Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Dir. Joe Johnston, 125 min., in theaters

I had originally intended to see Bad Teacher today, but due to a theater mix up, we ended up seeing Captain America instead. This wasn’t the worst two hours of my life, but it won’t rank up there with the best either.

The title does nothing to hide the fact that this film is essentially another cog in the Marvel machine that will eventually churn out The Avengers (2012), a combination of Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and the titular hero of this film. Despite my affinity for graphic novels, I never really immersed myself in the Marvel universe other than the X-Men, and I have been known to mistake Marvel for DC and vice versa (the cardinal sin).

To be honest, I’ve pretty much lost most of my love for superhero movies. I grew up in the late eighties/early nineties, an era when there were few, if any, great superhero films to watch. I saw every Superman movie, but apart from those films I can’t remember much in the way of superheroes. My superheros were mainly action starts like Harrison Ford, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Thus it must be a real thrill for comic book fanboys who have been loyal for years to see their childhood heroes finally represented in a big way on the big screen, but the thrill is mostly gone for me. After suffering through films like X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and Spider Man 3 (2007), I started to wonder what it would take to produce a film that was just great without having it do double duty as a marketing device. The final entry in the X-Men film series terminated interesting characters with extreme prejudice and slammed any future writer’s fingers in the door. Likewise with the final Spider Man film. Someone along the way decided that there should be only three films in a series.

Until now. Beginning with last summer’s godawful Iron Man 2 which by all accounts (except the mo$t important) was a failure, it was clear that a mega movie was in the works that would combine multiple Marvel action heroes, and in order to do that someone decided that we must meet each individual component of the forthcoming Avengers film in their own feature, hence this year’s Thor and Captain America.

In the car ride home, I explained to Nicole and Teresa how sick to death of origin stories I am at this point. My sentiment, especially with regard to this film, is that the first third of each origin story is essentially a pathos building machine so that we can root for the superhero; unless you’re one of the Nazis that Captain America dispatched in this film, you are going to root for the superhero. This film very clumsily shows us things, then tells us them, then shows us them again in case we missed the first two character building events. If I were to chart out the beats that the origin story portion gives us, it would look something like this:

Our hero is: scrawny, patriotic, scrawny, awkward, patriotic, determined, scrawny, determined, patriotic, awkward, determined, kick-ass, patriotic, finally Captain America

If Kenneth Branagh or Ang Lee has to direct a superhero film to avoid this problem, I’ll take that any day.

Joe Johnston could almost be described as schizophrenic in his successes: he has flopped out at least three times (The Rocketeer, Hidalgo, and The Wolfman). I didn’t even know he was the director behind The Rocketeer, but it seemed somehow only logical given the depiction of the 40’s–to put it nicely, he “returned to some of his original ideas.” Something was just wrong in terms of authenticity and depictions of World War II. I realize this is a fantasy, but I still expect some engagement with the settings. War torn Europe seems less like the setting for the story, and more like the cardboard facades of a TV wild west town.

For everything that is wrong with this film, there are some highlights. Dominic Cooper gets more and more entertaining as Howard Stark (read Howard Hughes), and pretty much every scene that he’s in makes the film much cooler. The lab scenes are reminiscent of the Manhattan Project, and I would probably watch a film with just him. At least Captain America throws his shield more than once, though many of the film’s action sequences are crammed into an aggravating montage that robs filmgoers of what they pay to see, action.

Without spoiling the ending, there will not be a true sequel for Captain America. The sole function of this film is a lead up to next year’s The Avengers, which will hopefully be origin story free. Luckily, The Amazing Spider Man will be there to show us how Peter Parker becomes Spider Man, again.