Well, the summer will soon be nearing its end, although the temperatures outside don’t seem to agree. With the changing of the seasons also comes the inevitable conclusion to the summer of superheroes (that’s what I dubbed it a few weeks back). And now, with the release of “Captain America: The First Avenger” this year’s heroic reign over the box office for beloved comic book icons will soon be coming to a close.
“Captain America: The First Avenger” is the story of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a young man who wanted nothing more than to fight alongside the brave soldiers in World War II against the Nazi onslaught. After being rejected repeatedly due to his frail physique, Steve volunteered for an experimental treatment that would transform him into a living, breathing super-soldier. Meanwhile, a Nazi scientist named Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) is attempting to harness power beyond anything this world has ever seen, and Captain America may be the only one strong enough to stop him.
After so many entertaining entries this summer ranging from Marvel’s “Thor” and “X-Men: First Class” to DC Comics’ “Green Lantern”, did the heroic summer end with a triumphant victory or a disappointing defeat?
The answer, as evidenced by the movie’s opening weekend box office victory over “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2”, combined with mostly positive reactions from critics, is that the summer of heroes definitely ends on a high note. And I for one wouldn’t have expected anything less from the star-spangled avenger.
Taking heavy cues from classic Hollywood escapism, the likes of which haven’t been seen in quite some time, the film embraces its more traditional atmosphere without being heavy-handed or cheesy in the process. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (“The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”) this film easily feels right at home in the ever-expanding pantheon of Marvel’s self-produced comic book movies, but with some noticeable differences in storytelling.
One of the big differences you’ll notice, aside from the aforementioned atmosphere, between this movie and the ones Marvel Studios has released prior (including this summer’s “Thor”), is that the story is much more serious-minded than the others. The majority of the previous films tied into this universe featured serious dramatic story arcs, but always with heavy doses of humor laced throughout to keep things sort of light-hearted.
That type of approach worked fine for those characters, and in the case of Thor it probably made his transition from comic book page to big screen that much easier to believe. However, for Captain America, a story filled with jokes, one-liners and sarcasm, even if they feel appropriate to the story, would have been completely wrong for the ever-stoic soldier and future leader of the Avengers.
Thankfully, the writers paid attention to this (most likely with some heavy hints from Marvel) and avoided those mistakes. While there is still the occasional joke, they are few and far between; leaving us with a movie that captures the essence of Captain America perfectly. Plus, having a little joke here and there is good to break up the potential monotony of the drama unfolding, I was just glad Cap wasn’t the one cracking wise.
Another major difference between this film and the others, is that here we are presented with a hero who always dreamed of doing nothing more than fighting for what’s right. In today’s comic book movie landscape I can’t think of any characters with this mindset. To me this was so refreshing because finally we get to see one of the few characters that’s doing precisely what he’s always wanted and sought after. As opposed to having the heroic mantle thrust upon him by circumstances (Iron Man or Spider-Man) or being born into it (Thor).
Now, to clarify I am a comic book fan so I already knew that Captain America was one of the few heroes that willingly accepted the heroic mantle placed before him. I just wasn’t sure if the movie would keep this aspect intact or change it to be more cookie-cutter and follow the tried-and-true recipe of so many of the other adaptations over the years.
Despite my foreknowledge of that particular character trait for Cap, I still found it a fresh approach to a genre that has so many similarities within origin stories. After all, there are only so many types of origins one can tell before you become repetitive.
One last difference with this film, that I shall touch upon briefly, is that this was a pure origin story from start to finish. With most other comic book films the origin portion of the character’s first movie comprises approximately half to two-thirds of the overall running time. This movie doesn’t finish Cap’s origins for this cinematic universe, meaning taking him from first becoming the hero to being ready for next summer’s “Avengers”, until the credits roll.
This was important because the other Marvel Studios movies featured stories set in the modern day; whereas, Captain America was created during World War II. So, for him to believably fit into the modern day landscape of 2012’s “Avengers” team-up film, the movie had the unenviable task of introducing the character and doing justice to his time in World War II. All the while, somehow bringing him up to the modern day setting we’ve become accustomed to with the other films. Not an easy set of tasks, but one that the writers and director Joe Johnston pulled off quite nicely.
Speaking of director Joe Johnston, I was personally a little skeptical when he was handed the reins to this key piece of the “Avengers” film puzzle. He’s a director that has been hit-and-miss with big budget franchises or franchise makers throughout his entire career.
Sure, he did an admirable job taking over for Steven Spielberg to helm “Jurassic Park 3”, but even so, the movie wasn’t as strong as its predecessors. Most recently he was responsible for what ended up being a snore-fest of a reintroduction to a classic movie monster with last year’s “The Wolfman”. But, after watching this film, I have to say that I don’t know if anyone else could have handled the movie any better.
