Thursday, August 18, 2011

Captain America & The Invaders

Captain America likely won't be on the receiving end of that fist blow in next summer's The Avengers [2012] where he'll be working side by side with the big green fellow unlike the scenario presented in this wonderful cover art for Captain America #230.

The summer is sadly fast approaching the end. One of the highlights in the world of blockbuster summer cinema for me was the arrival of Marvel's Captain America: The First Avenger [2011]. I definitely awaited its arrival with some degree of anticipation. As it turned out, it may have been more than I expected. In retrospect, it was certainly one of the better comic book films and easily among my favorites of the last few years. Director Joe Johnston delivers period adventure like no other a la The Rocketeer [1991] and October Sky [1999] to name two of his films. The former takes place in 1938, while the latter 1957 and Joe Johnston always effectively delivers that sense of time and place with style and muted beauty lending his pictures a good degree of detail in capturing the look and feel one might imagine. And, of course, what gets more period than Jurassic Park III [2001]. In fact, these pictures are among his best.

Most of the critical feedback regarding Johnston's work on Captain America: The First Avenger has been favorable, but a few have had a negative assessments levied against him. Personally, the film walks that always difficult fine line in an introductory hero film balancing excitement, character and origin story like a circus performer on a tightrope and the trick is a sight to behold. Johnston succeeds beautifully as we hold our breath. With such a sure and steady hand on the project it's interesting how Johnston often receives backhanded compliments regarding his work as if he stumbled upon good luck. He may not be Christopher Nolan, but his work is solid as it is here in Captain America: The First Avenger.

The casting choices are brilliant from Chris Evans [Sunshine] to Hugo Weaving [The Matrix, V For Vendetta] as The Red Skull and everyone else standing between good and evil. I had my doubts about Evans, not here, but as an actor once upon a time. After seeing the dismal Fantastic Four [2005] and his grating work as The Human Torch, perhaps in character as Johnny Storm, I may have judged the fellow unfairly and too harshly. Sadly, as it turned out, no one cast for Fantastic Four could save that film from mediocrity.

But, somewhere along the way, Evans connected with Danny Boyle and delivered something special, for me, in a supporting role in Sunshine [2007]. Sunshine was easily one of the finest science fiction films of that year and Evans completely altered my potentially unfair opinion of him. So when the announcement came that Evans would be Captain America, I embraced the choice and rallied behind it. Had the announcement come pre-2007 I would have had a much different reaction. My opinion of Evans as an actor is still not fully formed, but as Captain America he was a terrific choice to wear the stars and stripes, the red, white and blue. How fitting Evans should hail originally from Boston, Massachusetts, home of the Boston Tea Party and Paul Revere.

Captain America: The First Avenger, the film, was like an old-fashioned antidote to all of the grim-faced darkness pervasive in comic book adaptations and graphic novels that we enjoy today. There's a warmth and likability to the film that feels like it arrived in a nick of time amidst the souring of our national economy and an America that appears to be realigning financially and politically. It arrived at a time when some including our leaders spend a good deal of time apologizing for our country. Whether intended or not, Johnston makes no apologies for the patriotic vibe of the picture and he shouldn't based on the source material. If he had it wouldn't have been Captain America. Heck, a good deal of critics express their affection for the film, but quickly deflect that it has anything to do with a sense of pride about the picture's tone. We can't have that. We can't be perceived as patriotic as writers. It was truly a shot in the arm.

The film's only failure from a marketing perspective was that the studio didn't release the it on the long 4th of July weekend. I would have thought it might have had even greater returns. It seemed like a missed opportunity.

Johnston's avenger is like the light night to the tortured dark one called Bruce. It's a welcomed contrast. Evans sincere and spirited soul, natural, All-American good looks is the perfect choice for a summer action hero. He also plays the underdog portion of the film delightfully. He's the regular little guy, literally, to salute and get behind.

