Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

It’s time to review Captain America: The First Avenger! For those of you who don’t know, Captain America: The First Avenger is the latest entry in what is known as Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.  What is Marvel’s Cinematic Universe? Well it’s all their superhero movies that they have independently developed.  A little history. A long time ago, Marvel sold the film rights to many of their popular franchises to big time film production and distribution companies.  For example, the rights to Ghost Rider and Spider-Man are owned by Sony Entertainment, the rights to the X-Men franchise, Daredevil, and The Fantastic Four belong to 20th Century Fox, and New Line Cinema owns Blade.  Marvel can’t independently produce any films with those aforementioned characters without the approval of whoever owns the rights.  They have co-produced films with those characters in them though, as they are all still IP’s of Marvel.

It was a long and arduous process but Marvel recovered the rights to Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, and Captain America thereby setting the stage for their Cinematic Universe.  Since all the movies are set in the same “universe,” all of the characters present in the films exist in each other’s movies (even though they do not necessarily make an appearance).  This has created a grand backdrop for the highly anticipated Avengers film next May.  Of course just because the setting has been established, the characters still must be introduced.  Each movie with the exception of Iron Man 2 has delved into each character’s origin.  Let’s see how the last “origin” story stacks up. 

Welcome to 1942.  World War II is at it’s peak.  The movie begins in Norway as Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), leader of Adolph Hitler’s Nazi science division HYDRA, retrieves a mystical cube.  The scene then shifts back to America.  Enter sickly Steve Rogers (Chris Evans).  Although full of enthusiasm, he is rejected for military duty for the fifth time.  His good friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) takes him to the Modern Marvels of Tomorrow exhibition, where Rogers attempts to enlist again.  Except this time he is given a chance by an expatriate German scientist named Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci).  Rogers is seen toiling in a special training camp run by Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and SSR officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).

The purpose of the camp is to choose one man for an experimental procedure to turn him into a “super soldier.”  Roger is chosen due to his self-sacrificing nature and humility.  Having gone through life weak and powerless, he is the only one that will appreciate the power he will receive.  The experiment is a success, and Rogers takes on the name Captain America.  Although his war career doesn’t start off as planned (being used by a greedy Congressman to sell war bonds), he eventually is tasked with the destruction HYDRA and Schmidt, who plans on using the “tesseract”  for world domination.

That about summarizes Captain America: The First Avenger.  Now let’s get into the nitty gritty.  The thing I enjoyed the most about Captain America: The First Avenger was its setting.  It was a nice change of pace to have a superhero movie set in the midst of the one of the most historic wars in world history rather than modern times.  The atmosphere of America in the 1940’s is really brought to life with the excellent costumes and set pieces.  American war propaganda is shown in the film as well.  As I mentioned in the summary, the Captain himself is even used as a tool to sell war bonds.

Some detractors point out the technology used to create the “super soldier” was impossible during the time the film is set in.  Well people it is a comic book movie in the end.  If you suspend your imagination a bit and understand that it is ultimately a superhero movie, then you can enjoy the film.  The thing I was turned off about at first, was the presentation of HYDRA.  Their costumes are goofy and their tech is magical.  However, I too had to take a step back, take off my cynical glasses, and realize that given the context of the source material, the film was pretty damn good and was presented in the most believable manner possible.  Not everything has to be dark and gritty (*cough*The Dark Knight*cough*) to be viewed as a good comic book film.

Moving along, the acting in Captain America: The First Avenger was superb.  Chris Evans does a wonderful job portraying the iconic hero.  Many were worried Evans was the wrong choice due to his previous appearance as the hot headed Johnny Storm from The Fantastic Four.  Well you can set those worries aside folks.  Evans bring pure emotion to this role.  He is heroic in every sense of the word.  Self-sacrificing, fearless, caring you name it. Not a smudge on his character.

This brings me to my next point.  Many in the U.S. believed only we Americans would be able to relate to Captain America due to him being a symbol of our nation.  While at first it may seem like that (after all, he parades around in a red, white, and blue costume spouting American war bond propaganda), you soon see that this is (as I’ve said before) a comic book movie, not a movie about American pride.  The latter half of the film deals with Cap kicking ass good old fashioned action movie style.  It becomes moar about a hero vs. an evil empire then about America vs. Nazi Germany.

