Why “Captain America: The First Avenger” Succeeds -The Antiscribe Analyzes

“No matter what happens tomorrow…remember to be true to who you are.  Not a perfect soldier…but a good man.”

Call this sort of a companion piece to my previous entry on Green Lantern, where I discussed why I felt it was such a tremendous failure.  Having just seen Captain America: The First Avenger, which was a wonderfully fun “popcorn movie” that fired on nearly all cylinders, I felt compelled almost to use it as a way of reemphasizing my point by discussing why, in contrast, this film worked so very well.

Certainly, Captain America has some advantages that Green Lantern did not – for starters, most people could probably pick the title character out of a line-up.  All things being equal, Captain America is better known as an image than he is as a character, and for many years, like the Lantern has been considered a B-level hero in popularity.   But unlike the Green Lantern, whose backdrop is wacky, alien landscapes with extraterrestrial populations, Captain America is grounded very much in our history and cultural memory; a walking piece of wartime propaganda who lives on as a dependable exemplar of American ideals.  Nevertheless, Captain America can be a slippery slope all his own – a superhero whose image screams “corn,” and who can, at first appearance, seem as two-dimensional as the parchment Thomas Jefferson wrote his little Declaration on some 235 years ago.

The first appearance of Captain America, March 1941.

In that regard, the makers of Captain America tried to, successfully, invoke a different time – when patriotism was non-partisan and non-ideological, and good and evil were questions of existence instead of existential thought.  It’s the type of movie that kind of reminds us of why people ever really cared about superheroes to begin with…they were amazing, they were fun, they were idealistic, and they were unequivocally good.  Set during the Second World War, during the era where the superhero first made his appearance as a short-lived but popular patriotic character in Timely Comics (where he was created by Joe Simon and the legendary Jack Kirby), the film evokes a vibrant retroactive nostalgia for what is probably best called “the myth of World War II:” the illusionary narrative where the good guys always conquered bad guys, everything came up wine and roses, and the decimations of war and genocide were subsumed in favor of patriotism and inspiration.   And in the right situation, there’s really nothing wrong with that all.  It’s important to remember, it was the creation of that myth that helped win us that War in the first place.  And there is no more lasting vestige of that myth than old Captain America (or Cap, to his friends and fans).

The film relates the story of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a scrawny, sickly, scrappy kid from Brooklyn desperate to fight for his country, and his journey and transformation into becoming the eponymous star-spangled super hero of wide renown.  After being rejected repeatedly from Army enlistment stations as unfit for duty due to his diminutive physical stature and medical history, Rogers, through a chance meeting with emigre military scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), is given the chance to potentially take part in the government’s top secret Super Soldier program.  Impressing Erskine and project leaders Colonel Philips (Tommy Lee Jones) and Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwill) with his ingenuity, bravery, and compassion, Rogers becomes the first and only test subject for Erskine’s transformation process, which grants him heightened physical abilities including enhanced strength and increased size.  When the process is sabotoged by members of the Nazi breakaway group Hydra, Rogers is still denied the opportunity to fight, exiled into performing as the character Captain America at bond rallies in vibrantly splashy stage numbers. Going into action on his own and rescuing American and Allied troops from the clutches of Hydra, Rogers earns himself the respect of his fellow soldiers and the opportunity to see battle as a real, genuine Captain America.  Opposing Cap at the head of Hydra is his Nazi supersoldier counterpart Johann Schmidt, AKA the appropriately named Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).  Along with his henchman Dr. Armin Zola (Toby Jones), the Red Skull seeks to harness an otherworldly power source that may allow Hydra to take over the world…

The Red Skull: not a face you'd want to see on the one dollar bill.