Most of all, this is a rare comic film where its sense of place and time gives it a unique vibe from almost all of its contemporaries. What better place to rekindle American pride and patriotism than a setting of World War II? Who better to deliver it than Johnston? In a world where America is no longer perceived a righteous champion with its excursions into Afghanistan and Iraq, and God knows our soldiers are just, Johnston's Captain America paints the portrait of a hero, a symbol of American strength, at a time when it held the moral and just high ground. The world seemed painted in black and white, when it came to enemies and allies, not the grey shift of mounting global players knocking at our borders. America was indeed a heroic nation to most. Films like Saving Private Ryan [1998], as painful as World War II was, painted us as liberators and a force for good long before things got murky in Vietnam, because we were. Shifts from conventional war to asymmetrical and de-centralized warfare have moved us a long way from those black and white days. Captain America: The First Avenger reminds us of a better time for the nation and not just a simple, comic book diversion. The Red Skull and Hydra are all symbolic constructs of the Nazi evils of World War II, and Captain America takes us back to a time when the fight was right and a nation was beloved. How things have changed. Such motivations, intended or not, are certainly rare in Hollywood, but Johnston delivered a film with a tone wildly unexpected for today's Hollywood.

When I was a kid, the carpet of my bedroom floor was covered with comic books. There was hardly a spot of rug exposed. Everything from The Uncanny X-Men, The Champions, Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk and eventually The Micronauts populated my shelves and floor. These were incredible books and comic books filled with wonderful stories and beautiful art. As cinematic as today's books look, they simply don't make comics the same way anymore.

For a period, I was a fairly big fan of Captain America And The Falcon, but one of my favorite books was The Invaders created by Sal Buscema and Roy Thomas. In fact, I enjoyed just about everything Buscema touched and for a time he was doing some terrific stuff on vintage era Captain America. His prolific, epic touch ran on a host of titles from 1968 through the 1980s and beyond, but his work in the 1970s remains some of my favorite. His Invaders, which is hinted to in the film, is preceded by the tagline reading The Greatest Super-Heroes Of World War Two! Perhaps this is one component of Captain America: The First Avenger that worked so well for me. The Invaders unit is certainly hinted to, but I would love nothing more than a sequel film called The Invaders featuring Captain America, The Human Torch [could Chris Evans carry both parts?; actually this one is Jim Hammond -the original android Human Torch; not Johnny Storm] and Namor: The Sub-Mariner. Supporting players would include Bucky [introduced in the film], Toro [Thomas Raymond; sidekick to Hammond] and Union Jack. Having these heroes battle Adolf Hitler, The Red Skull and the Axis Powers [Germany, Italy and Japan] would certainly be a comic book joy. Such a production would be forever unlikely, and a book like The Invaders seems oddly, politically incorrect today, despite its basis in history, but a boy can dream can't he?

In many ways seeing Captain America: The First Avenger reach the big screen as it did was partly a dream come true. Never in a million years would I have thought they would go back to the origins of the character in such a stylish, impactful way. Director Ang Lee destroyed the source material for his Hulk [2003] film. I believe the handling of Steve Rogers and his alter ego, created in 1941, would make creators Joe Simon and the late Jack Kirby proud. Giving us Captain America in this way was genius and Joe Johnston breathes and weaves his typically sincere kind of Saturday matinee fun into the picture that reminisces of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. It's rare to find a picture with that kind of energy today. To see the film come to life, propelled by a story filled with stellar costume design and blockbuster ideas, within the era of the World War II hero he was designed to be was truly refreshing and something special. Now if only I could get my Invaders in the form of a healthy and sizable flashback in a Captain America sequel.

The Invaders returned for this issue of Namor: The Sub-Mariner with cover art by John Byrne. While I'm certainly excited about the potential of The Avengers on film, which will feature Cap's next appearance, the idea of an ensemble picture, like The X-Men, makes me a little uneasy. Captain America: The First Avenger did a nice job of mixing action with character and I hope the latter isn't sacrificed as a result of sharing the stage. If I had a choice, Invaders or Avengers, I'd be pulling for the former, but I'm certainly more inclined to say I look forward to a legitimate Captain America sequel, one that takes the character to the next level in a manner reminiscent of The Dark Knight's [2008] arrival following the underappreciated Batman Begins [2005]. Yes, bring back the shield.

