Captain America: The First Avenger

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Director: Joe Johnston

Writers: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely

Main Cast:
Chris Evans – Captain America / Steve Rogers

Hugo Weaving – Johann Schmidt / Red Skull
Hayley Atwell – Peggy Carter

Sebastian Stan – James Buchanan 'Bucky' Barnes

Stanley Tucci – Dr. Abraham Erskine
Tommy Lee Jones – Colonel Chester Phillips

Dominic Cooper – Howard Stark

Richard Armitage – Heinz Kruger

Toby Jones – Dr. Arnim Zola

Neal McDonough – Timothy 'Dum Dum' Dugan

Derek Luke – Gabe Jones

Kenneth Choi – Jim Morita

JJ Feild – James Montgomery Falsworth

Bruno Ricci – Jacques Dernier

Lex Shrapnel – Gilmore Hodge

Michael Brandon – Senator Brandt
Samuel L. Jackson – Nick Fury

Running time: 140 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Year of Release: 2011 

To sum up: Marvel Studios releases its linchpin film to complete their setup for the forthcoming Avengers film, as Captain America, the world's first super-hero takes the fight to Hitler, er, um, actually an evil henchman with plans of his own, the Red Skull.


“I am zee Red Skull, evil Nazi genius. I hold you Americans in such contempt that I am speaking in heavily accented English to simplify things for you!”


            Though the general public may not be aware of it, Captain America: The First Avenger, may be the most important movie adaptation for Marvel Comics and their continuing effort to create an interconnected cinematic comics universe, that will culminate with next year’s film, The Avengers

            The fact is, the Captain America character is the defacto moral center of the Marvel Universe. Sure, there are other heroes that are more recognizable to the general public (Spider-man for example) or more popular to comics readers (X-Men everything). Wearing a uniform that is essentially the American flag, it is Captain America who defines what it means to be a hero in the Marvel Universe. All other heroes and their methods are reflections of that character's principles and actions. In many ways, he shares much in common with DC’s Superman, as he fights for his own version of "Truth, Justice, and the American way".

            In other words, Cap is a big deal. He’s a legend; the most trusted and beloved by the public. When he walks into a room, he’s the guy that makes the other heroes stand up. He’s the one with so much clout, so much principled earnestness, that when a leader is required, Captain America will be the choice. As Thor, the Thunder god and film star himself once said in one of the classic storylines, “I am a prince of the Gods. I pledge my allegiance to few of mortal stature. This man I will follow through the gates of Hades.”

            But will all of this matter to the general viewing public just looking to escape into a world of action and adventure for a couple of hours? I suspect not, which is fine as many will watch the films with no interest at all in the source material. So the bigger question is, “How is the movie on its own?”

            The time is 1942 and America is embroiled in World War II. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) desperately wants to join the fight. The problem is that not only does he have asthma and is as scrawny as modern digital technology will allow (it's hard to believe that someone that scrawny could ever have a voice that manly). But he does not let that stop him from attempting to join multiple times, even under multiple names, but all the begging and pleading has come to naught. Not until one night, while lamenting his problems to his much more manly best friend James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), when he is overheard by a scientist, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and given the opportunity to enlist. Steve is brought in as part of the “Super Soldier” experiment that happens to be headed by Erskine, much to the chagrin of the presiding officer, Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones in a very entertaining but one-note performance). Though there are those that are bigger and stronger, it is Rogers' heart and character that finally win out and he is chosen to be the first to undergo the experimental procedure. Does it work? Is the film called Captain America: The First Experimental Death? It works in spectacular fashion! Rogers emerges from the experiment with enhanced strength and an enhanced physique, which must have included a quick trip to the nearest day spa, because, mmm-MMM, that boy’s skin is silky smooth.

            Meanwhile, speaking of those with dermatological problems, the evil head of Hitler’s advanced weaponry division, Johann Schmidt, played by Hugo Weaving in a blitzkrieg of scenery chewing, has sinister plans of his own. More commonly known as the Red Skull, Schmidt (was there ever a more cliché German name?), has stolen a glowing cube-shaped artifact of untold power and plans to use this power for world domination. (What can I say? When your name is the Red Skull and you literally have a red skull, all subtlety as to who the villain of the piece is goes right out the window.) It’s up to Rogers, now known as Captain America to lead the charge and foil the Red Skull’s evil plans.

            It is a tribute to the integrity of Director Joe Johnston as well as writers Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely for successfully staying true to the spirit and feel of the comic books, as the weight of the "Captain America" legacy must have been, at times, overwhelming. With producers, studios, and fans, there were a lot of eyes on this film, each with an opinion of their own as to how the film should be presented. With films including October Sky and especially The Rocketeer, both steeped in sentimental Americana, Joe Johnston turned out to be the director this film needed, capturing the look and feel of the 1940’s through a prism of nostalgic fantasy. As for Markus and McFeely, it’s very clear that they wanted to craft a story that was as sincere as possible to not only the comics, but also to the time and the generation of people that lived during World War II. Not an easy task, but one that is pulled off.

