Friday, December 2, 2011

Heroes: Less Filling or Great Tasting?

I've never really come down off the fence in terms of Marvel versus DC.  Batman and Superman have always held more appeal for me as individual heroes, but I still have mad respect for Spider-Man and Daredevil.  Thanks largely to the excellent animated series, the Justice League will probably always be my favourite super-team, but choosing between the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans of DC and Chris Claremont's run on X-Men would probably be a photo finish.

The difference between the two universes is both subtle and distinct, but I don't think it is easy to articulate.  Both universes run the gamut from street level to cosmic storylines, often in the same book, but I think cartoonist Scott Kurtz once expressed the difference as DC being about tying a towel around your neck and pretending you're Superman, while a Thor fan is more likely to pontificate about the mysteries of the universe.  For myself, I don't know if I can define what makes these two comic book settings unique, but vive la difference!

One area I think Marvel has demonstrated its clear superiority in is in transferring their universe to the big screen.  While DC's animated offerings (Bruce Timm's Batman, Superman, Batman Beyond, Justice League) have set new standards of brilliance in doing this on television, Marvel has really outdone them at the movies.  Yes, Richard Donner's Superman has a lot going for it, especially the casting of Christopher Reeve, and Christopher Nolan's take on Batman has been undeniably awesome, but no one in their right mind will try to put these interpretations on the same screen, while Marvel Studios has very intentionally crafted a crafty linkages that not only acknowledge Captain America, Thor, Hulk and Iron Man live in the same universe, but will soon star in the first big-budget super-team movie, The Avengers:

Needless to say, I'm pretty excited about this prospect, and watching Captain America: The First Avenger tonight hasn't done anything to dampen my enthusiasm.

Director Joe Johnson showed himself to be a deft hand with period superheroics years ago with Disney's adaptation of Dave Steven's wonderful comic The Rocketeer.  I made a joyful little squee-noise when I heard he'd gotten tapped to direct Captain America, because this is a character which is very easy to get wrong.  Feel free to watch the 1990 attempt if you don't believe me.

I seriously don't think there is a missed note in this movie.  They move very quickly from revenge (never once mentioning Pearl Harbor) to establishing the Nazi super-science division, Hydra, and its leader, the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) as the villains of the piece.  When Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), inventor of the super-soldier serum that will eventually give the Captain his powers, asks scrawny, 4-F Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) if he wants to kill Nazis, Steve responds, "I don't want to kill anybody. I don't like bullies; I don't care where they're from. "

Costumes are often the most difficult element of these adaptations, and although there was some initial concern on the the internet (like there always is), I think they got it spot on here.  Captain America's costume is a brilliant mix of comic book idealism and battlefield practicality, evoking flying aces and paratroopers as much as Jack Kirby's iconic design.

Like Spider-Man did back in the day, Captain America establishes strong motivations for its principle characters, heroes and villains alike.  For the Red Skull, its about the application of power and world domination; for his research stooge Arnim Zola, it's about the application of undiscovered science; for Steve Rogers, it's the moral principle of doing what's right, especially when it isn't easy.  The story brings these characters and the plot around to a very satisfying climax, and while it doesn't pose any really tough questions for the viewer the way a film like The Dark Knight might, it still takes care to show the price of principle.  My worries about Joss Whedon (writer/director of The Avengers) adding his touches to the script in order to make sure Cap is the same fellow in both movies appear to have been needless.

While no one goes to a superhero movie for the acting, everyone aquits themselves admirably.  Chris Evans does an equally awesome job as scrawny Steve Rogers and brawny Captain America.  Pride of show has to go to Tommy Lee Jones, who, like so many great actors, really appears to be playing himself as the gruff colonel in charge of the super-soldier project.

And although screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have done a marvelous job of making this film accessible to those with no comics background, it is laden with nods to the larger Marvel universe beyond even what we will see in next year's Avengers.  It would have been terribly easy to use yet another generically evil Nazi labcoat as the Red Skull's right hand man, but having eventual super-villain Arnim Zola in the picture was a great touch. Adding Howard Stark (Tony 'Iron Man' Stark's dad) to the origin added even more structure to this shared universe, and didn't feel at all contrived. Seeing Dum-Dum Dugan was great, but casting Neal McDonough from Band of Brothers to play him made it even better, and knowing that his British comrade James Montgomery Falsworth is also the costumed hero known as Union Jack is just icing on the cake.

There's even some nice nods for film buffs, my favourite coming near the beginning when the Red Skull approaches his mythical prize, the Cosmic Cube: "Let the Fuhrer dig in the desert for his trinkets..."

Best of all, the movie is completely bereft of the rah-rah jingoism that the character of Captain America was practically designed for when he was first created back in the '40s.  The movie and the title character proceed with a balance of power and humility which they never seem to lose, and which epitomizes our southern neighbours when they are at their best.

As much as I am looking forward to the next Chris Nolan Batman movie, I am also surprisingly glad to hear DC/Warner will be looking to reboot Bruce Wayne's alter ego for the movies shortly afterwards.  First of all, who would want to follow that act without a significant re-shuffling of the deck?  More importantly, could this give DC the opportunity to create a cohesive movie universe that could have their seminal characters interacting and even perhaps (gasp) teaming up?

If it does (and I certainly hope this is the case!), I really hope they are sitting up and taking notes at films like Captain America.

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