Captain America and Thor (2011)
Captain America: The First Avenger
Directed by: Joe Johnston
Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Based on the Comic Book Created by: Jack Kirby and Joe Simon
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne, J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich
Based on the Comic Book Created by: Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby
I mentioned in my review of Iron Man 2 that Tony Stark and his alter ego were underdog favorites of mine as a kid. The same cannot be said of Captain America or Thor. Something about Captain America’s pseudo-sissy non-weapon of choice and his principal focus of patriotism made him a big yawn for me. Thor on the other hand, I just didn’t get. His costume was lame, he was based on Norse mythology which was kind of cool but then he was somehow involved in the rest of the Marvel continuity and he just felt like a Superman ripoff somehow. I dunno, I guess I’m funny about superheroes.
But the thing is, the characters themselves don’t really matter. What makes a comic book story interesting is not the origin story or the costume or the powers, it’s the story and what you do with the character that makes the difference. And from everything I ever tried, Thor and Cap always had boring books. However, as I also mentioned in my Iron Man 2 review, I’ve gotten pretty amped for the upcoming Avengers movie so I felt it my duty as an occasional comic book nerd and frequent movie dork to “catch up” as it were with the in-movie continuity. I rented both and watched them back to back.
What struck me initially was the difference in quality between the two flicks. Had you asked before I watched them both which I was likely to enjoy more, I’d have probably put my money on Thor as being the better of the two. The surprising thing is, I enjoyed Captain America immensely more than Thor.
This is a double review so let’s start with the weaker of the two. The principal problem with Thor is that it had way too many writers involved. Any time you see more than one or two names on a writer’s byline, it’s worth being cautious. Thor is a mess because it has too many characters, tries to cover too much ground and can’t possibly cram everything into its two hour running time. Now, lots of characters aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but lots of characters who have to portray believable relationships with themselves and lots of characters that need compelling arcs means you have to be laser focused to get it all into a standard length film. Consider: We have our title protagonist, Thor, who must have a principal arc himself, plus he needs relationship arcs with each of the following: His father Odin, his brother Loki, his band of warrior-friends (ideally this would be individual, with so much else going on it has to be collective, which means these characters ought to be combined into one or two at the most; here there are four) and his Earthly love interest, Jane. There is also the matter of his mother, Frigga, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Coulson, the transporter guardian Heimdall and the leader of the sworn enemies of Asgard, frost giant King Laufey, each of whom should have some kind of purpose in the film but whom for various reasons can’t possibly get enough development to ever matter.
There is enough story inherent in the Thor/Loki/Odin dynamic, along with the frost giant threat and King Laufey, to make for a full and complete movie. There is also enough story in the dynamic of Thor losing his power, being cast to Earth and having to prove himself while he learns to love humans through the proxy in Jane for a complete movie. What you can’t do is take two entire arcs and try to interweave them or overlap them and hope that somehow, magically, they end up being complete as the sum of their parts. It’s too much to ask of everyone involved. Some of the things that get lost in this particular shuffle: a believable relationship between Thor and Jane; a believable character arc for Loki; a purpose for the frost giants and/or King Laufey; a coherent connection to S.H.I.E.L.D.; an explanation for why Heimdall has so damn much screen time and development when other characters like, say, Odin or Loki, do not.
It’s not easy to pinpoint the exact source of the problem, apart from an overly ambitious script. Chris Hemsworth—well, he certainly looks like Thor, I’ll give him that. He’s pretty good at portraying the cocky bravado of the pre-exile Thor, but he struggles to convincingly display character growth so that when he inevitably learns to deserve his powers it kid of feels like, “Uh, yeah, sure. Okay.” And bless Natalie Portman’s pretty heart: she is one of the most inconsistent actresses around. Given challenging, dynamic, expectation-busting roles (Closer, Black Swan, The Professional) and she can stand up with the best in the biz. But she advertises her satisfaction with the shoot and the script on her sleeve, and if she’s asked to come across as the girl next door, or she’s asked to put impact into flat dialogue, she struggles to even be believable as a human (Star Wars, Mars Attacks). Anthony Hopkins and Renee Russo are wasted as Odin and Frigga, and Tom Hiddleston gamely gives his Loki what he has, but he’s no match for a script that can’t seem to decide what he’s supposed to be from one minute to the next.
What really frustrates about Thor is that it gets so caught up in its story that it forgets to even be big dumb fun. There are precious few special effects-laden action sequences, though there are an awful lot of scenes of people getting teleported in the Bifrost portal. I mean, there are so many that it starts to get funny. The Bifrost ends up being the most well-rounded character in the whole film, and its demise is the one that had the most emotional impact. Actually, I take that back because excepting King Laufey and the non- or semi-sentient Destroyer robot thing that Thor and friends fight at the end, everyone else makes it out alive. Not exactly high stakes for the good guys, you know? One early battle sequence between Thor’s warriors and the frost giants is pretty visually stimulating, but after that all the action is far inferior to even the Black Widow infiltration scene from Iron Man 2. If you can’t outdo Scarlett Johansson in spandex and you’re a friggin’ GOD—
Well, actually, I can see how that would be hard to stack up against. Anyhow.
