Back in 2011, I opened my review of Kenneth Branagh’s THOR with the following:
Somewhere in Hollywood, director Joe Johnston has got to be feeling the pressure. With his CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER only two months away from release, the weight of the Mighty Marvel Machine is on his back now not to deliver a turkey and interrupt Marvel Studios’ momentum toward 2012’s el franchise grande, THE AVENGERS. Because the current release, Kenneth Branagh’s THOR, is a winner from top to bottom.
So it turns out the esteemed Mr. Johnston didn’t have anything to worry about , because CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER isn’t just good; it’s just about as perfect a translation as you could hope to find of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s archetypal patriotic superhero comic. Comedian Ralph Garman described the movie as “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK meets Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN,” and I’m hard-pressed to think of a better description, as CAP has plenty of action and adventure set in a nostalgic WWII-era backdrop, but also achieves the heart and sentimentality of Donner’s Superman. And it looks gorgeous.
A movie like this lives or dies by its star, and Chris Evans keeps the whole thing together as Steve Rogers, a 4F asthmatic desperate to serve his country during World War II, who’s finally given a chance by Stanley Tucci’s Professor Erskine to take part in a secret experiment that will transform him into America’s first super-soldier. Although the special-effects magic that transforms Chris Evans into a five-foot-tall, 98-pound weakling is certainly impressive, it’s Evans’ performance as skinny Steve that makes the viewer bond with him, and root for him once he becomes the musclebound Cap.
Everything you need to know about the character is summed up perfectly in Erskine and Steve’s first meeting, when the doctor asks Steve if he wants to go overseas and kill Nazis, and Steve responds “I don’t want to kill anyone. I just don’t like bullies.”
The paternal relationship between Erskine and Rogers is a new facet to the story, and a welcome one here, as it gives us a chance to understand why Rogers was chosen, and makes Erskine’s death at the hands of Nazi spies all the more powerful.
Equally well crafted is the film’s conceit for why Captain America wears a costume and carries a shield, a sequence that is kicked off by a hilariously earnest musical number, in which Cap and his bevy of dancers entertain on the homefront at a series of war bond rallies, with Steve in a completely comic-book accurate costume exhorting folks to buy more bonds. A less confident director might have cut the musical number, but to his credit Johnston doesn’t, and to great effect, as it helps build the nostalgic world of the film while setting the stage for Cap’s real first adventures on the frontlines.
All the while, we see the rise to power of Johann Schmidt, a.k.a. the Red Skull, a high-ranking Nazi scientist consolidating his own powerbase within the Third Reich, thanks to an Asgardian relic that any Marvel fan worth his salt recognizes as the Cosmic Cube. Weaving is the best villain that any of the Marvel Studios films has seen thus far, looking like a Kirby drawing stepped right off the page, and chewing the scenery with the proper relish. It’s a shame the Skull won’t be back for AVENGERS; I’d love to see Weaving’s Skull share the screen with Chris Hemsworth or Robert Downey, Jr.
Cap’s supporting cast is great as well; Hayley Atwell is appealing and gorgeous as agent Sharon Carter, Cap’s love interest, Tommy Lee Jones adds his usual gravitas and wit as Cap’s commanding officer Colonel Phillips, and Sebastian Stan plays Cap’s sidekick Bucky Barnes, a character from the comics who’s been slightly re-imagined to good effect (because it’s hard in this day and age to show a 12-year-old with red boots and a submachine gun running alongside Captain America). A pleasant surprise was the inclusion of the Howling Commandos as Cap’s backup team (with the necessary exclusion of Nick Fury, of course), with Neal McDonough’s Dum Dum Dugan in particular standing out. I’d have liked to have seen more of the Howlers, but there’s certainly room in the film’s narrative for another wartime flick, so perhaps we’ll see them again in a successive CAP movie.
Speaking of which, the filmmakers wisely chose to keep almost the entire movie set in the World War II era, with only very brief sequences at the beginning and end in the modern day. Very smart. You need to get as much time as possible of Cap in his heyday, and his fighting prime, for it to mean something when he later becomes a man out of time, and a legend back from history. The horrendous ’90s CAPTAIN AMERICA movie from Albert Pyun made just that mistake, splitting the film right down the middle between the 40s and the ’90s, and neither had any impact (although the atrocious script, effects, direction and acting certainly didn’t help either).
After THOR and X-MEN FIRST CLASS already this summer, I had pretty high expectations for this one, and not only did it surpass them, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER suddenly finds itself damned close to the top of my list of best comic-book movies ever. Great script, great acting, awesome effects; I honestly can’t think of a single thing wrong with it.
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