Captain America: The First Avenger – Review



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This great big slice of comic-book pulp is deliciously entertaining.

The summer movie season is inching closer to its final month. Sequel driven as ever, thus far we’ve been treated to overstuffed spectacles involving pirates and robots in disguise. Maybe there have been too many underwhelming sequels or movies that didn’t live up to expectations. With three superhero movies already released this summer, it’s easy to view Captain America: The First Avenger with some apprehension. Thankfully, the film is what we’ve needed this summer: something fun, that is a surprising unabashed yarn involving treachery and high adventure. And did I mention it has Nazis as the bad guys! Who doesn’t like seeing Adolf’s boys get knocked out by some Super Soldier in red, white and blue?

As the fifth film in the interconnected Marvel Comics universe, it is the last piece in establishing all the characters that will band together next May in The Avengers. But don’t just look at Captain America as the lead-in to next summer’s blockbuster. Unlike the other films that comprise this movie universe (Iron Man and its sequel, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor), Captain America sets itself a part by being the only movie entry that is not a contemporary tale.

Director Joe Johnston has shown in films like The Rocketeer that he has a fondness for the story’s period. Johnston imbues Captain America with that same enthusiasm of retro detail, populating his 1940s cinematic oeuvre about World War II with U.S. Army grunts, Nazis, blue-ray ray guns, and a hero who represents the best in all of us and what it means to be an American.

When Captain America first appeared in print it was in March 1941. The United States had yet to enter the Second World War, but the image of a square-jawed hero in red, white, and blue socking Adolf Hitler right in the kisser resonated with readers. Nobody likes a tyrant, so a comic about an asthmatic 98-pound weakling who becomes a Super Solider after being the test subject in top-secret DOD project is the type of wish-fulfillment fantasy that Americans could embrace.

With a little special effects wizardry we are introduced to the 98-pound Steve Rogers, played by Chris Evans’ head on another actor’s body. At first the transformation comes as a shock, but the feeling subsides and you just lose yourself in Evans’ performance as a weakling who has the heart of a lion but has never won a fight or danced with a girl. He’s determined to make it into the U.S. Army despite getting labeled with 4-F status (physically or psychologically unfit) each of the four previous times he’s tried to enlist. But he gets his wish thanks to a kind German scientist transplant (Stanley Tucci) who makes him the guinea pig in a hush-hush government program to create super soldiers with a mysterious blue serum and Howard Stark’s (yep, Iron Man’s dad) human microwave sarcophagus that shoots him with controlled bursts of Vita-Rays.

Prior to having the serum injected and baked like a potato, Steve Rodgers suffers through basic training. He can’t run worth a darn, climb up a rope ladder or crawl underneath rows of barbed wire with his rifle outstretched in front. But the kid has got courage. His willingness to sacrifice himself during a test involving a dummy grenade attracts the attention of hard-nosed Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), much to the colonel’s chagrin. Once the procedure is complete Howard Stark’s sarcophagus opens to reveal the real Chris Evans. Mighty pectorals, six-pack abs, and a foot taller.  (This is when the women in the audience swoon.)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Hugo Weaving is plotting world domination as Nazi commandant Johann Schmidt. A sort of messiah with his own private army, he aspires to be greater than Der Führer. And just like Steve Rodgers, he too has taken the serum. But while Rodgers becomes the beefed-up Captain America, Schmidt morphs into the Red Skull, an adverse side effect on account of the serum not being 100-percent ready. Weaving, like Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, proves once again why Nazis are the kings at movie villainy.

Captain America: The First Avenger may be another superhero movie released in a summer full of them, but it has a certain appeal that those movies lacked. It could be its adherence to movie serials from the 1940s. The same serials that inspired the Indiana Jones series are woven into this tale of high adventure. The film even goes as far to include snippets from a fake Captain America movie serial.

Tommy Lee Jones as the tough colonel is a scene-stealer, always getting the last word (or in this case, a laugh). Stanley Tucci’s good in a limited role. And newcomer Hayley Atwell, who plays special agent Peggy Carter, knows her way a machine gun and a tube of shiny red lipstick. She’s like a classic military pin-up gal. She and Evans have good chemistry together, but don’t go all screwball comedy in their relationship. They play it pretty straight minus one or two incidents of jealousy.

If going by star presence, Robert Downey Jr. is the clear-cut winner when describing the major players of the Marvel Comics universe movies thus far. Chris Evans is close to being a true leading man, but he isn’t quite there. While charismatic and dutiful in his role as Captain America, he lacks a certain wit with his performance. Thankfully, director Joe Johnston fills each scene with enough humor and observances about the time and era to make up the difference.

Captain America: The First Avenger deserves to be a success. It would be the perfect way for Marvel Studios to book end the summer, having started things off with a bang with its release of Thor in May. It’s pure fun, entertaining, and has a certain charm that other blockbusters this summer have failed to present. The film may not reinvent the genre, but by fully embracing the time and place and the absurdness of it all (super soldiers, Nazis with ray guns, a shield made with a fake metallic alloy called Vibranium) Captain America is that perfect hybrid of superhero movie and pulp adventure.


Director: Joe Johnston
Notable Cast: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Derek Luke, Neal McDonaugh
Writer(s): Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, inspired by the Marvel comic books

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