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You may have noticed that not a lot of blogging went on here over the last seven days. Kind of a crazy week with too much time spent in the car and not enough time spent in groovy coffee houses, so I haven’t been able to focus my thoughts for the formal review of Captain America: The First Avenger I’ve wanted to write. And my thoughts may not get focused. We’ll see. In the meantime, here are few quick points.
If you like this sort of thing, you’ll probably like this sort of thing. If you’re a fan of the Captain America comic books you’ll probably get a kick out of the movie. I’m a fan of Cap’s from way back and I was mostly thrilled. A few changes in the canonical story disappointed me and I think they could have handled a very important plot point in a way that would have been more moving. But some additions more than made up for that, particularly the idea that Steve Rogers wasn’t just skinny and sickly before he got injected with the Super Soldier serum and the introduction of Tommy Lee Jones’ character. And if you’re already emotionally invested in the Avengers series of movies that’s unfolding, this one fits in nicely and does the job it needs to do of helping to set things up for The Avengers.
The question is, then, how does it stack up against the other movies in the series so far? There are now five, Captain America, the two Iron Man movies, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk. I’ve decided to do what I hope will be a helpful point by point comparison that might answer the question. I’m leaving The Incredible Hulk out of it because, truthfully, I don’t remember it very well, and doesn’t that tell you something, but also because I’m not sure how much of it still figures in the overall scheme of the series now that Ed Norton has been replaced as Bruce Banner by Mark Ruffalo. For purposes of discussion, I’m also leaving out Iron Man 2 except for those aspects that can be treated as part of Iron Man.
So, with the usual warning about possible spoilers, here goes:
Like it matters. All three have the essentially the same plot. Evil mad genius schemes to take over the world, our hero gets his powers just in time to stop him. All three are origin stories, however, so it’s best to compare them on their merits in telling that story. Therefore:
Captain America. Little guy with a big heart wants to fight Nazis during World War II, becomes big guy with bigger heart and fights Nazis.
Thor. Jolly but arrogant and self-indulgent Norse god loses his powers and is banished to Earth for acting like a spoiled brat, mouthing off to his father, and, incidentally, nearly starting a war between the gods and the frost giants. Has to learn humility by living as a mortal and learning to make pancakes. Falls in love, sacrifices self, gets powers back, kicks some more frost giant butt.
Iron Man. Arrogant, selfish, self-indulgent but still roguishly charming billionaire arms dealer and engineering genius Tony Stark builds a metal suit equipped with high-tech weaponry to escape from terrorists, finds he gets a kick out of wearing the suit and playing at being a superhero. Spends a lot of time working out glitches in the suit and figuring out how the hero thing works, which adds some laughs of a kind the other two heroes’ stories lack. Plus Stark is the only one whose personal story isn’t finished with his becoming a hero. Cap’s second personal story, that of a man out of time and essentially without a country, doesn’t pick up until The Avengers movie.
Advantage: Iron Man.
Captain America: As Captain America and Steve Rogers, Chris Evans had the toughest job. Cap is so good, so noble, so pure of heart, and so gosh darned earnest, how do you not play him as a prig and drip? By learning from Christopher Reeve’s Superman and believing in your hero completely and trusting that the audience believes in him completely already too, then add a dash of humor. Evans’ Cap isn’t the kind of hero who cracks wise, but he appreciates and responds warmly to the sense of humor in others. He delivers his hokiest lines as if he means them but he doesn’t expect to convert anyone; he just hopes they’ll understand that he means what he says. And Evans is already giving others their due, stepping back to let them take the screen when it’s their time to hold it, which will serve him well when the actor he has to share the screen with in The Avengers is Robert Downey Jr., who is also generous towards his fellow players. I expect they’ll work well together.
Thor. Thor is the only one of our three heroes who gets to show (and show off) his personality while he’s in action as a superhero. Tony Stark basically becomes a robot as Iron Man and Steve Rogers is any noble officer leading the charge in any war movie ever made. But Thor is at his best when he’s in a fight and Chris Hemsworth has a ball displaying a born swashbuckler’s grace, charm, and style, but with the right degree of steely-eyed menace in the eyes above the grin that ought to warn any adversary they don’t stand a chance.
