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.
Later this year you will likely flock to your local movie theater to watch a young man become a super soldier at the height of WWII. This month you can see a somewhat less stylized but no less sensational story about a young girl who was born into a similar life of action and international adventure. Her name is Hanna and she can kill you with your own knife while it’s still in your hand.
Joe Wright (Atonement) directs this well-balanced coming of age story set within the cold and unforgiving world of assassins and espionage. The film follows the titular heroine who has lived a reclusive life in the forest with her rogue CIA-agent father on a vengeful mission that takes her all across the map. Trained to survive in the harshest conditions and fight like the spawn of Lara Croft and Rambo she is pursued by deadly adversaries as she inches closer to her primary target a ruthless CIA handler who had mysterious past dealings with her Dad all while discovering what life outside the woods is like.
While star Saoirse Ronan’s visceral turn is a marvel to observe so too is Wright’s. Like his protagonist he ventures into the unknown with this material taking the reigns of a film that couldn’t be any more foreign to him. Coming off of past projects grounded in romance and realism he forges new territory with Hanna delivering a fresh approach to the at-times tired spy thriller. He presents the major plot points of the story patiently delicately hinting at the big picture and always leaving you pining for more. Though the twist is ultimately predictable the fun part is putting the pieces of the puzzle together on your own. You’ll find more brilliance in his method by dissecting the picture piece by piece. His use of sound in both the film’s abstract score (from the sorely missed Chemical Brothers) and its effects which phase in and out at calculated points is in part a cinematic experiment that plays with perception in ways that audiences may not have experienced in a mainstream movie. There are also a few visual motifs in select scenes (most notably a killer fight sequence that ends with Eric Bana exterminating a handful of Agency henchman) that tell a parallel visual tale to supplement the narrative.
Thematically Hanna is even more complex. Screenwriters Seth Lochhead and David Farr explore the limitations of a disconnected mind in their Black List-certified script giving their curious character the opportunity to learn much about society and her self while hitchhiking across continents. Of greater significance is the culture clash of Western materialism and Eastern minimalism manifested in the form of a British family traveling abroad that Hanna befriends (the young daughter played by Jessica Barden is a poster child for consumerism) and the contrast between Cate Blanchett’s Marissa Wiegler and Bana’s Erik Heller.
Provoking thought while providing plentiful doses of popcorn entertainment the film works on so many levels and is a unique entry in the collective canon of assassin-on-the-run flicks. Its story is far from groundbreaking but Wright’s surreal visuals and anti-establishment attitude make Hanna a radically original action experience.