In a summer full of superhero movies, Captain America: The First Avenger carries a particularly heavy load. Not only does the movie, which opens nationwide Friday, have to establish Captain America as a hero in his own right, the movie also has to tie into the burgeoning Marvel movie universe and set up next summer’s Avengers from the distant time and place of World War II.
It’s impressive that Captain America: The First Avenger manages to check all those items off its to-do list with style and high entertainment value, even though it never quite reaches the top of the comic-book movie hierarchy.
The movie starts off in the present day, with a scene most fans of the character in comic book form will recognize, before flashing back to an extended origin sequence for the character. The film finds a scrawny and sickly young Steve Rogers (played by Chris Evans), who wants to do the right thing and fight for his country in World War II, but his attempts to sign up for military service are constantly rejected. Picked on by bullies, he envies his best pal James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, played by Sebastian Stan, who’s headed off to the European theater to fight the Nazis.
Rogers meets fate when he comes to the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine, an expat German scientist developing a “super soldier serum” for the U.S. Army. Erskine has rejected all the perfect specimens the military has presented because he wants a moral man, which he finds in Rogers.
On the antagonist side, the move introduces German officer Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), who runs the Nazi’s secret science division known as HYDRA with his mousy scientific partner Arnim Zola (Toby Jones).
Schmidt, who is later takes HYDRA rogue from even the Nazis and is revealed as the Red Skull, is attempt to tap into a mysterious energy source — cleverly connected to the recent Thor movie — that will allow him to power an ultimate weapon in a strike against the United States.
Particularly impressive is the transformation of Rogers himself, as visual effects are used to effectively make Evans looks short, skinny and scrawny prior to revealing his more true-to-life muscular body post-transformation. Evans himself gives a solid performance as Rogers, steering clear of the light-hearted jokiness of his past character to deliver a serious character motivated by a strong sense of purpose. Cap is not the deepest comic book character to ever make it to the silver screen, but Evans does make him believable as a soldier and, most importantly, as a leader.
It’s after Rogers is transformed by the experiment that the movie begins to throw a few welcome wrinkles into the tale. Screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus make good use of the shared Marvel universe by bringing Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), father of the future Iron Man, into the process, along with Cap’s comic-book romance Peggy Carter (played with British aplomb by the charming Hayley Atwell) and Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones). Eagle-eyed fans should watch in particular for the first shot of Zola and check out the background during Rogers’ visit to the World’s Fair for Easter eggs.
After a thrilling sequence in which Rogers tracks down an assassin in a chase through the streets that ends with an underwater submarine sequence, the origin takes a detour into the unexpected. Instead of being sent overseas to fight, Rogers is deployed for public relations benefit, giving the filmmakers the chance to tip their hat to several iconic Cap moments that otherwise might not fit into the film. There is a musical number written by eight-time Oscar winner Alan Mencken in this part of the film that is surprisingly perfect for the story and character, becoming an early favorite for those who’ve seen the film.
The film does take a while to get Rogers into action fighting the war, but once it does, it really takes off. Many of the beats will be familiar to comics’ fans and fatal for certain characters, drawing on specific comics and images from Cap’s history from the Golden Age through the 21st century. But it’s a lot of fun to see Evans leap into battle and sling his shield around like he was born to wield it, as well as the familiar faces of the Howling Commandos.
For most comic fans, and for anyone who knows Cap is set to appear in the Avengers movie next summer, the ending of the film comes as no surprise. And it’s there where the movie’s workmanlike qualities fail to deliver on the kind of big moment and jaw-dropping spectacle that audiences expect from superheroes. The movie is so focused toward the end on checking off its to-do list that it never has a chance to be spontaneous and deliver something spontaneous and truly special.
The movie nonetheless entertains, and is solidly directed by Joe Johnston, who keeps the movie moving briskly through its paces without ever getting dull or feeling rushed. Johnston says he used Raiders of the Lost Ark as a touchstone for this movie — there’s even a throwaway line that pays tribute to that film — and it’s an approach that does help Captain America: The First Avenger from descending to the pedestrian level of Green Lantern. The movie also looks great, from the costumes to the CGI sets, and the stereoscopic 3D is among the better conversions from 2D. Fans of Johnston’s 1991 comic-book movie, The Rocketeer, will find a surprisingly number of rather specific similarities between the movies that may, or may not, be distracting.
Captain America: The First Avenger is ultimately held back from being a great stand-alone movie by the role it must play as the final set-up piece for Avengers. None of which should prevent movie audiences from enjoying the things the movie does well, from some great action sequences to more human moments such Rogers being bullied early in the film and the brief but sweet romance between Cap and Atwell, but still leaves a nagging feeling that this film could have delivered something really special.
Lastly, fans should know by now never to leave a Marvel movie before the final credits have rolled, as there’s almost an extra surprise that promises, as Stan Lee often did in the comics, that bigger and better thrills are yet to come.Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!
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