A Role Model for Much of the World

After years of establishing a formula, the superhero genre is flexing its muscles. Arguably, The Dark Knight, with its plot twists and its twisted villains – especially Heath Ledger’s Joker – moved the genre to a higher level. For the Marvel Universe, Captain America: The Winter Soldier took a clear-cut hero and threw him into a world filled with shades of gray. Its sequel, Captain America: Civil War – the best Avengers movie so far – hit an even darker tone. On the other side of the scale, Thor: Raganok managed to find a completely fresh voice by looking at the genre with a decidedly cockeyed view. While the DC films following Nolan’s trilogy have been mostly pedestrian, last spring’s Wonder Woman was transcendent, and a healing tonic after the misogyny of both the genre and the previous year’s presidential campaign. Now, Marvel has rocked the genre again with Black Panther, fittingly released during Black History Month.

T’Challa, the king of Wakanda and protector of his people in his guise as Black Panther, was the first Black superhero, appearing with The Fantastic Four in 1966. Two years later he had his own comic book series. From the outset the character was different from others in the Marvel Universe. Rather than accidentally gaining his powers (from gamma radiation or a radio-active spider bite, for example), his power was inherited along with his kingship. Where most superheroes are lone wolfs, Black Panther is firmly planted in a community. His first appearance on screen, in Civil War, was captivating. Where most superheroes blaze hot, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther was a cool blue flame. He spoke softly, but when action was required he sprang into action like, well, like a black panther. But he was, essentially, on his own, except when aligned with Iron Man and others. Now with the stand-alone Black Panther, we see him in his element. The screenplay by director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) and Jon Robert Cole focuses not just on the hero but on the community that surrounds him, and empowers him.

The movie opens with the story of Wakanda and the Black Panther, related by a father to his son. Five tribes battled over land where a meteorite had deposited vibranium. A warrior ingested a heart-shaped plant that had mutated by exposure to the vibranium. He gained great power, but rather than wiping out the other tribes, he used his strength to unite four of them. One tribe went their own way, but they were allowed to exist peacefully in the land. Powered by the vibranium, the Wakandans developed marvelous technology far beyond the rest of the world. But they hid their advancement from outsiders as European colonizers fought wars against the natives while slavery tore apart the fabric of Africa. Wakanda was an island in a troubled sea. The country became a paradise, guarded from outsiders by an elaborate ruse as well as a far flung network of spies embedded in nations around the world.

Following the death of his father in Civil War, T’Challa is to be formally installed as king, but first he undertakes a mission with Okoye (Danai Gurira), the head of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s his all-female imperial guard. They retrieve one of Wakanda’s spies, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), from her mission against modern-day slavers. They return to Wakanda where T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), wait for them. Shuri is like James Bond’s Q played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After the installation – and an unexpected challenge by the leader of the separatist tribe, M’Baku (Winston Duke) – T’Challa learns that a longtime enemy of Wakanda has surfaced. Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) had stolen a supply of vibranium from Wakanda years earlier and killed several Wakandas while making his escape. Now he’s surfaced after stealing an antiquity that was made from the metal, and is about to sell it in South Korea. T’Challa, Okoye, and Nakia head there to capture Klaue and recover the vibranium, but they’re unaware Klaue is working with an American mercenary. Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is a former US Special Forces warrior, but he also has a special connection both to Wakanda and to T’Challa.

You don’t usually get a superhero story that’s about responsibility, both personal and socially, but that’s what Black Panther revolves around. It also posits what might have happened if Africa had been spared the twin scourges of colonialism and the slave trade. Since Wakanda avoided both, the narrative of slavery or prejudice and injustice that underlies so much of the presentation of blacks on screen, is not the central focus. Think of the recent black stories in the cinema: 12 Years A Slave, The Help, Hidden Figures, Selma, or Chadwick Boseman’s first star turn as Jackie Robinson in 42. Instead of dwelling there, Black Panther asks what is require from the Wakandans who have been so favored. Is it enough to maintain their hidden world, or have they a responsibility to act to help those who’ve been oppressed?

An outstanding aspect of Black Panther is the number of strong female characters in the mix. Gurira is a bad ass of the first order, matched by the dozen warriors she leads. Nyong’o is James Bond cool while Wright is a delight, a wisecracking genius who can hold her own in a battle. Bassett is regal in her role, but you also see the steel spine within her.

