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Josh Reviews Captain America: The First Avenger!

July 27th, 2011
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And so we come to it at last, the final piece in the puzzle before next summer’s unprecedented super-hero cross-over movie, The Avengers.  There was Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor, and now we have Captain America: The First Avenger.  Captain America is overly simplistic and a little corny at times, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a rollicking good time in a movie theatre.

As with all of the Marvel Studios films so far, the film sets itself up for success with its impeccable casting.  Chris Evans was the best thing about the terrible Fantastic Four movies, and he’s found an even better role here in that of Steve Rogers/Captain America.  He absolutely looks the part, and more importantly than that he’s able to sell Steve Rogers’ aw-shucks good-hearted nature without coming off as silly.  He’s an un-ironic heroic lead, and I found his honest, open-faced portrayal to be quite compelling.  This performance is assisted by some wonderful CGI effects that create the 90-pound weakling version of Steve Rogers that we see in the first act.  This isn’t The Curious Case of Benjamin Button style photo-realism, not by any stretch.  But the effects are convincing, and after a few moments I really did stop thinking about the visual effects and just accepted skinny-Steve as a fully-realized character.  It’s a terrific achievement in effects.

Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings) creates yet another iconic villain in the role of Johann Schmidt, The Red Skull.  Putting on what sounded to me like his best impersonation of Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, Mr. Weaving chews a lot of scenery but never tips over the edge into camp.  The Red Skull is a big, bad, totally EVIL comic-book villain, and I thought he was just terrific.  (Possibly the best bad-guy in a Marvel Studios film so far.)  I loved the look of his make-up effects, and I was pleased that once his fleshy mask comes off, it stays off for the rest of the film.

I was surprised at how large a role Tommy Lee Jones has in the film.  I thought this would just be a cameo, but his Colonel Phillips becomes a key character throughout the film, and Jones just kills.  He gets many of the film’s best lines, and his gruff, warm presence is a delight.  Most of the rest of the film’s best lines go to Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine, the inventor of the super-soldier serum that transforms Steve Rogers into Captain America.  This was another surprise for me, and I appreciated that we really got to know Dr. Erskine in the film’s first act.

The film makes some deviations from the Marvel Comics source material, but because the film gets the tone right — the heart and soul of the Captain America character — I wasn’t too bothered by this.  The biggest changes were made to the character of Bucky, who is now presented as a big-brother-type childhood friend of Steve’s, but I thought those changes worked.  I would have loved to have seen a bit more of Bucky in the film, but Sebastian Stan (who plays Bucky) and Chris Evans sell their friendship effectively.  And the film’s narrative leaves the comic book-reading audience members plenty of room to paint around the edges and fill in aspects of Bucky’s character and story-arc (particularly the “Winter Soldier” back-story created by writer Ed Brubaker over the past several years in the Captain America comic).

(There was only one change to continuity that bugged me, which I’ll get to later in the review.)

Not only is the film faithful to the source material, it’s positively awash in lovely little nods to the long comic book history of the character, and to the larger Marvel Universe.  I was among the many who, while excited to see S.H.I.E.L.D. involved in Iron Man 2 and Thor, found some of their scenes to have been somewhat inartfully shoe-horned into the film, just to create connections between the movies.  (The obviously re-shot scenes of Hawkeye in Thor are the most egregious examples.)  But here in Captain America, those connections are much more skillfully woven into the larger narrative.  We get to meet a young Howard Stark (Tony’s father), who we see working with Dr. Erskine on the super-soldier serum.  We know that he’s Tony’s father, and attentive fans might also recall the connections with The Incredible Hulk (in which we learned that the accident that turned Bruce Banner into the Hulk involved his attempts to recreate that serum), but it all feels like a perfectly logical part of the story, and of the larger Marvel universe.  Similarly, I was surprised by how many references there were to the back-story of Thor to be found in the early scenes of the film (references to Odin, and the World Tree, and of course to the powerful cube-shaped object that once resided in the Asgardian treasure room).  But I don’t think these would be at all distracting to anyone who hasn’t seen Thor — while, for those of us who did, it’s just gravy.

Then there are all the other little in-jokes and references.  The sight of Dr. Phineas Horton’s exhibit at the World’s Fair (that young Steve and Bucky visit) gave me ENORMOUS amounts of geeky pleasure, as did the wonderful first shot of Dr. Arnim Zola (the Red Skull’s henchman, played note-perfectly by Toby Jones), which playfully references the super-villain look of Dr. Zola from the comics.

(And did I mention that the COSMIC CUBE appears in this film?!!  We truly are in the golden age of super-hero films, as I NEVER expected that wonderfully comic-booky item to ever appear in a movie.)