So after Thor, I wasn’t really having high hopes for Captain America. But I was amazed to find that it was actually much, much better than Thor. The main thing Captain America does right that Thor doesn’t is it sets up the Rip Van Winkle bit at the very beginning and very end of the movie, but 98% of it is all origin story set in World War II. Now, I’ll grant that the set up of Steve Rogers being this wimpy little pencilneck and having beefcake Chris Evans play him with CGI kind of like a reverse Hulk effect is a bit transparent sometimes. But, I’ll be honest. You can tell in The Hulk that they got away with some cartoony effects because typically when the big green guy is onscreen, he’s jumping around, flinging Mack trucks and dodging tank shells. These are action scenes and we’ve trained ourselves as the audience to let go of some of our visual disbelief when the fightin’ starts. So it’s impressive that nearly every effects shot of Steve Rogers is a slow, lingering, well-lit shot and it almost always works.
The story follows über-patriot Rogers as he tries to enlist in the army but is constantly thwarted by the bad genetic hand he was dealt. A German expat, Dr. Erskine, working with the US Army against the Nazis, selects Rogers to be part of an experimental program to make super soldiers. The result of the serum and some tech help from a young Howard Stark (father of Iron Man’s Tony), the transform the scrawny Rogers into a muscle-bound badass with strength, speed, agility and stamina beyond any normal human. A saboteur from a fringe occult research branch of the Nazi party, Hydra, infiltrates the experiment and tries to steal Erskine’s serum. Rodgers stops him, but Erskine dies in the process, setting the program back. Rogers is then facing two options: settle for life as a professional lab rat, or try to do something to help. He agrees to become a pitchman for the Army, doing traveling bond promotional shows, and seems to be more or less into it until he goes to do a show for some actual front line troops who are disgusted by his phony showboating and boo him off the stage. When he realizes they’re so hostile because he’s a pretend soldier while they just got practically wiped out by Hydra, Rogers, aided by skeptical love interest Peggy Carter (played with smooth British charm by Hayley Atwell, channeling Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale), stages a daring rescue.
Rogers begins to embrace his abilities and the Army falls in line, granting him leadership over many of the rescued POWs to form a task force specifically designed to combat Hydra, who are growing immensely powerful under the leadership of Johann Schmidt, also known as Red Skull. Red Skull happens to be the only other person to have received the serum, albeit in an earlier form that left him deformed with a blazing red, skull-like visage.
The nice thing about Captain America is that it uses a straightforward, classic hero’s quest tale to give a sense that you’re really watching an old comic book come to life. The action is stylized and unrealistic, but believable despite and it never goes so far off into lunatic territory that it feels it has to somehow out-tech Iron Man, set some eighty or ninety years in the future. Hugo Weaving turns in a toothy, fun performance as the generically megalomaniacal Red Skull, and the screenwriters resist the temptation to have Captain America rewriting history by getting in a fist fight with Hitler or something. Evans as Rogers is convincingly napoleonic when necessary and does some nice physical acting work early on after getting his powers, showcasing his excitement and glee at finding out what his newly juiced body is capable of. He has legitimate chemistry with Atwell and Tommy Lee Jones turns in a classic performance that is tailor made for his brand of deadpan delivery.
The movie does bog a little right before the climax with some extended montages of Captain and his pals busting up Hydra, and the Bucky character felt kind of shoehorned into the plot to give Cap a bit of emotional turmoil, but all of it is forgivable. My one complaint is that, in spite of my appreciation for them only bookending the film with the present day connection, Evans’s acting stumbles a bit right at the end when he’s supposed to be in awe of the modern world, so different from the one he remembers. Perhaps the script is what fails here, not giving him enough time to react, but there is just something about the whole scene that doesn’t work, and I’d almost expect it to have been something that occurred early in The Avengers film, not as a sour note to leave an otherwise very good movie on.
I think, somewhere between the excellent first two Iron Man films, a half-decent Hulk movie, a very good Captain America vehicle and a mostly bad Thor, there’s enough reason to be incredibly hopeful for the forthcoming Avengers. Maybe I’m also biased because Joss Whedon is behind the team-up flick, and I happen to think he rarely goes wrong, but Marvel Studios has been doing a lot of things right lately, and I think even though the average of these two movies is only three stars, I’m ready to pull down my fanboy goggles and line up opening weekend for The Avengers.