Monday, July 25, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger Review

This weekend saw the premiere of Marvel's latest big-budget superhero movie, Captain America, starring Chris Evans as the titular, iconic hero. So far it's grossed about 65.8 million dollars, possibly exceeding Thor's opening weekend, and knocking the final Harry Potter film out of the top spot.

And I'm here to tell you that any and all success for this movie is entirely deserved. It was wonderful. From Evans and his supporting cast, to the actual story, the direction, the effects, the ending and the overall tone, everything was pitch perfect. Marvel really knows what it's doing these days, and the excitement level for The Avengers is really cranking up.

For a more detailed review, including Spoilers, take a Cap-style super soldier jump...

The early moments of the movie, in which we meet the upright, tenacious, 90lb weakling that is Steve Rogers, is only off-putting in that Steve is visibly digital. Not that the effect is cheap or he looks plastic, he just literally seems far too tiny. Still, the intended effect, though perhaps slightly heavy handed, comes through, and we meet the principles behind the young man before we meet the hero and the potential appreciation and care of power by the once powerless.

Stanley Tucci's Dr. Erskine is the one who gives us this insight into Steve's character, when he meets him during another try to enlist in the army at a recruitment booth set-up in the World's Fair. (Sidenote: the demonstration by Howard Stark is lovely, but my favorite part of the huge, beautiful World's Fair setting? The display of the Human Torch, the android that joined comic Cap in the Defenders and later led to the birth of the Vision.)

Anyway, Erskine overhears Steve telling his handsome, off-to-war pal Bucky why he keeps trying to join the army despite repeated rejections, and hears the sincerity and altruism in his voice. He uses his authority to speak with Steve and approves his form, sending him to a special training camp run by Tommy Lee Jones, and where we meet the beautiful, strong Peggy Carter.

Tucci's Erskine is fantastic (humorous, well-accented, committed, and genuinely good) and Hayley Atwell's Peggy Carter is surprisingly endearing. As a comic fan, I DO love Captain America, and I'm familiar with his history, but I never really read his solo title (unless there was a Wolverine crossover going on.) Generally I know him from The Avengers books, but I believe that's where he's the best; as the tactical leader and conscience of Earth's Mightiest Heroes.

Despite my affection and strange fictional respect (I've saluted while reading before,) and my knowledge of the strange Carter-family love story, I never really knew Peggy Carter, nor did I get acquainted with Sharon Carter until recent, post-Civil-War Brubaker days. I knew Sharon was Peggy's niece, and had become a SHIELD agent, inspired by her aunt's WW2 service. Turns out though, while Peggy supported Captain America in certain WW2 missions where they fell in love, he never actually learned her name before he ended up in suspended animation. (Come to think of it, I believe after falling in love with Sharon years later, he meets the older Peggy, and she even, for a time, becomes one of the support staff for the Avengers team.)

Naturally the movie expands on this, giving Peggy more of an identity and a role in Steve's training, development, and life in the war. As the professional Agent Carter she takes no crap, sees his potential, and inspires him to greater heights through her boldness, beauty (which is considerable) and her incisive wisdom, shared at crucial moments. The drama and romance and enjoyment of their very chaste, almost subtextual courtship, is skillfully done, taking up no large part of the movie nor affecting the momentum in a negative. In the end it ends up giving us the biggest emotional punch of the whole story, accentuating the size of what Steve has sacrificed for his principles, and showing the reality of what he wakes up to decades later, a man out of time.

My favorite part of their personal storyline, however, is a small one, when watching the newsreels in a movie theatre with her boss and other high-ranking officials, Peggy and the audience see footage of Steve/Captain America checking his pocket-watch and observe how he keeps a picture of Peggy on the inside. At that point they still had not said anything definitive about "feelings" or gone on a date or had any real physical contact, but a man like Steve, in an age like that, could commit to the love he felt for a good woman even without any sign of its reciprocation.

The portrayal of that wholesome, moral, traditional, truly decent character is what I was most anxious for regarding Chris Evans' casting. After seeing him historically in roles where he was either arrogant or a straight-up douchebag, I was initially hesitant about his casting, despite the stories of how hard he worked to get the role and how badly he wanted it. Happily I was completely wrong. He captures the essence of Steve Rogers entirely, as a trustworthy, naive, principled, dedicated, fearless soldier, still capable of going against orders in pursuit of what he believes is Right. Also, or because of his effective portrayal of Captain America, not to mention his remarkable physical developments, Evans is more handsome and desirable than I have ever seen him before. (Though perhaps he could have been made slightly blonder, like in the comics, but that's a minor complaint.)

