Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Captain America – The First Avenger (2011)

EPSON MFP image

Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & has thus far seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: For me, the key difference between DC and Marvel as companies is that Marvel has always been better at creating characters that are down-­to-­earth and grounded, while DC’s characters are traditionally larger than life and iconic in their titanic stature. Spider-­Man and the X­-Men are relatable characters; Superman and Wonder Woman are inspirational ones. This isn’t absolutely true across the board, and when discussing characters that have existed for nearly a century under the pen of dozens (if not hundreds) of different writers over the decades, there are bound to be many counter-arguments to this admittedly reductive distinction. However, dissecting the different companies’ primary characteristics and output, that difference is the major division between the two. In this sense, Captain America, with his concrete­-if­-antiquated moral code, larger-­than­-life prestige, and well defined ethical concepts, is the Marvel character most like a DC hero, and this, combined with the built-­in fandom that comes from such an outspokenly and inherently patriotic character, has made Cap an enduringly captivating dramatis persona. Despite being only one of many, many jingoistic characters introduced in the build up to (and following) WWII, Captain America continues to be a fan favorite, and it’s no surprise that Marvel has gone to his well many times in their creation of non­-graphic media.

Following his introduction in March 1941 (nine months before the US officially became involved in the war), Cap made his way to the silver screen in under three years, with a film serial being filmed in six weeks in October and November 1943 that started screening in February of the following year. This serial bore little resemblance to the comics character, which film historians attribute to the likelihood that the original script was written to feature Fawcett Comics character Mr. Scarlet; as a result, there is no super soldier serum, no shield, and no mention of Nazis, and Cap’s secret identity is not Steve Rogers but civilian District Attorney Grant Gardner. This would be Marvel’s only theatrical release until 1986’s Howard the Duck. Two made-­for­-TV films, Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon, were released in 1979 and starred Reb Brown; these featured a contemporary former­-marine­-turned­-artist who acquiesces to undergo testing of a “super-­steroid” following an accident and then fighting crime using the costume that he envisioned for the character he created as a visual artist. A Captain America feature, inspired by the financial success of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, was filmed and intended for theatrical release in 1990, but the completed film was such a disaster that it was quietly dumped into the VHS market with little fanfare.

After three attempts at a film adaptation, mostly unsuccessful, a new vehicle for Captain America was envisioned. Screenwriters Leslie Bohem (Daylight, Dante’s Peak) and Larry Wilson (The Addams Family) were initially approached in 1997, but the project was put on hold due to a legal dispute between Joe Simon (co-­creator of Captain America alongside Jack Kirby) and Marvel regarding rights and royalties. This suit was settled in 2003, and the film was batted around for a couple of years, with Avi Arad optimistically announcing in 2006 that he hoped to see the film released in 2008. These plans were again put on hold due to the 2007-­2008 WGA Strike, and plans were finalized in late 2008 following the release of Iron Man, with a planned release date in May 2011 (eventually pushed back to July) under the working title The First Avenger: Captain America (with the two parts of the title being swapped later in production). Joe Johnston, well known for his effects work on Raiders of the Lost Ark and his direction of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and The Rocketeer, was tapped to helm the picture, and Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the screenwriting duo behind the Chronicles of Narnia films, wrote the script.

The film follows scrawny Brooklyn artist Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) who, desperate to participate in the fight against the Axis, becomes a test subject in an experiment to create super soldiers, an experiment based on the studies of German expatriate Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci). Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) also participates in the experiment under the supervision of Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and British liaison Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). The experiment is a success, but an on­site attack means that the project cannot be recreated. Meanwhile in Europe, the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) and his super-science organization, Hydra, have broken away from Nazi oversight in order to pursue his own interests, assisted by Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones). Rogers is immediately enlisted as a figurehead for the war effort, but when he goes behind enemy lines to rescue his childhood friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan), he becomes a real hero. I already have an idea as to how Brandon feels about this film, but, without further ado, here’s his opinion:

EPSON MFP image

fivestar

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Brandon: I’m in that weird little pocket of movie nerds who hold Disney’s cheesier live-action flops like Tomorrowland & John Carter of Mars in much higher regard than they probably deserve. That’s probably a large part of why I got such a huge kick out of 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. At heart, this is director Joe Johnston remaking his commercial flop for Disney, The Rocketeer, into a much more successful film. I know Marvel Studios gets a lot of flack for valuing a “house style” over individual director’s visions, but I think they got the formula right here.They seemingly matched an already-appropriate director to the style they wanted, something mildly attempted by bringing in Shakespearean vet Kenneth Branagh for Thor, but brought to its full collaborative potential with Johnston’s Captain America. I really like The Rocketeer, but it’s a deeply flawed movie. Captain America recreates The Rocketeer‘s Nazi-punching retro-future with no discernible flaws or blemishes. It achieves the exact aesthetic it aims for with few to no missteps. It’s essentially a perfect superhero movie, easily ranking up there with Batman Returns & The Dark Knight as the best I’ve ever seen. And although it’s more closely associated with being a Marvel property than existing under the larger Disney umbrella, I do believe it snugly fits with the old-fashioned earnestness of the flops mentioned above.

