Storytelling 101: Why Captain America works

If you’ve been following me here or on LaineyGossip for the last year, you know that I’ve been nervous for Captain America. Nervous because Marvel’s plan is so ambitious that I want to see it work just to see what happens, and nervous because I like Chris Evans, generally (lately he’s been revolting, though), and I want him to break out like he’s been trying to do for ages. And if you’ve been following along you also know that my initial skepticism about Captain America: The First Avenger began morphing into cautious optimism earlier this year. I even thought it would end up the winner amongst the four superhero movies this summer, and if the weekend estimate holds, it will indeed be the big winner.

I went into Captain America still a bit apprehensive about how Cap, the boringest superhero ever, would translate to modern audiences. The answer? Surprisingly well. Despite a sneak peek a few weeks ago that had me feeling like Captain America wasn’t going to suck, I will still surprised by how good the movie actually is. Not that it’s groundbreaking filmmaking—it’s not. It’s just that Captain America works on every level. It does what it needs to do and no more than that. Sometimes succeeding means reining in your ambitions and Captain America does a good job of managing itself. Captain America is also a great lesson in what happens when you make good storytelling your number one priority.

Steve Rogers, the skinny kid from Brooklyn who can’t get accepted into the Army, is still boring. He’s still a total vanilla boy scout. He’s a walking stereotype of “Greatest Generation” sacrifice and heroism. He’s so moral and good you halfway expect for some key lighting to illuminate a halo over his head. Yet he’s never obnoxious. In Evans’ hands, Steve is sincere, compassionate and insecure. He has zero confidence. He’ll stand up to a bully because it’s the right thing to do, he’ll offer his date some popcorn because he’s nice but Steve never acts from a place of self-assured confidence. The only thing he’s sure about is his desire to enlist in World War II, not because he wants to kill Nazis but because he can’t stand bullies.

This could all be very maudlin and sappy—which is kind of what I feared after seeing the first 20 minutes only—but the Steve that emerges from the super-soldier machine (I don’t know what to call it) is still the same compassionate, bully-hating fellow. In the context of the new, more powerful body, with all the sex appeal that that entails, Steve avoids the sap by remaining insecure. He still doesn’t know how to talk to girls. He’s still not sure he’s good enough. He’s still going to do the right thing because it’s the right thing, but he no longer knows what the right thing is. Is it parading around in a silly suit to help sell war bonds? Or is it disobeying orders and going on a suicide rescue mission?

The key to making Steve work for a modern audience was showing us a man who will always, always do the right thing, whose honor cannot be compromised, and making him so SHY that he still feels like an underdog. He also works because he was given a foil worthy of his goodness. Enter Peggy Carter and Hayley Atwell (Pillars of the Earth). This part was refused by Emily Blunt which—she’s crazy. This was a BAD decision on Blunt’s part and there’s no other way to put it. Peggy is the heart of the movie. She’s as important to the narrative as Steve is. Atwell, however, is not crazy and she took the part and she absolutely shines in it.

Peggy’s relationship with Steve unfurls over several years and is built on a foundation of mutual respect and understanding. She knows Steve when he’s still a ninety-pound asthmatic and first admires not his body but his good heart. It sounds so cheesy but you don’t realize how truly terrible these kinds of relationships have gotten in movies until you see the slow, restrained build up of Steve and Peggy. It makes the Thor/Jane relationship in Thor look especially cheap. Steve and Peggy ground the story and as their relationship changes into a romantic one the audience begins to get the creeping feeling that something is going to go wrong (the girl sitting next to me whispered, “She’s going to die, isn’t she?”).

It doesn’t take a genius to know something goes wrong for Steve and Peggy—the movie opens in the present day with the discovery of Cap’s shield frozen in a plane wreck. But how things go wrong will break your heart. It’s cheesy, yes, when Steve and Peggy are on the radio together at the end, making a date, but the audience was audibly choked up when the transmission cut out. And the final scene was surprisingly crushing, with Steve scared and disoriented in modern-day New York, with barely enough time to register sadness when he realizes he’s missed his date with Peggy by seventy years. Captain America was written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (best known for adapting the Narnia series), but it’s Joss Whedon and his unaccredited rewrite at play here. This movie has Whedon’s fingerprints all over it.