Truth be told, whether you like or dislike some of the movies in Johnston’s filmography, one thing is for certain, he may have been preparing for this movie his entire career. With his work on the two movies I mentioned a moment ago, and his history with visual effects during the original “Star Wars” trilogy, all of that served to prepare him for the numerous action sequences and vast CGI work necessary for bringing such a character to life. But, perhaps the most pivotal point of preparation for him may have occurred during his directorial work on 1990’s “The Rocketeer”.
That film was by no means a financial success, and ultimately failed to kick-start a franchise for Disney. However, the movie’s perceived shortcomings were not a fault of the director in my opinion. Reason being, the film was actually quite entertaining, but the marketing done by Disney was poorly planned and failed to really sell audiences on the vast adventure awaiting them inside the theater. Despite all that, the film’s retro style, attitude, and timeframe are comparable to “Captain America: The First Avenger”, and may have been the key to Johnston’s success on this picture.
Speaking of the film’s success, much of the movie’s box office victory over the final “Harry Potter” installment could easily be laid upon the shoulders of its star, actor Chris Evans. Even though Chris had already become known to comic book fans for his spot-on portrayal of the Human Torch, I personally believe that it will be his performance here, and in the sequels to follow (including “Avengers”), that Chris will be remembered for in the eyes of comic book fans.
Chris’ portrayal is the perfect blend of idealism, strength, honesty, and authority that makes Captain America one of the purest heroes in comics and film. Now, it was a going concern among fans that perhaps Chris was miscast given his penchant for sarcasm. However, for Cap, Chris reportedly chose to remove several humorous lines of dialogue in order to stay true to the character. That choice was one that I personally appreciate, because it shows a respect for the source material; a trait which will always be pivotal to any comic book film’s success.
Fighting alongside Chris and serving as a potential love interest for Cap is actress Hayley Atwell (TV’s “The Pillars of the Earth”). Hayley brings a strong sense of authority to the role of Peggy Carter, but with a touch of vulnerability for being a woman amid a predominantly male setting (i.e. fighting in a war). Not to mention, a slight playfulness that belies the soldierly outward appearance and exposes a young woman who would at times like nothing more than to flirt with a guy, namely Steve Rogers/Captain America.
In the other major supporting roles are some terrific actors; such as, Tommy Lee Jones (“The Fugitive”), Stanley Tucci (“The Road to Perdition”), and rising star Dominic Cooper (“Mamma Mia!”). Each of these supporting players is responsible for the film’s few humorous bits, while still delivering very entertaining, solid performances.
As always veteran actors Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci elevate any project they appear in, but it is Dominic Cooper that surprises me the most. His portrayal as Howard Stark (Tony Stark’s father) is great, especially as he infuses shades of Robert Downey, Jr’s portrayal of Tony from the two “Iron Man” films. For me this nod to his future son’s personality further cemented the cohesive nature of these interlinked films that Marvel has been producing over the last few years.
Now, I mentioned that Captain America was a great hero and Chris Evans perfectly captured all of the qualities necessary to make him so; however, every hero is only as great as his villain. For this purpose, actor Hugo Weaving brings the supremely evil and despotic Johann Schmidt, also known as the Red Skull, to sadistic malevolent life.
When playing a character codenamed Red Skull, and one that has the physical qualities to inspire such a moniker, I think it could conceivably tempt an actor to sort of ham it up. Basically, go into a scene-chewing mode as the sneering bad guy who does everything evil just for kicks and all that’s missing is a handlebar mustache for him to twirl in his fingers. Thankfully, as with many other potential pratfalls that could have plagued this movie, this one was avoided as well.
Actor Hugo Weaving, who is no stranger to playing a major villain (he was Agent Smith in “The Matrix” trilogy), portrays Schmidt in a way that is obviously sinister, but without becoming an over-the-top caricature. This was vital to making his character more believable to audiences given his garish appearance and thirst for other-worldly power beyond belief.
What I mean is that his motives are deeply twisted and malevolent, he is a Nazi after all, but you see the sincerity in how deeply he believes in what he’s doing. That he’s not just doing these evil things just for the sake of doing them. He has a purpose and he believes it to be right. Thus, as a character he is much more believable, amidst all of the more outlandish elements surrounding him, including his own appearance. Again, just another aspect that was pivotal to making this film work.
After all that being said, as I mentioned earlier, the summer of superheroes definitely ended on a high note. Plus, with a movie this solidly entertaining, featuring a home-grown hero, to bring the season to a close is perfectly fitting.
So, as you have undoubtedly figured out by now, “Captain America: The First Avenger” is an excellent adventure film. And one that serves as a fun throwback to classic escapism from Hollywood’s past. The movie easily lives up to its Marvel Studios predecessors and firmly cements this hero from a bygone era’s place in this hyper-real cinematic universe that began back in 2008’s “Iron Man”.
“Captain America: The First Avenger” is rated PG-13 for violence and brief language.