Captain America, on its own merits, may not be a great movie, but it would be almost impossible to call it a bad one.  It’s one of those cases where not all the parts are great, but nearly all of them are good, and as a result you have a movie that hits a certain level of quality and manages to maintain it all the way through.  At the core of it is an outstanding cast – Evans is extremely likable and grounded as Rogers, and avoids the broad caricature that other interpretations of Cap often fall victim to, and the lovely Atwill has what is likely a breakthrough role as his love interest.  Tommy Lee Jones is as dependably gruff and lovable as ever, and Tucci gives the film’s best performance as Erskine; his scenes with Rogers are by far the film’s most poignant and philosophical.  As for Weaving and Toby Jones, they reminded me a great deal of Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains in consistency if not in approach; they can probably play villains like these in their sleep yet still do them better than anyone else.  The film also offers some of the best use of CGI I’ve seen in quite a while; to present the effect of the pre-Cap Rogers, Evans’s head was digitally placed on the body of a much smaller man, and the effect is remarkably seamless (admittedly, for issues of personal adequacy, I desperately wanted to believe that Evans’s Captain America physique was some miracle of CGI, but no such luck) .   The script is alternatively funny, touching, and exciting, but never so much of any of the three that it manages to overwhelm the material.  And director Joe Johnston, himself a veteran of so many period films, such as the thematically similar The Rocketeer, knows very well how to evoke the nostalgic elements of these earlier times.

Case in point, this poster - which is awesome.

But there is more to the success of the whole of Captain America than the sum of its admirable parts (and I’m not talking about Cap’s ludicrous pecs).  Just as Green Lantern failed by never understanding its character or the world around it, Captain America succeeds because it precisely understands  the appeal of its hero, and it’s creators crafted the film outwardly from there.  A shining example of this occurs in an absolutely marvelous montage sequence that could have been drawn directly out of a 1940’s musical (Yankee Doodle Dandy comes directly to mind), which encapsulates Cap’s touring as Captain America, performing an Alan Mencken-penned song-and-dance number.  In these numbers, Rogers wears a cheesy felt version of the “classic,” and admittedly silly, Captain America outfit, where he sings a song and basically makes a fool out of himself, before knocking out a Hitler lookalike at the climax of each performance.  The beautiful thing about the sequence is that it is postmodern and self-aware without being ironic.  It sends up the cornball aspects of the Captain America image to emphasize the more authentic one.  It displays a level of awareness and sophisticated understanding about this character that the makers of Green Lantern probably couldn’t even fathom.

Kelly, Powell, Astaire, Cagney...and Captain America.

The thing that has always made Captain American unique in the world of Marvel Comics (within which he reemerged in the early-sixties and has maintained a constant presence ever since), is that he is, within the Marvel continuity, something of a straight man to everyone else.  While Marvel has always been known as the home of “heroes with issues,” Steve Rogers has always been the “normal” one, whose main conflict has always been that the world around him is gray when he mainly sees things in black and white.  In this film, we’re given the earlier version of Captain America – the one before the world went irrevocably gray, and where superheroes were superheroes because they were heroes.

You know that it's saying something when the dude in the Betsy Ross get-up is the "normal one."

In a separate piece that I’m currently been revising for publication here, I partially discuss how the duality of good and evil have become blurred in the new millenium, and in ways that have been positive and negative.  Certainly, Captain America embraces the sharp duality of good and evil, but what I greatly appreciated was that it precisely champions the qualities of good and demonizes the qualities of evil.  It’s hardly a searing examination of either, but often other stories of heroes and villains are dependent on motive and psychological impulse.  Batman, for instance, is driven to fight crime by the death of his parents and Spider-man by the guilt over failing to save his uncle from being killed by a criminal he let escape.  Captain America, however, is a hero because he understands the difference of right and wrong, pain and loss, triumph and sacrifice due simply from his own quality of character in the face of a life of adversity as “the little guy.”  Everything we understand about Steve Rogers he wears on his sleeve, and from the first time in the film he laments that others are giving their lives for his country and the he should not be expected to do anything less, we know everything about him that we need to know.  Captain America deftly reminds us that the main job of a hero is not simply to fight evil, but to help his fellow man – who, with simply a little change in circumstances, could have been a hero themselves.

Captain America surrounded by his fellow man...and also a hot Englishwoman.

