July 22nd, 2011


Captain America: The First Avenger

I have to lead with this, which is maybe all you need to know - "I know what I'm doing. I've punched Hitler in the face over 200 times." - Captain America

Superhero movies are a weird animal. They almost always make money, no matter how bad they are. This means Hollywood has relatively little incentive to make good superhero movies, and as a result, there have been some real stinkers, many of which Marvel is responsible for. But in the past few years, they've stopped selling their character rights to other studios, and have let Marvel Studios actually make the movies. This has lead to some first rate efforts - Iron Man, Thor, and now - Captain America: The First Avenger. When you're making a movie about one of the most iconic characters in all comic-dom, you have a certain onus to get it right. So Captain America has a few key qualities that must be respected; patriotism, courage, leadership, and compassion. It's really tough to make a character like that, such a do-gooder Boy Scout, not a 2-dimensional caricature who consists only of mission and rules. But this Cap is a fairly fully realized character. He's not stiff and wooden, but he's still got an unfailing need to Do The Right Thing. He's got, in effect, charisma.

I was worried that Chris Evans couldn't pull it off, but my fears were without grounding. He's matured since he was Johnny Storm in The Fantastic Four, and that maturity suits Steve Rogers really well. The extended sequence that occurs before he takes the Super Soldier Serum is technically brilliant, because it really looks like Chris Evans is a 90 pound weakling - and he doesn't fall into the uncanny valley. That alone was pretty impressive, CGI'ed humans never look quite right. But here it works, and it also serves to really establish why Cap is who he is - he never forgets that strength is a virtue only when it isn't used to bully; that courage comes from facing adversity, not wielding power, and that compassion is above all the most important trait for a protector. In the training sequences we're aptly shown that Steve Rogers is boundlessly courageous, unthinkingly selfless, and very clever. So when you put that scrappy, feisty good kid in a superhero's body...you get Captain America.

What follows is...not what I expected. There is a giant song-and-dance number. A montage of broadway shows, stage productions, and movie clips. I did not see that coming! But eventually Cap swings into action - and the action is crisp, fast-paced, and exciting. By the end of the movie his enemies are assembled, his allies are with him, his iconic gear is in hand, and we've even had foreshadowing of some of his future threats. (For instance, at one point Arnim Zola is looking through a magnifying glass, and his face is contorted by the lens. Oh yeah... Cap vs. M.O.D.O.K. - can't wait!) Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull is a great foil for Evans - he is arrogant, menacing, and very comfortable with the easy wielding of his powers for personal gain and dominance, rather than selfless service. He shines a light on why Cap's heart is his greatest asset, not just his Super Soldier body. And Stanley Tucci, who has never been bad in anything, ever, brings a deft and human touch as Abraham Erskine, the scientist who invents the Super Soldier serum and finds and cultivates Steve Rogers as its first subject. His shabby elegance is a subtle short-hand for the care and thought that imbues his few short scenes with importance. Indeed, the ensemble cast is one of the strengths of this film - I'd love to see a whole separate feature about Bucky Barnes, Nick Fury and his Howlin' Commandos, Peggy Carter - any of them.

If I have a nitpick, it's that the movie revolves around Captain America's battles against a rogue group of villains called Hydra, who are explicitly not part of the German Army, despite their Nazi-esque iconography. When history hands you such a menacing villain, why invent a new one? But this is a minor point - on the whole I think this movie avoided the pitfalls of backstory-itis; making Steve Rogers emergence as Captain America vital to the story, interesting, and compelling. It moved along at a good pace, had engaging characters about which one wants to know more, and told a great high-adventure story that left plenty of hooks for future action. And the modern-day book-ends seque beautifully into next summer's Avengers movie, which I'm anxiously awaiting.
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