The men fare just as well, with Boseman building on his embodiment of the character from Civil War. As with the 007 movies, the quality of the villain often controls the quality of the film, and Jordan’s Killmonger is one of the best ever. His backstory and performance moves Black Panther close to a Shakespearean level; think Henry V on the outside, Richard III inside. A delightful surprise is Duke, a six-foot-six mountain of a man who plays a much more grounded and multi-dimensional character than usually portrayed in the comics. In addition, you have Forest Whittaker, Sterling K. Brown, Martin Freeman, and Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), each in important roles. The movie is overflowing with talent, and it uses that talent effectively.

Black Panther has already broken box office records for February and had the fifth biggest opening weekend in movie history. The wonderful aspect of this, though, is the success is more than deserved. The movie not only tells a great story – it gives a large swath of the world a role model for whom to root.


Wonderful Woman

It has been a long trip to the silver screen for the most iconic female superhero. Wonder Woman first appeared in DC Comics a couple of years after its two male superstars, Superman and Batman, yet she’s just now getting her own movie. Christopher Reeve put on Superman’s tights and cape back in the 1970s, while Michael Keaton became Batman in the 1980s. Since then two more actors have played Superman while four others have worn Batman’s costume.

The good news is that Wonder Woman is worth the wait, particularly to have Gal Gadot play the role. Gadot is both a beauty queen (Miss Israel, 2004) and an Israeli Army vet, which pretty much puts her in the class of Wonder Woman off the screen. She began acting in movies in 2009 when she appeared in Fast and Furious, the fourth movie in that series and the one that refocused it after it drifted off to Tokyo. She was the best part of last year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in her first appearance as Wonder Woman. (The movie works best if you think of it as a teaser trailer.)

Wonder Woman begins shortly after Batman v. Superman with Diana Prince, Wonder Woman’s cover identity, working in the Louvre in Paris. Bruce Wayne sends her the photograph she’d sought to recover from Lex Luthor. Looking at it, Diana remembers what led to it being taken back in 1918. The story jumps back to Diana’s childhood on the island of Themyscira, the home of the Amazons. Diana was the only child, created by Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Queen of the Amazons, with life breathed into her by Zeus. She’s tutored in combat by Antiope (Robin Wright), the greatest Amazon warrior, but it eventually becomes clear that Diana is someone special.

When American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes a German monoplane into the ocean by the island, Diana rescues him. He was being pursued by a German warship which breaks through the island’s protective screen and sends marines onto the beach to kill Trevor. However, they’re met by the might of the Amazons. In questioning after the battle, Trevor explains about “the war to end all wars” that has engulfed the world for four years, resulting in millions of casualties. While the Armistice to end the war is being negotiated, General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) is working with Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) to create the next generation of poison gas that will reignite the conflict. Diana sees the hand of Aries, the God of War, in the conflict, and knows she must stop him to stop the war.

While in its first season, the 1970s TV series with Linda Carter mirrored the origin story of the comic and was set during WWII. It switched to a contemporary setting for its last two seasons. Here, though, screenwriter Allan Heinberg along with others who developed the story set the movie during the First World War. It benefits the story in that it was the first truly mechanized war and widespread conflict, and it was before women gained voting rights and started moving toward equality. While Diana is a throwback to Ancient Greece, the setting also places her as far more progressive than the world at that time.

Director Patty Jenkins wrote and directed Monster, for which Charlize Theron won the Best Actress Oscar. Since then she’s mostly done television (“Arrested Development” and “The Killing” among the series), but she helms this movie with a firm hand and a fine sensitivity to the story. The pacing’s tight throughout most of the film. It does suffer a bit in the third act from the same over-the-top action previously seen in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman. It’s like DC has standard film stock to be used in any such battle sequences. Still, it plays much better than either of those previous movies.

One delight is Lucy Davis as Etta, Steve Trevor’s secretary/assistant. She pretty much steals every scene she’s in. Danny Huston and Elena Anaya are effective villains, and Anaya manages to still evoke sympathy in the end. (The Spanish actress is mostly known for her work with Pedro Almodovar in Talk to Her and The Skin I Live In.) Pine has plenty of experience in adventure movies with the rebooted Star Trek series, though he’s stretched past that recently with Hell and High Water. He can handle the comedic wit in the character, but still makes you care for and about him.

