REVIEW: ‘Captain America: The First Avenger”
YATES: Satisfying characters and visuals, but with a rushed ending
Marvel Comics completes its stable of films that will result in next year’s “The Avengers” with “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Many early reviews by critics hail the latest Marvel offering as the best one yet. I read my fair share of comic books as a kid but have since forgotten most of the details, so I brought along a Marvel Comics expert to weigh in on the post-film discussion. AMC only offered the 3D version in Quincy (more on that later), so I donned my Woody Allen-inspired 3D glasses and let my inner patriot fly in this week’s film review.
After four failed attempts to join the military during World War II, diminutive Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, “Fantastic Four”) is finally given a chance through the government’s Strategic Scientific Reserve program, led by German defect, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, “Easy A” ). Rogers’ genuine character and intellect leads him to be chosen as the candidate to receive a serum meant to create a genetically enhanced soldier. Initially misused by the government as a poster boy for the war, Rogers — now dubbed “Captain America” — takes matters into his own hands in an effort to rescue his best friend from the clutches of Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, “V for Vendetta”), the leader of Hitler’s HYDRA weapons program. When Red Skull turns on Hitler and begins building an army of his own, it is up to Captain America and his band of soldiers to save the U.S., and perhaps the world, from utter destruction.
Director Joe Johnston (“The Wolfman”) does a masterful job of filling “Captain America: The First Avenger” with empowering messages meant to inspire the everyday person. This is possible largely because Rogers is the most down-to-earth character of all of the recent Marvel super heroes — and he stays that way once becoming Captain America. Tony Stark is an egocentric billionaire playboy. Thor is a Norse god. Bruce Banner is a likable guy, but who can relate to a gamma ray green giant? Rogers was selected to become a super hero because he was just a normal guy with great character. The film is action packed with a great mix of camp and feel-good moments.
Kudos should be given to the trio of Casting Directors — Sarah Finn, Randi Hiller, and Priscilla John — for a superb job in casting the film. Evans shows his range playing the opposite of his “Fantastic Four” Johnny Storm character. Hugo Weaving, perhaps more well-known for his voice work (“Transformers” Megatron) is pure evil as Red Skull. Relatively unknown Hayley Atwell shines as Captain America’s love interest. Much of the film’s comedy relief comes from an unlikely source in Tommy Lee Jones.
I’m an admitted foe of 3D, and this film is a prime example of why. Sure, there are a few scenes here and there where it is noteworthy — Captain America does love to fling his shield, after all — but overall the 3D detracts from one of the film’s best qualities — the mise-en-scene. With a backdrop of World War II, the set design is a brilliant combination of period-themed earthen shades and futuristic industrial designs. It is the manpower and sheer will of the United States vs. the cosmic cube-powered technology and evil machinations of Red Skull. The HYDRA army attire is an eerie and ominous combination of black leather robes and masks. The glasses and distracting 3D imaging diminishes the mise-en-scene to something of an afterthought.
I asked my Marvel Comics expert what he thought afterward, and he explained that “Captain America: The First Avenger” does a great job of blending the different comic versions of Captain America into one. He pointed out that the original Captain America comic costume appears in the film when Captain America is on the road promoting war bonds and entertaining troops. He also noted some subtle nuances — like when Captain America’s best friend Bucky Barnes flashes some super hero-like reflexes of his own in battle. In the Marvel world, Barnes goes on to become a super hero himself as the Winter Soldier, and eventually takes the place of a deceased Steve Rogers as Captain America.
The one critique I have of the film is the big finish — or lack thereof. The resolution feels rushed. I think Johnston does a bit of a disservice to the film as a standalone, instead tying it in with the next Marvel film. After investing more than two hours in the emotional story of Rogers, the denouement is hurried into a convenient package to prep for “The Avengers.” While “Captain America: The First Avenger” didn’t quite defeat “Iron Man” as my favorite super hero film, it comes in a close second. Despite the 3D annoyances, the film offers a deep storyline, tremendous visuals, and sets the stage for the long awaited Avengers movie. Also be sure to stick around until the credits end for a sneak teaser at “The Avengers.”
