Captain America: The First Avenger
Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeeley (Comics: Joe Simon, Jack Kirby)
Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Dominic Cooper, Richard Armitage, Stanley Tucci, Samuel L. Jackson, Toby Jones.
PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action.
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The all-American hero. A symbol of patriotism, courage and conviction. Captain America is the quintessential American soldier and his big screen outing is one of the Avengers series’ best.
Taking a card from the same deck as X-Men: First Class, Marvel decides to set up the Captain America origin story over 60 years ago. It’s World War II and thousands of patriotic young men are lining up to serve their country as it fights a gruesome and costly war in Europe and the South Pacific. Young Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) whose various physical infirmities, the least of which is his diminutive size, keeps him from being allowed to serve in the military. His best friend “Bucky” (Sebastian Stan) is about to ship off and all Steve can think of is what city he’ll say he’s from as he applies one last time to enlist. Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), impressed with Steve’s perseverence, compassion and other traits that set him apart from his compatriots, signs him up for an experimental program he has been developing designed to make the perfect super soldier.
Transformation complete, the American government refuses to allow Steve to serve his country overseas where he wanted to be. They send him off as part of a cross-country song-and-dance team attempting to drum up support from the American public to purchase bonds to help fund the war. But when he is sent to the front as part of a USO-style show to bolster flagging confidence among the troops, he discovers just how dishearened the men there have become and after a squad of men is captured in the forests of Germany, Steve, as Captain America, flies to the rescue and uncovers a dangerous scheme cooked up by Hitler’s paranormal research department to strike out from the third reich and dominate the world at large with its own brand of super soldier. Led by the nefarious Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), the group known as Hydra, isn’t going to be easily defeated for Schmidt himself is a recipient of an early stage of syrum that Erksine had been developing, making him a bigger threat than Cap would initially realize.
As a character, Captain America was created as a force for good to represent America to the world as a shining beacon of our nation’s prowess, and strength of will and purpose. He embodies all the traits we embolden our greatest war heroes with. It’s no wonder the film features a fascinating mash-up of motivational posters from World War II to act as its titles sequence. Cap was the ultimate salesman of U.S interests. Whether the image he portrays is fictionalized and romanticized doesn’t matter because he’s what we all want to believe each of us can be and achieve. And even if some aspects of the film make the cynic cringe, one can’t help but celebrate the victories we see. Had this movie been made 70 years ago (or perhaps even a decade ago), we would have seen a dramatic increase in the ranks of the U.S. military. The only failing the film has is its inability to translate well to other cultures and its over-reliance on a fading ideal of patriotism.
Thankfully, it is scrawny-to-buff Chris Evans who carries the film for us. For millions, he’s a pretty face whose made a handful of throw-away flicks including the Fantasic Four films. However, here he comes of age, moving from sex symbol to blockbuster thespian. I have seen his potential before. He was the most versatile and believable actor in the Fantastic Four films. Even his work in the otherwise forgettable Push and the better-than-expected The Losers was noteworthy, rising above his co-stars. Yet, with a lack of emotional depth attached to most of his characters (script deficiencies, I assure you), it was hard to see him as anything more than eye candy. As Captain America, Evans gave us a broad-shouldered hunk to pin our dreams on. But in the early scenes when it’s only Evans’ head on a weakling’s body, his talent was allowed to show through. His facial expressions and tone of voice embodied his character’s frustration, consternation and bravery. We didn’t even need his petite frame to relay his emotional state. While I would never put this performance/actor on the level of Cary Grant, Henry Fonda or James Stewart, atypically attractive Hollywood leads of thepast, he would fit right in with the class of actors like Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman who, with the perfect role, could be astoundingly impressive and were he to ever lose his looks, a career would still await him.
Weaving’s appearance as the menacing Schmidt increases the wide array of recognizable characters he has played over the years. There will be a time some 50 years from now where Weaving’s name will be known despite having only a handful of times headlined a major motion picture (and most of those weren’t huge box office draws). While I wouldn’t say his villainous role here is among his best, for there are too many better performances out there, he brings every ounce of what the film and audience need to make the film’s threat credible and enable them to cheer on the hero against his sneering, sinister machinations.
And it’s here the film has a few hiccupts. Action films, especially superhero films, have need of a strong bad guy to give the story heft. As the amorphous mass in Green Lantern proved, you can’t expect the audience to sympathize with or understand why they are being drawn along with the tale. Captain America does a fine job enabling the audience’s needs, yet does so with a handful of staid tricks. Take for example a scene where Der Fuhrer has sent three important men to elicit from Schmidt a timeframe for when they may start using their new, powerful weapons. Schmidt announces his grand plan to take Hydra away from Hitler’s grasp and strike out on his own. To punctuate his plan, he uses the vary weapon he was developing for the German leader on Hitler’s own men. There’s no chance the audience doesn’t see this event coming. It’s one of the more frustrating elements of this genre of film. For a villain to menace, he must slaughter men wholesale. A little more depth, but no less egomania, might have made for a more thrilling antagonist.
Director Joe Johston, whose lackluster list of film credits would give one little hope of getting more than a perfunctory action film, delivers a surprisingly adept film with no shortage of thrills, carefully orchestrated visual effects sequences and an action hero who doesn’t feel like a macho, gun-toting ass-kicker spouting pithy one-liners and showing off his own skills as if he were a god in a human’s guise. Steve Rogers is a common man whose fierce dedication to country, unflagging loyalty to friends and bravery in the face of peril helps him stand out. Historical perspective isn’t lost on Johnston whose film borrows a lot from popular war films of the era in which the story takes place. Despite feeling like your typical war film, Johnston keeps the audience from developing action sequence fatigue by drawing the film back to allow Steve’s frustrations and failures to shape his being. For all his bravado and swagger, Steve remains a fragile and desperate young boy who struggles to understand the world around him despite having an idealized vision of what the theater of battle would be like. He must take time to grow up even when those around him believe he already has. It’s a front, an image of power that he isn’t quite comfortable with, but which he must exhibit in order to keep those around him from losing faith in him and, in tacit, their country.
August 4, 2011