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Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Captain America and Art Deco-Punk
Meanwhile, I'd like to comment on the high point of Hollywood's summer.
Ever since learning Joe Johnstone was the director, I felt confident that the character was in safe hands. And he was. Other critics are kvetching about the "safe" screenplay, but aside from the obligatory irritation of one of my personal pet peeves, I think Johnstone did a fantastic job. Rather than a typical review, I'm gonna focus on a challenge or 2 Johnstone met with aplomb.
In the Golden Age of comics (coincident with the halcyon days of pulp fiction and cliffhanger serials), when Captain America was first created, people couldn't have guessed half of the technology we take for granted today. And yet, creative types imagined some technology that has yet to be achieved in reality.
Like practical rocket packs and a super-soldier serum.
(Individual jet packs were developed during the Vietnam War, and demonstrated at one of the first Superbowls, but consumed too much fuel for more than one short flight and were abandoned as impractical for transport of troops by the US Army. They were never more than an expensive and dangerous novelty.)
So one of the challenges Johnstone faced was presenting still-futuristic (?) gadgets during an historic setting. Not that this hasn't been done before. One of my favorite reruns to watch, growing up, was The Wild, Wild West, which did just this. And there is an entire genre called "steampunk" which features this anachronistic premise as a primary ingredient. In The Rocketeer and Captain America, Johnstone pulls off the anachronisms so masterfully, I think it deserves it's own phrase. I'll call it "art deco-punk."
Howard Hughs' rocket pack looks like it could actually work. And yet it also looks like something designed and built in the 1930s. Same for the helmet Cliff Secord wears. Of course the Rocketeer props were based on the drawings from the comic source material, but kudos to the film makers for not attempting to "fix" something unbroken.
In First Avenger, the same imaginative skills are in evidence in the Red Skull's fortress and aircraft, as well as the secret lab where Steve Rogers is transformed into Captain America. But the art deco-punk was carried out well in the costume, also. The original Captain America costume from the comics (with the triangular shield) is cleverly incorporated into the flick as what Rogers wears for USO and War Bond appearances. But when he hits his stride as "the bona fide article," Cap wears an outfit a little less outlandish. Johnstone and his crew rose to the challenge of finding a "realistic" excuse to have an operative in the ETO fighting the Nazis in a red, white and blue costume.
In comic books, readers have apparently never had a problem with flamboyant costumes in robust hues. But in real life, people are offended by bright colors. So with the exception of the Superman and Spiderman films, and one particular campy TV series from the 1960s, every successful comic book adaptation for the screen has either replaced the superhero's costume or modified it with bland, muted colors. Johnstone's costumer did mute the Star-Spangled Avenger's colors, but it's also noteworthy that they conceived his headgear more as a helmet than a mask, but didn't take the cheap, ridiculous route the makers of the '70s TV pilot did (in photo below):
In the medium close-ups of Cap in his costume, you can see material and stitching consistent with that issued to American troops during WWII.
Did the screenwriter also modify the origin story from the comic book canon? Yes, but not in the disrespectful, ham-fisted manner of so many other adaptations. Bucky and other stock characters were worked into this cinematic tale, re-conceived to be more believable, and even my own purist/stickler-for-accuracy self was pleased with how it was handled.
There are two other things I'll mention about this movie. In the political sense, they disprove the contention that Johnstone "played it safe" in the making of this film.
For whatever reason (verisimilitude, probably), Johnstone chose to show Captain America bearing arms--something I've never seen in the comics (most superheros have some sort of "code against guns"). Johnstone's leftist contemporaries in Hollywood will only show firearms responsibly used by cops, government agents, Communist revolutionaries or soldiers in wars they grudgingly approve of. I guess Cap falls into this latter category, but it's still a departure for a big-screen superhero.
After Watergate, the writers at Marvel found sufficient excuse to reveal their scorn for a "patriotic superhero" by turning Captain America into Nomad. That didn't go over so well. But now that the mass media has redefined patriotism to justify their lionization of politicians who commit treason, a supposed form of patriotism is considered acceptable again. It's okay to pay tribute to our flag as long as you pervert what it stands for. It's okay to pay lip service to our Constitution as long as you subvert its actual meaning and intent with globalist or Marxist plattitudes. The "safe" road for Johnstone to take would be to present Captain America as "a citizen of the world" who just happened to be born in the USA (remember when the Justice League of America became the "Justice League, America"? Or Bill Pulman's Independence Day speech, in the movie of the same name, that was really a globalist soundbite for interdependence?) And yet during Captain America and the Red Skull's climactic confrontation, it is clear from a short exchange about flags that the Skull is the globalist and Cap is rather proud of the exceptionality of his country.
Not to take anything from the other great superhero adaptations (of which Batman Begins might be the best), Joe Johnstone, along with his cast and crew, really did a bang-up job on this movie IMO. If Marvel Films can harness the swag of this one and the first Iron Man flick, then The Avengers should turn out to be something truly spectacular.