by Thom Yee
At the heart of the success of the Marvel Studios movies is a sincere desire to respect and honour the characters. While that may seem like an obviously necessary element of any adaptation, one need only look to the poorly translated and unnecessarily altered characters in movies like Fox’s Fantastic Four franchise to see what happens when producers deviate too far from the source material. The reason why so many of our biggest comicbook characters have transcended major societal shifts and uprisings through more than (in Marvel’s case) seventy-five years of existence is that, at their core, they represent a wholehearted commitment and (in the case of the heroes) a dedication to the fundamental good that we all hope is really at the heart of all mankind, even if that good is often hidden or deliberately suppressed.
I’m reminded of this fact as I recently re-watched Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, mostlybecause I was too lazy to turn over and change the channel, but also a little bit because that Human Torch-Silver Surfer chase is, admittedly, pretty sweet. When you watch that movie, even if you disagree with the creative choices made (i.e., Galactus = big, indistinct cloud monster), what lies at the heart of most fans’ discontent is the portrayal of our favourite characters. When I see Ioan Gruffudd’s Reed Richards, I see a flat, lifeless and entirely forgettable rendition of the character. When I see Jessica Alba’s Sue Storm, mostly I see highly unnatural bleaching, and then shortly after an actress who’s almost screaming to be somewhere else. And while most don’t have any major problems with Michael Chiklis’ Thing or Chris Evans’ Human Torch, the movies makes narrative leaps, ignoring key character developments by immediately thrusting the two into a relationship of good-natured antagonism (the two barely know each other in the first movie) that ignores much of the inherent horror of being mutated into a rock monster (to say nothing of how much they undermined that theme by finding a way for the Thing to turn back into human form so early and so easily in the franchise’s mythology).
Without trying to make this into a piece on recasting the Fantastic Four (and without trying to ignore Captain America), two of the more popular fan casting choices for Reed and Sue are George Clooney and Rachel McAdams. Just imagine how much more integrity and gravitas the two could bring to the roles (Batman & Robin and Monuments Men notwithstanding), and while you’re doing that, just imagine how much more story integrity the producers may have then felt was necessary to match their cast. While Captain America: The First Avenger may have made some cosmetic changes to its back story (e.g., not overtly featuring Nazis, making the Red Skull a super-soldier), none of those changes fundamentally altered the characters or did anything that wasn’t already done in the comics, most likely because the Marvel Studios producers, by the nature of the studio they’re working under, stick much closer to the source material and find inspiration from the works of the original comicbook writers. The Marvel Studios approach represents the difference between leading with story rather than leading with the obligation to make a movie based on the intellectual properties your studio has the rights to before those rights lapse. When you change the character too much (i.e., making Dr. Doom some metal-energy monster who was also on the FF’s first trip into space), you risk not only losing fans, but any real reason why that character first gained traction. Compare that to watching the first Iron Man and forever remembering core characters like Tony Stark and Pepper Potts, and core concepts like arc reactors; watching Thor and forever feeling core character conceits like nobility, godhood, and arrogance; or watching Captain America and forever linking the character with hope, dedication, and self-sacrifice. It’s the strength of the characters’ core concepts and a dedication to those core concepts that has carried the Marvel Studios brand so strongly in such a short time, and it’s also the reason why most fans have no problem with Chris Evans’ Cap, even if he was the Human Torch first.
(And so you see that maybe there was a reason why I started by going off on the Fantastic Four movies).
An Axis of evil has risen! The rise of Zee German National Socialists has led to the second great war of our times and now that America’s joined, Uncle Sam wants you! Well, not you, pale and sickly Steve Rogers, noble in spirit and only wanting to help though you may be. But maybe… maybe there’s a chance you can help. You see, Dr. Erskine, German scientist and defector, has developed a process to turn a man… into a greater man. You could be the first American super-soldier, one of an army of men specifically designed to save us all! But if Erskine, is assassinated soon after you, our first and only successful subject, are able to receive the treatment, you will instead become more than just a man. You will become a symbol — the Sentinel of Liberty, Living Legend of World War II, Captain America (!), only to fall into suspended animation after many storied adventures and be revived half a century later into a world you barely recognize. Was it worth it? Is this… is this what you were fighting for?
