It's been my latest quest to rewatch the Avengers series of movies and next up on the docket was Captain America: The First Avenger. This movie actually made what was considered a very controversial decision and set the events in the 1940's. There were a lot of people who felt that Cap's origin ought to be modernized. I think that the idea of Captain America created to fight terrorists in the 21st century or something along those lines would have been a completely different character, so I'm glad that those who wanted to go the classic route won out on this one as having him come from "the greatest generation" gives Cap some gravitas that I don't think that he would have had otherwise.
There are some nice touches in this movie. When I saw it in the movie theater I didn't notice the original human torch sitting in the glass case during the Stark expo. I also like how they tied this into the other movies by using the tesseract as an object that came from Asgard. Some of the top Nazis including Hitler himself were known to be obsessed with magic and the occult so it made total sense to make that the tie-in. I also really liked Tommy Lee Jones in this. He makes what could have been a one note military guy with Col. Philips into a really fun and interesting character. None of the acting is bad in this but I feel like Jones deserves something of a special mention because he's great.
Unfortunately this is the movie that works least for me in the Phase One Avengers canon. First, I feel like the first third of the movie was mostly wasted. Do we really need to drag ourselves through this sob story that is Steve's life? We could have easily gone from Stark Expo to Dr Esrskine to operation and just got on with the movie. Showing him getting beaten up and trying to him this poor, pathetic loser feels like it is just way to over the top. Yeah he was a 4H guy who wanted to serve his country. We could have gotten that in 10-15 minutes. Using the entire first third of the movie to convey that means that it feels like once he gets to being Captain America now a whole lot goes on before he gets frozen. In fact, that's another one of my gripes. He goes on his mission to rescue Bucky at the end of 1943, meaning that he doesn't really become Captain America until that point. Meaning that at best even if his crashing the super plane at the end of the movie happens at the end of the German part of WW2 then Cap was only Cap for a year. That's hardly enough time for him to have become a seasoned leader of men nor the kind of legend that inspires guys like Coulson in The Avengers. It doesn't help that the movie makes it seem like it all takes place over the course of a few weeks, maybe 2 months tops. It's possible to infer some gaps in there mostly between Cap forming his special unit and the capture of Zola but it doesn't seem like Cap was really Cap for long. I know that they wanted to stick him in that USO thing to show how he had everything going for him and still chose to take the hard path but they could have just made it so that he becomes Cap early in 1941 just like in the comics. Then have him traveling around Europe with the USO, secretly leaving to do his Cap thing behind enemy lines until it finally becomes known what he's doing and he actually gets integrated into the army. I think that would have worked better.
I have a real problem with Erskine saying that his formula doesn't just make you stronger or more fit but that it operates on a moral level and makes good better or bad worse. Honestly? You're going to tell me that your formula can operate on something as gray of an area as morality? That beat didn't even need to be there. They already built Steve up as the paragon of moral decency and what we saw of Schmidt in Erskine's flashback prior to his taking the serum showed him to be a pretty nasty guy so we didn't need some sort of magic to make these people into paragons of virtue or evil. It's just another thing that felt really off in the movie.
Speaking of things that don't make sense, I get that you wanted an army of super soldiers, Col Philips but the idea that he doesn't want cap because he only got one is moronic. It's like saying well you can have this super jet that can fly circles around the enemy and blows up any target without missing and you turn it down because you wanted a whole fleet of such jets. Really? I get that Philips has a bit of a personal dislike for Rogers based on the fact that he wasn't originally military but it seems like a very dumb waste and not the kind of decision that a military man would make.
I was annoyed as crap that the African-American in the "Howling Commandos" was not a young Fury. The Howling Commandos are Fury's unit, end of story. I also don't get why you wouldn't do that to create a relationship between Fury and Cap in World War 2. Equally as puzzling and annoying was the depiction of Bucky as this douchebag who hangs out with a guy like Steve because he likes to feel superior. He fixes Steve up on a date that wants nothing to do with him and says nothing as she completely snubs Steve, seemingly enjoying watching his friend get spat upon to show how much superior he is to him but is then able to console himself with the fact that "well at least I fixed him up". Then after Steve becomes Cap he delivers one of the most insulting lines that says so much about his character "it's like I'm becoming you." At that point I can't see how anyone in the audience isn't hoping that they'll lose this guy down a manhole or in the middle of the Alps or something and the movie obliges. He's also gone for such a long period between the Stark expo and when Steve rescues him that there's never really any time to give Bucky any likable qualities or to get us to care for him so when he goes its like "so what" when we should be like "oh my god, NOOOOOO". This dynamic could have easily been fixed if they'd made Bucky someone younger than Cap that Cap met in the war possibly as part of my earlier talk about Cap leaving secretly to go on missions and someone that Cap looked out for. Giving Cap a more paternalistic relationship with Bucky would have helped to endear the character to us. That would have taken time though and with them devoting so much of the early movie to "poor, picked on Cap" they didn't really have the time to develop another character.