Hemsworth looks suitably mighty, particularly when shirtless, but he carries his god-like beauty lightly and gives Thor an appealing touch of humility even in his vanity. He is, as a good swashbuckler should be, witty, wittier than Captain America, at any rate, but like Cap he’s no wiseguy and his sense of humor shows itself best in his appreciation of others’ humor. His Thor is affable, gregarious, and enjoys the company of mortals as well as that of his fellow gods and goddesses. He is quick to see the best in human beings. Which is what happens when he meets his love interest-to-be, Jane Foster. He immediately appreciates her intelligence and scientific ambitions and he respects and admires her before he falls in love with her. When she talks about her work, he listens. He truly is a prince among gods. More importantly, he’s a gentleman and he is kind.
Evans and Hemsworth are both very good and either one could be the top pick here, but…
Iron Man: Robert Downey Jr. as…Oh hell. As the captions in the Marvel comics often said, Nuff said.
Advantage: Iron Man.
Captain America. Hugo Weaving looks awesome as the Red Skull and does a fine job caricaturing every Nazi officer in every vintage World War II ever made when the Red Skull is in his guise as Johann Schmidt. But here as in the comics, the Red Skull is basically a male version of the Wicked Witch of the West and spends most of his time delivering threats and screaming “Fly! Fly!”at his winged monkeys.
Thor. The movie doesn’t take enough advantage of Loki’s potential as a mischief-maker, but Tom Hiddleston still manages to convey a sense of mischief being made. As I wrote in my review back in May, his best trick is his expression of Linus-like sincerity. But he’s also witty, eloquent, charming, and extremely intelligent (more a matter of Hiddleston’s performance than anything the script gives him to do or say), admirable qualities that he uses to manipulate Thor and the frost giant king like gullible children. Within the plot, Loki functions in the role of mad genius bent on world---or otherworld---domination, but he isn’t merely power-mad. He is motivated by jealousy and spite and the Cain-like need to punish his brother Thor for being their father’s favorite, but he doesn’t see himself this way. He sees himself as acting as Asgard’s savior. In the old comics and the cartoon series Loki was basically a cackling madman in the manner of that other comic book mischief-maker, the Joker. In the movie, Loki doesn’t cackle. In fact, several times he is on the verge of tears. There’s a sadness at the core of Hiddleston’s performance. He does love both his father and his brother even as he’s made them his enemies. There’s a nobility to him, and more than a trace of heroism. He could have been a true prince among gods, if only he didn’t want to be king.
Iron Man. As Obadiah Stane, Jeff Bridges’ best trick is being Jeff Bridges. We know from the first we shouldn’t trust him, he’s a little too much himself, too affable, too laid back, too good-humored, plus his head’s shaved like Lex Luthor’s, and we can see from the get-go that his interests are not the same as Tony Stark’s. But we can’t help hoping we’re wrong about him. After all, he’s Jeff Bridges, the goodest of good guys. Then as the movie progresses and it becomes undeniable that Stane is up to no good, he grows all the more menacing for still being Jeff Bridges. Affably, good-humoredly, and completely relaxed about it, he’s plotting mass murder and world-wide violence and mayhem. It’s terrifying, until…
He disappears into his role as mad genius bent on world domination and becomes just another Bond villain. He’s pretty much gone from the movie as a character from that point and this is before he actually disappears inside his giant metal suit and is replaced by an avatar in the video game that is the movie’s climactic battle sequence.
Captain America. As Agent Peggy Carter, Hayley Atwell is heavy on the red lipstick, light on heart. I don’t think this is Atwell’s fault. Unlike Thor’s Jane Foster and Iron Man’s Pepper Potts, Agent Carter---and Agent is practically her real first name in the movie. Peggy’s an afterthought.---was invented for the movie, so Atwell doesn’t have a comic book icon to play with or play off of (Editor’s note: I’m somewhat wrong about this. Peggy Carter’s not an iconic character like Pepper and Jane but she’s in the comic book’s continuity. She’s been re-invented for the movie though. See Tony Dayoub’s comment.) and she isn’t given anything to do that couldn’t have been done as well or better by Bucky Barnes or Howard Stark. In fact, considering that the friendship between Howard Stark and Captain America is going to be a source of tension between Cap and Tony Stark in The Avengers---at least, it had better be---it would have made sense to give more of Atwell’s role in the plot to Stark. Well, except for the smooching and the tight red dress. Atwell wears that better than Dominic Cooper probably would have.
