Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) / Action-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence
Running Time: 124 min.
Cast: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones, Toby Jones, Stanley Tucci, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Richard Armitage, Bruno Ricci, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Kenneth Choi
Small role: Samuel L. Jackson, Stan Lee
Director: Joe Johnston
Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Review published December 22, 2013
Captain America: The First Avenger is a film I have seen at least three times before writing the review you're about to read. Sometimes reviews get away from me, and, as I like to review films while they are still fresh in the mind, I figured I'd just watch it again. I'm glad I did, as it is a film that, while not without its share of flaws, I appreciate more with each repeated viewing. Initially I had been lukewarm, but it grew on me, and I now consider it one of the better examples of a superhero movie in recent years, primarily because it does different things than the rest of the pack without losing its comic-book pedigree.
The First Avenger is Marvel's final 'Phase I' film before it goes into the highly-anticipated crossover team-up film to put characters from its other solo efforts -- The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor -- into The Avengers. While not quite as humorous as the other outings have been this far, Captain America benefits from an honest, straightforward approach that is befitting the old-fashioned nature of its main character and the World War II setting. Coming on board as director is someone with experience with retro-futuristic comic book adaptations, Joe Johnston (The Wolfman, Hidalgo), who brought his Spielberg-esque vision to The Rocketeer twenty years before. Johnston does a fine job in recreating the feel of film serials so popular in the era, which Spielberg and Lucas also tapped into in such film series as Star Wars and Indiana Jones, the two franchises that this flick pays homage to the most (not a surprise, as Johnston collaborated on both series as effects artist and art director). It's an alternate reality take, but effectively developed, and stays true to the spirit of its comic book creation in a way that should finally please "Captain America" fans who've suffered through terrible adaptations on TV and video over the years.
Starring as Steve Rogers is Chris Evans (Scott Pilgrim, Street Kings), who already had broken into the superhero world previously as Johnny Storm/The Human Torch in The Fantastic Four and its sequel. Here he starts off the film as far from brawny by digitally placing his head on the body of a much smaller man, as Rogers would be rejected time and again by the U.S. armed forces for not being fit or healthy enough to fight the good fight overseas. Things take an unexpected turn when Rogers is approached by a brilliant scientist named Dr. Abraham Erskine (Tucci, Easy A), who wants to use the short, stringy man with a huge, good-natured heart for a top-secret government experiment on the possible construction of an army of super soldiers in order to combat the Nazi menace.
Rogers jumps at the chance, as the experiment proves a success, turning scrawny into brawny, but after the laboratory is sabotaged by a double agent, further research is scrapped and Rogers' plans on leading the fight on the battlefield takes a detour as the U.S. uses him instead as a war-bonds salesman under the red-white-and-blue disguise of a mascot named Captain America. However, you can't keep a good man down for long, as Rogers decides to make a name for himself by jumping into the action he's been kept out of for so long, ultimately proving to himself and the armed forces that he can be the secret weapon they need to turn the tide of the war. However, the Nazis have their own super-soldier on their side, in the form of weaponry specialist Johann Schmidt (Weaving, Transformers: Dark of the Moon), aka 'the Red Skull', who is using a mystical Tesseract cube for a massive power play, heading his own underground movement called Hydra, who are hell-bent on world domination at any cost -- and the first country slated to go down is the United States.
Captain America isn't as futuristic in nature as Iron Man, nor as much of a smash-and-thrash fist-pounder like The Hulk or Thor. However, there is a retro-futuristic look that gives it a unique flavor, as if all of the science fiction magazines and comic books of its era were somehow a burgeoning reality. Laser guns abound among the armies, many of whom sport sci-fi caliber attire, and there's plenty to see in a World's Fair where technologies of tomorrow can be seen today, thanks to the visionary genius of Howard Stark (father of Iron Man's Tony), which spills over into the high-tech laboratories full of strange and futuristic equipment. Fans will no doubt not the inclusion of Howard Stark (Cooper, The Duchess) greatly echoes the inclusion of Howard Hughes in Johnston's The Rocketeer, in both name, look, and execution.
A mixed bag are the special effects, as they are impressively conceived, but the CGI elements are far too obvious, starting with Evans' in 98-lb. weakling mode all the way to the wholly computer-generated look of the Red Skull's stretch car and war plane. Green screens abound, and though they don't completely break the film, they do take one out of it to notice that not all of it is as seamless as it should have been, especially when compared to other films of its ilk. Luckily, the action is brisk enough that we don't dawdle too long on the obvious spectacle, and we care enough about the central character to root him on even if there's no plausible explanation as to just how he is able to choreograph some unbelievable fight moves, including always seeming to know just the right angle and speed in which to throw his vibranium shield at his distant enemies.
Without a hero to admire, all the tech in the world wouldn't matter, which is why Chris Evans is such a good choice to play the role. Not only does he have the physique, but he also has the intelligence and determination to make for a complete hero role. Though his role here doesn't quite fully utilize his skill at comedic parts, his funny fish-out-of-water reactions will surely come into play in future entries for reasons that will be obvious to those who know the story of Captain America (or who've already seen this movie). He also sells the notion of a romantic lead without ever being seen as too commanding in the role, as it is likely that Rogers has never had a relationship with a woman.
The supporting cast is quite strong, especially Tommy Lee Jones (No Country for Old Men, A Prairie Home Companion), who makes the most out of a rather terse role as Colonel Chester Phillips, the military's rep. Hayley Atwell (Any Human Heart, The Pillars of the Earth) may not be a big name as British military officer Peggy Carter, and doesn't fit the mold of today's leading woman for a superhero film (mostly snarky waifs), but she does for the period she is in -- smart, sassy, spirited, and with the curvy looks of someone who stepped right out of a pin-up of the times. Hugo Weaving gives the Red Skull a menacing gravitas that roots the character despite an economy of scenes, and Toby Jones (Your Highness, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I) gives the enemy side a bit of nuance as Arnim Zola, the HYDRA biochemist who actually appears to have a bit of a conscience underneath he evil he regularly performs. Stanley Tucci is adequately comforting and sympathetic as Dr. Erskine, though I do think his German accent is iffy at best.
The classic Captain America look, with his American-Flag appearance and shield, would prove a dauntingly difficult task to introduce with any form of plausibility, so kudos to the screenwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Prince Caspian), for developing one that, while still not entirely realistic, doesn't strain the credibility of the story. The same can't really be said for the rag-tag army that Rogers' saves and eventually commands, as the wardrobe given to the "Howling Commandos' characters played by the likes of Neal McDonough (88 Minutes) and Derek Luke (Definitely Maybe) seem too idealized and fashionable to fly without any adequate explanation; this group looks completely out of place, even in a comic book film.
Nevertheless, the film is solid in most respects, and is a must-see for fans of the Marvel universe. Captain America may not have the pizzazz of a top-tier superhero film for the modern era, but it is a solid effort in making one in the classic mold, precisely how this character should be handled to not only keep his fans on board, but to also garner a few new ones who have not experience the old-school way to create a superhero. While Captain America: The First Avenger might seem like a second-tier release in today's era of comic-book adaptation blockbusters, it's like the character of pre-serum Steve Rogers -- not much to look at from the outside, but lots of appealing inner qualities are revealed when you take a closer look.
A scene follows the end credits; it's basically a tie-in that launches a mini-trailer for the 2012 film, Marvel's The Avengers.
-- Followed by Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
©2013 Vince Leo