Of all of Marvel Studios’ heroes, Captain America was probably the one I most worried about in terms of a movie adaptation. Y’know what was one of the first things I heard about Captain America when I mentioned the movie? “I hate that guy.” And I’m pretty sure that wasn’t a response to the way Marvel kicked writer Mark Waid off the title only to relaunch it under the reviled Rob Liefeld in the late ‘90s (there’s a bit of scholarly comicbook knowledge for ya). Especially for those who’ve grown up without reading comicbooks, it’s hard to separate the character of Steve Rogers from the ideological, propagandistic image he represents as Captain America. While it’s only natural to somewhat ignore if not entirely dismiss such a symbolic figure (hell, I don’t know anything about Captain Canuck — and I’m not even going to bother reading anything from the wiki I just linked to), to do so is a disservice to the many fine writers who’ve contributed to his seventy years (and counting) story. It’s hard to ignore the polarizing effect the character’s name and appearance has, and he’s still the only Marvel Studios hero whose movie used a subtitle meant to associate the character more with the broader franchise (The First Avenger) than his country of origin. Most everything you need to know about Captain America is found pretty early on in the movie. An unusually small, malnourished and almost sickly young man who wants nothing more than to do what he sees as his part in the war, Steve Rogers is singled out by Dr. Abraham Erskine for his super-soldier treatment. Early on, we get three defining moments:
- Steve, standing up to a bully in the movie theatre even though nobody is standing with him; as he later tells Dr. Erskine about why he wants to join the war: “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.”;
- Steve capturing the flag (and the prize) after everyone else failed to climb the pole by undoing the pole and dropping the flag to the ground; and
- Steve throwing himself over what he assumes is a live grenade to save everyone else.
These are the scenes that show you the measure of the man inside the super-soldier, and, within the confines of the type of movie this is, I don’t think there’s anything corny about them at all.
And that’s really the thing about Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s a straight-up superhero fantasy, inspired by and, in many ways, directly reminiscent of classic adventure stories. In attitude, it’s perhaps the least realistic of the Marvel movies, and it really takes its World War II setting seriously as the place and time of our greatest generation. In many ways, some of them fairly obvious, it’s easy (and perhaps proper) to think of the film as in the same mould as a classic Indiana Jones adventure (i.e., not the fourth one). Cap occassionally even has the same sort of humour about it, such as when the cameraman zeroed in on the picture of Peggy in Cap’s compass during the film reel or the guy being minced to death by airplane rotor.
Of all of the Marvel movies, Captain America is a bit of an oddity in that it’s not generally remembered for its varied cast of characters. All of the casting choices are strong, especially Toby Jones as Arnim Zola, Neal McDonough as “Dum Dum” Dugan, and Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark (even though he looks nothing like John Slattery). Hugo Weaving in particular is an entirely canny choice for the Red Skull, but there’s still something off, something missing. Perhaps the shadow of Agent Smith continues to loom large, but there’s just something forgettable about his Red Skull even though, when you break it down, he does a great job on every level. He’s strong, menacing, and brings just the right amount of Nazi weirdness, but he’s still not likely to be a topic of conversation coming out of the film. Or maybe the Red Skull just isn’t that great a villain. Originally conceived as almost a Nazi mascot, built into a symbol of the regime by Hitler out of a lowly bell hop (though this isn’t covered in the movie), it’s hard to imagine any National Socialist, no matter how hysterical, to look at the Red Skull and conclude that their side is the right one rather than the evil one. The same goes for Tommy Lee Jones’ Col. Phillips. Normally an actor with top billing, Jones brings everything he needs to the table (I could watch that man eat steak all day; he really eats it like an actor) as Cap’s initial antagonist and then ardent supporter. And yet sometimes it’s hard to even remember he was even in it. Stanley Tucci, who I love in just about everything he does, leaves a strong impression as Dr. Erskine. Though Steve Rogers may have already been nearly the hero we needed, Erskine provides more than just his serum in making Captain America.