Is Captain America: The First Avenger on the same level as The Dark Knight? Of course not. People wonder why so many of the superhero films run average to good in the final product, but it's rare the material receives the support of a top tier talent like Christopher Nolan. That's why Batman is in such great hands.

Joe Johnston is often slighted for his reliable efforts, but there's a simple, reassuring pleasure he brings to a strong, streamlined narrative like Captain America: The First Avenger. He's a sturdy, good director with an eye for adventure. Fortunately Johnston does the character justice. Cap explodes off the screen like the classic character from the pages of the comic book. Perhaps I was hungry for a film like this, susceptible and open more than ever to it, but like the classic comics, Johnston embraced those patriotic ideals and he wasn't ashamed to deliver the wholesome kind of character embodied in Steve Rogers, a good, decent man and one proud of his country. Several lines in the script reflect that attitude. Can you imagine?

10 comments:

Fritz "Doc" Freakenstein said...

I really enjoyed your review of Captain America: The First Avenger, Sci-Fi Fanatic!

I agree with you that director Joe Johnston doesn’t get the same level of respect other directors receive, but I’ve enjoyed most of the films I’ve seen of his; particularly the ones you mention. The Rocketeer – another film based on a comic book character – is one of my favorite films of any genre! Telling the origin of Captain America could have been rushed to get to the eventual confrontation with The Red Skull, but thankfully the script took the time to let Steve Rogers - both pre and post Captain America – develop his personality before leaping into the action of the last act of the film.

I too was worried when I first heard of Chris Evans being cast as Captain America. I hated his one-note performance as Johnny Storm in both Fantastic Four movies, but as you say I doubt any actor could have saved those films from mediocrity. Evans really is believable as the scrawny kid with a big heart at the start of Captain America (great use of digital trickery here) and even after he becomes the super powered hero, he still acts like that scrappy underdog with something to prove.

I too loved the positive tonality of Captain America! This is the only way Captain America could have been portrayed; especially since they wisely chose to keep Captain America’s origin in the WWII era. There are so many “dark” superheroes in cinema – a carryover from Alan Moore’s and Frank Miller’s influence on the superhero genre in the 80’s – that the old-fashioned patriotic character that Captain America represents in CAPital letters is a nice yin to their yang. I also thought it a little more than ironic that the superhero genre felt it needed to be more “realistic”, so it created flawed heroes with questionable morals. Personally, I like my heroes to be characters that I can care for and respect.

I too read Roy Thomas’ Invaders comic, which even then had a nostalgic feel to it. I would also love to see an Invaders film, as the WWII action in Captain America was great but somewhat brief.

I think Jack “the King” Kirby would have appreciated the look and feel of Captain America: The First Avenger. Joe Johnson didn’t try to stamp some modern visual artifice on the film, which he could claim sole creative credit for. Instead, he paid tribute to the writers and artists of the past that created the character in the first place. Just look at the designs of the HYDRA headquarters and their various weapons and vehicles! They may as well have a “designed by Jack Kirby” stamp on them. If Joe Johnson guilty of anything, it’s being too respectful to source material. In the case of Captain America, that is a very good thing indeed.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Likewise Doc, I really fully appreciated your additional insights here. Thanks so much for adding them. It makes the entry better for it.

I loved how you put the tone of comics in a historical perspective using Miller and Moore. We wouldn't want a world of comics without their influence to be sure, but it's refreshing to see a director like Johnston pay tribute and respect to source material from the Golden, Silver or Bronze Age of comics.

Personally, I'm very much a Bronze age fan. That is my period and I love everything from it.

I loved your additional thoughts on Evans' performance. He does bring that personality to the character even after his transformation as you mention. He doesn't become some raging ego of unrestraint. He remains grounded. He remains who he is. Great point.

