Superhero origin stories have been all the rage at the multiplex this summer with Marvel Comics alone accounting for two such films Thor and X-Men: First Class both of which happily surpassed critics’ expectations. Its latest Captain America: The First Avenger – so named as to provide us a helpful link to the Avengers movie coming next year – arguably faces the trickiest task of all three seeing as how Americans have not been in the most patriotic of moods in recent years. Could a flag-waving superhero really find purchase with a moviegoing audience that increasingly looks askance at such notions?
Surprisingly yes. That Captain America succeeds – and resoundingly so – is partly due to the producers’ decision to set the film during World War II a time where patriotism is a much easier sell. (And no viewer is too jaded to not enjoy seeing Nazis eviscerated en masse.) But proper credit must be given to director Joe Johnston who has crafted a breathlessly entertaining popcorn movie that unambiguously embraces its hero’s old-fashioned sensibilities and invites us to embrace them as well.
Chris Evans (The Losers Fantastic Four) plays Steve Rogers an earnest oft-bullied ectomorph whose lone wish is to ship off to Europe and fight on the front lines. But a plethora of physical ailments have combined to render him hopelessly unfit to serve however stiff his resolve. (To pull off the withered look of “Skinny Steve ” the filmmakers pulled off a nifty trick grafting Evans’ head onto the body of another actor Leander Neely.)
Rogers’ chance arrives in the guise of a government scientist the German émigré Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci as avuncular as a German-accented man can hope to be) who witnesses the young man’s idealistic ardor and recruits him to take part in secret military experiment. After proving his mettle in training Rogers is delivered a dose of Super Serum a PED that instantly makes him bigger stronger and faster than just about any other human alive.
Which is a good thing because on the other side of the Atlantic a renegade Nazi scientist Johann Schmidt aka the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving doing a tremendous Christoph Waltz impression) has happened upon his own supernatural power source and he’s used it to quietly amass a private army dubbed HYDRA that is bent on supplanting Hitler’s world-domination scheme with its own. Soon all that stands between defeat at the hands HYDRA and its arsenal of advanced weaponry is the juiced-up visage of the newly-christened Captain America.
Portraying a stalwart straight-arrow bereft of angst or ambiguity isn’t the easiest of tasks for any actor but Evans does a commendable job of bringing depth and humanity to a character that all too easily could have come across as bland and one-dimensional. Johnston seems to recognize this potentiality as he looks primarily to his supporting cast to supply the personality: Tucci and Weaving stand out as do Tommy Lee Jones and Toby Jones playing an irascible army commander and a timid HYDRA toady respectively. The film’s romantic spark comes courtesy of the principal cast’s lone female representative the excellent Haley Atwell playing Rogers’ military liaison Agent Peggy Carter.
More than anything Captain America is a triumph of tone. A former ILM technician Johnston did visual effects for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Spielberg’s 1981 blockbuster was a conscious touchstone for his film’s throwback feel and aesthetic. (Another less deliberate influence would be a previous Johnston film The Rocketeer.) Captain America embodies the spirit of the old serials melded with a tongue-in-cheek comic sense and punctuated by action sequences that deploy the requisite CGI fireworks with a welcome measure of restraint. The film is decidedly of its era but never feels gratuitously nostalgic. And its production design is gorgeous: Red Skull’s lair in particular is a treasure trove of retro-futurist designs all of which seem directly lifted from 1940s World’s Fair exhibits.
In case you hadn’t noticed, the "damsel in distress" is an endangered species in action films. Gone is the time when it was enough for the leading lady to merely look pretty and await rescue from her brave knight. These days, a broader skillset is required: She must be fetching in both evening wear and battle gear; deliver a punch or a putdown with equal ease; and, romantically, play both pursuer and pursued, depending on what circumstances dictate. Or, to paraphrase Uncle Ben, greater power = greater responsibility.
In Captain America: The First Avenger, that responsibility falls on the capable (and slender) shoulders of Hayley Atwell. Plucked from relative obscurity (her resume is dominated by BBC and stage projects), she plays Agent Peggy Carter, part of a top-secret Super Soldier task force whose patriotic PED, the Super Serum, will transform wee Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) into Yankee ubermensch Captain America. (Being the only XX-chromosomed player in the principal cast, she’s also Cap’s de facto love interest.) Atwell’s credentials are evident from her first scene, in which she beguiles in an officer’s uniform, smacks down a sassy grunt, and holds her own opposite a figure no less intimidating than Tommy Lee Jones, a man known for reducing lesser actors to cinders with a simple scowl.
