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Captain America: The First Avenger

In a year where superhero movies have been hitting us over the head, the results have been subpar at best. Only X-Men: First Class has managed to impress while The Green Hornet, Thor and Green Lantern have failed to live up to expectations. So I suppose it’s a good thing we have Captain America: The First Avenger bookending our year of men in silly costumes because it’s the best of all. It's a summer popcorn film of the highest caliber and it delivers all the thrills one would expect while also laying the groundwork for future installments.

As with most first entries in a superhero franchise, Captain America is an origin story that chronicles the rise of its titular character. This time, we have Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a short and scrawny kid living in Brooklyn during World War II. He wants nothing more than to enlist in the armed forces so he can help bring down Hitler, but because of his stature (and laundry list of health problems), he is denied. When Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a scientist working for the American government, overhears Rogers’ desire, he allows him to enlist so he can be the subject of an experimental operation that makes bad men more evil, but good men great. The operation has only been done once before on Johann Schmidt, also known as Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a Nazi officer, and it turned him into a tyrannical miscreant. Rogers, on the other hand, receives healing powers and strength beyond imagination that he plans to use for good, so he sets out to single-handedly put an end to the war.

There are plenty of reasons why Captain America is better than the other superhero movies released this year, but all the proof you need is in the character. Thor, for instance, lacked reasoning behind his actions. He didn’t fight for any noble cause. He simply fought because that’s what he was supposed to do. His thin personality made him a character that was hard to care about, but there’s more to Captain America. There isn’t a more noble cause than fighting Nazism, but his motivations go beyond that. He is willing to, and does, lay his life on the line to protect the greater good, even if the odds are overwhelmingly against him. He is courageous and noble, even going so far as to jump on a grenade to save his platoon, which, luckily for him, ends up being a dummy.

Director Joe Johnston, the man behind the magnificent October Sky, does an excellent job of validating this character, allowing us to see his big heart and selfless desires, which allows the drama to surface naturally. There are a number of emotional scenes and, though I doubt they will make anybody shed a tear, they work. Its real strength, however, is its seamless blend of the heartfelt moments with comedy. Tonally, Captain America is perfect, never lacking or overdoing itself in either area. Where Johnston stumbles is in his obvious camerawork that frames the bad guys in ominous low-angle shots, as if a man with a blood red face and a Nazi uniform wasn’t enough. Similarly, he overdoes it with typical “heroic” shots, like slow zooms, tracking shots and slow motion shots as the character rides away from, or even jumps through, a fiery explosion. All of this is usually accompanied by a swelling up of patriotic music, which is a bit overbearing, even if it does fit the idea of the character himself.

Captain America: The First Avenger also suffers from the occasional moment of unintentional hilarity and spotty CGI, especially just before the final battle, but it’s so much fun you’ll hardly notice. Too many origin stories spend too much time setting up the mythology of the character and forget about the fun, but not this one. It ensures future adventures without neglecting itself, which makes it one of the most entertaining and exciting movies to be released this year.

Captain America: The First Avenger receives 4.5/5


Green Lantern

Ok Hollywood, that’s enough superhero movies. Over the past few years, we’ve had to sit through so many, they’ve lost their novelty. It has become wearisome watching these characters in their tight spandex fight an enemy hell-bent on destroying Earth. We get it. Good prevails over evil. This is my plea to give it a rest for a while, especially if your movies are going to be as atrocious as Green Lantern. In a year that has already been sullied with the inconsistent The Green Hornet and disappointing Thor, the last thing we need is a movie so bad it makes those two look like comic book masterpieces. While I’m sure this plea will go unheard by the bigwigs in their ivory towers, if I can convince you, dear reader, to skip this, I’ll have done my job. In an attempt to prevent a franchise from spawning, here goes nothing.

Green Lantern, in what amounts to one of the silliest, most inane stories to come around this year, follows Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a test pilot who never finishes anything he starts and is haunted by memories of his dead father. After crashing his jet one day, he is absorbed a giant green ball which takes him to an alien crash site where he is told that “the ring” has chosen him. This ring gives him extraordinary powers and is limited only by his imagination. You see, for eons, a band of protectors from each realm of the galaxy has worked together to confront evil. They call themselves the Green Lantern Corps. Now, a new enemy named Parallax has reared its ugly head and is on its way to destroy Earth. New recruit Hal must overcome his fears and harness the power of the ring if he wishes to become the Green Lantern and save his planet.

And so begins a movie so sloppy it makes Ryan Reynolds’ Van Wilder look like a masterfully pieced together work of art. The script is so bad it jams together different genres, styles and tones like a two year old putting together a 10,000 piece puzzle. It does such a poor job establishing the histories and personalities of its characters, it leaves no leeway for emotional resonance. It shoves its drama in your face with maudlin flashback scenes where we get to see Hal’s father, in a string of hilarious shots, blow up while climbing out of his jet. Its dialogue is knowingly cutesy, like when Hal’s love interest, Carol Ferris (Blake Lively), compares him to an alien right after he just found and buried one. The film’s problems are scattershot (which evidently translates over to my criticisms), so pinpointing exactly where it goes wrong becomes near impossible.