Lastly, I must of course highlight the Howling Commandos.  It was  hoot to see that motley group included in the film, and they got a surprising amount of screen-time.  (Though it’s curious that the name Howling Commandos is never mentioned, nor are ANY of the individual Commandos named on-screen, I think.  I wonder why?  I also wondered why we didn’t get to see Nick Fury as a part of the group.)  I will mention that I particularly enjoyed Neal McDonough (Band of Brothers) as Dum Dum Dugan, hat and all.

Many reviews have compared Captain America to Raiders of the Lost Ark.  While this film clearly is not anywhere remotely close to the greatness of that film, it does share a certain pulpy Nazi-stomping sense of fun with Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece (a film which, by the way, Captain America director Joe Johnston worked on, and which is actually referenced in an off-hand line of dialogue in the movie that really made me smile).

There’s a lot of great action in this film, and more than any other recent Marvel Movie, this film felt BIG.  The stakes are big, the scope of the action is BIG, and there are some really sprawling action sequences that build to terrific climaxes.  Sometimes in these super-hero films I can see the limits of the budget, but it seems here like the filmmakers really shot for the fences with their action sequences.  The fights don’t take place in small rooms.  The take place in HUGE underground lairs filled with ENORMOUS death-dealing machinery!  Captain America doesn’t blow up tanks, he blows up HUGE village-destroying BEHEMOTH tanks!  Yes, the CGI is a bit dodgy in places, but that didn’t really bother me, because I was enjoying the scale of the spectacle.

Where the film fails is in the same place where many of the recent Marvel movies (and other super-hero movies) have failed: the dialogue is, in many scenes, painfully leaden, and for the second Marvel Studios film in a row, the female lead is entirely one-dimensional.  There are some great scenes and some crackling dialogue in Captain America, but there are also some terribly false-sounding exchanges.  I was particularly annoyed by the several on-the-nose comments about Steve Rogers’ nervousness around women.  After a fumbling exchange with Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell), she’ll say something like “you really don’t know how to talk to women, do you?”  Yes, we GET THAT!  You don’t need to SPELL IT OUT for us as if we’re idiots.  I even thought that the film’s terrific final scene was undercut somewhat by the clunker of a last line, which goes for a sort-of joke that deflects the tragedy of the moment (which had been so well-built right up to that point).

Poor Hayley Atwell tries her best to bring some life to Peggy Carter, and I appreciated that Agent Carter was a tough dame rather than a damsel in distress.  But as we were walking out of the theatre, my wife asked me “what was Agent Carter’s role in the group, anyway?” and I really had no answer.  The film never tells us what a British officer is doing involved in the secret American super-soldier program, and while Agent Carter seems loyal and brave, we never really see her contribute anything (other than believing in Steve).  Her school-girl crush on manly Steve Rogers is sort of cute, but also weakens the character in a way that I didn’t find appealing.  Ms. Atwell is a strong actress, and she’s able to carry the one-dimensional role the same way that Natalie Portman did in Thor, but I wish that both women had been far more fleshed out.

Some SPOILERS ahead now, my friends, so beware.

I mentioned above that there was one deviation from continuity that bugged me, and that was the fate of Bucky Barnes.  In the comics he met his end in the same final mission that led to Steve Rogers being frozen in ice, but here he is lost in a separate mission.  I don’t object to making a change, but in this case I’m not sure why they did.  It didn’t seem, narratively, to change or enhance the story at all.  Steve Rogers doesn’t behave any differently in that final mission than he would have had Bucky not just been killed.  Rather, had Bucky been killed during the final confrontation with the Red Skull, I think that would have added even more dramatic juice to the film’s climax.  So I just don’t get the change.

Going into the movie, I wondered where the story would end.  Would we see that Cap had survived the battle during which he was presumed dead?  Would we see him frozen?  Would we see him awoken in the modern age?  I was at first very surprised that the film actually opens in the modern era, but I quickly decided that I loved that idea.  It gives a nice sense of dread to the film, and as the movie reaches its climax and we see the giant flying wing and the arctic setting, I think those scenes become even more powerful because we know things aren’t going to end well.

I get the feeling that the film’s final sequence, set in modern day, was perhaps at one point intended to come at the end of the credits.  It feels a bit grafted on to the film.  In many ways, the film’s fade to black after we see New York kids playing as Captain America would be the perfect tragic ending.  But I can’t really complain, because the modern-era epilogue is pretty much note-perfectly spectacular.  I love how quickly Steve realizes something is wrong, and the building sense of horror as he busts out of the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility and into Times Square is fantastic.  (As I said before, my only complaint is the final line, in which Steve seems strangely not heartbroken to realize that the woman he loves has likely been dead for decades.)

And then, of course, instead of a final scene after the end credits, we get this.  (DO NOT click if you don’t want to be spoiled!)  Wonderful!

Captain America: The First Avenger works well on its own, as a fun WWII era super-hero adventure.  (And, by the way, BRAVO to the filmmakers for actually having the guts to make a period-piece super-hero film!)  It also successfully left me chomping at the bit for next summer, and The Avengers. I cannot wait!

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