In contrast to Rogers – who, ironically, would be the physical embodiment of the Nazi Ubermensch – is the Red Skull.  Like Cap, he wears his personality skin deep (though perhaps more literally), but his character’s evil within the film is the thematic opposite of Cap’s goodness.  While Cap sees himself as just another soldier, the Red Skull sees himself as a god among all men.   Many reviews I’ve read have commented a great deal on how this film upholds the tradition of using Nazis are such dependable villains, but the film actually takes great pains to establish Hydra as a rejection of Nazism, and Schmidt actually makes a point of disparaging Hitler’s fascistic ideal.  The Red Skull of the film certainly does share the Fuhrer’s own self-deification, but his evil is almost more a byproduct of objectivism than fascism.  This Red Skull is not about finding the ideal, he’s about placing everyone beneath him, and therein lies the contrasts between both he and Hitler and he and Cap.  For a movie so heavily steeped in nostalgia, I think there is a contemporary point being made here.

As it turns out, it wasn't Old Man Withers - who runs the haunted amusement park - after all.

What, in many respects, separates Cap from so many other heroes, truly, is that he is not a Demigod made flesh, but the Ideal Soldier – one who defends his country, regardless of the sacrifice, regardless of the odds; who fights bravely and for the right reasons, and ultimately, albeit in slightly altered fashion, gives his life so that others may live.  And certainly, from Cap’s enduring heroism comes the film’s almost wonderful nostalgic feel, from its excellent Yankee Doodle Dandy inspired USO montage, to its almost newsreel like sequences (well, if newsreels were ever directed by Michael Bay) depicting Cap’s heroic career, to its romance, to its humor, to its pure uncynical heart.   Of course, Captain America: The First Avenger, is not, in and of itself, the end of our hero’s journey.  But that story gets told on another day.  (That “another day,” of course, is coming in May 2012.)

By the way, if your projectionist turns the movie off before the credits are over...kill him.

Of course, the one real problem I had with the film was that the studio felt the need to tack on the awkward subtitle of The First Avenger, which will actually be used as an alternate title in foreign markets where it is felt that anything with “America” in it will foster resentment and drive away business.  It’s a sad and deeply cynical state of affairs when the image of our country, that so many people over the last 235 years have given their life for, has come to this.   I wonder what old Cap would have to say about that?

Why “Green Lantern” Failed – The Antiscribe Analyzes

Soooooo baaaad...but if you were judging by this poster, you probably already knew that. (Warner Bros.)

Well, after seeing Green Lantern, the long-awaited if not necessarily anticipated film version of the popular DC Comics superhero, I kind of knew I had to write about it…but for some reason, a regular old review didn’t seem to be quite enough.  Or perhaps I should say “bad review,” because this movie was plenty bad.  But for me, the reasons why a movie is bad, especially when it costs a ridiculous amount of money to make, is always far more interesting that just outright emphasizing how terrible a movie is.  And hopefully, for someone somewhere, more constructive.

It bears significant emphasizing, though, that Green Lantern is pretty terrible, and the tepid response it has received from fans and critics and at the box office – $52 million it’s first weekend, with a large portion of that inflated due to 3D  – only cements that fact.  Nearly two weeks in, it has made only about $125m, or less than 40% of its estimated $325 million production and marketing budget (numbers courtesy of BoxOfficeMojo), essentially rendering what was intended to be  new movie franchise dead on arrival.   The film rather underwhelmingly tells the origin story of the Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, played by Ryan Reynolds – who does a lousy job, but he’s honestly  among the least of the film’s problems.  An all around hotshot test pilot in the cliched Top Gun mold,  Jordan ends up recruited by a dying member of the Green Lantern Corps  (kind of an intergalactic police force made up of aliens of various races), to be its newest member.  Armed with a green ring that projects energy constructs fueled by its wearer’s will (or something like that), Jordan must win acceptance from the elite Corps members, including the hard-nosed alien chief Lantern Sinestro (Mark Strong), battle a planet consuming entity named Parallax, defeat the insane psychic-powered, cranial enhanced villain Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), and woo his boss and true love Carol Ferris (a miscast and overly gamine Blake Lively).  Chosen by his ring because he apparently knows no fear, though the film stupefyingly takes great pains to emphasize that the opposite is true, Jordan’s journey takes him to Oa, homeplanet of the Guardians of the Universe – sort of the governing body of the Corps – and, well, a few particular locations on Earth, I guess.  The relative lack of scenery change in such as supposedly epic movie is another of this movie’s issues, actually.

