Here we go…yet another superhero movie. Yes, the genre has been flooded of late with mostly positive results and Captain America: The First Avenger proves to be near the top of the list. I had high hopes for this film for many reasons. First off, we have never really had a big budget, well thought out Captain America picture until now. Secondly, this is the final entry before all of Marvel’s biggest superheroes unite for next summer’s The Avengers, so moviegoers obviously want a high quality lead in to that. And finally, come on guys, this is Captain America…the leader of the group. He must have a solid standalone entry of his own. Credit to all involved, not only does this film succeed on many levels, but it rivals Iron Man as the best Marvel superhero film to date.
Any comparisons to Iron Man are a good thing. The First Avenger manages to take some of the best parts of the more modern Tony Stark story and mix it with the retro-1940′s vibe of its own. We get more of an origin story here than we’ve ever had before and it’s necessary to set up how Captain America’s alter ego, Steve Rogers, becomes such an idol for the country. In fact, nearly the first half of the film is spent giving us back-story on Rogers before he officially becomes Captain America. Humanizing the character the way director Joe Johnston does helps the audience feel for this young man who just wants to be a soldier and defend his country. Rogers has the spirit, the will, and the desire to be a soldier…even though his frail, fragile physical body undeniably holds him back. Upon being given a chance via a secret government project called Project Rebirth, he doesn’t hesitate in volunteering. It is really the only way he can handle the physical demands of war and service. Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) believes Steve is the man for the job. He admires his intellectual strengths and realizes that his physical limitations don’t really play a factor in the hero he will soon become. Tucci does a fine job as Dr. Erskine here, becoming like a mentor to Rogers.
Hayley Atwell, who portrays hard nosed Peggy Carter, also turns in a quality performance. She is never annoying and she fits in nicely with the events surrounding her and Captain America. The chemistry between her and Chris Evans (Rogers) is a nice addition to a film that really doesn’t have them together too often. Yes, there is an attraction between them, but they realize don’t get the chance to take their relationship to another level. Events take place to prevent this…and unfortunately, we get to wish for more of the two of them together. Their partnership is all too brief, but necessary for the plot of the picture. Tommy Lee Jones is another fine addition to the cast. He plays Colonel Chester Phillips, who initially balks at the idea of Rogers being chosen as the man for the secret project. Jones is in great form here and it’s a role he can really sink his teeth into. Hugo Weaving, who is best known for his role as Mr. Smith in The Matrixfilms, get the juiciest role of all – Johann Schmidt aka Red Skull. Weaving is best known for giving intense, almost too dramatic performances, but here he plays ‘nasty’ quite well. Schmidt is an evil man and every time he is onscreen – you fear for whoever is in the room with him. He’s quite the adversary for Captain America. The biggest surprise for me has to be the casting of Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark (you know, Tony’s papa). First of all, I didn’t expect Howard Stark to be in the film as much as he was, so it was nice to see him get so much screen time. He is basically a more serious version of his son, but we get glimpses of the lighthearted, fun man that we know in Tony Stark. You can see where Tony gets his brilliance…his goofy demeanor…and his womanizing ways. It’s a fun, nice little addition to a film that’s primarily about another superhero.
Perhaps the biggest applause should be given to director Joe Johnston. Let’s face it, there were a ton of directors one could think of before him to direct such an important motion picture. The list is long, but Johnston proves yet again (as he did with the underrated Rocketeer and October Sky), that he knows how to film a period picture. The majority of the film (about 95 percent of it), takes place in the 1940′s and the art direction, set pieces, costumes, and especially the music, are spot on for the era. I love the retro vibe going on here. Johnston doesn’t really have to be a special effects wizard on this kind of production. The elements that make a successful superhero film are not CGI based. In fact, the best parts of the best superhero films thus far have nothing to do with the CGI. It’s the casting, set design, and overall tone of the picture that leads to a great finished product. Johnston has taken everything he has been given here and put it together to create a very entertaining movie that gives us back-story and a chance to see Cap in action.
If Johnston gets the top prize for being the main person responsible for making the film work, then Chris Evans comes in a close second. I will admit that when I heard Evans was being cast as the title character, I had reservations. Not tall enough, not big enough…and he had already played a superhero before – Fantastic Four’s Johnny Storm. My reservations were not warranted. Evans tackles the role with a fierceness that, to be honest, I didn’t know that he had. His best parts are when he’s just plain old wimpy Steve Rogers – pre-experiment. You feel his pain and his need to be part of something bigger. Yes, I know that Chris was a lot of CGI during these scenes, but the facial expressions are him and he gives Rogers the sympathetic human characterization that he needed. There are a lot of other actors out there that could have given a ‘good’ performance as Rogers/Captain America, but I am very happy with what Chris has done with the character. He proved to be the right choice for the role.
Captain America is a film that left me satisfied, but also left me wanting more. I guess that is what The Avengers is for…to give us more of all of the superheroes. The first half of the film is near perfect and I truly enjoyed watching how Steve Rogers becomes The First Avenger. The second half does feel a slight bit rushed and I found myself wanting an additional 20 minutes, or so. More of our superhero kicking ass…and a bit more relationship development between Rogers and Peggy Carter. If the film has one fault, it’s this – NEEDED MORE of what I just mentioned. However, the film is a fine entry in the superhero genre and I highly recommend seeing it. Captain America ranks up there with the Iron Man films as far as overall quality. It is better than THOR and The Incredible Hulk.
The best thing about the film being such a quality production…it serves as a great lead in to next summer’s Avengers. Marvel has done a reputable job staying the course and delivering on their promise to bring their superheroes all together in such a classy way. None of the films have been severely mishandled and that’s a testament to all involved. From directors to cast, the decisions have been excellent. Let’s hope Joss Whedon continues the trend and gives us the ultimate superhero extravaganza next summer. (FYI – STAY AT THE END OF THE FILM, AFTER THE CREDITS, FOR A SNEEK PEEK AT THE AVENGERS - VERY COOL STUFF!)
Captain America Rating:
The other Avenger films
Iron Man 1 and 2 Rating: each
The Incredible Hulk Rating: