July 21, 2011
Is ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ the best superhero movie of the summer, or just more of the same? Read our review.
Screen Rant’s Kofi Outlaw Reviews Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America: The First Avenger is the last of the lead-in films to Marvel’s ambitious superhero team-up event, The Avengers, yet it also comes with the greatest potential to distinguish itself from the other Marvel superhero movies, as a period-piece with fewer direct ties to other Marvel films.
So, does the WWII-era setting allow director Joe Johnston to do something truly unique with his superhero origin tale (especially in a summer where we’ve already seen so many of them)? And does Chris Evans do the iconic and respected role of Captain America justice?
Short version: The First Avenger is the best comic book movie of 2011, definitely one of the best comic book movies in general, and it does its job of establishing the character as an iconic symbol of American ideals.
The story is classic, and yet, timeless: Steve Rogers (Evans) is a skinny asthmatic weakling with the heart of a patriotic lion. Steve wants more than anything to serve his country in the war against Hitler, but the enormity of his spirit simply isn’t enough to overcome the limitations of his frail body. Steve’s big heart catches the eye of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a scientist working to create a new breed of genetically-enhanced super-soldiers, who will turn the tide of the war in The Allies’ favor.
Along with his collaborator Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper ), Erskine successfully transforms Steve into a specimen of human perfection. At first used as a propaganda symbol, Steve yearns to put his newfound power to actual good use, as the hero Captain America. He partners with a pretty Allied Forces agent named Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and gathers an international team of special-op soldiers – including his best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) – to help combat evil.
However: while The Allies have been bending science to further their goals, their enemies have done the same. Enter Hydra, a Nazi advanced weaponry division led by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving ). When Schmidt discovers a long-lost mythological artifact of immense power, he unwittingly sets Captain America on his most important mission yet – one which will ultimately give birth to an age of Marvels.
The First Avenger is a movie that does many things right – character, tone, acting, action – and yet, it somehow comes off as being very good, rather than amazing. That’s not an insult, at all; director Joe Johnston does a very admirable job creating the period setting and general “world” of the film. The historical set pieces all feel authentic, while the more fantastical comic book elements, although pulpy, still fit with the bygone era. This includes the advanced technology developed by The Allied Forces and Hydra, as well as the “magical artifact” at the center of the film, which has ties to the more mythological elements of the Marvel movie universe. There are also some great Easter eggs and nods to other famous films. I counted two Raiders of the Lost Ark references and one Star Wars homage. Repeat viewings will likely turn up more.
Action fans can rest comfortable: Johnston avoids the current trend of “shaky cam action” by staging competent action sequences shot at wide angles. It is refreshing to be able to actually see every punch or kick Cap throws, and we do indeed get some nice shield-tossing moments. While the action is competent, it never achieves jaw-dropping amazement in the way a Michael Bay action sequence does – but that’s OK, since Johnston and Co. have the much more valuable elements of story and character pinned down.
Indeed, Chronicles of Narnia screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus do a great job shaping the story of Steve Rogers’ transformation into America’s icon. The pace of The First Avenger is tight, and there are some genuinely moving moments in the film. Ironically enough, the movie is at its best in the beginning, before Rogers dons his iconic costume and picks up his shield.
Captain America has been an icon for so many decades because of who he is, rather than the feats he performs as a superhero. The film wisely invests ample time into firmly establishing the character, and then, keeps his good nature and strong spirit as the central theme of the story. In a time where so many heroes are being “re-imagined” as darker, grittier, versions of themselves, The First Avenger delivers a hero who is just as inspiring and wholesome – and unabashedly patriotic – as you remember him, without veering into preachiness, cynicism, or campiness.
The other trick the screenwriters pull off is weaving the many threads of the larger Marvel universe into the most cohesive standalone story since Iron Man. The First Avenger has the fortune of being a prequel to the events of the modern-era Marvel movies, which allows the filmmakers to dive fully into the telling of their own story, while the many requisite Easter eggs all get treated lightly enough so as not to distract the focus of the narrative.
The film is also fortunate to have the best all-around cast of any Marvel movie to date. The main players each bring something to the table that actually enhances the film – and in a cast this big, everyone gets a surprising amount of time in which to shine.
Chris Evans has successfully left his role as Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four behind by owning the role of Steve Rogers – but again, it’s somewhat ironic that Evans is at his best when out of the costume. He’s particularly fantastic as that frail boy from Brooklyn – an idealist who is selfless and brave and doesn’t see any irony at all in the dichotomy between his outward appearance and inner strength. As Cap, Evans looks the part of a hero and handles the action scenes well enough – but it’s definitely in the dramatic moments where he really makes the character resonate.
The supporting cast of the film couldn’t have been better. Hugo Weaving adds another great villain to his filmography as The Red Skull – a menacing and maniacal villain, who stays grounded enough as to not be cartoonish (extra hard to do when you’re slathered in red makeup). Hayley Atwell shines equally bright as Agent Carter, a tough-as-nails Allied operative who still manages to be distinctly modern and feminine (read: hot). She and Evans do a great job managing the understated chemistry between Steve and Peggy – a true romance that has no real chance in the midst of wartime.
Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci bring needed authority and weight to their respective roles as the Colonel and scientist who give birth to Captain America; Jones in particular steals many scenes with some unexpected dry humor that only he could pull off. Some of the other secondary characters – like Toby Jones’ Arnim Zola and the diverse collection of actor’s who make up Cap’s “Howling Commandos” unit – get a bit shortchanged, but none of them were so charismatic that the absence is tragic.
Finally, young up-and-comers Sebastian Stan and Dominic Cooper garner some well-deserved attention as Cap’s best friend Bucky and Iron Man’s daddy, Howard Stark, respectively. Cooper manages to capture that Stark-brand swagger that’s both an imitation and expansion of what we saw in the Iron Man films, while Stan does enough development of Bucky to generate interest about the character’s possible future in the Marvel movie universe.
The only thing that prevents The First Avenger from being an excellent film (as opposed to a very good one) is the fact that there are no particularly spectacular blockbuster action moments. While the middle of the film doesn’t exactly drag, the flurried montages of Cap’s feats during the war (while necessary to create room for sequels) likely won’t blow anyone’s mind. The final battle between Cap and the Skull is well-executed – but as has been par for the Marvel movie course, the need to tell a bigger story limits the possibilities of what this one film can deliver.
As for the 3D: it’s post-converted but not horrible. Some shots and sequences were definitely interesting to see in 3D – but overall, you’ll be fine catching this film in plain old 2D.
Still, at the end of the day, Marvel’s iconic hero gets his due and America does too. A winning finish to the 2011 superhero movie season.