This week’s HomeVideodrome podcast finds us debating the pronunciation of the last name of John Cazale, discussing the lovely disposition of Tommy Lee Jones, as well as the goings on at the Austin Film Festival. Of course, we also go through this week’s crop of releases in the most chaotic manner possible. So go listen, and enjoy!
Captain America: The First Avenger is the next step in Marvel’s massive attempt at crafting a cinematic universe for their comic book creations. Marvel’s days of licensing out their characters for stand-alone Hollywood movies are thankfully over, with Jon Favreau’s excellent Iron Man ushering in a new era of comic book moviemaking. The visionary approach taken by Marvel is that with each movie they make, they are crafting a larger mythos, a new universe for their classic characters to play in, not unlike the Ultimates line of comics they launched years ago. We’re getting films less concerned with being stand-alone entities, that instead have more freedom to tie into, reference, and cross over with each other. In other words, this is the way comic book movies should be.
Chris Evans, who previously played a Marvel’s Human Torch in Tim Story’s lackluster Fantastic Four films, fills the boots of Steve Rogers, the scrawny, strong-willed nobody destined to become the Cap himself. With the Nazi menace sweeping Europe, Rogers attempts over and over again to sign up to go fight the good fight for good ol’ Uncle Sam, however his sickly physical attributes consistently result in his rejection. Rogers’ determination to enlist catches the eye of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German scientist who has found asylum in the U.S., who wants to use the good-hearted Rogers to test his super-soldier serum. The experimental drug turns the scrawny Rogers into a super-man, however he ends up being used as a marketing tool to sell war bonds on the home front under a persona called “Captain America,” rather than fight the enemy at their doorstep. But when one of his best pals gets caught behind enemy lines by a rogue Nazi organization called Hydra, Rogers springs into action on his own, and soon Captain America and his Howling Commandos tear a swath in the European countryside, battling the wicked Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) and his Hydra troops.
What excited me most about the prospect of a Captain America movie was that we’d be getting a mainstream movie with lots of unironic flag-waving, a patriotic flick with zero moral complexities, something we don’t really get anymore. In essence, I was stoked to see a film that captures the spirit of the poster above, with an American comic-book icon punching the wicked bullies of the world right in the jaw. Director Joe Johnston delivers this with a mix of Marvel lore, as Cap visually evokes the propaganda joy of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon’s original Cap comics, going so far as to integrate them into film itself. Johnston, who is usually a journeyman you plug in when Steven Spielberg decides he isn’t available, hasn’t been this much fun since The Rocketeer. It seems he is most alive when working in the forties American flag vs. Nazi scum scenario, though this is an occasion where he has gotten to build on subject matter he’s explored before.
The tradition that Captain America comes from is the World War II guys-on-a-mission flick. Think movies like The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare, or Quentin Tarantino’s anachronistic throwback, Inglourious Basterds. Captain America is similarly anachronistic, though it does so in order to build it’s Marvel universe, as opposed to make a grand comment about the power of movies the way Tarantino was. Here we get classic stuff like Cap sneaking behind enemy lines to liberate P.O.W.’s, infiltrating an enemy train with his boys, and taking on the Hydra compound. But instead of one or two big missions, we get a good sized one, and bunch of bite sized ones. The film has a lot of story to tell, so it’s understandable why they would go this route, however an action montage in which we see a highlight reel of Cap and the boys on their adventures isn’t what I’d call satisfying. The bigger missions we get are still fun an exciting, and the film is otherwise consistent in the sense of high-adventure, thanks to Johnston’s competent hand.
Because Captain America is an icon that emerged during a propaganda push in the Golden Age of comics, his presentation in a mainstream Hollywood movie has been subject to some scrutiny. Early on, Joe Johnston seemed to assure the politically-correct Hollywood crowd that Cap wasn’t going to be a “jingoistic flag-waver” in this film. With a big movie like this, Hollywood understandably wants those dollars from foreign markets. Foreign distributors insisting that the studio keep the Captain America title, as opposed to the considerably less-descriptive “The First Avenger,” is telling, in that Hollywood has bogged themselves down in the idea that the rest of the world despises America, so much so that they would never want to see a movie that openly glorifies this country. This is the thinking that got us a neutered, U.N.-friendly G.I. Joe movie, as opposed the real American heroes guys my age grew up with. Thankfully, the film that Johnston made depicts a Cap that we can all get behind: a man with a strong moral compass, dedicated to taking down evil as it preys on the weak, but never lets his considerable power go to his head. One can wring their hands about American history, however Captain America represents the American ideal here, and that’s all it needs to be. Chris Evans, an actor whose star shines brighter with each film he does, dons the shield with pride. Captain America: The First Avenger joins Richard Donner’s Superman and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films as prime examples of comic book adaptations that combine their source material with classic American iconography in an artful manner.
This week Cap throws his mighty shield on Blu-ray and DVD, and of course, there’s that 3D version stinking up the shelves as well. Complaining about 3D is old hat at this point, but I saw Captain America in 2D in the theater, and of course, nothing was missing from the experience. Seeing Cap’s shield pop out at me is an experience I can happily live without, the plain ol’ 2D Blu-ray is good enough for me.
An older version of this Captain America piece appeared over at my blog
Other Noteworthy Releases
Attack the Block: This here is one of my favorite films of the year so far in terms of all-out fun to be had watching a movie. Big Hollywood’s Christian Toto just covered this release, so go check out what he has to say if you haven’t already.
Jurassic Park Ultimate Trilogy: All three Jurassic Park flicks are coming to Blu-ray packaged together in a slick little set. Having an intense love for dinosaurs as a child made the first one a seminal film for me growing up. The Lost World gets a lot of flak for having an annoying gymnast sidekick following Jeff Goldblum around, but it had its moments, many of which were provided by Pete Postlethwaite’s fun performance as a big-game dino-hunting badass. Jurassic Park III was just forgettable altogether.
Winnie the Pooh: Disney’s revival of these beloved characters using traditional animation didn’t burn up the box office the way they would’ve liked, but it will surely find its young audience on home video.
Island of Lost Souls: This 1932 adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau comes to Criterion. A genre treasure of pre-code Hollywood, it features some crazy performances from Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi. Available from Criterion.
Dazed and Confused: Good things come to those who wait. This film got a bare-bones studio release on Blu-ray earlier this year, but Criterion took the time to transfer their superior release of this Texas coming-of-age classic to Blu-ray. If you’re a fan of this film, buy this release. It’s a little more expensive, but Criterion gives you the bang for your buck you won’t get elsewhere.
Available on Blu-ray
Identification of a Woman: One of Michelangelo Antonioni’s later films comes to Criterion.
The People Vs. George Lucas: A documentary examining the hectic relationship between George Lucas and the Star Wars fan base.
Available on DVD
Destroy All Monsters: This Godzilla monster-mash isn’t the best of the original run of Toho’s Godzilla movies, but it has a fun rumble at the end that includes Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, and King Ghidorah, among others.
Available on Blu-ray
Rare Exports – A Christmas Tale: Don’t let the title fool you, this Finnish Christmas film is actually a quirky horror flick involving Santa being dug up in a archeological dig.
Shaolin: A semi-remake of the 1982 Jet Li film Shaolin Temple starring Andy Lau and Jackie Chan.
This post originally appeared over at Parcbench