From the outside looking in, I wasn’t exactly sure why I had been seeing so much Captain America merch around lately. Captain America t-shirts & jackets are seemingly becoming just as ubiquitous as Hulk Hands were in the early 2000s, except without the iconic quirkiness of the product design to explain the merch sales. I totally get the appeal now. Chris Evans’ Cap is perfectly charming in his 1940s “just a kid from Brooklyn” moxie, especially once he explains that he’s desparate to enlist as a soldier in World War II not to kill Nazis, exactly, but because he can’t stand bullies. So far in the MCU, our heroes have been an ivy league academic of a scientist, a billionaire playboy arms dealer, and a Norse god. Against these titans, Captain America/Steve Rogers stands as the little guy . . . literally. Through a surprisingly smooth bit of CGI magic Chris Evans is shrunken down into a scrawny little baby of a protagonist with a long list of health problems that prevents him from enlisting in the Army. As opposed to the Hulk’s experiment-gone-wrong origins, Captain stands as an experiment-gone-right. A kindly scientist (Stanley Tucci) sees as much potential in Steve Rogers’ moxie as the audience does, and with a little help from Tony Stark’s eccentric bajillionaire daddy (who looks nothing at all like a young John Slattery, by the way) transforms the Captain into the muscled-up beefcake superhero Evans embodies so well. Captain America is a 100% earnest, sarcasmless virgin who physically cannot get drunk. He’s essentially the antithesis of Tony Stark & it’s a welcome change of pace for the franchise at large.

Captain America is a too-good-to-be-true ideal of an American super-soldier, something straight out of a propaganda reel. My favorite part of this film is the way it accentuates that idea instead of downplaying it. Both sides of the war are greatly exaggerated as a Defender of the Free World, Captain’s weapon is a shield made of unobtanium, uh, vibranium & instead of fighting run-of-the-mill Nazis, he faces a futuristic force of futuristic super-Nazis equipped with laser cannons & lead by the even-worse-than-Hitler monster villain Red Skull (whose CGI design is even more impressive than scrawny Rogers’). More importantly, before Captain finds a particular use for himself in the Army, he’s employed as a public face for the war’s propaganda machine, marking the first time I can recall where a Marvel character (if not any superhero at large) exists in a world where he stars in comic books & movies. That’s such a cool idea. An even cooler idea is what happens when he actually starts fighting in the war & the movie devolves into an actual winning-the-war-effort montage instead of faking one. It’s one hell of a callback to the earlier propaganda montage, not to mention a fascinating bit of meta narrative play, and it works like gangbusters.

A lesser film would’ve tried to turn Captain America’s inherent cheese into something darker, grittier, but Joe Johnston’s The First Avenger embraces the cheese wholesale. Far removed from the post-Dark Knight doom & gloom casting its shadow over most blockbusters in recent years, Captain America first introduces its hero in costume selling war bonds at a USO show & first using a shield by wielding a trash can lid in a back alley brawl. This line of irreverent, but wholesome humor is balanced expertly with some surprisingly severe touches, especially in the introduction of Hydra as a worse-than-Nazis force to be reckoned with & in its higher-than-usual wartime bodycount (which includes a kill that might stand as the best propeller death since The Titanic). I said in our Thor review that I wasn’t sure exactly when the MCU became the cutting edge of superhero cinema, since the first few films felt oddly old-fashioned. It’s curious that a film set in the 1940s stands as the first glimpse of the franchise’s transition into becoming the modern standard. It’s a thoroughly fun watch, but stands as the MCU’s most brutally violent film at the time of its release, striking a more or less perfect balance. I’ve heard that 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier is an even better example of the superhero film as a genre, but it’s difficult for me to imagine it getting much better than what’s accomplished here.

EPSON MFP image

fourhalfstar

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Boomer: I wasn’t terribly impressed with Captain America (I hate the subtitle) the first time I saw it. I remember that the frail bodied Steve Rogers looked really silly on the big screen, which put me in the wrong frame of mind from the outset. This wasn’t my only complaint either; I didn’t care for the way that the film seemed to go out of its way, from very early in the runtime, to focus its attention on Hydra as a proxy for the Nazi forces rather than on Hitler’s forces proper. I also hated the way that Cap’s war experiences were condensed into a single montage, which I felt undermined the character’s relevance as a long­-term soldier. Looking back, though, I can’t believe I was such a stick in the mud about it.