Its hard, really, to choose simply one place to start to describe the relative “badness” of this movie, but I’ll try to keep it to the macro.  The film isn’t attrociously bad, like this year’s Green Hornet, or even entertainingly bad, like, oh…let’s say The A-Team.  It’s just a flat, boring, numbing kind of bad.  The script feels like it was culled together from the best,or perhaps I should say the most functional, scenes from a number of writers’ drafts (the film credits four), with expositional dialogue by Geoffrey Rush (who voices one of the ancilliary Lanterns) filling in the gaps in the story.  Hal Jordan as a character just feels like a hodge podge of types ‘n tropes – he’s a womanizer, he lacks confidence, he’s sarcastic, he’s good to his nephew, he has issues with his father’s death – more than a defined character taking a journey we actually care about, and his relationship with his love interest Ferris is just a non-starter.  The villain Hector Hammond, seems here like a refugee from another super-hero movie, since he has almost no real thematic or narrative conflict with Jordan or his girlfriend, and again, though the movie takes great pains to emphasize that Hammond is “driven by fear,” he’s never actually afraid of anything.  He’s still better than Parallax, though, who is basically little more than a talking cloud of golden smog.

This is either the planet consuming entity Parallax or, if you live in Los Angeles, a clear spring day. (Warner Bros.)

Perhaps worst of all, as mentioned, is that this film just feels small.  The CGI often looks painfully bad and woefully inartistic, as if it was more concerned with looking expensive than looking believable, and as such the movie never conveys any of the sense of wonder that Jordan (and by proxy, the audience) should be feeling from his situation.  It’s jokey, though never funny, dialogue also serves to suck whatever urgency there should be in the story, especially from a story that needs to take itself seriously since so many of its elements are borderline ridiculous (I personally also think that any movie that shows skyscrapers being knocked over and people being killed en masse should take itself seriously to a point).  What remains is movie that should have been epic, but never even feels intimate – it’s just one scene or set piece happening after another, without momentum, excitement, and scarcely a quantum of fun.

As has been made clear in much of its publicity, Warner Bros. had pinned a lot of hopes on Green Lantern to supposedly be the beginning of a new franchise that will produce future blockbusters now that the Harry Potter series is about to end, and with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy apparently having its denouement next summer.   It seems though, that in being given custodianship of the Green Lantern franchise, that Warner Bros has done nearly everything wrong in trying to build excitement for a character that, paradoxically, has an ardent (pun not intended) following among comic book fans but almost no mainstream recognition (as this spot-on bit by the Onion News Network makes quite clear).  While I was in New York City last week, I couldn’t walk a block without seeing an advertisement for Green Lantern, none of which would have been moderately appealing to someone who did not know the character. In comparison, the Harry Potter novels were already a cultural phenomenon before its first movie was released, and Batman has been one of the best known characters in popular culture for decades.  Faced with an already uphill battle, Warners did nothing to account for that familiarity gap, and the comparatively low opening weekend numbers reflect that.

