroes, dastardly villains, classy dames and war-weary military officers.

Indeed it does. And hooray for that.  As I alluded to above, perhaps Johnston's and Evans' apologetic comments were intended to deflect the scorn of their peers; in any case, the end result is a straightforward tale of heroes, villains, and dames that is action-packed, fun, visually stylish, and about as patriotic as Hollywood is currently capable of.

And I believe that's what accounts for the tepid response of some critics thus far. Some, for example, are complaining that Evans doesn’t deliver, or is incapable of, a multi-layered performance. But he more than convincingly handles what the material requires – a square-jawed, unconflicted hero, and that is precisely what irks reviewers like the one at The Hollywood Reporter, who complains that “there is no ambiguity here. Nor does any superhero question his powers.”

Though they certainly don’t think of it this way, the Left loves to see the world entirely in shades of gray because it justifies their moral relativism. They use condescending coded language like “simplistic” or “not nuanced” or “no ambiguity” when confronted with the more conservative world view of moral standards. In an article I wish I’d written, Big Hollywood’s John Nolte really gets it right about the Left’s sneering resentment toward “simplistic” values like patriotism and bravery:

What the Left despises about themes that lift the human spirit is that they’re more often than not, conservative themes — themes of self-sacrifice, selflessness, fidelity, manhood, bravery, and nobility.

Exactly. And all those qualities are not only present in Captain America, they’re celebrated. And that rubs left-leaning reviewers the wrong way. THR and their ilk may prefer their protagonists to be more “complex,” by which they mean morally murky, nihilistic anti-heroes, but I think it’s refreshing to see an heroic lead who isn’t riddled with moral self-doubt or reluctant to wield his power for Good against unambiguous Evil.

And yet the point is that Rogers is no superhero. “What makes you so special?” the Red Skull wonders about his unflinching adversary. “Nothing,” Cap replies. “I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.” In other words, I’m just an ordinary American – we’re all like this, or at least all capable of this. And indeed, Cap’s not the only hero here. Every American soldier in the film – and yes, as Marlow notes, they come in all colors – is a rip-roaring, hard-drinking, Nazi-ass-kicking hero in his own right. One of the most stirring moments in the film comes when Captain America comes over the horizon leading 400 escaped American POWs, all of whom fought their way out alongside Cap, every one of them marching back to camp with head held high and ready to go back into action. There may not be any flags visible in that scene, but it speaks volumes about American soldiers and the undeniable, indomitable American spirit.

My Big Hollywood teammate Alex Marlow felt that the filmmakers injected mini-sucker punches that subvert any patriotism or belief in American exceptionalism. For example, he writes that the line that best sums up the movie comes when Tucci’s character asks Steve Rogers, “Do you want to kill Nazis?” And Rogers replies, “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies.” But standing up to bullies, Marlow writes, is not a specifically American characteristic.

I must disagree. What other country in the world has always been counted on to stand up to bullies? China? Paraguay? Denmark? Zimbabwe? What has been the hallmark of American history, internationally speaking, from our very inception if not standing up to bullies? I think there is a different line that best sums up the movie, one that greatly surprised me in light of director Johnston’s previous assurances that Cap’s not a flag-waver. It comes when Cap and his nemesis are facing off, and the Red Skull says, “I have seen the future – there are no flags.” “Not in my future,” Cap retorts.

Why have that exchange of dialogue if not to assert Captain America’s pride in and devotion to the Stars and Stripes? Cap may not run around waving an American flag, but there’s no escaping the red, white and blue of his shield, a symbol crucial to Cap’s very identity, and essentially his sole weapon apart from his fists. Every time he uses that shield to ward off bullets or flame, every time he slams or slices an enemy with it, it’s an unmistakable reminder that he’s wielding American power in the service of Good against Evil.

The supporting cast is almost uniformly strong. Weaving, perhaps best known as the eerie and relentless Agent Smith in The Matrix, is charismatic – and yes, as uncomplicated as Rogers – as the evil visionary with an accent that hisses like a snake. Voluptuous British actress Haley Atwell is ideally cast as Rogers’ romantic interest Peggy Carter for this period piece; a strong ‘40s-style dame, she’s equally comfortable busting a loudmouth soldier’s jaw and busting out of a show-stopping red dress. Tommy Lee Jones hits perfect comic notes as the grizzled warrior who doesn’t want to give the scrawny Steve Rogers a chance or Peggy Carter a break.

The costuming and set design are simultaneously retro and futuristic, which works more often than not, particularly in the military design of Cap’s uniform.

Not that the film doesn’t have problems. Evans’ hair stays impossibly un-mussed. The normally fine actor Stanley Tucci is unconvincing as both a scientist and a German – his accent is embarrassing compared to Weaving’s. The shift from the WWII era into contemporary times broke the spell for me. And tragically, Atwell’s red dress is featured in only one scene.

If you’re looking for nuance and a protagonist with an agonized dark side, there are other choices out there. But if you want to enjoy a rousing, fast-paced movie that features some exciting action, red-blooded American heroes, dastardly villains, classy dames and war-weary military officers, then, to quote Steve Rogers’ best friend Bucky, “Let’s hear it for Captain America!”

(This article originally appeared at Big Hollywood here)