This is a delightful movie and represents a continued positive change in the MCU’s direction with regards to protagonist characterization. Steve Rogers is the polar opposite of Tony Stark from the ground up and represents the better angels of our nature. He’s the kind of self-sacrificing role model you or I hope we would have the temerity to be should we be given great power (while Tony is a genius bro who uses his great intellect to build toys for himself and cover his sex and substance abuse issues while only working toward the greater good when he has no real choice). Evans is also the perfect choice to play Cap. There are plenty of men wandering around Hollywood with the physical presence needed to fill out the Cap suit, but Evans brings a humility and humanity to the role that could easily have been lost if casting was only looking for the perfect human specimen (which isn’t to say Evans isn’t, because damn). This could be difficult to pull off, as there really isn’t that much of a character arc for Cap this go­-round; he experiences a lot of changes that don’t affect his characterization up to the loss of Bucky, which is a flaw in the film’s design but also allows room for the character to grow over the course of the films to come.

Sebastian Stan doesn’t seem to be given a lot to work with here, but as obsessive Stan fans on Tumblr who have vivisected all of his scenes with long essays in effort to delineate character moments have shown us, he does some great work with his background role. The casting of Tommy Lee Jones as yet another irascible veteran badass is a little on-­the-­nose, but he’s a lot of fun to watch in his gruffness and begrudging respect, even if it is all a little rote. Dominic Cooper in particular deserves praise for differentiating the elder Stark from his son, embodying many of the same qualities while also demonstrating grief and self-­doubt, effectively portraying a greater depth of character in Howard’s supporting role than we’ve seen in two featured appearances from Tony. On the other hand, Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull was far too over­-the­-top, calling to mind Raul Julia’s portrayal of M. Bison in the terrible Street Fighter adaptation. Toby Jones’s Zola was likewise poorly executed, as his simpering and faux­-sycophancy was obnoxious; every time the villainous duo was onscreen, the film devolved into a bit of a cartoon. Of course, all of this pales in comparison to the introduction of Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter, a.k.a. the Best! MCU! Character!, even if there are moments in this introductory chapter that undermine her badassery (i.e., her apparent jealousy).

Johnston’s experience with period drama and action do the film a great service. Markus and McFeely wouldn’t have been the first team I would have thought of to pen a Captain America flick, but their work on the Narnia adaptations means they, like Johnston with The Rocketeer, have also plied their trade at WWII­-era escapist fantasy period work as well. The pacing is a little strange, as the film invests a great deal of the first act in establishing Steve’s motivations and ideals, compresses all of Cap’s great and valorous wartime battles into three set pieces and one brief montage, and has an epilogue longer than one would expect in a standard action movie. The unusual plot structure helps the audience feel somewhat time-­lost, however, which adds to the film in equal measure to the extent that it detracts from it. The film also manages to set up future installments without that distracting from the cohesiveness of this film as well. Overall, this is the first truly great film of the MCU, and cemented, at least for me, the long term viability of this franchise.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Lagniappe

Boomer: Continuity-­wise, Cap will, of course, go on to participate in the Avengers films, the first sequel The Winter Soldier, and the upcoming Phase Three flagship feature Civil War. Best MCU Character Peggy Carter has now appeared in more individual Marvel productions than any other character, with her appearance here and cameos in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Ant-­Man, and, of course, her leading role in Agent Carter (catch the premiere of Season 2 on January 19!). Dominic Cooper’s Howard Stark reappears on that series in a supporting role as well, but the film’s most far-­reaching addition to the MCU canon (other than Cap himself) is the first appearance of Hydra, which will have implications that reverberate way down the line. In non­-continuity news, I always forget that future Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman and future Game of Thrones competitor Natalie Dormer are both in this film in small, inconsequential roles, so it’s a nice re-­surprise to see them here.