The final beat of the movie is an odd one, a surprisingly human one for a comic book movie, but the impulse, after all that build up, would be to show us a ninety-year-old Peggy and Steve dancing, or to introduce Peggy’s granddaughter as some kind of resolution. Instead we’re left hanging, like Steve. This is how they’re going to make a modern audience care about Steve Rogers—heartbreak. And it works. This I’m going to put down to Whedon since director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer) has expressed displeasure with having to do this scene, which came as a late reshoot earlier this year. Not everyone loved this ending but I dug it because it avoided all the sappy pitfalls inherent in the problem of having both a real and wonderful romance and the imperative to get your character into the 21st century. I felt that Steve’s last line was the only “out” for the story that didn’t involve a massive eye roll.

As for other stuff that worked—Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones make the most of supporting roles and they’re getting a lot of attention but I thought Toby Jones (he’s the voice of Dobby!) was a standout as the Red Skull’s patsy, Dr. Zola. Hugo Weaving was appropriately campy as the villain, Red Skull. His makeup was great, it did most the work. The visual effects were very good, especially early on with the “skinny Steve” effect that blended well into the real environment. Costumes were solid and so were the period details. Cap’s suit read better on film than it did in photos, though the helmet is still stupid and I hope Tony Stark makes fun of it. Dominic Cooper (Tamara Drewe) makes good use of his few scenes as Howard Stark, and Gossip Girl twat Sebastian Stan took a step in an un-twatty direction as Steve’s best friend, Bucky.

I was very pleased with how Captain America turned out. It’s the big hit Marvel needed to be and a strong platform for The Avengers next summer (much stronger than Thor). Evans and Atwell delivered solid performances that completely sell the story and save it from the land of utter cheese. Evans deserves extra credit for believably inhabiting both versions of Steve and for keeping Cap from becoming a cartoon. Overall the movie has an assured, old-fashioned tone not too far from Indiana Jones and I wouldn’t mind seeing more of WWII-era Steve—the ending leaves enough open that future Captain America’s could take place then or now. Oh and the shield-slinging? It’s cool. Really cool.

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13 thoughts on “Storytelling 101: Why Captain America works

  1. anaishilator

    Ya know, my friend and I have a term for this latest generation of matinee idols currently being foisted upon us. McMovieStars. These leading men that are all handsome enough, winsome enough but so boring and vanilla that there is nothing to distinguish one from the other. Where are we when our movie stars are boring and homogenous? Is there really no one around to pick up the mantle of the hot 90’s male superstars( brad pitt, keanu, johnny depp, mathew mchonnehye or however you spell it, and Leo )? Honestly ( though I believe she is being a bit disingenuous) my friend swears she cant tell the difference between Ryan Renolds( who is in every movie for reasons I cant fathom), Josh Duhamel, Chris Pine, Chris Evans, and the Hemsworth boys( neither of which I can tell from each other). But, despite his banal appeal, I always had a soft spot for Evans. Because, even when he plays a snarky obnoxious character…he’s always sincere. And its this sincerely which you attribute so correctly for the success of Captain America. I always get distracted by ryan reynolds trying so hard to be witty and funny that when a role calls for a nuance of vulnerability, I never believe it. Josh Duhamel is soap opera pretty- pretty to look at, but not much compelling going on when you get past the good looks. Chris Pine…it remains to be seen what he can do outside of Star Trek. But Chris Evans I think has a shot to work for a long time, because if he isnt the hottest, charismatic, or most exotic actor working..he will always be sincere, and that goes a long way.

    1. 1) I LOVE the term “McMovieStar” and am totally stealing it.

      2) I would counter that no one is allowed to have a personality anymore. I’m all for professionalism and acting like a grown up adult, but even taking that into account, no one is allowed to have a personality. When I wrote about Movie Stars a few weeks ago I said I thought a major cause of the decline is that we simply won’t put up with that kind of behavior anymore. I don’t think someone has to be a brat to be a Movie Star (Paul Newman never was a brat!) but I do think we punish the quirky and different these days. Like, Johnny Depp would never happen now. Look at everyone they want to be the Next Johnny Depp–they’re all nice guys, I’m sure, but they’re all too afraid of public opinion to be as legitimately weird as Depp is. I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I think we’re getting what we’re asking for. We only seem to accept the actors that operate within a narrow definition and anyone who steps outside that is dismissed. Take Tilda Swinton–prime Movie Star material, but she’s way out there weird and the mass market won’t buy into her. So until we get over expecting all actors to fit the same standard, I don’t think we’ll see a true Movie Star again. I mean, can you name me one Movie Star under 40? No, they’re all people who established themselves in the 80’s and early 90’s at the latest. That’s the last generation we’ve allowed to be real people. Everyone else has to be the happy robot we want all rich actors to be.

      I’m cranky today.