But the movie, rightly, belongs to Gal Gadot. (In case you’re wondering about the pronounciation, the first name rhymes with “doll” and the last with “a float.”) While most superhero characters mask their feelings, with Gadot’s Wonder Woman they are there to be seen clearly. More than that, they are the motivation for her actions. It is rare for an action movie to pass the Bechdel test, but Wonder Woman does that with flying colors. Hopefully the likely success of the movie will begin a flow of more films centered on female characters. That truly would be wonderful.

Captain America Rises

Of all the superhero series that have filled the screens of theaters – and filled the seats as well – the most pleasant surprise for me has been Captain America. The first movie, Captain America: The First Avenger, had a tinge of nostalgia that you don’t usually find in the genre, with the origin story set during WWII. It also had a compelling and semi-tragic love story between Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter; not many superhero movies leave you with a tear in your eye. Then came Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the best Marvel movie to date. So I was primed for Captain America: Civil War.

The movie was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, the brother team who helmed Winter Soldier and who’ve been tagged to take over for Josh Whedon for the next Avengers movies, the two-part Infinity War. The script, based on the classic story by Mark Millar (who also wrote the base stories for Kick-Ass, Wanted, and Kingsman: The Secret Service), was adapted by Christopher Markus and Steven McFeely who’d done the previous Captain movies and are also doing Infinity War. While they each may not be Christopher Nolan, as a team they come pretty close.

As a result of an operation run in Lagos, Nigeria by Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Sam Wilson aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) that causes a large number of civilian casualties, Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (John Hurt) delivers an ultimatum from the United Nations to the Avengers: submit to oversight by that organization or be declared outlaws. He has an ally in Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) who’s racked by guilt from the Ultron affair.

Rogers sees the other side, that political interference could prevent them from being effective or doing what they see needs to be done. Wilson supports him and they refuse to attend the signing of the accord. But then the conference is attacked and it appears to be the work of the Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Rogers believes Bucky is being framed, and with the help of Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), Rogers tries to save his friend. But there is much going on behind the scenes with a mysterious player named Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) pulling strings in the background while pursuing his own agenda.

After several movies each, the main actors wear their characters as comfortably as their costumes. One of the pleasures of Civil War is the new kids on the block. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) joins Team Cap and brings a welcome dose of snarky humor. For Team Iron Man there’s Spiderman (Tom Holland). The character has finally been repatriated to Marvel after fourteen years at Sony and five great to awful films, and Holland gives me hope the upcoming Spiderman movie will be the former rather than the later. Best of all though is Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), who’s out for revenge after his father is killed at the conference. Boseman is a powerful actor as he proved with 42 and Get On Up. Where superhero movies are often operatic in their emotions, Boseman dials it way down, which makes his performance all the more compelling. His own stand-alone movie has been announced for 2018, and I’m already looking forward to it.

It’s fun to see the consistency of the Marvel Universe. They brought back William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross, the character he played in 2008 in The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton. They also again have John Slattery as the older version of Howard Stark, a role he began in Iron Man II.

I’ve mentioned in previous reviews how hard it is to make a good third movie in a series. Lord of the Rings managed it by pretty much filming all three as one movie, and it had the benefit of having a trilogy as its basis. Even when the third is done well, the second movie is often the stronger. Nolan ran into that with The Dark Knight, which still is the pinnacle of the superhero movie genre. The Dark Knight Rises was excellent and a fitting conclusion for the trilogy Nolan planned, but it will always be overshadowed by The Dark Knight. The same goes for Star Wars. Return of the Jedi was a decent final chapter for the original trilogy, but it couldn’t match The Empire Strikes Back. About the only time the third movie in a series was better was Revenge of the Sith, but then it didn’t have far to go to outshine episodes 1 & 2.

Civil War falls into the same slot. It’s thrilling, has a deeper plot than most superhero movies, the acting’s first-rate, and it builds to a satisfying climax, but it couldn’t top Winter Soldier. So hang your expectations at the door and simply enjoy it for what it is, a really good movie.

