Saturday, July 23, 2011

America, F&%k yeah

There have been a lot of superhero movies this summer, but for some reason they all seem to take place somewhere else than the present. "Thor" and "Green Lantern" split duties between modern society and other worlds/dimensions, and "X-men" and "Captain America" are period pieces. For my money, I think the reason those first two films were under-received is because they were too divorced from socio-cultural space.

On exactly the opposite notion, I think "X-men" particularly and "Captain" to a degree are great entries to the genre in that they push an examination of the superhero back into different periods of history. This suggests most evidently that society's desire to utilize some kind of "super" element is not a new phenomenon, but can be traced in discussions of violence and power throughout at least the last century.

"Captain America: The First Avenger" is the prototypical Hollywood mega-blockbuster. It's glossy, it sounds incredible, it puts millions and millions of dollars on screen in dazzling special effects, and it bursts with snappy one-liners and incredibly attractive people. In this regard, it's one of the best of the "pure" superhero films I've seen in a while, in that it's not trying to COMPLICATE the genre so much as it is trying to find an exciting new way to make spectacle.

And if popcorn thrills are your thing, this has plenty of bite. At times, it's absolutely goofy, bouncing along like the best kind of pop entertainment. It rarely takes itself seriously, even when it pauses oh so fleeting to talk about patriotic ideals. With its amber-hued retro vibe and its almost cocky sense of pulp fiction swagger, it may even be the 21st century heir to "Indiana Jones" - a surprisingly smart update of serialized entertainment.

I know this sounds weird, considering Joe Johnston is the guy who directed "The Wolfman" and "Jurassic Park III" and it's written by the guys who penned the "Chronicles of Narnia" adaptations. I don't mean to suggest that "Captain America" is a sheer giddy ride in the way that, say, "Iron Man" was. Maybe it's just lowered expectations, or maybe it's just that I can really groove on pulp fiction, but I can only say that "Captain America" is a movie made for the kid inside you who just wants to watch the good guy kick some evil Nazi butt.

There are plenty of knowing winks, most noticeably a fun detour where Cap goes on a media tour and gets stuck in a Busby Berkeley-esque musical number and helps sell Captain America comics (he even enacts on stage his famous K.O. of Adolf Hitler - one of the hero's most indelible moments), and most rewarding in an early throwaway line that mentions how Hitler is "digging in the desert" for occult relics ("Raiders of the Lost Ark," anyone?).

Yes, "Captain America" is a movie where the occult takes center stage, the villain is a power-hungry Nazi who wants nothing more than total global domination, Tommy Lee Jones channels some kind of mid-60s WWII adventure in his officer role, and the kiss between the lead male and lead female is always playfully avoided.

To say the film looks good should come as no surprise - just look at how much money it cost. It's not an aesthetically daring pic, nor should it be. It aims to be mainstream, and it puts its attention on getting pleasurable lighting and making sure the camera moves smoothly and the visual effects are flawless.

Some silly moviegoers may try to tell you that "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," with its hour of non-stop action and destruction, best represents the future of Hollywood summer franchises. I see a film like "Captain America," with one foot lurking in the past of Hollywood's mythology and both of its eyes looking to a dreamland where effects can aid a story instead of destroying it, as the better exemplar.

This isn't to say the film doesn't have its problems: the pacing is very awkward once Steve Rogers becomes Captain America, rushing headlong to its conclusion instead of maybe having one or two more conversations about military strategy or character development -- something the first hour accomplishes rather economically.

But "Captain America" is much more about flexing Hollywood's muscle. It's about glamour and dazzle and showering you with the spectacle of it all. It just wants to have a little fun.

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