A film review by Craig J. Koban July 25, 2011

Rank:  #15 



2011, PG-13, 125 mins.


Capt America/Steve Rogers: Chris Evans / Peggy: Hayley Atwell / Bucky: Sebastian Stan / Col Phillips: Tommy Lee Jones / Schmidt/Red Skull: Hugo Weaving / Howard: Dominic Cooper / Dr Erskine: Stanley Tucci / Nick Fury: Samuel L Jackson / Dr Zola: Toby Jones

Directed by Joe Johnston / Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, inspired by the Marvel comic books.


Joe Johnston’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER is the kind of rip-roaring, tastefully stylish, exhilaratingly pulpy,  and – gosh darn it! – invigoratingly wholesome action adventure film that Hollywood just does not make in abundance anymore. It's smart, funny, handsomely mounted, innocuously thrilling, decent hearted, and joyously fun.  In an age of dark nihilism for the comic book film universe (which, to be fair, has allowed for Christopher Nolan’s BATMAN films to emerge as undisputed titans of the genre), CAPTAIN AMERICA is an energizing splash of nifty, feel-good innocence, cliffhanger-inspired derring-do, and zestful nostalgia to the senses that harkens back to what picking up super hero comics must have been like for children 70 years ago. 

While transplanting Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s intentionally iconic and patriotic Marvel Comics creation from 1941 to the modern day silver screen it must have been oh-so-tempting to re-imagine this WWII-era costume crusader for our post-9/11 zeitgeist, but Johnston – who is no stranger to nostalgia and paying homage to the past, having made THE ROCKETEER, THE WOLFMAN, and HIDALGO – wisely understands that the essence of Captain America is to keep it set in its 1940’s landscape.  Because of that, the film simmers with a juicy combination of Saturday matinee serial chic, gee-whiz period aesthetic, and, of course, flag waving patriotism, but not so much of the latter that it becomes groan inducing. 

As we all know from reading the CAPTAIN AMERICA comics, this hero’s origin story is one of the most primal and relatable of all young male wish fulfillment fantasies: the myth-making journey and transformation of a 90-pound weakling into a bulging, Adonis-sculpted, ass-kicking savoir.  Well, poor ol’ Steve Rogers (played, sort of, by Chris Evans, more on that it a bit) is just one of those aforementioned meager and demoralized weaklings.  It’s the heart of World War II and Steve aspires to join his countrymen to fight the good fight overseas on enemy lines, but he is turned away from enlistment officials at every turn, partially because he’s asthmatic, but mostly because, at face value, he’s a scant 5' 4", is skeletally thin, and looks like he couldn’t punch his way out of a paper bag, let alone through Nazi occupied territory.  He does have one thing that most other soldiers lack: heart.  He has so much of it that he makes the mistake of mouthing off to a belligerent movie theatre patron that hurtles insults at the pre-movie war time newsreel.  For Steve’s steadfast defense of reel’s fighting men – and for verbally berating the much larger viewer – he gets trashed in nearby alley afterwards. 


Captain America's first comic book appearance: 

March 1941


Steve’s heart may not be winning him any chances of getting into the army, but it does catch the attention of an Albert Einstein-looking German-America scientist named Abraham Erskine (played in a warmly serene performance by Stanley Tucci) that manages to see something in the otherwise gangly and mawkish Steve.  He decides not to give the lad a 4F on his most recent enlistment application and opts to give him the chance of a lifetime: he will allow Steve to become a guinea pig test subject for his untested super soldier serum that promises a physical transformation of the highest order.  Steve, willing to do anything to serve his nation, quickly agrees to the hush-hush, top secret project, even though his regiment’s Colonel, Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, stoic, stalwart, and dryly mixing cantankerous mischievousness and grandfatherly charm) thinks that the kid is “still too skinny” to be Nazi killing material.  Can you blame him?

The experiment, despite some near fatal consequences, goes off swimmingly, and the once emaciated Steve emerges from the test chamber as a 6-foot-plus, muscle bound Hercules with four times the strength, speed, agility, and metabolism (he can’t get drunk) of mere mortal American men.  All while this is happening, a group of disaffected Nazis that go by the moniker Hydra (Hitler's elite science division), led by a rouge officer named Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), have created their own secret weapon that he hopes will lay cities (even Berlin!) across the world to vast and usurp Hitler in his quest for worldwide domination.  Schmidt has been horribly scarred, though, through his own misuse of a similar cell-regenerating serum used on Steve, which has resulted in a complexion that no 10-step Clinique skin care line would ever alleviate.  It soon becomes clear that these two chemically altered super-men will have a climatic showdown that could either spell doom or freedom for America and its allies.  