The deep friendship with Bucky (another great performance by Sebastian Stan) was also done incredibly well. Though not authentic to the comics, their story was creative and effective, placing them as childhood friends from Brooklyn, with a dynamic of Bucky fending off Steve's bullies. The switch of the dynamic, a profound change that not all people would be comfortable with, illustrates the respect that they had for each other, the loyalty and love inherent in their relationship. Bucky's "death", coming earlier than expected (another difference from the comics), was thus horribly poignant and disturbing. Steve's mourning afterwards actually resembles the current situation of Cap in Fear Itself, which isn't the first similarity in the movie (the villainy of the Red Skull, Nazis, a more martial Captain America, a brief but heartfelt mourning period, and the considerable influence of Norse/Thor mythology on the primary conflict.)

The villains of the story were also authentic to the source material, with Huge Weaving giving us a brilliant, conscience-free, diabolical Red Skull, and even a large role for Cap's future enemy Arnim Zola. The idea that HYDRA, funded in the comics by Nazi plunder of gold, was in fact originally the mystical/scientific research branch of the Third Reich is particularly clever, and we get to witness its growth into the widespread terrorist organization we know and fear.

The rest of Steve's personal, handpicked squad is stellar as well. Most recognizable is the excellent Dum Dum Dugan, whom I sincerely hope will be returning to the films as Nick Fury's buddy (there has to be a sequel, right?) and the remarkable diversity for 1940s (French, Asian, Black, British) isn't belabored and thus works well. Even the always great JJ Field is part of the team, though briefly, and I wouldn't mind a side-story one day where the Black member turns out to be Isaiah Bradley and gets a blood transfusion from Steve to become the famed Black Captain America.

Without actually seeing Steve Rogers encased in ice and revived, that particular plot development is still clearly portrayed. However my one objection to the story is here, though in honesty I can see the necessity for it. In the comics its the Avengers who find him in the ice, in only the 4th issue of the original comic, which becomes a classic, momentous, team-solidifying event, one mirrored thousands of years later with the Guardians of the Galaxy. To have SHIELD be the one to find him, though it fits into the slightly divergent mythos being built by the movies, makes this fan feel like something is missing.

However having SHIELD attempt to "ease" him into this new age by creating a simulacrum of the 1940s for him to wake up to, while storing him in a building in Times Square, is just bumbling enough to truly be the SHIELD I grew up with; well-intentioned but rarely that effective. It also seems as if the female agent they sent in to him was supposed to be Sharon Carter, though I've heard nothing of her presence in the Avengers.

Still, I can easily understand why they chose Times Square as the setting for the painful realization that everyone Steve has ever known or loved is dead, and that the world he lived in and fought for has irrevocably changed. This entire truth, this heavy trauma that Steve will carry around for years, is perfectly encapsulated in the tragic line he produces before the credits: "But I had a date." Considering past Marvel films, it's a bold, poignant choice to end the movie on such a sad note, but it is so honest to the character and the huge weight of what has happened to him that I can't help but love it.

Sticking around for the credits, as one must always do with a Marvel superhero film, is one of the most gratifying experiences a fan can get after viewing such a fantastic film. An actual Avengers trailer! Though choppy and fast we see Thor, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, our first glimpse of Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner, the helicarrier slash Avengers' HQ, Loki under guard, and even Maria freakin' Hill. It was like having a syringe of adrenalin pumped straight into the heart. Any doubts I had about Whedon's Avengers are gone, and there is nothing I am looking forward to more. A year away and I doubt my excitement will do anything but decrease.

In repetitive summation, I loved Captain America: The First Avenger. Chris Evans was the perfect choice and should be applauded for his performance. Every other member of the cast fit perfectly. The writers gave us a solid WW2 story, with good and evil, shades of gray, love and sacrifice, patriotism and honor, and respected the classic comic character as much as any fan could wish. Now I can't help but dream that this same team could take a stab at The Defenders, knowing how capable they are of doing a WW2 superhero film, but I'll settle for the solid gold they've given me already.

If you haven't seen it, go now. Best movie of the summer. Thanks Kevin Feige.


  1. You went a lot deeper with the review than I did, but I do think it is the strongest super hero movie since Iron Man.

    Roger Ebert said that Captain America and Iron Man can be used as a template of how to make quality comic book movies, and I think he is right.

  2. i agree this movie was done pretty well especially when you consider Captain America being one of the most difficult comic book characters to translate well into live action. the movies greatest strengths was in establishing the Steve Rogers character and continuing the Avengers prequel continuity. the movie was also cast well too. as a stand alone action movie it wasn't too bad but that in and of it's self was not the main focus of the film i believe. i hope you all stuck around after the credits.

  3. I actually agree with Ebert as well--Marvel has the origin story thing down pat. It's a little weak when it comes to sequels (coughIronMan2cough) but if they keep getting Joss Whedon to script doctor, I think they'll be just fine :-)

    And yeah David, nailing Cap was key, and Evans definitely did that, and the rest of the cast was stellar as well. And are you kidding? I always stick around post-Marvel movie credits. God that trailer was awesome. So excited for Avengers. Some Assambly Required indeed :-)