Finally, I also loved your reflection on The Invaders. Indeed, there was something about that book that felt very "nostalgic" as you mentioned. There was something very period about it. The creators of that book really captured that feeling.

Contemporary, darker comics certainly reflect the times and do capture the atmosphere of their respective themes. I don't discount the quality of these books in the process, but I do miss the simplicity of comic books from the Bronze Age. Simple, but complex books.

Great observations about Kirby and my sincere thanks for your additional observations here Doc.

Best,
sff

J.D. said...

Count me in for dreaming of one day seeing and INVADERS film! That would be fantastic. I too have fond memories of reading that title when I was a kid and I was happy to see that the entire run has been reprinted in trade paperback form, which I may just have to scoop up - it would make a for a nice nostalgic trip down memory lane.

We are certainly on the same page re: the CAPTAIN AMERICA film. As someone who has been a life-long Cap fan I appreciated the fidelity to the comic book. They got so many things right. Alto, I was a little bummed at Bucky's fate. I also really loved the introduction of the Howling Commandos and would love to see them get their own film. The actors they cast in those roles were so perfect - acting and looking exactly like their print counterparts.

I also thought Hayley Atwell did exceptionally well in the film. The chemistry between her and Chris Evans felt genuine and I like how the relationship between their characters developed over the course of the film. It never felt rushed or forced. Atwell was well-cast and brought a lot of charm to the role.

Too bad that the next Cap film (the non-AVENGERS one) will be set in the present. It should be interesting to see who they get to direct it.

le0pard13 said...

Oh, Hell YES! This one was one of the best I saw (twice) in this summer season of movies. GREEN LANTERN was a bit tone-deaf (or maybe too much studio interference) so its origin story wasn't as good as should have been (see DC's animated film GREEN LANTERN: FIRST FLIGHT, with Chris Meloni doing Hal Jordan, to see what this could have been). X-MEN: First Class got good to great reviews. But while I enjoyed it, there were some aspects of the film I have issue with (for another time). CAPTAIN AMERICA hit on virtually all cylinders for me, with credit going to Joe Johnson, Chris Evans and a great cast for delivering on the idea. The character is worthy of more installments (both during WWII and present day).

I second the hope someone take up THE INVADERS flag and runs with it. Fine post, SFF. Thanks.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

J.D.

I agree. They mostly atched their "print counterparts". That was definitely one of the best things about the film was how true it stayed to the comic book roots.

So many adaptations really play it fast and loose with the comics. Johnston stayed true mostly. I loved that.

Also, your point about Bucky was a good one. We needed Bucky to develop quite a bit more.

But, you're right about the chemistry between the two leads. It was actually kind of touching that they never conusmated that relationship and while I liked the end quite a bit - I'm a little sad they are leaving the whole World War II thread behind so quickly.

There's a lot they could do with it.. i.e. the Invaders as we'd all agree here.

I think I'm going to pick up Volume One of that Invaders collection too to relive the trip down memory lane.

Thanks J.D.
all the best,
liberty legion

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Cheers L13... just missed you as I was responding to J.D.

Agreed. MORE CAP! Bring on The Invaders! How cool could an Invaders film be? Seriously! That was one bad ass super unit! They would give the Fantastic Four a run for their money! And I love FF!

Okay, I want to see First Class. It looks well acted, but something realy held me back from it.

As you mentioned, one of the things that disappointed me with the X-Men films (ad they have been good tho I didn't care for 3) is how they really messed with the history. They just never really respected the X-Men.

Take a look at books #94-#140 and come up with a script that is true to one of those amazing storylines. I would have been blown away had they brought the whole Woldverine/ Hellfire Club thread to life or even a simple story against the Wendigo, maybe a look at the team trying to bring in Vindicator #109 leading up to an Alpha Flight X-Men smackdown in a sequel. Where are the fact?

Anyway, great points and I really respect Johnston for giving us a taste of the Cap origin story as he handled it. Cheers my friend
sff

PDXWiz said...

