This summer has been a bit slow for movies. We’ve had a trickle of blockbusters, some good (X-Men: First Class) and some made by Michael Bay (Transformers: Dark of the Moon). But this is really the year of Marvel, with Thor, X-Men and now Captain America: The First Avenger lighting up the big screen. I thought Thor was decent, and I liked X-Men despite it’s flaws, but if this week’s episode of Driving Home the Movie told you anything, it’s that I really liked Captain America. I think it might just be my favorite of the “Marvel Universe” movies yet (and yes, that includes Iron Man).
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is just a kid from Brooklyn wanting to prove himself. Despite being rejected from the Army, Rogers is offered the chance to be a part of a secret military project to create the first super-soldier in the fight against the Axis Power. After gaining his super-human abilities, Rogers learns there is something even worse than the Nazis waiting for him… something that could destroy the whole world.
Steve Rogers is different from the other soon-to-be-Avengers heroes. He has a distinctly 20th Century American mentality, making him the quintessential old-school superhero in the Marvel universe. I wasn’t sure how relatable he was going to be, since he’s such a straight-as-an-arrow sort of guy. Chris Evans kept him from being bland, especially in the first part of the film before he becomes the Captain. It took some very good CGI turning the tall and muscular Evans into Rogers’ original smaller frame, but even being labeled a pipsqueak, you like Steve Rogers. More than anything, he hates bullies, and he won’t back down from one, either. That’s why he keeps trying to join the army, despite being rejected multiple times. He might be nobler than most men, but that doesn’t mean he’s bland or one dimensional. His more traditional heroism is refreshing in an era filled to the brim with brooding anti-heroes. Not every superhero has to be Wolverine or Spawn or the Punisher. Chris Evans’ performance also had the subtly of a WWII hero rather than a superhero, and that makes a big difference in this kind of movie. I’m very glad he’s coming back for The Avengers.
One of my favorite things about the film was how Steve Rogers is used by the government right after his transformation. Because the experiment didn’t go quite to plan, the army doesn’t really want to use him. One of the politicians suggests he be made into a posterboy for US Bonds, essentially going from city to city urging people to join the war effort. It’s very Watchmen in the way the government monopolizes on this new hero, but it’s also a tongue-and-cheek nod to how the real government used the figures of Superman and Captain America as propaganda during WWII. It’s fun to see Evans’ Rogers get more and more comfortable speaking in front of crowds, only to perform for real troops and get a very different reaction.
Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is more pro-active than most of the love interests in the Marvel movies. She doesn’t just swoon over Rogers – OK, she does gasp a little when she notices his new washboard abs (which are oiled down for some reason), but she and Rogers have chemistry before the experiment, too. She can also hold her own in a fight and demands respect from the troops, which is probably why she likes Rogers so much. While I complained about her being the only female character with a name during my DHtM review, I do understand that this is a WWII movie and as such, there are just bound to be a larger ratio of men to women. I also understand that they didn’t really develop any of the minor characters much and it’s not like I could remember the names of the men, either.
Tommy Lee Jones might have been playing the same character he always plays (except maybe Two-Face, which was… something else), but the reason he gets cast as the grizzled old-timer is because he’s fun to watch. Stanley Tucci has a brief, but effective role as the German scientist who recruits Steve for this experiment. Tucci’s characters makes a rather profound statement about the innocent Germans affected by the war, and as a 2nd generation German-American, it was good to hear someone say it on the big screen… most WWII movies forget that. I wish they would have gotten John Slattery to reprise his role as Howard Stark, but Dominic Cooper was a decent replacement. At least they kept Howard’s awesome ‘stache.
I’m actually very surprised by how little the Nazis are in this, since the film makes a point of having Hydra be the main villainous organization. It’s not that Red Skull and Hydra aren’t menacing, but I think the audience would have enjoyed Captain America punching more Nazis if only for the pathos. That being said, Red Skull isn’t too bad of a villain. His plot is fairly average villainy (blow up everyone and take over the world), but that kind of works. After all, Red Skull is a classic comic book bad guy, down to the god complex and evil laugh. Hugo Weaving has gotten villiany down to a science, but he is helped by the great work done on his face by the special effects makeup team of the film. Speaking of the special effects, they were all around pretty good. Overall I didn’t consciously differentiate between what was real and what was special effects, which means they’re doing their job. I also liked the tip-of-the-hat to classic cinema effects by having one of the montages have very newsreel-like sweeping transitions.
The pacing was a bit off, but it’s an origin story – some of the pacing has to be sacrificed when you’re telling this sort of story. For how much had to be set up, I found myself engaged in the story for most of the film. No, the real problem I have is that they don’t use the different European languages (especially German) when only European characters are talking. When you have a room full of only German citizens and they are all speaking in English, you’re taking me out of the movie. Maybe I’m being too harsh, but when you have such a good movie, problems like this are all the more obvious. As far as other areas of authenticity, the sets were convincing. I visited Germany earlier in the summer, and the final showdown in the Alps had me convinced.
The ending probably seemed a little peculiar if you didn’t know The Avengers is coming out next year, but in context it’s OK. The last moment of the film was especially a downer, but again, you’re going to see the character again soon. Speaking of which, stay for the credits. It takes a while for the credits to finish, but it’s worth it. I really love how they’ve brought these films together. The Marvel universe has so many great crossovers and matchups, and I’m very impressed by these filmmakers working together to make this film universe bigger than the sum of its parts. And even by itself, this movie is just… fun!
Overall: With a strong performance from Chris Evans, a entertaining supporting cast and a well-written story, Captain America: The First Avenger is a solid film worthy of this classic superhero.
4 out of 5 stars