The sorry state of comic book movies is laid bare in Captain America: The First Avenger. The star spangled superhero hurdles higher than many of his peers, begging the question how he ended up last in the rotation. With the cinematic landscape cluttered with Hell-sent motorcyclists and Norsemen from outer space, could it be that Marvel sought to save the best for last? Nah.
The studio's lack of faith in the character is apparent in the caliber of talent they put behind the lens. Director Joe Johnston (once of The Rocketeer fame) boasts a career blemished by Jurassic Park III and the toothless 2010 Wolfman reboot. Still more disconcerting is the track record of screenwriting duo Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, best known for Disney's disastrous Chronicles of Narnia adaptations. If I were a betting man, I'd be out a few bucks this weekend.
Fortuitously, Johnston's strengths cover Markus and McFeely's weaknesses, and vice versa. The authors offer a fertile narrative, and the director plants personality. He's summoned great actors for even his weakest efforts, and the cast of Captain America shines. An earnest Chris Evans takes the lead, supported by talents like Hugo Weaving as the villainous Red Skull, Tommy Lee Jones as himself as a general, and Stanley Tucci as a mad scientist in military employ. They obviously had a blast.
But the captain's greatest boon is simply having been born a century ago. Set against the backdrop of WWII, the twentieth century aesthetic goes a long way in instilling the adventure with the magic most modern superhero pictures lack. It's somehow easier to suspend our disbelief when the storytellers rustle history's hair à la Indiana Jones. And when it comes to sense of humor, the fewer opportunities for Facebook jokes the better.
Yet Captain America succumbs to its own set of shortcomings. For starters, Johnston's action is inarticulate. Many of the fight scenes suffer from klutzy choreography or are stylistically gimped by passé techniques like speed ramping. Markus and McFeely share equal blame for many of these uninspired sequences, which recast the captain as a personality deficient nobody shooting his way through dim corridors.
But the most glaring flaw is Captain America's irksome link to the inevitable Avengers movie. There's nothing interesting about Marvel's obligatory nods to their other franchise properties — they come off like commercial breaks. And can we get a moratorium on Stan Lee cameos? It was cute the first half-dozen times, but by now their sole purpose is to uphold tradition and to farm further nostalgia for the work of the studio's once golden boy.
Marvel evidently loves taking its audience out of the experience. They'd rather have people whispering to their neighbor than glued to the screen. This is especially annoying in Captain America, because for the first time since Iron Man, the audience is being treated to an origin story worth telling. And instead of letting that story shine in its own right, Marvel literally ends it with an ad.
It doesn't upend the preceding two hours, but it does leave a bad taste in the mouth. If the studio weren't so interested in franchising, Captain America might be remembered as more than a mere prequel to The Avengers — and it might very well be better. The movie has a rare lightheartedness that's absent from the rest of the Marvel's autonomous efforts, and likely will be from their blockbuster crossover.
Regardless of how it ended up last in the rotation, Captain America outshines even some of the higher seed heroes — pity it got ambushed by Marvel's marketing department. The film succeeds in spite of their routinely poor creative decision-making, but a more important question lingers. Did their ploy succeed in selling me The Avengers? Nah.