Thor. Jane Foster is played by Natalie Portman, which not too long ago would have given Thor the immediate advantage. But in the last year the problem Portman has been faced with in playing a character is that her character is being played by Natalie Portman. It’s become a lot harder to see the character for the movie star. This problem is solved for her by the fact that her character is as intelligent as she is.
Portman’s defining trait as a star and America’s new movie sweetheart is her radiant smile. She simply beams with joy. But she also appears to be one of the smartest young actors at work today and smart is what Jane Foster is. Jane’s a scientist, wrapped up and happy in her work, with a lot to think about besides developing a romance with Norse gods who have fallen to earth. It helps that the script has given Jane more to do than fall in love with Thor. Agent Carter has a job but that job is pretty much all about supporting Captain America (Carter is the sternest looking cheerleader in movie history) and being at hand for Cap to fall in love with her. And Iron Man’s Pepper Potts pretty much lives to be in love with Tony Stark. Jane Foster has a job that requires her to think about other things and when the time comes for her to think about Thor romantically, she can still think about other things---she is capable of being interested in Thor as a man and of still focusing on the scientific questions his presence poses. One of the things that impresses her about Thor is that he is able to talk about her work on her level.
Then there’s that smile. Jane doesn’t need Thor to make her happy. She enters the movie happy. Happy in her work, happy with herself, and happily single. Falling in love makes her happier but it doesn’t save her. This is why Thor falls for her. She is independent, self-reliant, and emotionally self-supporting. If she needed saving in any way, Thor couldn’t fall in love with her because she’d be to him what other mortals are, which is essentially his children. Jane saves other people. She is in her small very human but still very admirable way a heroine.
Iron Man. I’m biased here. Besides the fact that Pepper Potts has one of the best names in the annals of comic book leading ladies, Gwyneth Paltrow has always been my movie girlfriend (Uma understands). Still, although unlike Portman’s Jane Foster, Pepper Potts has no life outside of her love for Tony Stark, Paltrow makes it clear that within those boundaries, Pepper has made room for her to be a person in her own right and that this is something she’s chosen for herself and something she can walk away from, something she has to wait for Iron Man 2 to prove but it’s definitely there to be proved in her performance in this one. And then there’s the party scene in which she wears a backless dress…
Still, as a character Pepper is mainly defined by her role as Tony’s love interest.
Still, there’s that backless dress…
Advantage. Thor, slightly.
Captain America. Except for Bucky Barnes, who is nothing like the Bucky of the comic books, a good thing---this Bucky is Cap’s right hand man, Little John to Cap’s Robin or Tonto to his Lone Ranger instead a of a more useless and goofier Robin to Cap’s Batman---and Neil McDonough as Dum Dum Dugan, who looks like the comic book drawings come to life, right down to the expression in his eyes, the Howling Commandos aren’t much of a presence. The rest of the team are distinguishable only as the black guy, the French guy, the British guy, and the Japanese-American guy.
Thor. Like Loki, the Warriors Three are under-utilized here, but, since I suspect more will be made of them in Thor 2, the movie does a good job of introducing them as distinct and interesting characters worth our having a real rooting interest in. They’re types lifted practically whole from The Three Musketeers. Hogun is Athos, the coolly dangerous leader simmering with tightly controlled rage. Fandral is Aramis, the suave and seductive charmer. Volstagg is Porthos, the boisterous braggart and glutton. But while they aren’t given a lot to do, they are given enough to do to establish themselves as characters who exist as individuals apart from their jobs as Thor’s back-up. Each gets to toss of a few good lines and each is given a moment to shine as himself.
Iron Man. Iron Man doesn’t have any true sidekicks, which is part of the point.
Stark treats the woman who loves him as a sidekick, a big part of the point. His best friend, Jim Rhodes, the future War Machine, comes closer to being an antagonist, which again is part of the point and which comes seriously into play in Iron Man 2.