Ultimately, I would put most of this forgettable casting down to the fact that everyone’s a little overshadowed by the shape that Chris Evans got himself in for the part. I think everyone remembers the first time Cap emerges from that chamber and Peggy Carter instinctively reaches out to touch him before collecting herself. We all wanted to do that.
When you break it down, there’s a lot of things The First Avenger needs to cover, moreso than most Marvel movies. Beyond the base origin, heroes, villains and its own adventure, it really sets up a lot of what’s to chronologically follow, from the original threat of HYDRA, the beginnings of S.H.I.E.L.D., links to Iron Man and Thor, the tesseract that would be at the centre of the following summer’s Avengers, and enough groundwork to put Cap into modern times and the leader of the Avengers. It’s to director Joe Johnston’s credit that the film never really feels compressed, each scene allowed to breathe and find its meaning within the overall story. In this way, I actually compare the film favourably to the better episodes of The Simpsons, which moved with such economy and told such complete stories that you never noticed how little time was afforded to the individual scenes. On the other hand, two out of every five of my thoughts usually have something to do with The Simpsons, so there’s also that.
Having said all of this, I have two arguments against the film. First, we never get a strong sense of how long Cap was in the war, and I feel like something as simple as a progressing calendar graphic would’ve given the impression that he’d been fighting for months or years rather than weeks. Second, and far more importantly, I never quite bought the Cap/Bucky relationship. Especially with how that relationship continues in The Winter Soldier (review for that’ll be up next week), it’s something I wish they had established just a little more strongly. From the early scenes, we can surmise that the two grew up together as friends, but from what’s on screen, I never get the impression that they were the best of friends. It’s almost like we drop into their relationship too late, and even though we can conclude that the way Bucky leaves Steve for the girls is probably just Bucky understanding how Steve is (no matter how many girls he may try to fix Steve up with), but what we see seems more like two guys from the old neighbourhood rather than two guys who would do anything for each other. Still, I did feel sad watching him fall to his seeming death (even though we know how that turned out).
Of the Marvel Studios movies, Captain America is the most straight-up and unapologetically super-hero-y of the lot. It’s the first I would show to a child without any reservations, and, in a lot of ways, it’s the one I would hope that that child gets teh most from. It’s ridiculously, impossibly good and heroic to the core, and it’s the type of story that has the ability to have a profound affect if seen early enough. There’s a part of me that wonders if I wouldn’t be a fundamentally more selfish and less hopeful person if I hadn’t grown up reading about superheroes, and that same part of me hopes that that’s a large part of what today’s kids are picking up on when they go to these movies.
Captain America: The First Avenger final score: 8.5
On the Edge
–Doctor Who‘s Jenna Louise Coleman in a bit part!
-I love how much better Cap’s hair also gets after the super-soldier treatment.
-That’s a good idea, sneaking into a Nazi base to save Bucky with a giant American flag shield on your back. That’s not conspicuous or easy to spot in stealthy situations.
-The Wolf of Wall Street’s Kenneth Choi!
-I like how they spelled valour with a ‘u’ because they’re in Europe.
-Game of Thrones’ Margaery Tyrell and general friend of nudity, Natalie Dormer!
-Milk? With steak? Why not a nice German beer? No wonder Zola didn’t want to cooperate.
-Man, could those barriers outside HYDRA HQ have been more made for riding over by a superhero on a motorcycle?
-Unbelievable that the Skull could fly such a complex bomber plane largely by himself or just efficient German engineering?
-Next Week: Captain America: The Winter Soldier review