Brandon: My biggest gripe about the MCU as a whole has been its individual films’ shoutouts to outside properties often having no immediate consequence. There’s a little bit of that wankery going around here, mostly in a last minute Nick Fury cameo (as always) & in a post-credits stinger that promotes the then-upcoming Avengers crossover movie in a hilariously awful “You Wouldn’t Steal a DVD” editing style. For the most part, though, other Marvel properties are incorporated into the fold for more purposeful effect here. Daddy Stark is given an integral role in the creation of Captain America instead of merely making an appearance. Even more importantly, the MCU’s MacGuffin-at-large, the Infinity Stones, aren’t especially interesting in the abstract, but I don find it highly amusing that Hitler would be desperately seeking an Infinity Stone in this version of history. They even create a little bit of retroactive connective tissue here by making it perfectly logical that Tony Stark would be in possession of Cap’s shield in a throwaway gag in the previously-released Iron Man 2. Even if Nick Fury’s presence is again mostly inconsequential (as has been in the case in every MCU film besides Iron Man 2), they’re still working in the right direction here.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

EPSON MFP image

fourhalfstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.

The Forest (2016)

EPSON MFP image

three star

Horror is not a genre typically known for its good taste or sense of tact. That’s why it’s kind of fucked up, but not at all surprising that (the first major release of 2016) The Forest turned a mental health epidemic into plot fodder to support cheap jump scares in a mostly mediocre horror pic. In case you’ve missed the film’s ad campaign, The Forest is a spooky ghost story set in the real-life Aokigahara forest, a wooded area near Mt. Fuji in Japan where startling numbers of (again, real) people have been known to ritualistically commit suicide. The Forest, of course, has no interest in addressing the cultural stigma attached to suicide & pays only the faintest attention to Aokigahara’s troubled history (which stretches back even before the suicide epidemic). For the film’s purposes, Aokigahara is merely a spooky backdrop for a fairly standard ghost story & not much more. Imagine if another country made a found footage slasher film about the 9/11 terrorist attacks & you’d get a pretty good idea of how crass The Forest is as an intellectual property. (Also, I would totally watch that 9/11 slasher.)

Thankfully, I don’t need to look to PG-13 horror flicks starring supporting actors from Game of Thrones (Natalie Dormer, in this case) as pillars of morality. I’ve accepted horror as a mostly exploitative genre by nature, so the general ickiness of The Forest doesn’t bother me too much, if at all, especially considering that it’s at least the fourth movie that’s been staged there since 2010. This allows me to see the film for what it truly is: a generic ghost story set in the woods. If anything truly bothered me about the film it’d be its clunky exposition that required multiple flashbacks & mood-setting conversations before the film finally gets lost in the titular forest nearly a third of the way into its runtime, but even that offense is forgivable once the story gets rolling. As a modern horror flick for the PG-13 crowd, The Forest is surprisingly decent. I’d dare say that large chunks of the concluding 45min even approach greatness (without ever exactly achieving it) as the film’s themes crumble into a satisfyingly pessimistic climax. If the first 45 minutes were nearly that focused & confident, we might even have something truly recommendable here.

The Forest‘s plot concerns an American housewife (Natalie Dormer) searching for her twin sister (also Natalie Dormer, duh) in the famed Aokigahara forest after she has been reported missing for several days. As the film progresses it becomes apparent that the missing twin has a history of suicide scares & struggles with depression, not to mention a history of familial mental health issues at large. Something pretty incredible starts to take shape during these revelations: The Forest begins to establish its own unique mythology through the specific imagery of basements & children’s toy viewfinders. It even accomplishes this through flashbacks to a childhood trauma, which is curious considering that flashbacks are what makes the film’s opening half hour such a clunky slog.

A lot of The Forest goes more or less exactly as you’d expect a ghost story set in the wilderness to go. There’s a wealth of jump scares surrounding creepy demon children & the elderly (whose presence are explained in a brief history lesson about Aokigahara’s past & mythology) with CGI-altered faces. There’s also an obligatory Stranger Who Cannot Be Trusted & incessant, well-intended advice not to camp in the woods overnight & to always remember “Do. Not. Leave. The. Path.” that the main character, of course, ignores the first time she gets the chance. The film can also surprise you at times if you allow it, though. I particularly enjoyed the way its natural setting was employed in its HD nature photography & in the way its ghostly hallucinations allowed the reality & physical landscape to shift from scene to scene.

As I said, though, what’s most surprising about The Forest is the way it finds its own sense of purpose through the imagery of a memory of a basement-set childhood trauma, as well as its resolve to bring its themes to a satisfyingly pessimistic, fucked up conclusion instead of a falsely happy one. I didn’t expect nearly that much effort out the formlessness of its first act & the morally reprehensible aspects of its pedigree. January & February can typically be dumping grounds for a lot of lackluster horror properties, but this one wasn’t all that bad. If nothing else, it’s far more satisfying than The Lazarus Effect, which was unleashed upon us around this same time last year.