Hap Hogan, who ought to be his sidekick, barely rises above flunky here, although he gets a promotion in Iron Man 2, and that also is part of the point.
Basically, Jarvis and the other robots who help him in his lab are the closest things he has to sidekicks, and that and the fact that they are actually things are also big parts of the point.
Oddly, Pepper Potts gets a sort of sidekick with Clark Gregg’s first and establishing appearance as the seemingly mild-mannered SHIELD agent, Phil Coulson.
Advantage: Actually, thematically, Iron Man, but dramatically and cinematically and just for the plain fun of it, Thor.
Star turn by old coot movie legend eating up scenery as grumpy and critical father figure.
Captain America. Tommy Lee Jones is at his craggy, grouchy, sardonic best as Cap’s commanding officer, Colonel Chester Philips. His common sense and his training and experience tell him that the scrawny runt Steve Rogers is not up to the job of becoming a super soldier, but he can’t help liking the kid---that he likes him is one of the reasons he wants Rogers out of the program; he doesn’t want the kid to get hurt---and he trusts the judgment of the scientist in charge of the program, Dr Erskine, more than his own. This puts him at odds with himself for a good part of the movie, a situation that makes him grumpier and funnier. After Rogers becomes Captain America it appears on the surface that Jones doesn’t have anything left to do except be grouchy and deliver one-liners, but Jones’ real job from there on out is to believe in Captain America so that we think, If this grumpy old cynic accepts Cap at face value then we should too.
Thor. Mostly a matter of Anthony Hopkins as Odin having fun giving himself notes on how, when the time comes, he won’t be playing King Lear. Otherwise, he’s there to project the kind of moral authority that it’s not only not wise to defy but also wrong to defy so that the audience nods in agreement when Odin banishes his son for his vanity and his stupidity. “Thor is disobeying Anthony Hopkins? Well, then, of course, he should have his hammer taken away from him, the dope!”
Iron Man. This is tricky because he’s also the Villain. But one of the things that Jeff Bridges does that makes Obadiah Stane a great villain is play him exactly as if he wasn’t the villain. Even if he wasn’t an out and out bad guy, Stane would still treat Tony with the same mixture of affection and criticism, give him the same sort of bad advice, and work to take the company away from Stark, although, he would claim, for Tony’s own and the stockholders’ benefit. So Bridges as Stane fits the role of critical father figure but as such he doesn’t add as much to the movie as Jones and Hopkins do to their movies. It’s like how in TV and movie mysteries the murderer turns out to be somebody we were supposed to think was a good guy but we knew from the start was the killer because of Ebert’s rule of the Economy of Characters. We feel shortchanged. Plus, as I said above, as soon as Stane reveals himself as the bad guy he stops being interesting as a character because he stops being a character. He’s just a plot device.
Advantage: Captain America.
Great Character Actor as warm-hearted scientist mentor and supportive father-figure.
Captain America. Underplaying the part beautifully, Stanley Tucci’s main job as Dr Abraham Erskine is to make us see Steve Rogers as Captain America before he becomes Captain America. Erskine believes that the serum he developed only works if the person injected doesn’t need it to become a hero. The important thing is that the subject is a good man---Tucci puts a world of emotion into that little word, good---and Erskine has found in Rogers that good man. Beyond that, Tucci has some very nice throwaway laugh lines, although he earns most of his laughs with subtle gestures and his expressive eyes. And he gets a good death scene that he makes into a great one with another gesture and a smile.
Thor. Actually, as Erik Selvig, Stellan Skarsgard plays this role to Natalie Portman’s Jane. He’s more of a potential father-in-law figure for Thor and in that role his job is to assure us that Thor is worthy of Jane’s love and therefore that he has learned his lesson and changed his ways. Other than that, he’s there to be a human being Thor treats with kindness and respect.
A good drunk scene, no death scene.
