Wednesday, August 3, 2011
The only thing more tiresome than Marvel’s latest Shakespeare tragedy is the postmodern elevation of trash/pop/camp—a useful experiment, like shaving your head— so I won’t say Joe Johnston’s Captain America: World-Friendly Subtitle is a good film. Rather it’s a kids movie that isn’t aesthetically revolting, a world not of the 1940s but of a 1940s movie set (or Disneyland), saved by its pulp agility. Instead of fatalistically throwing old friends Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes into a deep Freudian chasm or down separate forks in a road like other Marvel relationships struggling mightily to evince some depth, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely use pop shortcuts to invest while keeping things light: after scrawny Steve gets himself beat up for the seventh time, Bucky standing up for him, much less talking to him, makes him okay in our book. We’ve barely seen them together (or apart, in Bucky’s case), but their fraternity charges this ally-centric film, thanks as much to the screenplay as to the square-jawed performances by Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan. The worst you could say is that maybe Steve and Bucky are a wee bit “no homo” in their first act farewell, but the decidedly modern Evans and Stan may as well have cried in each other's arms for all their meaningful staring.
Speaking of disconcerting subtext, despite an absurd reason for joining up and the thoughtless image of a star-spangled soldier barging into some foreign building and shooting people, Captain America is hardly the gung ho propaganda for the rewards of jingoism that even some of its supporters claim with an untroubled chuckle, as if the getting away with something is more significant than what they got away with. Okay, so America is a land of innovation and volunteers and opportunity, and Italy is a rugged jungle needing to be saved from itself, but Steve and the Multicolor DreamSquad has no discernable politics beyond supporting Tommy Lee Jones for any office he wants—even his phone-ins are worth admission. Instead it has a disquieting ethical system that supercedes geographic boundaries and only crops up explicitly once, when wise father Stanley Tucci has a calm-before-the-storm chat with Steve about his superhero serum: “Good becomes great, bad becomes worse,” he says, and the film backs him up. Maybe you could chalk this up to pulp simplification, more fantasy for the land of magical Norse artifacts and laser guns—now with extra lens flares!—but the concept of human beings as divisible into good parts and bad parts is so shallow as to coarse through the rest like poison. It’s an excuse to send a children’s hero into violent combat—the picture is teeming with punches so loud all you can see is a splash panel BANG!—and the film’s multiple cop-outs (suicide, accidental suicide, literally demonizing the bad guy) are even worse. It’s okay to fight bad guys because they’re bad, and what’s more, they all die on their own, bloodlessly. Logic!
Still worse than another kids’ movie championing violence as right and good and noble is yet another film deflated by franchising. A cliffhanger would have been perfect—“Captain America will return in . . . Octopussy!”—but this isn’t that. After our first melancholy act of heroism, necessitated by poorly explained plot developments that Evans and Hayley Atwell power through like Olympic swimmers, we get another ending that waters down the melancholy into bittersweet, a striking (and strikingly inappropriate) tone for a film of clean-cut, tighty-whitey ooh-ra, all so we know Cap’s on the path to Avenging with Joss Whedon next year. That said, Johnston’s imaginative candyland pastiche is too packed with exciting toys to let his blunt wielding of them detract: the Kiss Me Deadly non-MacGuffin, a Bondian mountainside palace, an Alpine train job, an Endor speeder bike chase, a Norwegian temple not far removed from Frankenstein Castle, Hugo Weaving doing his best Christoph Waltz, and just enough loving shots of the male physique to hit the quota but keep Zack Snyder from suing for intellectual property theft (though Cap’s magical pants are kept on during his steroid session for being the lesser of two distractions). Johnston even acknowledges the silliness of his very sincere adventure with in-universe Captain America comics and a Bob Ford-style USO show where our hero knocks out Hitler. In the end, Johnston made an okay film about the power of entertainment where the morale boost is infinitely more effective than the propaganda.