Out of all the movies Marvel Studios has been putting out, Captain America: The First Avenger was the one that Kevin Feige and company could not screw up. Iron Man had no expectations, The Incredible Hulk had nowhere to go but up after the 2003 Ang Lee version, and Thor…well let’s be honest, few people really care about that character. But Captain America is different; he’s an icon, one of Marvel’s most recognizable and beloved characters. Most importantly, he’s the figurehead and leader of The Avengers, both in comic book form and the upcoming 2012 movie. If Captain America: The First Avenger crashed and burned, there went the whole experiment. No pressure or anything.
Luckily that wasn’t the case in the slightest; not only did Captain America: The First Avenger succeed, it has catapulted itself to the top of the heap. This is the best movie Marvel Studios has put out, bar none; action-packed, funny in the right moments, and being just the right amount of over the top “comic book-y” without losing the general audience, this is the success they needed and the comic book movie we have all been waiting for since they launched their line of films in 2008 with Iron Man.
Chris Evans stars as Steve Rogers, a skinny and sickly guy growing in 1942 New York City. With the war against Germany going on, Rogers is desperate to enlist and serve his country much like his late parents once had. Despite trying to enlist in five different places he keeps getting turned down as being “unfit”.
Rogers’ determination and heart garners the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German scientist who has defected to the States and is working for the Army. He has developed a serum that can turn any man into a super soldier, complete with superhuman abilities. While gruff Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) wants someone else, Erskine settles on Rogers. As you probably have already guessed, the experiment is successful and Rogers is transformed into a taller and more muscular man with hightened leaping abilities, quicker speed, and accelerated metabolism that allows him to heal faster.
But this is not the first time the serum has been used. Back in Germany, Erskine was forced to hand over an early stage dose to Nazi officer Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving). While it did give him similar abilities as Rogers, it also had some unforseen side effects that earned him the nickname “Red Skull”. Although Erskine escaped, that hasn’t stopped Schmidt and his reign of terror. As the head of Hydra, the research arm of Hitler’s Nazi regime, he has searched out a mystical object known as the Cosmic Cube which encases untold amounts of energy. Harnessing it for weaponry, he has decided that Hydra, not the Nazis, should take over the world and so begins his plans of world domination. Too bad Captain America is thinking otherwise.
Before we get into what works in Captain America: The First Avenger, a special shout out needs to go to the special effects work that went into making Chris Evans look like a scrawny beanpole. Although initially jarring, much like seeing Mike Myers’ head on a teen’s body in The Love Guru, it’s quickly forgotten and accepted; it looks realistic enough to work in this context. That was a main concern going in and it was definitely squashed quickly.
All other concerns about Captain America: The First Avenger were squashed quickly as well. Director Joe Johnston has crafted a movie that feels like a throwback to old movie serials but also infuses enough comic book elements to keep it feeling somewhat fresh. The period setting is fantastic and one never doubts that it’s the 1940’s. Evans makes a wonderful Captain America, mixing the “aw shucks” attitude of a 1940’s young adult with the asskicking mindset of a full-blown patriot. He is now forgiven of his Fantastic Four sins. Hugo Weaving channels Werner Herzog in his portrayal of Schmidt, sounding just like the eccentric director which both makes him authentic sounding and cartoonish. Weaving has proven to be adept at playing great villains, and it’s no different here. Also for those who were scared the Red Skull makeup wouldn’t look great in action, have no fear: great care was taken to make sure it didn’t look ridiculous and it doesn’t.
The supporting cast of Captain America: The First Avenger is also fun, in their short roles. Tommy Lee Jones gives a Men in Black-style stoic badass with a dry sense of humor in his portrayal of Col. Phillips. Hayley Atwell is brilliant as Peggy Carter, and is one of the few organic female badasses in recent history; there’s no over the top attempts to make her appear like an ass kicker. She just is. Rogers and Barnes’ unit, the 107th, also gets a dose of personality especially concerning Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough). They have few lines, but inject some comedic moments into the story.
What I love most about this movie, however, was the way they approached the character. I admit to not being the biggest Captain America fan on the planet so I’m a bit rusty on the character’s origin, but the little stint he has selling U.S. Bonds at USO Shows as well as starring in cheesy movies geared toward kids is the best part of the movie and such a refreshing take. Also there are no daddy issues; for once, a superhero is a superhero and isn’t upset his father didn’t love him enough. Thank god.
As much as I loved Captain America: The First Avenger, it isn’t perfect. Once Captain America becomes part of the Army, the movie feels like it’s starting to rush itself, fitting in as many action scenes as possible. The romance between Rogers and Carter is hinted at and is sweet when given time, but it really isn’t a focus which bites the movie on its ass when it reaches for an emotional moment towards the end. It wants you to feel sad, but without proper time to really build their relationship up, it falls flat. I also personally wanted more Dum Dum Dugan and his mustache of doom, but that’s more a personal gripe and not a swipe against the movie itself.
These minor issues do not deter from enjoying the hell out of Captain America: The First Avenger. The action is great, even when rushed through, the jokes hit, Rogers is a great fleshed out character, and everything concerning HYDRA and their attempts to harness the power of the Cosmic Cube are fascinating and fun in their own right. The cast nails it out of the park, and after a summer filled with ho hum comic book movies (yes even you X-Men: First Class), it’s refreshing to finally get one that is both entertainment and competent. It looks like Marvel Studios saved the best for one of its most iconic characters, and I’m not complaining whatsoever.