Iron Man. Dr Yinsen’s job is slightly different than Erskine’s and Selvig’s. They are there to assure the audience that the heroes of their movies are heroes. Yinsen, played by Shaun Toub, has to make the hero into a hero. Erskine’s serum only brings out the hero in Steve Rogers and gives him the power to act as that hero. Thor is also a hero already, what he needs to learn is how to be a good man. But Tony Stark is a selfish jerk. Yinsen makes him into Iron Man, first, by saving his life, then, literally, by helping him build the suit, then by instructing him in how to stop being a selfish jerk and become a better person, and, finally, by charging him with the mission of making up for his past sins and becoming a protector of humankind instead of a destroyer.
And Yinsen is different from Erskine and Selvig in another way. He has his own demons to contend with. He is not simply a warm and benign father figure, he’s a conflicted and flawed character in his own right.
Terrific death scene.
Advantage: Iron Man.
Supporting players and secondary characters.
Captain America. Lots of points scored here by Dominic Cooper who as Howard Stark delivers a double-dose of fun with simultaneous impersonations of Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator and Robert Downey Jr as Stark’s son Tony. Then there’s Toby Jones as Peter Lorre…I mean as Dr Zola, the Red Skull’s nervous mad scientist sidekick and Richard Armitage as the Third Reich’s most physically resilient secret agent.
But the movie loses points for not including Agent Coulson, which it could easily have done. There’s one scene he should have been in and another he could have been in just for the hell of it. And he could have been there in spirit in the form of his own grandfather, either as one of the Howling Commandos or as an adjunct to Agent Carter. In fact, Agent Carter is basically a female Agent Coulson, so he could have been there as his own grandmother or great-aunt, although it probably wouldn’t have been a good idea to have had her played by Clark Gregg.
Thor. Offers not one but two beautiful starlets in roles that give them lots more to do than be beautiful starlets and in fact lets them not be beautiful but simply themselves, well, their characters---Jaime Alexander as the warrior goddess Sif and Kat Denning who as Jane Foster’s unhelpful assistant Darcy provides the kind of plucky comic relief usually given to a guy. You can sit through the whole movie without noticing or caring that they are beautiful. And neither one is defined by her relationship with a man. They are defined by the jobs they have to do and how well they do them, which in Sif’s case is excellently and in Darcy’s somewhat less than excellently.
Idris Elba makes a redoubtable Heimdall, Colm Feore radiates wicked intelligence through layers of blue laytex as the frost giant king, and Clark Gregg turns up again, this time showing the side of Agent Coulson that makes Coulson one of SHIELD’s top agents and Nick Fury’s go-to guy on the Avengers Project.
Iron Man. Besides Agent Coulson, virtually none, unless you count the terrorist leader Raza, who barely rises above a caricature, and the journalist, who’s basically eye candy and barely has anything to do beyond being bare or at least bare-bottomed for an instant.
This is one point where Iron Man 2 goes Iron Man one better. Clark Gregg returns as Coulson and he’s joined by Sam Rockwell as Tony Stark’s egomaniacal but desperately needy and insecure rival scientist and businessman, Gary Shandling as a posturing United States Senator who can’t help getting a kick out of Tony Stark even while despising him, and Scarlett Johansson whose presence as cat-suited eye-candy is part of her character’s arsenal of secret weapons. But this is also an aspect of Iron Man 2 that can’t be used to inform a discussion of Iron Man since none of the new characters’ plot lines are prefigured in the first movie.
There you have it. Oliver Mannion gives extra points to Thor for best use of special effects. Young Ken Mannion says Captain America has the best action scenes. I award extra points to Iron Man for best cameo appearance by Samuel L. Jackson.
Somewhere in all the above’s buried a review of Captain America so I don’t think I need to write a formal one, but time and mood will tell.
By virtue of having the best leading man and doing the best job of telling its origin story, Iron Man would get the nod as best of the movies in the series so far. But it is also the best written and the best directed and has the funniest jokes. It’s a good movie, all on its own. In writing this post I think I’ve persuaded myself that I liked Thor just a bit better than I liked Captain America. I know a lot of critics thought Thor was dull, and Captain America is definitely not dull. I had fun and as I said above so did the little kid inside me who was a big Captain America fan. And it left me really looking forward to The Avengers.
WARNING. DO NOT PLAY THIS CLIP IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN CAPTAIN AMERICA. MAJOR, MAJOR SPOILERS.