Hugo Weaving does a bang up job as Cap’s antithesis the Red Skull.  He’s everything Cap is not: evil, selfish, sinister, diabolical, power-hungry, conceited, etc.  Weaving has had prior experience playing a villain who is the complete antithesis of the hero.  His portrayal of Agent Smith in The Matrix opposite of Keanu Reeve’s portrayal of Neo was absolutely stunning.  I think it’s safe to say Weaving knows how to be one bad dude.  As for the rest of the cast, Tommy Lee Jones brings his no nonsense act once again.  He’s straightforward and delivers his lines with purpose, perfect for an Army colonel.

Hayley Atwell’s portrayal as  Cap’s love interest Peggy Carter is also a surprise delight.  Half the time I don’t expect much for the lead female role in these superhero films.  Natalie Portman (who I do think is a great actress)  just didn’t work as the lead female in Thor.  The same can be said of Liv Tyler in The Incredible Hulk and especially Maggie Gyllenhaal  in The Dark Knight.  Atwell is sassy and strong; she is not overshadowed by the rest of the cast, but instead makes her presence felt.  Due to her strong performance coupled with Evans’, the romantic relationship works; it’s emotional and developed.  It doesn’t feel forced or fake.  Again this was only possible due to Atwell’s awesome acting.

Sebastian Stan’s portrayal of Bucky Barnes is top notch.  Stan noted that he wanted to show how Bucky changed from when he was the lead man to when Cap became the lead man, which I believe he accomplished.  His relationship with Cap is deep; he’s not just the sidekick.  His death is one of the things that stood out to me the most, as it affected Cap arguably moar than any other event in the film.  It’s interesting to note that Stan is signed on for 5 moar films, indicating that he’ll definitely be back.  But in the context of the film, the relationship between Bucky and Cap is perfectly executed.  Perhaps after Evan’s and Weaving’s portrayals, my favorite had to be Dominic Cooper’s portrayal of Howard Stark, father of Tony Stark.

Cooper simply nails the carefree, witty, and womanizing nature of Howard Stark.  Now we know where Tony gets all his traits.  Stanley Tucci’s role as Abraham Erskine was brief but powerful; his interactions with Cap reveal much about the titular character.  Tucci also does a pretty good German accent.  Lastly come the Howling Commandos, Cap’s comrades who help him take down HYDRA.  Although none are ever named, this never really bothered me.  With an already loaded cast, having too many named roles might have detracted from the main actors.  Their lines are few but each of them is distinct in their own right.  They play the perfect supporting cast to Cap.

The diversity of the Howling Commandos was also pretty interesting.  Among them are Dum Dum Dugan, a white man, Gabe Jones, an African-American, Jim Morita, a Japanese-American (who perhaps delivers one of the funniest lines in the film–“I’m from Fresno, ace.”), Jacques Dernier, a Frenchman, and James Montgomery Falsworth, an Englishman.  This goes to further show that the movie was never about American nationalism; it’s a superhero origin story.

I thoroughly enjoyed Captain America: The First Avenger.  Director Joe Johnston delivers a great origin story, full of plenty substance but also plenty of action with some humor sprinkled in.  The story is solid and the pacing is superb; everything is explained and characters are thoroughly developed in the span of a little over 2 hours.  Every interaction, every piece of dialogue is well scripted and important;  nothing is glossed over or pushed aside.  We see real emotion by every actor.  The action sequences are well choreographed and are initiated at the right moments, although I do have to say I wish the final fight between Cap and the Red Skull was longer.  At least it wasn’t like the final battle in Iron Man 2.

Also, the montage of Cap and the Howling Commandos wrecking havoc was one of the film’s best scenes.  Some were turned off by Cap’s superhuman strength but wait! Cap is a super soldier! Duh! The humor was also well executed; it was used to change the pace, lighten the mood, and deliver a laugh when needed.  Very similar to Iron Man in this regard.  Additionally, the costumes were well designed (yes even the HYDRA ones) and all the sets were vibrant.  You really got a feel of the ’40’s and of all the different areas the movie was set in (mountains, forests, military bases, NYC, bars).

The special effects were also great; all you have to do is look at Chris Evans pre-super soldier.  If I didn’t know better, I would say Evans really was that scrawny!  Overall, Captain America: The First Avenger is a film that is worth watching.  Marvel delivers yet another great story that even powerful film critic Roger Ebert says should be used as a template for all their future films.

Rating: ★★★★½

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Nick

Just a simple man, trying to find his way in the universe. Image hosted by servimg.com