            When I first heard that Chris Evans was cast for the part of Captain America, I thought it was a good choice. He’s youthful, with strong features, but able to convey the trustworthiness that the character needs. It also probably didn’t hurt that he played the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four Films (though, for some, that is a disqualification). And Chris succeeds in playing Rogers as he’s been written. He’s earnest, selfless, patriotic, serious,  and though this is not Evans’ fault, let’s just admit it, is just a bit bland. He plays what’s on the page very well. In the comics, Captain America is all that is listed above, but is also pretty humorless. In other words, this is just Steve Rogers' personality. But by ensuring that they stay true to the written character, we can see again that what can work on the page does not necessarily translate well to the screen. Is this a Cap that we would want to spend time with? Mostly.

            What is refreshing about Evan's character and ergo, the film, is that Steve Rogers is a man who knows exactly who he is and what he needs to do. Unlike most of the other recent Superhero films (and, it seems, the forthcoming Superman film), he's not a conflicted character, moping around in a cloak of post-Generation X teenage angst that should have been outgrown upon reaching adulthood. After twenty or so films of that, it's refreshing to see Rogers' certitude.

            The drama, therefore, is watching Rogers finally have the strength (and then some) to do what he's always wanted to do, but have to learn to grow into a role that was beyond even his wildest hopes, a Super Soldier, and in turn, become an inspiration to others. For the most part, the film succeeds in doing this.

            Concerning Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull, it is clear that he had fun playing the character. As he was to represent the opposite of all that Captain America was, Weaving was given free reign to bring the character his villainous all. The Skull will stop at nothing to get what he wants.


CAPTURED AMERICAN: Where’s my dog, Spot?

RED SKULL: He is presently burying a bone in a minefield!


            He’s an evil dude; the downside being, that is all he is. There is no depth or texture to his performance. If an audience is to be drawn in to hate a character, it is far more interesting to present that through the characters actions, foibles, wants, and needs. A good example can be seen in Indiana Jones’ nemesis Belloq from the 1981 classic, Raiders of the Lost Ark. He was interesting because he was indeed a shadowy reflection of Indy, whose personal obsession to posses the treasures of the past allowed him to go to the darkest lengths to get what he wanted; crossing the line that Indy would not cross. In Captain America, the Skull is the villain because the film needed a villain. And as is common, the film doesn't allow for a significant, juicy rivalry to grow between them, which could have made for an interesting dramatic conflict and have their inevitable showdown become more than stopping the "bad guy".

            Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter makes a better spy than a love interest. Working for the Super Soldier project, she's a no-nonsense professional who is a much needed advocate for Rogers as a candidate and also the hero that he becomes. And though she's a 1940's girl who's been filtered through post 2000's feminism, Atwell plays the part well. But it feels as though they shoe-horned in the romantic subplot because someone thought the hero needed a love interest. In terms of writing, much of the romance has been filtered through a whole century of clichés, reducing the relationship to a series of plot points rather than a more natural growing attraction and emotional bond between the characters.  This also lessens Atwell's character as a person because we know this character is in the film to be "The Girl".

            Another of the film's problems is that believe it or not, it takes quite awhile to get to the action. There is a bit of daring-do after Rogers gets his powers, but afterwards, we're stuck waiting for things to start cooking. Instead we are given exposition; some good, like Rogers growing into his newfound role; some merely mundane, like the afore mentioned love story; and some bad, like the Red Skull's one note villainy.

            When the film finally decides to let Cap go into full action, we're given action set pieces that are strangely routine and not very memorable; action that seems to have been edited through a Zack Snyder Prism (starting with fast moves then slow motion impacts).

            For a filmgoer looking to get away for couple of hours, this is a passable way to do it. The problem is that once the film ends, you leave the theater taking very little with you; nothing really memorable in plot, no quotable dialogue, and not a single stunt nor visual that has you telling your friends how cool it was.

            Marvel has positioned their cinematic Captain America to become the inspirational leader of their cinematic universe; the one who makes the other heroes stand up and notice. If it fails, then next year’s The Avengers will be that much tougher to sell, and he becomes known as an example of Marvel scraping the bottom of the superhero barrel from which to make more movies. That requires a special kind of movie, with a special kind of character, with a special kind of charisma to generate that special kind of respect. Is it? Based on this film, Captain America is the greatest hero less because of the development of the character, and more because of the name in the title.

            Captain America didn't leave me overwhelmed. Nor was I underwhelmed. I was merely whelmed.

(2011. Reviewed by Frederick Holbrook)


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