Mock-ups of Green Lantern movie posters satirizing the character's complete obscurity to the mainstream. (The Onion News Network)

I should state, before continuing, that  I am, and really have been since I was 12, a fan of Green Lantern comics, and especially of the Hal Jordan character – the most famous, but certainly not the only character to wear the mantle (nor was he was even the first).  Certainly, Green Lantern  has always been one of those demarcating lines between true comic book fans and casual comic book fans: if you read Green Lantern, you were a genuine comic book nerd…if you didn’t, enjoy your Spider-man and X-Men, poser!  It’s an exaggeration, but only a mild one…Green Lantern was a fan’s hero because he often felt like the standard bearer of an isoteric secret society.  In recent years, DC comics, who publishes the character, has found great success in making Hal Jordan more of a central character in their overall continuity, especially as the audience has hewn closer to the older collector’s market and less toward a juvenile audience, and it’s only natural that they, as well as the fans, would be enthusiastic to build upon that increased stature by seeing him as the subject of a major movie franchise.  I suppose that would include myself, but  I can honestly say that my expectations about the quality of this movie were already so dimmed that this movie did little to offend me as a fan when I actually saw it.  But I do think it gives me some perspective as to what the appeal of Green Lantern is, and where Warners went completely wrong in their approach to adpating it.

Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern...a super hero only a comic book fan could love? (art by Alex Ross, DC Comics))

Now why has Green Lantern had such a die hard fan following in the first place?  There are two primary reasons.  The first, is that he plays well with others, in that he is at his best playing off of other superheroes. While this works extremely well in the “crossovers” that are commonplace in comic book literature, it  naturally doesn’t translate well to the realm of motion pictures.  Secondly, though,  unlike Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman, all of whom are god-like in their own particular ways, Hal Jordan is, at his best, an excellent audience surrogate.  Jordan is not and has never been a wisecracking, one-liner spewing alpha male with deep-ceded angst and anxiety.  He is actually more subtle and nuanced than the relatively straight arrowed, lantern-jawed do-gooder he initially appears to be.   Jordan is usually portrayed as a genuinely a good person, and authentically fearless; he’s also compassionate and thoughtful, but not always completely knowledgable, and capable of making mistakes and learning from them.   His traditional arch-nemesis, the rogue Lantern Sinestro, is his opposite: equally fearless but also distant, cold, unyielding, and ruthless.  But what his character’s greatest strength, and in some ways it is also his greatest flaw, is that he is judgmental.  It’s not the world Hal Jordan lives in that is the appeal to his character, it’s how that character reacts to that world.  Hal Jordan is always quick to point out hypocrisy and injustice – in say, how the Guardians of the Galaxy react to a crisis effecting a less developed civilization – and that’s why he appeals to the comic book reader:  in worlds wacky, weird, and wild, he is not a cartoonish byproduct of those worlds – he is the reader’s voice of reason who is capable of articulating their response and acting on it.

A case of the authoritarian Green Lantern playing off of the anti-authority Green Arrow on one of the more famous comic book covers in history. (DC Comics)

Now, realisitcally, film and comics are completely different mediums and certain sacrifices have to be made when transferring a character and his universe to the screen.  I’m not saying Warners needed to show a slavish devotion to cannon nor should they not have had reasonable latitude in adapting the character as they see fit.   In fact, I often prefer it when a character or mythology is adapted significantly from its base material – one of the unique traits of comics mythologies are their relative malleability, which only enhances the strengths and timelessness of their character’s myths.  Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series has been much and justifiably praised, but in truth it is not a very strict adaptation of Batman’s comic origins. But Nolan and company still captured the core dynamic of Batman’s mythos that made it so interesting for decades, and it carried through despite its many adaptive alterations.  Where Green Lantern goes wrong, at its very core, is that director Martin Campbell and the executives at Warner’s clearly did not understand what they had with the Green Lantern myth, and it shows every step of the way.  Looking at the marketing of this movie and listening to a number of the things that were said by its creators publicly, its clear they thought the appeal of Green Lantern was in the more sci-fi/outer space/alien aspects of the character’s universe, and otherwise assumed that the otherwise vocal minority of Green Lantern fans’ entusiasm would compensate for the mainstream’s lack of familiarity.

Rumor has it this teaser poster was highly criticized by theater owners when it was first sent out, because most of those who saw it had no idea what it was advertising.