We recently sat down with Atwell for an exclusive interview, in which the half-British, half-American, all-stunning actress talked about Captain America, her “f*cking huge” co-star, and her tomboyish tendencies.
Do you think that bouncing back-and-forth between the U.K. and U.S. while growing up, always having to re-acclimate quickly to different environments, played a factor in your decision to get into acting?
Definitely, yeah. I have family dotted everywhere – dad’s in California; I’ve got aunts in Scotland and Virginia; family in Kansas City; family in Manchester and London. I went to lots of different schools and had lots of different experiences. I think that made me hungry for other peoples’ stories. I was always fascinated by other peoples’ lives and their little worlds and universes and how they saw the world.
Since you have special insight on the subject, I have to ask: How would you compare American and British men?
Oh god, I wouldn’t want to possibly generalize. I’m gonna end up offending someone and probably talk a lot more shite than I intend to. But I think American guys tend to be a bit more forward, a bit more chatty and open than the Brits. The Brits seem to have a darker sense of humor, though I have met some Americans who have adopted bits of the British dry sense of humor as well. I think over time – over my generation, certainly – that the gap is growing smaller and smaller. We’re so influenced by American culture, and I grew up watching American films. I think Brits probably feel that Americans are more like us than vice-versa, if that makes sense. Because we get everything American over here in Britain, but yet there are things which are staunchly English that you guys don’t have.
I can say that I’ve never seen any group of people drink as much as English male football fans.
Wait till you meet the Scots; they’re even bigger drinkers. But then I’ve always felt that American drinkers, because the [drinking] age is older here, they kind of go mental at that [age]. In Europe, we’re kind of more about having a beer at twelve with family, or something. It doesn’t seem like such a taboo. And the drinking culture that we have in England is something that’s very much embraced. But in America, everyone seems to go absolutely mental, but then also, you don’t talk about it. It’s all very taboo.
Were you hesitant about doing a comic book film? The genre has such a mixed record.
Yeah. But the minute I met the director and he laid out what he wanted, I thought absolutely, I’m gonna do this. I don’t have any kind of judgments over it – I think that has its place and its own market and has its own kind of value. And each one can be done well. Joe was very calm, and he had a real twinkle in his eye and a kind of tongue-in-cheek sense of what this film is about. He doesn’t have a big ego, Joe; he’s very down-to-earth, and he was kind of like, “It’s a superhero film. It’s not brain surgery.” And he said it’s important that these were rooted in something real, that it was something a bit more grounded, so that they were three-dimensional as opposed to caricatures.
I was surprised to learn that Chris Evans sought therapy before taking on this role.
Yeah. He said he had some issues that he had to work out regarding the commitment and pressure inherent to being the face of a franchise. Which is actually quite charming, in a way – you don’t see that kind of humility in actors, at least not in public. Did that come across when you were working with him?
He had a sincerity and a vulnerability that he brought to Steve, which carries on even through his transformation into Captain America. He still retains that vulnerability. And he brought a humility to it. I think what was great is that he had great self-awareness. He’s aware of the dangers, the pressures, the expectations of it all, and that it does fall on his shoulders, that he carries the film, that it’s bigger than anything he’s done before, and that it could be a potentially decade-long commitment. I mean, he was saying that he could be doing this into his ‘40s. And I think to be that aware of it, and yet still do it – and do it without a false pretension of getting through it by being arrogant, or kind of bluffing his way through it. He was very present and very committed to what he was doing. And he balanced that out by having a good time on set, having a good laugh with people, and having a great social aspect, sampling the delights of London life as he did in abundance.
And he’s massive.
F*cking huge! During that reveal [after he’s transformed into Captain America], I was just like, Whoa, I’ve never seen anything that big in my life.
You have a few scenes opposite the pre-transformation, 98-lb. Steve Rogers. How did that process work, exactly?
It’s really interesting because Leander Deeny, who plays Skinny Steve, would watch the takes between Chris and I, and he would mimic Chris absolutely, down to where he would breathe in the dialogue. So it meant that when they put Chris’ face on his body, that every time the face takes a breath, the body’s also taking a breath. He was so intricate. Leander was very committed to it. He’s a well-respected theater actor and he has incredible expression in his body. It was amazing to watch it, and a bit odd at times, to do a scene and have all these emotions for someone, and then to do exactly the same thing again with someone completely different. I ended up feeling a bit promiscuous.
