There is no Internet tradition more richly preposterous than judging a movie based entirely on its first promotional images. (The 21st century is all about speed and efficiency, after all, and we need to know whether we should even waste our time watching the trailer!) But there was once a more innocent time -- a time before movie blogs, rumor reporting, preproduction blogs from the very set, and massive comic conventions -- when these first images popped up in your favorite glossy magazine and it was literally all you knew about an upcoming film. These images might bring disappointment (I still remember being a little horrified at the first image of Batman Returns' Catwoman) but they deepened the mystery and excitement of a big summer movie.
There's something about these first Marvel movie glimpses that stir that nostalgic feeling in me. They shouldn't. The Internet reports on these movies exhaustively (I speak as a willing participant in the machine) and they often have ComicCon sizzle reels before they have official posters or images. We often have spy images spoiling the costume or the set before we get anything professional and posed. The combination of all that buzz made the first Captain America: The First Avenger images a slight letdown, but only for a moment, and then the sheer thrill of there actually being a Captain America movie kicked in. Again, I'm speaking entirely from my own personal reaction. I'm a Marvel girl at heart. While my favorite hero is surly, short, and sports a pair of adamantium claws (guess who?), there are few comic fans who don't have a soft spot for Steve Rogers.
But Cap is a lot like Superman. He's an unabashedly good guy, and a throwback to a squeaky clean era of storytelling and patriotism that doesn't fly well today. We're also rather uncomfortable with the idea of putting fictional heroics in a serious battlefield like World War II. (This wasn't always the case, though, and may even have shifted back in a post-Inglourious Basterds landscape.) So how the heck would Cap's heroics translate to a movie? Wouldn't it just be on the wrong side of corny? And how would you find an actor to embody him in all his corn-fed, all-American, masculine-but-compassionate self? Cap needed to be a young Paul Newman, an impossible thing to find in an age of boyish beefcakes. How would this shake itself out? Would the era of Marvel movies be over before they moved past their origin stories?
I'm not going to pretend the first images answer any of those questions. All right, yes I am. Eight pictures in, and I'm as wound up as a kid seeing Christopher Reeve or Michael Keaton for the first time. Superheroes are real! Captain America is real, and I think he looks perfect. How? Why? Let me explain!
For one, there's Chris Evans. I championed his casting (he was undoubtedly the best pick of the contenders) but as likable and talented as he is, I considered him to be a thoroughly modern face. It's no big anthropological secret that human features subtly shift over time, and no cinematic mystery that particular faces go in and out of style. Could any modern actor look like he came out of the 1940s? Amazingly, Evans does! Ignore Entertainment Weekly's appalling airbrush job, and look at the actual movie stills. It's not all about the haircut or the costume. You can put modern actors in old-fashioned apparel, and it doesn't disguise their modernity. But Evans really embodies that wide-eyed masculinity you see in so many World War II photos. Men of the 1940s paradoxically look grittier and more innocent than they do today. After all, they'd grown up during the Depression, probably held down a job or two already, and yet were seeing the wider world for the first time. It's an unusual blend, well-preserved in retro photos and artwork, and Evans has it.
He also has the charisma of a leader. The photo where he's being congratulated by his men really draws you in. Their expressions and his confident grin make you believe he managed something pretty awesome. Something superheroic. (The peek of his Cap uniform beneath the fatigues helps, but only marginally. It's all in the expression.) And then there's that image of him walking away from the camera, his first shield slung across his back. It makes me want to follow him. It makes me believe in fighting the good fight and confident that the free world will endure. It's the surge of old-fashioned optimism that I get whenever I watch a WWII era movie like Mrs. Miniver, Since You Went Away, or White Cliffs of Dover. We will win, no matter how dark it gets. We knew it then, and a special movie could make us remember it now. Cap's shoulders look like they might be able to carry our neurotic burden.
And oh, the shoulders. Did I mention that shirtless picture yet? It's really the super-serumed elephant in the room, so we girls (and guys) might as well stop here and sigh. There's nothing like a Marvel man to set those unrealistic expectations, is there?
Ahem. Speaking of unbelievable angles, let's move into those comic book elements hinted at in the Evanless stills. We have previews of the Operation: Rebirth lab that makes Cap into a supersoldier, and Hugo Weaving as the dreaded Red Skull, and they're all right. Tradition often dictates that all science or villainy must be painfully outlandish, and it isn't in these early peeks. The Rebirth lab is deliciously retro, the kind of set we haven't seen since the atomic age of B-movies. Weaving can't help but look like a cartoon villain (you can't fault a man for his eyebrows), but a visibly nervous Toby Jones helps tone that campy atmosphere down.
And just how menacing are those HYDRA motorcycle thugs, or that sunken HYDRA plane? There's a real pulpy quality to the jackboots, isn't there? Can't you just feel Heinz Kruger (Richard Armitage) glaring at you through the cockpit, hating all you and your country stand for? Barring the octopus logo, these images could be from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or Where Eagles Dare and not a soul would doubt they promised thrills, chills, and militant evil.
Oh dear, I'm being sexist and neglecting Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter. If there is one oddity in Cap's biography, it's that he never really had a girl back home. His one and only love is Lady Liberty. That works all right for an icon, but not for a man. Steve needs a human angle to make us sympathetic, and a love interest helps more than a boy sidekick. Plus, we're talking about the era of Rosie the Riveter! I'm glad Captain America is including some wartime women, and the fact that Peggy warrants two photos (and in uniform!) suggests she'll have a cool part to play in this story. She won't just be girlish romantic dressing.
Finally, there's the costume. There's been controversy about it since Joe Johnston first shared his USO vision of it. But the ugly truth is that all superhero costumes (with two notable exceptions named Batman and Superman) are pretty awful. They only work in two-dimensional panels and primary colors. If you really look at Cap's costume and break it down into its components -- the hood, the wings, the chainmail -- it's pretty goofy. It wouldn't work. Transforming it into World War II fatigues helps immeasurably. I think it sells the concept of Cap-as-propaganda and Cap-as-soldier. Combined with the glimpses of set pieces, I think the movie is going to be a good blend of super-reality and rational grit displayed in Iron Man. Jon Favreau forged a good model there, and Marvel is smart to follow it.
Sure, these photos could be the best of a lousy movie. The script could be terrible. The actors could do their best to sell it and fail, or they could all be awful and miscast. Captain America could be a movie that makes Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor look restrained. But for now, it looks exactly like the movie I want. It looks genuine, heroic, and historical. All right, so Steve Rogers no longer has blue eyes or blond hair, but the right cosmetic details can't make a hero anyway. It's all about how he wields that shield, and Evans seems to be holding up under its weight.
So yes, I'm deeming Captain America: The First Avenger a success. I'm declaring it with all the hair trigger irrationalism that makes geeks what they are. Remember, it's not cynicism that won the war! It was blind optimism and without it, we wouldn't have Steve Rogers at all. So cheer up and put on some Glenn Miller, because July 22, 2011, is going to be swell.