Posters and advertisements showing a glowing Ryan Reynolds flanked by other alien Lantern Corps members does not engender interest or excitement – it makes one think of Star Trek and Star Wars, and makes it either pale in comparison or just overly nerdy.   Indeed, the main problem with Green Lantern as a property is that to sell it you have to find a way to overcome the (for lack of a better term) geekier elements of the mythology, and instead emphasize what ultimately works about the character and clarify why someone would want to see it.

Green Lantern Corps...or Star Trek convention? Yeesh... (Warner Bros. through MTV News)

Its clear, from marketing through to the finished product, that the people behind the film just did not know what that was, and ultimatley tried to define their movie by taking from what worked elsewhere.  Certainly, watching Green Lantern, I honestly kept being reminded of 2008’s Iron Man.   Iron Man shines as one of the best examples of blockbuster moviemaking over the last decade, for the simple fact that it managed to create a successful superhero film and franchise seemingly out of almost whole cloth.  Given a B-level superhero with a marginal following, a faded but well known and undeniably talented Hollywood burnout as a star (Robert Downey Jr.), a fledgling LLC movie studio (Marvel Studios), and a comedy actor/writer/director as a helmer (Jon Favreau), the film could have been a catastrophe.  Instead, from its first, much-lauded trailer through to its ultimate finished product, Iron Man was a complete success because it understood its character and the appeal that character ultimatly had – a high-living, saracastic capitalist learns the meaning of responsibility and redeems himself by becoming a superhero, who happened to be played by a formerly high-living movie star who learned the meaning of responsibility and was redeeming himself by making a blockbuster.   It struck a chord at the outset, and then when it came time to play the song, knew all the words and music.

Green Lantern exists as a marked contrast, where the filmmakers clearly didn’t know what they had with Hal Jordan and his universe, nor had they any idea what they should do with it or what it should be about. They thus went with what was most superficial about the character, his iconography and his acoutrements, as well as imitated what they had seen work before.  Indeed, like Iron Man, they cast a mostly comedic actor and gave him a great deal of sarcastic dialogue, because that’s what worked for that hero, so why shouldn’t it work for this one?  But just like no one saw Iron Man just to see someone walking around in a red and gold CGI suit, no one was going to see this movie for some guy in green day-glo hanging out with phony looking aliens.  There needed to be something more, and in the end, it was clear there was nothing at the core because the filmmakers didn’t know what that something should be.  In the end, why Green Lantern failed was because someone committed nearly a third of billion dollars toward something they did not understand nor tried to make into something understandable.  Without that, all the issues I listed above simply fell over like dominoes, one problem after another after another compounding themselves until all that was left was a multimillion dollar green turkey.

As a fan of the Green Lantern, I’d like to think some day a Christopher Nolan or Jon Favreau will come along and create an interpretation that works,  and maybe even get a successful movie out of it to boot.  If so, in the long run, this blip on the pop culture radar ultimately may mean nothing.  But on its own, the movie Green Lantern is just another lesson that Hollywood never seems to learn, that it’s not what you spend, but what you earn; it’s the thought and care and consideration that ultimately yields the best results; even, and perhaps especially, for a movie based on a comic book. If Green Lantern‘s publicity, marketing, and rationale have yielded any triumph, its as a lesson of the power, and danger, of Hollywood’s self-equivocation.

If you are actually interested in reading/watching suitable adaptations of Green Lantern’s origin I would wholeheartedly recommend Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel DC: The New Frontier, which casts Hal Jordan as a pacifist and Korean war veteran whose fearlessness against the scorn of others earns him his power ring (it was adapted into a decent animted movie entitled Justice League: The New Frontier).  Current DC Comics chief creative guru Geoff Johns also wrote Green Lantern: Secret Origins, which is available as a trade paperback and would have been perfectly suited for being the basis of the film verison, as it captures the character of Hal Jordan and his psychological underpinnings rather well.  Finally, I would also recommend the animated Green Lantern: First Flight, which does a pretty good job with establishing for the uninitiated the Green Lantern Corps mythology and the Hal Jordan/Sinestro arch-rivalry.

(Wow, those are lousy trailers…)

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