Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
So often when a superhero movie comes out, both studio & press rush to compare it to prior successes. Thus, we were sold Green Lantern as being kinda like Iron Man, but with outer space & aliens, and references are already being made to how The Amazing Spider-Man will take the Spider-Man franchise more into the realm of The Dark Knight. A valid comparison (that nobody but me seemed to be making, probably because I’m the only one who doesn’t think it an insult) was that Marvel’s earlier film this summer, Thor, owes more than a little to 80s sci-fi/fantasy superhero movie Masters of the Universe. However, it is with great pleasure that I say Captain America: the First Avenger is unique on the increasingly crowded list of superhero films.
What makes this film stand apart from its predecessors, and what I appreciate most about it, has little to do with explosions, special effects, or Nazis getting punched (although those are all cool too). Captain America, both character and film, radiates pure unadulterated optimistic idealism. It’s not about revenge (like Batman) nor is the character spurred on by guilt or redemption (Iron Man, Thor). It’s not even really about killing Nazis (see the other fairly recent alternate history WW2 movie, Inglourious Basterds). Captain America: the First Avenger is about stopping bullies and standing up for (in the words of the film) “the little guy.” Steve Rogers isn’t a man with the money, means or power to fight much of anything, but he never gives up or backs down. For his persistence he is offered the chance to pursue his dream of serving his country and standing up for good in the face of evil. Yes, I realize the way I’ve written it sounds pretty corny, and I suppose that it is, but the film is so sincere in its ideals that it virtually obliterates any trace of cynicism (Superman producers – I hope you’re paying attention!).
As one would expect, the version of World War 2 presented here is not exactly historically accurate. But then, that’s not really the point. The laser guns, energy weapons, super tanks, and dual-flamethrower-wielding soldiers in creepy costumes all serve to depict the Allies as “the little guy,” technologically outmatched by HYDRA’s superior weaponry. The film takes what it needs from the period – visual style (LOVED the Stark Expo! – and was that a Human Torch cameo I detected?), dialogue, music (ALSO LOVED the USO sequences), and setting, and then infuses it with the stylized comic book sensibility that has defined the other recent Marvel films.
Chris Evans is perfectly cast as Steve Rogers/Captain America. He totally embraces the genuineness of the character, but without making him wooden or boring. His Rogers is a hero who never thinks about how heroic he is, and that naive selflessness is a big part of his appeal. Hugo Weaving is also very good as the Red Skull, the Nazi/HYDRA counterpoint to Captain America. His German accent somewhat reminded me of Christoph Waltz’s character from Inglourious Basterds, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most importantly, the makeup/visual effects used to create his disfigured appearances are very good – they create the look of the character from the comic without sacrificing any of the actor’s performance. What is really striking about the film is how good the supporting cast is. Stanley Tucci is surprisingly effective as the Einstein-like scientist who creates the super soldier formula. Sebastian Stan as “Bucky” Barnes is a standout, and it is his place by the hero’s side that helps define who Rogers is and what he becomes. Hayley Atwell, as British agent Peggy Carter, provides the necessary romantic subplot, but more importantly serves as the female embodiment of the same idealistic qualities that define Captain America. Dominic Cooper is fun in a minor role as Howard Stark (father of Tony Stark/Iron Man), who is sort of like Tony Stark crossed with Howard Hughes. The Howling Commandos don’t get a lot of dialogue, but they’re delightful as the squadron willing to follow Rogers into the gates of hell if necessary. Best of all, Tommy Lee Jones is the perfect actor to play the gruff-yet-endearing Colonel Phillips. One scene in particular, an interrogation that features Jones chowing down on his prisoner’s steak dinner, could be a metaphor for his whole performance; he spends most of the film stealing scenes & chewing scenery – and I wouldn’t have it any other way!
As a side note, I saw the film in 3D. While I wouldn’t say that it’s worth paying the extra for, I thought the post-production conversion was better than usual and was especially fun during the big action sequences. However, there were a few things I wish had been handled differently story-wise. I’m very much on the fence about the bookends to the film proper – especially the opening. I understand the reasoning for it, but I can’t help but think it gives away too much of where the film is going before it has even begun. I’m always an advocate of more screen time for Hugo Weaving, and he really wasn’t given as much to do as the Red Skull as I would have liked. I totally understand the danger of letting the villain overshadow the hero (see: virtually every Batman movie ever), but I think he could have been given a little more to do. Last, and this really is a minor detail, I really wish there had been at least a nod to the superhero identity of British soldier James Montgomery Falsworth. In the film he is merely one of the Howling Commandos, but in the comics he is British hero Union Jack. I’m not saying he needed the full costume, but maybe just the flag somewhere on his uniform, or maybe being nicknamed “Union Jack” by the American soldiers, or something. Of course at that point you might as well work in the rest of the Invaders team that he & Captain America were on…but now I’m really diving deep into the bottomless pit of continuity. UPDATE: Upon second viewing (and thanks to the keen eyesight of a friend), it has been determined that James Falsworth does in fact have a Union Jack crest on his beret – but it can be hard to make out except in close up.
In any case, you can see how much I have to nitpick just to find things I don’t like about the film. The point I’m trying to make is you should go see it. I’m already trying to figure out if/when I can see it again. I’ll go ahead and call it here – Captain America: the First Avenger ties with Super 8 for best summer movie of 2011. There are still a couple months to go, so I suppose that could change, but I’ll be very surprised if it does. And don’t forget to stay all the way through the end credits!
Bonus video: 1966 Captain America theme song
© Ralph Lawson III, 2011, All Rights Reserved