Great, great review. I really want to see this; I hate having to wait until they come out on dvd to see most films. This review, and others I've seen, word of mouth from friends whose taste and judgment I trust, make it clear this is the best superhero film not in the current Batman franchise since the heyday of the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man.

I enjoyed the comments from Doc, J.D., and le0pard13. I agree, screw the Avengers for right now (although I do want to see Cap in the Avengers film, but down the road). The Invaders came first, so they must come first!

Namor and Torch #1 should have had films that came out this summer, too, so that they could properly form the Invaders, but I think you could do short prologues for them in an Avengers film, like the Young Indy sequence at the beginning of Last Crusade.

As for the FF films, I liked them, although I didn't love them like I did Spidey, the Hulk with Edward Norton, and the two Iron Man films. (Haven't seen Thor yet, tho.) I really enjoyed the characters of Reed, Victor, and Ben; the Storm youngsters were just okay, and Surfer, too, but there were lots of clunkers overall. Too bad Sam Raimi, or even James Cameron, weren't able to do the FF, too.

Joe Johnston's a great filmmaker; sadly, though, he was in the era of Lucas and Spielberg and Cameron; I loved *batteries not included and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and The Rocketeer and Jumanji. He's drastically underrated, I think.

Thanks for the review and comments, guys!

Gordon Long

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Hey Gordon.

Your first paragraph nails my sentiments exactly on these films. I couldn't agree more.

I loved the first two Tobey films as Spider Man. I never actually saw the third. It didn't look great and received a lot of negatives.

But as much as we would love a film of The Invaders, which in many ways is like a cult property of Marvel, because everyone seems to love it despite it's short run, it likely will never happen.

In fact, it's beginning to sound like The Invaders is the Firefly of comics. I don't think that's an outlandish analogy.

Anyway, not unlike you Gordon I enjoyed the Norton Hulk film too. It was a major improvement on the first even if it wasn't perfect.

I liked the first Iron Man. It was good. The second was a little bloated and felt a little disjointed. I wasn't crazy about it.

I do think you'll find Cap to be one of the best although lower those expectations so you are not disappointed. I fear they may be too high.

Thanks so much Gordon. I loved your thoughts and would love cult fave The Invaders too. Like you, I've enjoyed all of the commentary here. Best, sff

J.D. said...

THE INVADERS is the comic book equivalent of FIREFLY? Yeah, I can see that. Too underrated and ended too soon, IMO.

I think X-MEN 2 is probably one of THE best comic book films. Yeah, they messed around with the comic books, big time, but I still felt that Bryan Singer was respectful to the spirit of the title, which is all I ask for in these big budget Hollywood productions. When you get to more indie comic books (GHOST WORLD, SIN CITY, et al) you can actually involve the creator and be more faithful. It must be so hard to pick and choose what you want to use from titles that have a long history, like X-MEN, SPIDER-MAN, etc. But i think you have to pick a particular story arc and go with it. Titles like BATMAN and SUPERMAN have such long runs that there is so much to draw from. Oh well...

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Hey J.D. You got my analogy exactly.

Your point is well taken utilizing the SInger film as an example. He did a great job and the film would be in my top 10 because he tells a story and it's a good one.

My bigest complaint, and your not wrong to say the source info is vast, is that they don't actualy take a story or arc and go with it. A lot of these films end up a hodge podge of various ideas and various timelines and that's where it goes wrong.

But again, at least tell a story even if you're going to stray. Wolverine is a solid movie and I enjoyed it on the whole despite the various liberties. So I hope you know what I mean.

I would have loved a trilogy of films focused on a faithful adaptaion of the Hellfire Club circa issue #133. It would have been splendid. Wolverine in the sewers gong solo to rescue his comrades etc... It would be something to see images like those brought to life.

I agree that Singer captures the spirit of the group and some directors do exactly that. I think Singer has created one of the best superhero films along with Sam Raimi outside of Nolan.

Anyway, love your thoughts on this and additional commentary. Cheers my friend -sff