Now this is what I’m talking ’bout! Awesome and rousing, Captain America: The First Avenger is a damn good home run of a blockbuster, showing up late in the summer derby to put most of its cinematic competition to shame. After Thor a few months prior, Captain America is summer 2011’s second Marvel-produced action picture to provide a proverbial origins tale and function as a precursor to 2012’s much-anticipated superhero mash-up The Avengers. Fortunately, the film doesn’t feel like an extended trailer or an expensive advertisement for Joss Whedon’s upcoming Avengers epic – rather, it feels like a wholesome, enjoyable action film that tells a good story and introduces a Marvel icon in a satisfying fashion.
A 90-pound asthmatic burdened by health problems and physical ailments, Steve Rogers (Evans) is determined to join the army during WWII to serve his country, but is always rejected. Steve’s valiance and determination is soon recognised by a German doctor (Tucci), who chooses the puny would-be soldier to participate in a military program designed to create super soldiers. Following the experiment, Steve is transformed into a muscular, physically sound specimen with superhuman abilities. Alas, Steve is kept away from the battlefield to perform in shows and films, and act as America’s golden boy to provide morale boosts. However, he is eventually compelled into duty when villainous Nazi officer Johann Schmidt/Red Skull (Weaving) takes possession of an energy source powerful enough to change the course of the war…and control the world. With agent Peggy Carter (Atwell) and Col. Chester Phillips (Lee Jones) on his side, and with Howard Stark (Cooper) on-board to provide him with the technology to kick some serious ass, Steve begins undertaking adventures as Captain America.
While Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk took place in present day, and Thor bounced between present-day Earth and fantastical worlds, Captain America: The First Avenger is a through-and-through period piece which takes place during World War II. And this is precisely what makes the film so refreshing. After all, introductory superhero pictures often adhere to the same origins formula, with the mould staying the same while the characters and settings are changed. With Captain America occurring during WWII, the competent script is an intimate character piece, a proverbial origins tale, and a sprawling World War II epic spanning several years. More commendably, a compelling plot emerges beyond Steve’s origins story, and neither storyline feels underdone. Also, the old-fashioned world domination scheme cooked up by the Red Skull is slightly reminiscent of classic James Bond adventures, making for a narrative of unadulterated, awesome fun.
Once director Joe Johnston begins focusing on the side of the titular character that everyone wants to see, Captain America is a blast. While a few action beats are somewhat awkwardly staged, the action is otherwise awesome and highly satisfying. The 2011 summer season has, after all, mostly concerned superheroes with mutant abilities and giant robots pounding on one another, so it’s refreshing to watch a patriotic action hero take down the bad guys in a more old-school fashion, with kickass hand-to-hand combat and some nifty gadgetry (the shield is especially cool). It’s also quite amazing just how much violence the filmmakers were able to get away with in a PG-13 comic book movie (the gunshot wounds are notably bloody). As to be expected from a superhero action movie, though, Captain America is a bit dumb – the baddies can’t shoot straight, the good guy casualties are unrealistically low, and the technology being showcased is absurdly advanced for the 1940s.
Unsurprisingly, Captain America‘s special effects are constantly phenomenal. The crowning achievement is the depiction of “skinny” Steve Rogers, which is both an amazing CGI feat and an immaculate use of seamless digital effects to serve storytelling. When the action sequences grow more ostentatious late into the picture, the special effects do become a tad cartoonish, however. On a more positive note, the criminally underrated Alan Silvestri’s score is spectacular, while the production design is gorgeous. The period detail is to be commended, with the 1940s being effortlessly recreated by Johnston’s creative team. Captain America, like all prior Marvel movies, contains perceptive nods to other Marvel productions as a way to set up The Avengers. Yet, these necessities do not get in the way of creating a solid self-contained movie. The not-very-revealing post-credits teaser trailer for The Avengers truly feels like a great way to end the blockbuster and tantalise viewers about what’s to come for its titular hero. The end credits even close with a nice little “Captain America Will Return In The Avengers” caption.
Captain America: The First Avenger was yet another victim for the 3-D craze, as it underwent a completely unnecessary 3-D conversion in post-production. I did not see the film in 3-D, but by all accounts the extra-dimensional effects are eye-gauging and unnecessary. It was perfectly fine in 2-D, and, if anything, the 3-D would be detrimental to the experience.
The character of Captain America was created back in the early 1940s, when Joe Simon and Jack Kirby sensed eventual American involvement in WWII and set out to create a jingoistic superhero. Joe Johnston and writers Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely changed virtually no facets of the character’s origins, and retained the Captain’s fervid patriotism. Luckily, it works. And in the title role, Chris Evans is excellent – he competently conveys the character’s coyness and kindness. And with his buff physique, Evans genuinely looks the part. In the supporting cast, Hugo Weaving exudes menace as the Red Skull, and he’s close to being the best thing about the movie. Weaving played the role as a mix of Col. Hans Landa (from Inglourious Basterds) and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s interpretation of Mr. Freeze (from Batman & Robin), and topped off the mix with a Werner Herzog accent. Also making an impression is Tommy Lee Jones, who’s a whole lot of fun as Col. Chester Phillips. Jones has a gift for comedy, and the script gave him plenty of leeway to exploit this gift. Meanwhile, the amazingly hot Hayley Atwell did everything she needed to do as the token love internet, and Stanley Tucci adopted a completely believable accent playing the German doctor behind the program that births Captain America. Rounding out the cast is Dominic Cooper who excellently embodied the role of Howard Stark.
With Christopher Nolan’s trademark dark, gritty approach to superhero stories being adopted so often, something like Captain America: The First Avenger is a refreshing breath of fresh air. The film reminds us that dark and brooding does not automatically mean a movie is a masterpiece, and that a well-crafted, retro comic book action blockbuster can be just as much fun (and arguably better).