CAPTAIN AMERICA, perhaps more than any other super hero film, SUPERMAN included, wears its patriotism and love for the past like a badge of honor; it’s a Normal Rockwell painting come joyously to life.  So many comic book entertainments seem to be helmed by directors whom are in the cause more because of a paycheck-ready assignment than out of passion for the underlining material, but this is where Joe Johnston greatly differs.  You gain an overreaching sense that he really and truly feels emotionally invested in CAPTAIN AMERICA’s time period by amalgamating bravura and watershed CGI effects technology with vibrant and inspired old school art and production design.  Johnston (who served as an art director on the original STAR WARS trilogy, essentially given fans of that series images that have been permanently etched in their obsessed consciousnesses for decades) fuses a sort of neo-futurist design with its WWII-era setting for the overall film, and he knows how to let the effects stand out without distracting from the characters and story. 



Consider, if you will, the journey of “skinny Steve Rogers” during the beginning of the film.  Johnston employs what I am assuming are the same techniques used to reverse age, shrink and grow Brad Pitt in THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON to make Chris Evans look plausibly diminutive and unthreatening.  Misuse of such CGI wonders would have resulted in something horrendously laughable and off-putting, but the work here is as seamless as I’ve certainly ever seen.  The effects are also driven home by the earnestness of Chris Evans' performance, which makes both versions of Steve Rogers endearingly relatable and likeable.  Some critics have complained that Evans – known for playing colorfully cocky and arrogant roles – is just too one note and vanilla plain dull in his dual role.  They miss the point altogether: Steve Rogers is a modest and utterly selfless individual cut from a Boy Scout-esque level of high idealism and plucky gumption.  Captain America needs to be a square jawed…uh…square.  This guy may be cut like a man made of proverbial steel and is a matchless battlefield combatant, but underneath it all he's still a dweeb that can't talk to girls; Evans evokes this all very well with his thanklessly underplayed performance.

Johnston has also commandeered a universally strong cast here beyond Evans: Tommy Lee Jones, who can play tough as nails and no nonsense military roles in his sleep, is rock solid as a man working and devoted to Uncle Sam, but has to be won over as a devotee to Captain “Rogers”.  Dominic Cooper shows up in a sly cameo as Howard Stark, son of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony “IRON MAN” Stark, an engineer and inventor that helps Steve develop his super hero arsenal, especially his “vibranium”-made shield (which is as amusingly made-up of a term as any).  The lusciously gorgeous Hayley Atwell is more than effectively cast as Strategic Scientific Reserve Officer Peggy Carter, who’s perfectly ruby-lipped and well coiffed pin-up girl complexion is complimented by her sass, courage, and willingness to mix it up with the boys (she sure looks sexy with a gun).  And Hugo Weaving is a snarling, lisping, and despotically menacing scream as The Red Skull, who sounds kind of like the love child of THE MATRIX's Agent Smith and HOGAN HEROES' Colonel Klink.  Even though his end game perhaps lacks originality, I will say that the Skull is at least an innovative creation for being the cinema’s only Hitler-hating Nazi.  That’s gotta be a first. 

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER is a one of those grand, old-school, and rollickingly rah-rah high adventures cut from similar cloth to the INDIANA JONES pictures with more than a hint of war flicks like WHERE EAGLES DARE and THE GUNS OF THE NAVARONE (especially during montages where Captain and his own multi-ethnic motley crew of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS wage war on the Skull's fortresses).  Of course, the film's 1940’s period sheen is lush and immersive as well, even when blended with instances of the anachronistic and fantastical (blue ray guns, Spruce Goose-sized flying wings, pre-television era security monitors, etc).  Johnston even has time for a wonderfully lyrical and engaging Busby Berkeley-styled musical number, during which the newly juiced up Rogers is forced to demean himself yet again as a promoter of war bonds.  The poor sap.

Yet, it’s because of sequences like that why CAPTAIN AMERICA works so jovially as an affectionately cornball, pulpy, and enthusiastic super hero tale.  The script – like BATMAN BEGINS and SUPERMAN – takes its time developing the Rogers character and even more time to get our first glimpse of him as his Nazi/Hydra bashing, shield tossing, and unapologetic symbol of Americana.  Beyond that, the film gracefully balances gung ho patriotism with down-to-earth sentiment and it does so with enough tact that one does not to overwhelm the other.  The journey of Rogers is clever for how he goes from emasculated wimp to muscle bound behemoth and back to emasculation when he is used as a puppet by the government to sell the war at home.  When he finally dons the blue hued, red and white striped and starred war fatigues and fights the good fight for real, you want to root for him.  That’s what makes this FIRST AVENGER such a grand entertainment: for two-plus hours it wipes away any semblance of socio-political cynicism and moral angst and reminds jaded viewers to simply have a level of…aw, shucks...fun with the movies again.


The 3D upconversion for the film is far from being the jaw-dropping embarrassment of other past examples, but I think the film's color palette and sure-footed nostalgic decor is nonetheless held back by the dull murkiness of 3D.  I have seen both the 2D and 3D versions of CAPTAIN AMERICA and, if being forced to grade both examples, I would have to give the 3D version three stars versus the far superior four star 2D presentation, which does so much more justice to Johnston's bright and emblematic vision of the character.  In any event, CAPTAIN AMERICA is a four star entertainment...if seen properly.. 

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