Lighter Metal

Summer officially started last Thursday with the midnight release of Iron Man 3, the first blockbuster of the season.  The third movie in a series, particularly for superheroes, can be deadly – see Spider-Man 3 and X-men: The Last Stand (or better yet, don’t see them) – but it can also be a satisfying climax of the trilogy such as The Dark Knight Rises.  Happily, Iron Man 3 is an example of the latter.

A good measure of the credit goes to Shane Black, who moves into the director’s chair in place of Jon Favreau (who still appears as Happy).  Black also co-wrote the movie with Drew Pearce.  This was not a safe choice.  Twenty-five years ago Black wrote the original script for Lethal Weapon, which gave him a “characters created by” credit for the next three movies. He made a million-dollar payday with his next script, the self-indulgent and poorly received The Last Boy Scout.  His third script was the mega-flop Last Action Hero, and he followed that up with the forgettable The Long Kiss Goodnight.  (While it wasn’t his fault, the film took the “Krakatoa East of Java” Award when it put Canada on the New York side of Niagara Falls.)

In 2005, Black tried for a comeback with the twisty comedic mystery Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, starring a finally clean Robert Downey Jr., who was looking for some redemption of his own.  It’s a good movie, but it didn’t light up the box office.  Except for one short film done under a pseudonym, Black hadn’t written or directed anything in 8 years prior to Iron Man 3.  Apparently, he was saving up the good stuff.

The movie starts with a voice over as Tony Stark (Downey) relates how the story began to an unseen person (stay to the end of the credits, when a tag reveals who he’s talking to). On New Year’s Eve 1999, Stark attends a party in Switzerland where he has three fateful meetings.  This is the pre-Afghanistan, lecherous Stark who thinks everything is a joke.  The first meeting completes the circuit with the first movie as he meets his future cave companion Yinsen (Shaun Tomb).  He also meets the beautiful cellular botanist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and the physically-challenged scientist, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce).  Stark cruelly blows off Killian to have a one-night stand with Hansen.  He’s gone when she awakens the next morning.

Fast forward to the present day.  Stark is not dealing well with the aftermath of the battle in New York City (chronicled in The Avengers) where he almost died.  He has a full-blown panic attack while out with Col. Rhodes (Don Cheadle), and he can’t sleep.  His nocturnal hours are consumed with building a whole fleet of Iron Man suits.

A new threat arises in the form of an international terrorist called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who’s conducting a series of terror bombings.  The now physically-perfect Killian has a meeting with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), whom he had known years earlier.  Killian and his assistant Savin (James Badge Dale) raise the suspicions of Happy, who follows Savin right into the middle of the newest Mandarin bombing.  Hansen reappears with a warning for Tony and Pepper about Killian, but the three of them are caught when the Mandarin stages an attack on Tony’s house.

Much of the appeal of the Iron Man series comes from Robert Downey Jr.’s acerbic and flawed Tony Stark. He can milk the comedy of the lines as he throws them away, yet he is also touchingly vulnerable, especially when it comes to Pepper Potts.  This time Paltrow gets more deeply involved in the physical action of the movie, and she handles it beautifully.

Guy Pearce is excellent as the suave, twisted Killian, who’s a worthy adversary for Iron Man.  Rebecca Hall builds on the work she did in The Town with the role of Hansen.  She has a face that pulls you in and holds your attention.  Black writes a much different version of The Mandarin from the character who battled Iron Man in the comics, and it’s a joy to watch Ben Kingsley act the role.

While the CGI effects are outstanding as always (the credits show it took a small army to create them), one scene later in the movie, done mostly with a professional skydiving team, shows there’s still a place for old school stunts.  Black shoots scenes so they keep the audience on the edge of their seats, yet will also throw in twists that keep them on their toes.  While it fully satisfies, there’s more of a sense of fun in this outing than in the previous movies.

Iron Man 3 posted the second strongest opening weekend ever, with nearly $175 million in domestic box office.  That’s also much stronger than the opening of both previous entries in the franchise.  While some of it is building momentum from the first two movies, it’s also a reward for the movie not playing it safe and giving us a retread of what’s been done before.  And that’s a reward for the audience.

