Captain America: The First Avenger starts out by earning the goodwill of its audience. It shows us a 90-pound weakling named Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, with either a body double or his body shrunken with digital effects) who wants to join the army. It earns this goodwill by making us sympathize with him. He doesn’t want to join the army because it will make him popular or because he wants to kill people; he just wants to join it because he loves his country.
He’s rejected, due to having asthma and being very slim, but tries five times. He’s eventually noticed by a defected German scientist, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci). Erskine tells him that he can turn Rogers into someone fit for the army, with the only downside being that he has to be injected with some sort of serum that may or may not actually work. Rogers agrees, he gets injected, and becomes a beefed-up version of his previous self. At this point, Chris Evans gets to show that he’s been working out in preparation for the role.
He dons the Captain America suit that fans have come to love, although he does so reluctantly. At first, he’s put to work promoting the army — he goes around from state to state selling bonds in a musical performance. It’s funny to see this, but it gets tiring quickly, with this montage lasting a couple of minutes longer than it should. But then he finds out his friend has been taken prisoner on the battlefield, and decides to go in single-handedly on a rescue mission. At this point, he really becomes the hero of the title.
Eventually, the film has the good Captain going from base to base, destroying all of the Germans that he meets. The main bad guy is Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), who was given the serum before the film begins. We learn that it enhances all the traits of a person, both good and bad. As a result, Schmidt becomes a cartoon villain, so deliciously over-the-top that we can’t help but admire his audacity. He plans to use an ancient cube that once belonged to the gods to obliterate most of the world, including Germany. He and Captain America are polar opposites though: Schmidt is self-obsessed, caring little about everyone else, while Rogers is the good character who would risk his own life, which I deem incredibly valuable, just to save one of an unknown soldier.
Captain America has a lot of action scenes, although not right away, because that wouldn’t make sense. It takes nearly 30 minutes before the transformation occurs, although it could have easily lasted an hour before I got bored. Watching this good guy — this 90-pound weakling — was almost more fun than watching a super soldier go around killing bad guys. Before he becomes Captain America, the film has a lot of moments where you will laugh, largely due to the main character’s size, but also because of some of the fun lines of dialogue written for these people. After the transformation, there are few of these, although they do not disappear altogether.
The action scenes are enjoyable, although I wanted more of them. At one point in the film, we get a montage of Captain America completely wiping out entire sections of the German camps. But that’s all we get: A montage. They wipe out almost a dozen camps in less than five minutes, and while this certainly made the character feel like an unstoppable juggernaut, it didn’t satisfy my thirst for big set-pieces. Those come later, but still not in large enough bunches.
The movie’s only real problem comes from the fact that it doesn’t ever seem like our protagonist is in peril. Even during some of the bigger fights, where the enemy soldiers have guns that can turn a man to dust, we don’t fear that they’ll hit him, even when they easily could. There are enemies all around him a couple of times, and they never shoot him in the back. If I was fighting a super soldier, I know I wouldn’t care about hitting them from the front — I’d just want him dead. And since the villains are so over-the-top evil, I would assume their thinking would be like mine in that regard. But apparently that isn’t the case, because that would shorten the picture too much, and also remove one of the key elements to the upcoming Avengers flick.
Thankfully, Captain America doesn’t feel like its sole purpose is in helping to set up The Avengers. That was the biggest problem that Iron Man 2 had, but apart from the ending, which felt anticlimactic to me, S.H.I.E.L.D. or the Avengers aren’t even mentioned. It stands alone as a very good action film, without feeling the need to waste time being an advertising tool for an upcoming film.
I almost didn’t recognize Chris Evans in the lead role, especially after seeing him in previous comic book roles such as the ones in Fantastic Four and Scott Pilgrim. He disappears into this role, completely becoming the Captain. And he does it all with a great sincerity that is most charming. The other actors are great too, although it would have been nice to see more of Hugo Weaving. Most of his screen time during the middle of the film is spent either sitting off-screen, or visiting the bases that our hero just blew up. And then there’s the star-making turn by Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, a secret agent helping the United States soldiers. There’s also Tommy Lee Jones as a Colonel in the military, as well as Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark (the father of the man who will later become Iron Man). The film is filled with great performances, which go far above what they need to in an action film.
Captain America: The First Avenger is a really solid action film that has big set-pieces, good acting, a solid plot and top-notch special effects. It thankfully doesn’t feel like its sole purpose is in setting up The Avengers, which allows it to function as a standalone film. If its lead just felt slightly more vulnerable, it would be incredible, but as it is, it’s a great film that can be added to all the other great Marvel films as of late.