You mentioned earlier that you didn’t mind being surrounded by men most of the time on-set. Do you consider yourself something of a tomboy?
I’m not really into makeup, not really into fuffing with hair and stuff. It’s so nice that in something like this, where it is called for, it’s all done for me. It’s amazing. I’m kind of a jeans person – I describe my style as “anything I can climb a tree in.” I’d much rather be active than think about presentation, which my mum and my grandmother simply cannot understand, because they’re always so immaculate and so beautifully put-together, and I’m a bit of a slob.
So The Duchess must have been hell for you.
Aaaahhhh! The worst thing was I could hardly drink anything, because I thought, “Oh god, I’ll need to go to the toilet again, and it’s going to take me about a half an hour to get out of this thing.” I mean, I quite liked how, when you were in those clothes, how different you are. How you get to walk in a certain way and balance a hairstyle on your head. It changes so many things – how I moved, how I related to other people. I quite liked that. I liked that aspect, as opposed to feeling so pretty. I didn’t feel that at all.
Captain America opens everywhere this Friday, July 22, 2011.
Based on Ian McEwan’s equally stirring novel we begin the story in 1935 on the cusp of WWII. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) a 13-year-old fledgling writer lives with her wealthy family in their enormous English country mansion and on one hot summer day she irrevocably changes the course of three lives including her own. It seems the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) carries a torch for Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). And on this warm day it becomes clear she feels the same way; their love ignites. Little Briony who harbors her own secret crush on Robbie witnesses the beginnings of this love affair and not understanding its meaning feels compelled to interfere going so far as accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. He is arrested and whisked away eventually forced into the British army but thankfully the two lovers have a moment before he goes to war to reconnect. Cecilia promises to wait for him urging him to “come back” to her once the madness he is about to become immersed in is over. Meanwhile Briony (played in adult years by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave) has grown up regretting every single moment of that fateful day and in desperately trying to seek forgiveness finally finds a path to understanding the power of enduring love. The performances in Atonement are nothing less than captivating beginning with the young Irish rose Saoirse Ronan (who is also set to play the lead in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones). Since it is primarily Briony’s story Ronan must make the first most indelible impression and set the tone for the rest of the movie--and she succeeds on every level. From the moment you see Ronan’s pale face clear-blue eyes and steadfast gait you immediately recognize Briony’s need and determination to make everything in her life just so. Indeed Briony is a strongly focused child and Ronan so embodies the character an Oscar nomination is almost a certainty. As the 18-year-old Briony Garai (Dirty Dancing 2) does the best she can following such a tough act as Ronan but can never quite match the same intensity. On the other hand Redgrave who comes in at the very end as the much older Briony nails it right away adding her own nuances to a character who has lived a full life. Of course Knightley and McAvoy are no slouches either vividly capturing the passion bubbling up between Cecilia and Robbie then turning around and showing the heartache as their love is ripped apart. McAvoy is particularly effecting as his Robbie must also witness some truly horrific wartime scenes. Actually Oscar nods should come fast and furious for everyone in Atonement. With Pride & Prejudice and now Atonement director Joe Wright may have just established himself as the new James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory fame). Wright is a real visionary for the romantic period piece expertly delivering truly spectacular vistas. From set design to costumes to cinematography the look of Atonement is at once verdant welcoming and then startlingly grim. The first half of Atonement at the Tallis’ country home is certainly the film’s most defining peppered by an effective musical score which uses the sound of a typewriter like a metronome. Through a soft lens Wright displays the general idleness of summer day at a country home like a sunny floral motif that belies an undercurrent of sweating bodies wilting flowers stagnant pools--and an imminent tragic event. Then once Wright moves with Robbie into WWII he actually paints an even more grim view of war then maybe seen before. The one continuous shot of the historical Dunkirk--a French beach on which thousands of British soldiers were forced by the Germans and then waited to be evacuated--is absolutely stunning and surreal. Atonement does drag ever-so-slightly in the middle especially as Briony trains to be a nurse in London but overall this is a film Academy voters eat up with a silver spoon. Expect to be hearing about it in the months to come.