The Telling of the Tale

Georges Polti was a French writer who famously enumerated the 36 plots that make up all literature.  (He actually based it on a list identified by the German writer Goethe, who said it was the work of an Italian, Carlo Gozzi…but that’s another story.)  The point is that as far as plots, they’ve all been done.  The challenge for everyone in the arts, including filmmakers, is to handle the plot in a fresh way.  That’s what the makers of Chronicle have done, and in doing so they’ve created one of the best superhero movies ever made.

Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) is a shy Seattle high school student.  His father (Michael Kelly) is an abusive drunkard living on a disability pension while his mother is bedridden and slowly dying.  Andrew has bought an old video camera that soon becomes his constant companion.  His only other friend is his cousin Matt Garetty (Alex Russell), who gives Andrew rides to school.

Matt invites Andrew to a rave party one night.  While there, they meet Casey Letter (Ashley Hinshaw), a video blogger with whom Matt shares a bit of history.  After an encounter with a bully, Andrew leaves the party and sits outside waiting for Matt.  Instead he’s found by Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan), a popular jock in the school who’s running for school council.  Steve and Matt have found a cave in a field behind the rave location and want Andrew to document what they find with his camera.  All three go into the cave, where they discover a large star-shaped crystal that’s humming with power.  When they get close to the crystal, the force inside it floods into them.

They find they have the power of telekinesis – moving objects by the power of their minds.  Their first thought is typical for teenaged boys.  They’ll use it to pull pranks on people, such as making a teddy bear fly towards a little girl or move a car to a different parking spot from where the driver left it.  As their powers grow and expand, they’re faced with possible deadly consequences of their actions.  For Andrew, though, his new talent becomes a way to payback the abuse he’s suffered for years.

Chronicle is the brainchild of Josh Trank and Max Landis, two 27-year-old L.A. natives who’d been paying their dues in the film industry.  Trank had co-produced, edited, and acted in the indy film Big Fan (and was an uncredited 2nd unit director), and he’d written, directed and edited a few episodes of the Spike TV series The Kill Zone.  Landis had written, directed and edited several short films, and had appeared as an actor in Blues Brothers 2000 when he was twelve.

Together they came up with the idea for Chronicle.  Landis then wrote the screenplay and Trank directed the movie.  They took the conceit used in The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield of recovered film/video, but they turned the single viewpoint of those films into a panorama.  Rather than just using one camera to tell the story, they acknowledge that we are a video society, so in addition to Andrew’s camera, you have Casey’s video blog and eventually a number of surveillance cameras capturing the story.  Andrew also uses his telekinesis to “hold” his camera while filming, so he’s not trapped behind it.

The script is intelligent and deals with the moral questions that are so often glossed over in this genre.  While Uncle Ben may simply tell Peter Parker that “With great power comes great responsibility,” Chronicle wrestles with that responsibility head on, leading to one of the most thrilling climaxes ever filmed.

Dane DeHaan is perfect in the role of Andrew, capturing both his social awkwardness and inner rage.  After roles on HBO’s In Treatment and True Blood, he’s poised to be a breakout star.  Chronicle will provide him a jumpstart.  Michael B. Jordan has the largest resume of any of the actors, having been on such TV shows as The Wire, Parenthood, and Friday Night Lights (along with 3 years on All My Children).  He brings energy and delight to the role, and for a while there’s a chance he will release Andrew from his destructive world.  Alex Russell has only done a few short roles, but his Matt provides a strong counterbalance and a moral compass to Andrew.  His scenes with Ashley Hinshaw, another relative novice, are wonderful moments of text and subtext.

Much of the film was shot in South Africa, though you’d only know it from reading the credits.  The special effects are exceptionally well done for a fairly low-budget movie.  Fan buzz helped Chronicle debut on top of the box office for its initial week in release.  Hopefully that will continue, and more people will see this exceptional film.

The First Marvel

In the 1930s DC was the premier comic book publisher with the Superman and Batman series, but there were upstarts laboring under DC’s shadow.  One publisher that started in 1939 was Timely Comics.  With the war raging in Europe, Timely created a comic series to appeal to people’s patriotism – Captain America.  It became a gargantuan hit.  The third issue marked the writing debut of an 18-year-old kid by the name of Stanley Martin Lieber, who used the pen name Stan Lee.  Lee became Timely’s editor-in-chief by the end of 1941 and, except for service during WWII, remained in that position until the 1970’s when he took over as publisher.  By then, Timely had gone through several name changes before becoming Marvel Publications.