      1. Sarah- I totally agree, which is part of the reason why I find Shia LaBeouf and his career path to be so interesting. The kid is a mess; a drunken, bar-fighting, inappropriate-talking, weird-mother-loving mess. He’s totally authentic and there is no filter on him…yet.
        Will he be able to stay like this? To talk about the affairs he has with co-stars and the demons he battles and the esteemed directors he (rightly) criticizes for making crap and still have a viable career? I don’t know, but I love the fact that I never question that every word out of his mouth has not been publicist approved.

      2. Sorry- posted this without realizing that there was already a healthy discussion about Shia. But it looks like many of us feel the same way!

  2. I disagree. Suddenly I’m Ebert up here in Canada. Oy!

    Under 40 Johnny Depp? Shia LeBeuf. He’s the only one. And Chris Pine is a solid actor. He can do it all. It does remain to be seen what choices he makes and what roles he selects to flex his cute muscles on, but I don’t think we’ll be disappointed.

    Also, Paul Newman had ethics and professionalism that was a standout among his peers during his reign, but Joanne Woodward would tell you he was no choirboy or, at times, a picnic to live with. He cheated, drank, smoked, caroused – he just did it on the sly.

    But, in the end, he grew up and remarried his wife and they finally settled into a groove that behooves the opinion we all have of him based on his charity work and fundraising. He had some demons or wild oats to sow the first half of his life. I’m liking Colin Farrell for Newman’s successor.

    @Stacerella

    1. Not being a brat doesn’t equal not having personal life drama. For all the hell Newman raised, he was never less than professional in his business. It’s possible–or it used to be possible–to be dramatic without being bratty, but now it seems like people interpret “drama” as “bratty”.

    2. anaishilator

      Shia LeBouf is pretty much the next IT guy ..but I believe its by default.

      You know, for that matter, why the hell was Sam Worthington in everything last year? Thats another guy that for the life of me, I dont know what about him screams “movie star”. Maybe Im just getting old I dont know.

      I tell you what though, after seeing Captain America today, my opinion of Chris Evans remains unchanged. AND, I firmly belive that if given a chance, Dominic Cooper could be a big time star. That boy’s got charisma, imo.

      Also, Ive had the thought that maybe b/c Hollywood is so scared of taking risks and only willing to churn out recycled and repackaged product, tv is the place to be for actors wanting a challenge. Maybe all the potential movie stars now are doing tv on HBO, AMC and Starz instead of being in Hollywood movies. Its a thought. Think of guys like Dominic West, James Purefoy, Kevin McKidd, Alexander Skaarsgard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonathan Rhs Meyers. As far as up and coming female stars I believe the new guard is well established( emily blunt, jennifer lawrence etc) But, it seems like
      the most interesting actors are working on tv. Just a thought.

      1. I’ve got a buddy at WME who thinks Benedict Cumberbatch will be a big star within a couple years. The talent is certainly there, but I don’t know about his broad-base appeal or how entertaining his personality really is.

  3. Diva is the new bratty. That’s why so many performers like Patti LaBelle shrink away from that label. Diva used to mean top dog, top star, top audience draw. Now it simply means people like Mariah Carey’s stupidness, or Lauren Hill’s mentally checking out and demanding producer credits on stuff she only sang on.

    Actors aren’t any different. Julia Roberts is a diva who loves to park in the handcap spots because, well, she can and because she is who she is and, and because her “fans” pretend she isn’t all up her own ass 24/7.

  4. Clementine

    Wow, I didn’t think I cared about this movie, but you made me want to see it – especially with the description of the last scene. Love Joss; and also Evans. He is so hilarious in The Losers (which I watched on your recommendation, I think) and in his small part in Scott Pilgrim. I like him. Thanks for the review!

  5. Emster

    I liked Captain America, but I feel like Evans was outshone by his costars at every turn. If this was the point – by making Cap less than you highlight his humility – then well done on all counts. But I fear that your boy just isn’t up to carrying a picture. He’s the typical McMovieStar who is pretty but not up to snuff.

    However, I can’t wait to watch RDJ/Tony Stark rip Cap a new one at every turn, then stand up to him and his bullying ways and earn his stripes, in The Avengers.

  6. So I finally saw Captain America and really, REALLY enjoyed it.

    I’m actually kind of glad that Emily Blunt didn’t play Peggy. Since I’m not as familiar with Hayley Atwell, it allowed me to believe the romance between Steve and Peggy better. (Although, I do think Blunt would have made a much better Black Widow than ScarJo.)

    One thing I’ve always thought about Chris Evans is that his face is rather generic. Which I think is a plus for an actor and why he works so well as Steve Rogers.

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