Why is Howard Stark in this movie? I mean I get that it's another tie-in but he's completely gratuitous to the plot and adds absolutely nothing. The guy playing him isn't really all that interesting either. I guess if he'd been to much like RDJ people would have been complaining about that too but it just seems like "to many unnecessary links". It also makes me wonder about Tony's age because Howard must have been pretty old when he had him, older than he looks in the videos in Iron Man 2 at any rate.
The whole Hydra side of this is just bad. Why not just have these guys as Nazis. Nazis are the natural symbol of evil. They're Nazis in the comics. Making them a separate breakaway group and then making sure that we know that they clearly broke from Hitler seems unnecessary. It also makes me skeptical about the entire plot. Shouldn't Hydra be facing threats from the allies and the axis. Wouldn't Hitler be just as interested in taking out these rogue agents who are sitting within his own borders? Every time we go to Philips he talks about hitting Hydra as if they're the ones controlling Europe and the Nazis no longer exist. Is he trying to say that there's a defined territory of Hydra that has borders with Nazi Europe? The whole mess with history here just annoys me. This movie would have worked far better if they'd just employed the normal Marvel way of things by making it "the real world" and saying that all this is going on as a kind of shadow war within the real world war 2. Instead they alter things so much but without really explaining the context that I have a hard time really understanding exactly how the war effort is going in this alternate world war 2 which effects who keyed in I am to the drama itself.
It doesn't help that all that the Nazis seem to be able to make with their new ultimate power source are disintegrator guns and a big plane. Really? Guns of course while obvious have the drawback that your enemies can steal them from you, which they do many many times in the movie. I would have loved to see far more 1940's sci-fi tech in this movie because a gun is still a gun really. One interesting side-thought though is that now that we know that the tesseract is really a teleportation device it does make me wonder if those guns disintegrated anyone or if they were all transported somewhere else. This may come into play with Guardians of the Galaxy. Similarly, we're never told where the Red Skull goes at the end of the movie. Maybe he's the one advising Thanos about Earth?
The purpose of the giant plane is never really explained either. Its said to be very fast so that's good. But the tesseract is removed from the plane and it doesn't drop out of the sky, so what does the cube do for the plane anyway? Does it power the weapons? We're made to believe that it's a bomber but the "bombs" in the hold are actually manned flying vessels with the names of the cities on them. So are those little fighters supposed to shoot up each city? Are these guys suicide bombers flying their vessels into high profile targets in each city? We're never told, but we do see that each of the things gets dropped over the Atlantic. So then we come to the worst part of the movie. Cap crashing the plane. So the cube has been removed and one would assume that thats important for something on the plane. Cap demonstrates that he can alter the controls so it's not like the thing is "locked into" any one direction. We're told that its head towards New York. All the "bomb/fighters" are dropped. So what does Cap think is the danger? Why does he absolutely need to crash it before waiting for Stark to talk to him? Why doesn't he just turn the thing around since he obviously has control? The script doesn't ponder any of those things. They know that they have to get Cap to modern times so even though it doesn't make any sense they have him crash the plane. A friend of mine insists that the plane is locked into crash on Washington (it's actually heading for New York), but I've watched the scene several times. Its never said that the plane is going to hit anything and indeed its flying to high to even hit into the skyscrapers in New York so that can't be it. One funny thing about all of this is that the map that shows his position on the globe shows him in southern Quebec when he crashes the plane. I get that it can get cold in Canada but that's not the permanent sort of glacial ice where the plane is found in the beginning of the movie.
To me in the end this is about whether or not I really enjoyed the film. It left me feeling kind of hollow inside. It wasn't very exciting and I felt bored through most of it. I didn't really believe in the characters and there were to many plot holes or ungenuine emotions for me to really suspend my disbelief and get sucked into the movie. I've seen far worse movies in my time but when compared to the other Avengers films it and Iron Man 2 remain at the low end and Iron Man 2 at least stood on the shoulders of Iron Man, so I cared far more for the characters. It's really telling to me that on the commentary and the extras the director almost doesn't talk about performances and character at all. It's all about the effects and the look. I can't mention how many times they talked about making Chris Evans small for the earlier parts of the movie. Contrast that with Thor which is more of what one would think of as an effects film but where the director cared so much about the characters and their relationships and how they developed. That came through in the performances, which were nuanced and very truthful despite the fantastic locations and situations. The guys working on Cap just cared about the looks and it shows (except for the end scene where Cap is chasing after the plane as it takes off and Philips rides up with the car it's clear that they're losing their money at that point because the CGI in that whole section looks AWFUL). I'll take character and story over pretty visuals any day.
For those interested the blu-ray comes with a lot of extra features including a little interview with Joe Simon, one of the creators of Captain America and someone who I didn't realize was still alive. The Coulson one-shot on this one was AMAZING and I'd recommend getting the blu-ray just for that. I am disappointed that Marvel seems to be skimping on the comic book extras on their newer movies. There's no documentary on the history of Cap in comics as many of the early comic book movies such as Iron Man had and there's nothing about the development of the storyline either, which is something that I'd have really loved to learn more about.