WIEGENSTEIN: An honest core of emotion for “The First Avenger”
There’s a moment in “Captain America: The First Avenger” that has been seen many times, in many movies like it: Our protagonist speaks with a respected elder and is given the nugget of advice that will guide him through both the film and his hero’s journey. Here, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is on the eve of transforming into a superhuman model of American perfection thanks to the aid of a scientist played by Stanley Tucci, who reminds him that he was singled out due to the good heart and strong character that will soon lie beneath 200 pounds of muscle.
Luckily for everyone, it’s advice that the movie itself takes seriously — beneath the requisite explosion-laden trappings of a big-budget action flick is an honest core of emotion that strengthens the plot more than a mighty shield could ever hope to.
To say Rogers is a weakling at the movie’s start is an understatement — his list of ailments practically fills a full page of his U.S. Army recruitment form, rendering him unfit for service all four times he attempts to join up. Plucked from the proverbial heap by Tucci, however, his dedication immediately sets him apart, and ultimately leads him to become the ultimate American, fighting against a force even worse than the Nazis. Led by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving, doing the correct amount of scenery chewery), HYDRA is more hardcore than the Third Reich, and ten times as deadly.
Of course, the Captain America of the comics was created in the midst of World War II’s patriotic fervor — one memorable cover pictured him walloping Hitler himself. I worried that Steve Rogers would prove to be little more than a hollow shell wrapped in stars and stripes, but luckily the film is canny enough to address the Cap’s initially-ridiculous roots as he finds himself being trotted out by senators to do nothing more than sell war bonds as a walking billboard. Surrounded by high-kicking pinup girls, he punches out faux-Hitlers in cities all over the country, but it’s clear that this will be never be enough for him. (Special commendation for being able to laugh at the hero’s original costume, which gets a coolness upgrade later in the movie.)
A couple of tiny plot threads are introduced and almost immediately vanish — it’s hinted that Steve inherited his hero complex in part from his father, for example — but this is ultimately for the best, as the narrative is better when its pathos moves forward, rather than lingering in the past. Likewise, it comes as a relief when Steve finally obtains the action-figure body he was meant to have — the early scenes of Chris Evans being digitally shrunk never quite escape a Gollum-esque creepiness.
Having previously excelled in embracing the character of “handsome villain,” Evans proves himself to be a solid choice for the Captain, managing to maintain the air of a dweeb within a body he’s still learning how to use. And in Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), one can see why he’d be completely floored at times. She’s not only a “beautiful dame,” as Steve points out to continue in the film’s vernacular, she’s one tough broad, capable of taking out a soldier with a punch rather than a high heel.
The supporting cast is somewhat hit-or-miss, with Sebastian Stan’s loyal BFF and Tommy Lee Jones’ gruff army boss (surprise, surprise) being the strongest of the bunch. The Howard Stark portrayed by Dominic Cooper is bland, though — the verve and charisma that his son will grow up to have obviously wasn’t inherited from this guy. On the dark side of things, Toby Jones has the unenviable task of having to play a nebbish against the over-the-top evil of Red Skull, and comes across as a massive time suck on the plot.
Unsurprisingly, “Captain America” goes all-out in its embracing of the 1940s action movie style, complete with immaculate costuming and an emphatic Alan Silvestri score. Like “X-Men: First Class,” the other superhero flick to flash back in time this summer, Johnston pays tribute to all the prettiest parts of the era, in both tone and on-screen detail.
As the title clearly points out, “Captain America,” even more than “Iron Man 2” or this summer’s earlier Marvel flick “Thor,” is intended as a giant ramp-up to next year’s blowout “Avengers” movie. Without delving into spoiler territory, the movie begins and ends by explaining just how a guy in the 1940s can wind up fighting alongside the heroes of 2012. But this tale of “The First Avenger” is a well-crafted film in its own right, and more than enough to bridge a year-long gap in classic Marvel output. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t strongly advise you to stay until the credits finish rolling, though.)
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