-Brandon Ledet

 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Parts I & II (2014, 2015)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

I’ve enjoyed following the Hunger Games saga, both as a series of YA novels & and as a series of dystopian sci-fi film. It’s a pretty grim franchise for something a lot of people consider “kids’ stuff”, one that takes its forcing-to-children-to-fight-to-the-death-for-entertainment premise very seriously. Its haves-vs-have-nots dystopian world-building is nothing particularly new and can especially be seen telegraphed in properties like Battle Royale & The Running Man, but I think it’s a pretty great sci-fi intro for teens, especially refreshing for its strong female protagonist Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence in the films, duh) & in the way its potentially-corrosive love triangle conflict is handled. One strange aspect for me has been how the film versions of the Hunger Games trilogy have resisted the law of diminishing returns. I felt that Suzanne Collins’ novels started at their strongest point, doing a great job of establishing an in-the-moment intensity in its abysmal future-world by dragging the audience along closely with Katniss’ experience navigating the Hunger Games. The quality dropped off a bit for me in the sequels, though, as the pacing seemed to get away from Collins and large swaths of summarizing overtook the focused intimacy of early scenes. The first movie was pretty great as well, doing a good job of capturing Katniss’ in-the-moment POV, but the film series subsequently seemed to improve from there, knowing exactly what to show & what to ignore in Collins’ sprawling narrative for maximum effect.

EPSON MFP image

Mockingjay – Part I might just be the pinnacle of the Hunger Games movies for me. General consensus has the franchise peaking with the second film, Catching Fire, but I’d say it’s at the very least a close call. the film’s themes of PTSD, regret, powerlessness, and the pressures of being the face of a revolution all hit me pretty hard. I’ve heard friends & family describe the film as boring, saying nothing happened, which is pretty surprising for a film with such a high bodycount & grandscale warfare, but I had a genuinely emotional reaction to its horrors, getting teary-eyed at the film’s hospital bombings, mass graves, and three-fingered solutes. Its murderers’ row of talented actors certainly didn’t hurt: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, Natalie Dormer, and Donald Sutehrland are all at the top of their game here, which is really saying something. I also appreciated scenes of Jennifer Lawrence, who is an incredibly gifted actor, pretending to be an incredibly inept actor as Katniss fails miserably to produce convincing propaganda clips to rally support for a revolution. Mockingjay – Part I‘s riots, uprisings, strikes, and rescue missions were all a lot more satisfying to me than expected & Lawrence deserves a lot of credit for anchoring the film’s emotional resonance.

Mockingjay – Part II unfortunately didn’t hold up quite as well for me. I think the issue is that Collins’ summarizing had gotten out of control by the final book, so that the film version struggles to make individual scenes count for much as it chases an exponential momentum of a plot trying to wrap up a widespread political revolution, a small family’s struggle to remain a unit, and a strained, increasingly bitter love triangle in just two hours time. There were a few small moments to enjoy in the chaos — my favorite was when Katniss is called out for the “tacky romance drama” & cliché  “the one” specialness of her mythology at a wedding — but for the most part the films struggles to let its Big Moments properly breathe. Mocking Jay – Part II‘s killer C.H.U.D.s & third act Major Character Death both failed to land with full impact thanks to the runaway momentum of Collins’ plot & pacing. And because director Francis Lawrence did such a great job with Catching Fire & Mockingjay – Part I, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt & suppose that the rushed nature of Mockingjay – Part II was far from his fault. Considering all of the ground that the novel covers (I’m struggling not to go long here just touching on it), Francis Lawrence  could’ve stretched Mockingjay into its own separate trilogy & given each underserved scene its own proper moment to shine.

I can’t imagine impatient fans, who groused about splitting the finale into two parts in the first place, would’ve been receptive to a Mockingjay – Part III,  though. If you consider that Francis Lawrence had no choice but to split the finale into two parts, I think he did a great job of adapting a difficult work of fiction for the screen. Mockingjay – Part I carries the emotional weight the film series as earned over the last few years & Mockingjay – Part II does the necessary work of bringing the whole thing to a close. The two halves function well together as a single, four-hour feature. One picks up exactly where the other leaves off & together they do a satisfactory job of carrying a work that’s spread pretty thin to a convincing conclusion. Although I’d contend that Part I is the far superior picture, they average out to something pretty great in the end, which fairly unusual for the third film in a sci-fi trilogy.

Bonus points: I’d like to take this opportunity to give kudos to the Hunger Games series for being the only action franchise I can think of where fashion as an artform plays a deeply integral part to the films’ central themes. I particularly liked a moment in Mockingjay where Katniss is told she’ll be “the best dressed rebel in history” & it’s a sentiment that actually means something significant. It’s a cool, distinguishing detail, if nothing else.

– Brandon Ledet