Similar to this year’s Thor, the characters in Green Lantern are uninspired and boring, a problem which I can only assume stems from the original comic books. The alien creatures are unusually bland and have only one or two distinguishable attributes, like a fish head, red face or pointy ears. That those character designs are created almost entirely by shoddy CGI is the final slap in the face. One could argue the obvious artificiality was done to keep with the colorful style of the comics, but the poor visuals pervade even real life scenarios, like an early scene where Hal and Carol go head to head with a new automated aircraft. For a movie so heavy-laden with special effects, it comes off as surprisingly unconvincing and amateurish.

After the fan backlash from the comical trailers for Green Lantern, Reynolds made an announcement, promising that the movie was not a comedy and was actually serious in tone. He lied. There is drama (or at least attempts at it), as already mentioned, but Green Lantern tries hard to be funny. Aside from one good cliché-busting bit where Carol recognizes Hal in his get-up (“You didn’t think I’d notice you because I can’t see your cheekbones?” she says to him), it fails on all accounts. Reynolds has proven himself to be a charming, whimsical person, but the jokes here are forced and, more often than not, contextually inappropriate.

If you’re going for the action (and I imagine most of you are), you won’t find many thrills either. Most of the action scenes are abrupt and uneventful, like one where a band of Green Lanterns decide to take Parallax head-on. Prior to the scene, the decision is played up as a major turning point, but it lasts what seems like no more than 30 seconds. The Corps does little more than throw a net on the creature, which breaks free almost instantly, before the scene ends and the film moves onto something else.

Green Lantern is a bad movie, perhaps the worst based on a superhero since 2003’s disastrous Hulk. In some areas, it tries too hard, and in others, it doesn’t try hard enough. It never hits that middle ground where the magic happens, a magic films like The Dark Knight and Iron Man know all too well. Even mentioning those movies alongside this train wreck is laughable, but to outright compare them is cinematic blasphemy. Green Lantern doesn’t do as well as the worst aspect from those films and is practically guaranteed to be one of the worst movies of the year.

Green Lantern receives 1/5


X-Men: First Class

This year is the year of superhero overload. The Green Hornet and Thor have already passed while Green Lantern and Captain America are still yet to come. In between those four films is this week’s X-Men: First Class and it’s likely to be the best superhero film you’ll see all year. I’d even go so far as to say it’s the best since The Dark Knight. While it is by no means up to that film’s caliber, it’s nevertheless an immensely entertaining summer thrill ride with terrific action, great performances and some surprisingly effective drama.

As the title suggests, the film follows the younger versions of the X-Men characters as they figure out who they are and what they stand for. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has just finished school and earned his doctorate, giving him the title of Professor. Before he’s able to celebrate, however, CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) enlists his help. Despite her best efforts, her agency won’t believe her when she says she saw mutants that are planning on starting a nuclear world war. Luckily, mutant genetics is Professor Xavier’s specialty. So he, along with his sister, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), and not-yet-an-enemy Erik (Michael Fassbender), begins to recruit mutants to help them put a stop to the evil opposition, led by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).

If you, like me, are not familiar with X-Men mythology, you will be lost when this movie begins. This is one of those films that loves to jump from place to place, establishing characters in different locales that will have an impact later on in the story. It starts in 1944 Poland at a Nazi concentration camp before jetting to 1960’s New York, Switzerland, England, Nevada, Argentina, Florida, Virginia and even an undisclosed covert CIA research base. In its opening moments, X-Men: First Class shows signs of cinematic ADHD, never truly focusing on anything in particular. Throw in the fact that the film then goes on to introduce no less than a dozen characters (most with superhero pseudonyms), like Angel, Riptide, Azazel, Emma Frost, Beast, Banshee, Darwin, Havok and more, and those without a familiarity with this universe will find the proceedings difficult to grasp.

Because of this, X-Men: First Class takes a while to get going and will not instantly grab many of its viewers. However, it must be said that once it settles down, it becomes easily accessible. Although there are a lot of characters, they are balanced delicately and, aside from a few notable cases (I can’t recall Azazel or Riptide speaking at all during the film), each comes into their own. In many cases, like with Mystique and Magneto, you get to see the downward spiral the characters take towards villainy. There is passion in their personalities and motivations and you come to understand why they choose the way they do.

X-Men: First Class is directed by Matthew Vaughn, the same guy behind last year’s Kick-Ass, an entertaining film that was nevertheless plagued by many problems. In comparison, this film seems to fix a lot of them, showing growth in Vaughn as a filmmaker. Kick-Ass had an inconsistent tone and its over-the-top goofiness undercut the climax’s dramatic intentions. X-Men: First Class avoids that problem by excellently balancing the seriousness of the story with some hilarious comic bits, including a couple of cameos that most viewers will find very amusing.

This is a stylish movie. It’s not as action packed as some will expect, but when stuff blows up, it blows up real good. The CGI is hit and miss, but when you’re having this much fun, you won’t really care. Still, it’s not perfect and when it stumbles, it’s noticeable. The script is so smart and witty that the numerous cheesy speeches about accepting and loving yourself stick out like a sore thumb. While certainly a good message in general and relevant to the story, it’s hand-fed so forcefully it comes off as childish. But don’t let those minor blunders stop you from checking it out. If upcoming films continue in cinema’s recent bout with mediocrity, X-Men: First Class could end up being one of the best of the year.

X-Men: First Class receives 4/5