Captain America disappeared after the war, except for a brief period in the early 1950’s.  Then came what is known as the Silver Age of Comics in the 1960’s, with Marvel’s creation of Spiderman, Ironman, Thor, and the Fantastic Four.  Several of the characters would team up in a series known as The Avengers, and in the 4th edition Captain America returned, thawed out of suspended animation.

2012 will see the release by Marvel Entertainment of an Avengers movie.  All of the main players – Ironman, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and Hawkeye (in a cameo in the recent Thor) – have been introduced in movies, leaving only Captain America to have his story told.  Now that has been accomplished.

When Captain America – the First Avenger begins, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a scrawny, sickly 4F Army reject who would need to gain weight to become a 98 lb weakling.  He’s regularly beat up by bullies, except when he’s rescued by his best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan).  Yet Steve has intelligence, courage, and a desire to serve, which brings him to the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci).  Erskine is working with Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) on a secret project to create super soldiers.  Steve is taken to a military base where he and other volunteers are tested, under the watchful (and beautiful) eyes of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), a British agent seconded to the project.

It’s a project the Doctor was working on in his native Germany before he fled the Nazis.  As he explains to Steve, the serum he created takes what is in a man and magnifies it.  An earlier version had been administered to Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), the Nazi head of Hydra, a division seeking technological advances to help Germany win the war.  It turned Schmidt into The Red Skull, a megalomaniac who’s aiming to take over the whole world for himself.  This time Erskine was looking for a weak but brave man as a test subject, someone who would know to value power, but would also be compassionate.

Erskine, assisted by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), administers the treatment to Steve.  The experiment is a complete success, with Steve turning into a tall, muscular uber-man who can outrun cars and leap like a pole-vaulter without needing a pole.  However, a Hydra agent who has infiltrated the test kills Erskine.  Colonel Phillips dismisses Rogers, since he doesn’t believe a single soldier can help him.  Steve ends up doing War Bond publicity shows until, on a visit to the frontline troops, he gets the chance to prove himself.

Joe Johnston (October Sky, Hildalgo) returns to the time of his second movie, The Rocketeer.  This is a visually lush movie that evokes the WWII era perfectly.  The sharp repartee between the characters echoes the movies of Howard Hawks.  Another resemblance to Hawks’ work is Hayley Atwell’s Agent Carter.  She’s a tough, competent woman who is a crack shot and is not above decking a soldier with a right cross when he disrespects her.  Yet she is richly feminine at the same time.  In a movie such as this, it’s often the villain who controls the conflict – you need a compelling nemesis to bring out the hero’s strength.  A weakness of the recent Green Lantern is that the heavy is basically a large cloud.  While Hugo Weaving leaves some teeth marks on the scenery, overall he is a great match for Evans.

The digital face grafting used to create the before version of Steve Rogers works exceptionally well.  You have Evans’ face and expressions (and his dubbed voice) transferred onto a different actor.  It’s the same process that created the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network.  After the experiment takes place, you have all Evans.  He has ventured into the Marvel Universe before, playing the Human Torch in the two Fantastic Four movies.  Here, though, he communicates the richer character of Rogers with his social awkwardness left over from his years of being bullied.

There are a couple of minor missteps (a kamikaze-style flying bomb with an ejector seat – really?) but overall the story holds together, helped by the chemistry between Evans and Atwell.  There are times when you’ll laugh out loud, and other times that will touch your heart, including the final coda.  Captain America may have a tough time, coming out the week after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2, but it deserves to be watched.  In the interconnected world of Marvel, this movie fits in well.

Do stay to the end of the credits and you’ll see the first teaser trailer for next year’s Avengers movie.

Popcorn at Midnight

The Thursday midnight opening for a movie was once the domain of the most anticipated films.  I fondly remember sitting among a capacity audience filled with wizards and overgrown hobbits for the first screening of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.  It can also be effective to generate word of mouth for unusual films, harkening back to the weekend midnight revivals of movies such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  I first experienced Paranormal Activity the night before its actual release.  Being in a theater full of screaming, scared people who were completely surprised by the movie increased the ambiance of the whole experience.

