Friday, June 22, 2012

Captain America

There have been an assortment of Marvel Comics movies put out in the last few years: several Spider Man movies, a few Hulks, and then of course the Iron Man movies, Captain America, Thor . . .

I literally learned to read on collector’s issues.  Daredevil, Journey into Mystery (which later became The Mighty Thor),  Iron Man, FF, and all the rest.  Many of them from issue #1 to the hundreds.  I was there when the FF went to South Africa during Apartheid, and the Thing tore down the walls rather than choose between a “Europeans” or “Coloreds” door, the four of them treading on the signs on their way out.  

Fantastic Four 119 1971, Thing smashing doors
Fantastic Four 119 1971, signs busted

I was there when Namor first found Cap and tossed his frozen form into the sea, reviving him at last.  I was there when Harry Osborne collapsed completely, and tripped on bad hallucinogens for days on end, causing the first Marvel Comics I know of to be published without Comics Code approval.

So, yes, I have seen a lot of writes and re-writes, and a lot of re-interpretations of various legends over time.  Some good, some not so good, and some completely at odds with the original tale but none the less fascinating.  Originally, I was going to review all the various Avengers movies this week.  But that would likely be a bit long even for me.  So instead, I will just go over my latest view: Captain America.

The movie touts him as the “First Avenger,” which works in a movie setting.  In the comics, he was actually a founder of the Invaders, the Allies’ super-hero group.  With him were Bucky, Namor the Sub-Mariner, the original Human Torch (later revealed to be an android; long story), and his mutant sidekick Toro.  Together, they all fought against the Nazi threat.  Which is fine for comics, but in a movie there’s just no room.  Especially when actors keep insisting on ageing faster than their characters.

I wasn’t originally going to even see this movie.  I saw a guy with dark hair and web gear and guns as Cap, and said, “No.”  But Amar gave the movie thumbs-up, and he knows his comics.  So I gave it a shot.

Holy.  Crap.

It would have been so easy for this movie to suck.  Captain America is a hero in the truest sense of the word, powers or not.  He gained his Super Soldier abilities from his own courage and drive to help his country and the world against tyranny.  He is in many ways the ultimate warrior for peace. 

It can be hard to keep such a character human enough to be interesting without getting all Emo about it.  But they managed.  The casting was superb, and the acting incredible.  The sequence of events was believable and well-researched, right down to the shields.  And the actors’ interpretations of the characters were close to flawless.  The Red Skull could have been a bit more cave-wall-licking crazy, though.  He almost invented the villainous rant, and actually tops Doctor Doom in frothing monologue.

Making the Red Skull into a scientist with his own division (Hydra) was an interesting twist, and I’ll admit I’m still pretty unsure about it.  The original Red Skull was a bellboy, in whom Hitler saw the mark of a pure sociopath and groomed him to be the ultimate SS.  The fact that Herr Johann Schmidt was also a genius in many ways was unexpected.  He was a gifted leader, a master strategist, and a brilliant manipulator.  He was almost completely without fear, perhaps due to his psychosis.  And he was responsible for the founding of Hydra, via Baron Von Strucker.  But he was not a scientist. 

He also had a will stronger than almost anyone else on the planet, which resulted in Hitler’s spirit being trapped in the Cosmic Cube for the Red Skull’s amusement.

Oh, yes: the Cosmic Cube.

In the comics, Advanced Idea Mechanics semi-accidentally caged a cosmic being of immense power in a cube, with the result that whosoever possessed the widget could manipulate reality itself.  The Red Skull got it, lost it, regained it, used it, lost it again.  It passed from hand to hand to hand and was even used by Thanos the Titan in a bid for universal Armageddon (stopped by the Avengers).  Ultimately it was destroyed / hatched into an entirely different plotline with the Silver Surfer and this guy called the Aquarian. . .

Again, too much for a movie.  Too many years and too damned convoluted.  Comic titles go through writers like a ferris wheel goes through passengers, and tracking fifty years of comic book history is enough to make Carl Sagan foreswear all modern life and become Amish.

The use of the “tesseract” was therefore a good move, and making it a treasure of Odin allowed for the Nazis to want it and for the Red Skull to seek it out.  It also allowed for Arnim Zola, a mad scientist with a brain somewhere between Tony Stark and Reed Richards, to be able to use it.  The Red Skull got his mysterious death from the tesseract (which is just a sixth-dimensional cube, anyway) and Cap was put on ice in a very believable way.  Within the physics of this universe, certainly.

Really, there are only a few points in the movie that bother me.

First was Johann Schmidt as a scientist.  ‘Nuff said on that.

Second was Arnim Zola.  

Doctor Zola was every bit as mad as the Red Skull, if not more so.  In fact, he made Frankenstein at his most manic look like Doctor Oz.  He created artificial life, transferred minds, and experimented on himself to become immortal.  Well, kind of.  

The Red Skull valued him immensely, and, while he didn’t exactly “trust” Zola, he knew how to play him and trusted in his own power to keep the good doctor in check.  Arnim Zola as portrayed in the movie was an expendable sniveler and a coward, doomed to obscurity in the USA’s early NASA projects.

But most of all, there is the death of Bucky Barnes.  

In the comics, Bucky was a kid and a costumed sidekick.  In the movie, he was an old friend and fellow soldier.  And that is a sensible change for a modern audience.  But in the comics, his death is both memorable and catastrophic.  He dies trying to stop a plane trapped by Baron Zemo (another Nazi super-villian), and his death haunts Captain America for decades afterwards, due both to survivor’s guilt and to its connection to Zemo and the Red Skull. 

In the movie, Bucky dies falling off a train, trying to capture the cringing Zola.  Later in the movie, the final epic battle takes place on a super plane loaded with hi-tech bombs.  Why not have him die there?

But these changes are not crippling, and the positive moves that were made in this movie's creation well outweigh the problems and puzzlements that it might pose.  

I understand that Joss Whedon is a fan.  And having seen these movies I believe it.  He understands the genre, keeps to the spirit of the characters, and, as always, his greatest strength is in character interaction and dialogue – which is vital in comic book characters. Let’s face it: on the page, they almost never shut up, even when they’re fighting. 

Of course, in the movie you don't have as much monologue.  I find it refreshing also that the Red Skull is given room to return in later films.  Which, since he has a will that can cheat even death, is only fitting.  And having the Avengers go up against the Red Skull and Hydra in some future movie would be just superb.  Unless, of course, in the movie universe he somehow became Thanos.  Which would also work.

Thanos is one of the baddest villains in the Marvel universe, and is sure to be in the next Avengers movie . . .

Yes.  Well.  No rush.

Ultimately, this movie actually captures the character of Captain America on the screen, and does it well, for the first time that I am aware of.  There have been other attempts, but they have always been terrible.  If you haven’t already seen the latest movie version of Captain America, I heartily recommend it.  And so long as Mister Whedon continues to be given a free hand in his movies, I think they will continue to be well done.  

Tamam Shud,

(Stan Lee is a god of comic books and owns himself; Weird Al Yankovic also owns himself; all other characters (c) Marvel Comics, all rights reserved.)

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