Friday, July 22, 2011

A Tale Of Two Heroes: Captain America and Green Lantern

I grew up reading comic books. At one time or another, I collected Captain America, Batman, Green Lantern, and The Punisher. Somewhere along the way, though, I put away most of my comic books when I became obsessed with movies and literature. Once I discovered Orson Welles and Flannery O'Connor, well comic books started to seem a little boring.

While I still feel that way, I've never lost my affection for the crime fighters in tights. I don't rush out to see most comic book movies (I haven't seen IRON MAN 2 yet, nor THOR), but I'm not opposed to seeing them. A movie based on a comic book is, to my mind anyway, as legitimate as a movie based on a science fiction or western novel.

Let's consider that last point. Those thin, colorful little "books" (actually they were usually only eight or nine pieces of paper folded double with a couple of staples holding them together) have replaced the pulp novels that preceded them as the popular driving force of low culture. The Western, god love it, is all but dead--unless it involves aliens, apparently (though, COWBOYS & ALIENS is itself based on a comic book). Somewhere along the way, the comic book movie crawled its way to the top of the money pile. While the superhero flick goes back to the forties (the first Captain America movie came out in 1944), it had to wait until the seventies rolled around before STAR WARS, special effects, and the charm of Christopher Reeve could make it a respectable bet at the box office.

Now look where we are: every week brings another damn costumed do-gooder flick. The latest, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, is one of the best. It's an old-fashioned entertainment that clearly wants to be RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, which is a stellar aspiration for a summertime adventure movie to possess. (The movie, set in WWII, even has a couple of winking references to "Hitler digging for trinkets out in the deserts." One gets the idea that if Captain America got on a plane and flew out to the Middle East, he'd find Dr. Jones there punching out Nazis.) Chris Evans stars as Steve Rogers, a 98-pound asthmatic, who is chosen to take a Super
Solider Serum. After he takes it he turns into...well, a superhero.

The movie is tremendous fun, enlivened with good humor and exciting action sequences. It has an excellent supporting cast, with Hugo Weaving as the super-Nazi villain, Hayley Atwell as the beautiful and plucky love interest, and Tommy Lee Jones as the crusty old-timer (in the old days this role would have been played by Millard Mitchell). Best of all, Chris Evans gives a star-making performance as Steve Rogers, a good man given the chance to become a great man.

Like most good superhero movies (SUPERMAN, Nolan's Batman movies), CAPTAIN AMERICA understands the character at its center. Now, that implies that there is a character to understand. (For instance, IRON MAN was a good movie because it understood the appeal of star Robert Downy Jr. The Tony Stark of the comic books was pretty thin soup). To really set itself apart, a comic movie needs an intriguing central character and a story to support him (this is a pretty male-centric world, at least so far). The makers of CAPTAIN AMERICA understand that Steve Rogers is a man defined by a bigness of spirit and a basic goodness. He represents what is, to
borrow a phrase, right about America. The film is empowered by Evan's charismatic performance as Steve. I don't think I can top Slate's Dana Stevens in her description: "He's wholesome but not goody-goody, masculine but not macho, and likable without begging for the audience's love." The key to this performance is that Evans creates a consistent character, a through line from Skinny Steve to Super Steve. In both incarnations, Steve is defined by a gentleness of spirit and a sense of moral responsibility. Square? Sure, but Captain America was always square. That's the point. He doesn't need to wink at you to let you know he's not really that guy. He really IS that guy.

Contrast this with GREEN LANTERN, which stars Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan, a callow test pilot who is chosen by an intergalactic alien police force to wield a green power ring which can do pretty much anything the bearer can imagine. In a sense, Jordan's journey mirrors that of Steve Rogers. Both are chosen to become heroes by forces beyond their understanding. Both rise to the challenge and defeat evil enemies.

The differences between the two are important, though. GREEN LANTERN is hampered by the fact that its main character is something of a blank slate. Ryan Reynolds gives it a good try, but he can't seem to find any real spark in the character. This might not be his fault. As a kid, I collected both CAPTAIN AMERICA and GREEN LANTERN. The difference between the two was this: with Cap, you daydreamed about being Steve Rogers; with GL, you daydreamed about what you'd do with the ring. No one dreams of being Hal Jordan.

GREEN LANTERN has been criticized for being a lumbering, effects-driven, corporate concoction designed only to be a big tent-pole summer blockbuster. I won't fight too hard against that description (except to say that, in all honesty, none of these movies are Cassavettian labors of love). In a way, though, it's really more of a fanboy movie. As I watched it, I wasn't angered by its machinations--I was reminded of the geeky joy of the comic. GREEN LANTERN is a triumph for the Comic-Con crowd, whose influence is perhaps disproportionate to their store of original ideas. Watching this movie I was reminded of something Roger Ebert wrote about the 2003 Civil War flick GODS AND GENERALS: "(It) is the kind of movie beloved by people who never go to the movies, because they are primarily interested in something else." GREEN LANTERN is a movie for people who love comic books, not cinema.

One can, of course, love both. I hope I've been clear in my admiration for comic books. (If not, please read this.) Despite some similarities, however, comics and movies are different mediums. CAPTAIN AMERICA plays like a real movie, bridging the gap between its pulpy roots and its Indiana Jones aspirations. GREEN LANTERN plays like a 200 million dollar comic book.

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