Now, the Thursday opening has become de rigueur for films.  Almost every major film, and some with only pretensions of importance, get a midnight opening  That was how I found myself this past Thursday night sitting in one of the smaller theaters at my local twenty-screen cineplex, awaiting the start of Green Lantern.  It was a respectable turnout for that theater, but even so there were open seats.  I wasn’t dying to be the first to see the movie; with my schedule this week, it was either that showing or wait until the next Thursday to see it at a matinee.

In the world of movies – especially comic book movies – it’s not that easy doing green.  The first Hulk movie with Eric Bana was a major disappointment, and the second version with Edward Norton was only marginally better.  Earlier this year you had the embarrassing Green Hornet with Seth Rogen as one of the slimiest heroes ever.  The sooner that movie is confined to basic cable purgatory, the better.  A general rule of thumb: If your name isn’t Kermit or Shrek, lay off the green when it comes to movies.

While it has its fan base, the Green Lantern comics have always been on a lower tier than its cousins in the DC universe, Superman and Batman.  Until digital effects came along, there was no way to do a live-action version that wouldn’t look pathetic.  A superhero who can create and use anything he can imagine in his mind to battle villains?  Without digital effects, it would have been green cheese.

The story is straightforward.  The Green Lanterns are a cadre of space police, watching over and protecting the inhabited planets in the universe by using the power of will.  That power is focused through a ring each Lantern wears, though it’s like a battery that needs regular recharging from a power source that looks like a (ta-da) green lantern.  (That’s the story – go with it.)  An evil being called Parallax (voiced by Clancy Brown) escapes from a planet where it’s been imprisoned and mortally wounds Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison), the Lantern in charge of that section.  Knowing his time is short, Abin Sur heads for the nearest developed planet – Earth – and has the ring search for his replacement.  The ring selects Hal Jordan, a test pilot who doesn’t just push the envelope but wads it up in his hand and tosses it over his shoulder.  He’s transported to the home world of the Lanterns where he meets Sinestro (Mark Strong), the leader of the force who happens to be red skinned with Spock ears.  The assembled Lanterns make the cantina scene in Star Wars seem restrained.  Sinestro is not impressed with this new recruit, for a Lantern is supposed to be without fear.  In spite of his career, Hal is constantly battling fear, much of it based in the death of his father while testing a new plane.  Meanwhile, back on earth, a scientist (Peter Sarsgaard) is asked to examine Abin Sur’s body.  During the examination, he is infected with a shard from Parallax and becomes his servant as Parallax prepares to annihilate Earth.

The movie is directed by Martin Campbell, who knows how to do action.  He helmed movies that twice reinvigorated the James Bond franchise (Goldeneye and Casino Royale).  He also did The Mask of Zorro and last year’s Edge of Darkness with Mel Gibson.  (Campbell had started his career doing British TV series, including the original miniseries version of Darkness.)  On the negative side, seven writers are credited with the story and screenplay.  That usually is a recipe for disaster – instead of a vision of the story, you have a consensus.  Think what it would be like if Congress were trying to make a movie.   That said, the result is much better than expected.  Several of the set pieces, including the Hot Wheels-inspired saving of an out-of-control helicopter, are fun and exciting.

The acting is effective within the movie, but no one will be waiting anxiously by the phone on the morning the Academy nominees are announced.  Ryan Reynolds is developing into a dependable leading man.  Hal Jordan could come across as a horrible egotist, but Ryan makes him sympathetic and likeable.  Blake Lively showed she could act in The Town last year.  Here she plays a fellow test pilot who happens to be the daughter of the owner of the aircraft company and a former flame of Jordan’s (isn’t it always that way?) and she doesn’t embarrass herself.  The other actors likewise give journeyman performances.

This is a popcorn movie; you eat it up and it tastes good at the time, but it is empty calories.  It’s fun and has its thrilling moments, and it that’s what you are looking for, Green Lantern will fit the bill.  There is a tag, though they put it halfway through the credits this time.

Coming up this week, I’ll have a couple of posts about movies that are full-course meals.