Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

As far as superheroes go, they don’t get much campier than the “Star-Spangled Man.” A super soldier dressed in red, white and blue who bashes in Nazi skulls with his all-American shield? Undoubtedly, Captain America served a very specific purpose when he debuted in 1940, but 70 years later, Marvel Studio has found a way to make him relevant again in “Captain America: The First Avenger.” With a script that dives into the soul of its character as every good origin story should and packs in adventure of old-school proportions, “Captain America” strikes a strong balance of nostalgic charm and modern action.

Anyone that felt director Joe Johnston had to prove himself as the director of a superhero film should and will stand corrected. Like anyone he’s had his misfires (“Jurassic Park III”), but with films such as “The Rocketeer,” “Jumanji,” and “October Sky” under his belt, he knows how to tell a story that pleases its audience above all else. “Captain America” achieves that almost instantly. You can feel the influence of Johnston’s early career work doing visual effects for George Lucas in the original “Star Wars” films as well as “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Like those beloved films, “Captain America” quickly establishes a protagonist you can root for and a large scale for action and adventure.

Chris Evans finally shakes loose his comic relief type-casting and shows off his leading man potential as Steve Rogers, a scrawny young man (thanks to some excellent special effects) from Brooklyn whose persistent yet futile attempts to enlist in the army catches the eye of a fled German scientist named Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci). Erskine has developed a serum that the military hopes it can use to build an army of “super soldiers” and he insists on finding the perfect specimen to test it on — someone of outstanding character and moral fiber. Rogers has been standing up to bullies who beat the snot out of him all his life, yet has never wavered in courage and determination. After convincing Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) Rogers is the one, Erskine and his colleague Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) administer the serum to Rogers, who’s instantly transformed into the ideal physical specimen.

Yet despite his new gifts, it’s not all uphill for Rogers; in a turn of events, he’s now the only super soldier who does or will ever exist, so presumably he’s unable to help the fight abroad on his own. A New York senator then convinces him to become a propaganda tool. This diversion is the script’s strongest non-action sequence because it sours any chance the film could be seen as all “God Bless America” and whatnot. Although a musical number written by Alan Menken is not usually how most films follow up the “now he’s become the superhero!” scene, it strengthens the character long term because he had to carve out his own destiny. By doing just that, he embodies American ideals more than he would have otherwise and also becomes a hero anyone — not just an American — could love.

As alluded to, Evans gives a career-best performance, especially miles better than Johnny Storm. Humor takes a back seat in this film compared to “Iron Man” and “Thor” and Evans puts his heart into his performance as Steve Rogers would. Although it’s head-scratching  how he develops fighting skills so damn quickly (though we should be grateful for the lack of a “training montage”), part of scrawny Steve lives in buff superhero Steve. He might not have the magnetic personality of Chris Hemsworth and Robert Downey Jr., but he’s a billion times easier to love.

Speaking of love, Hayley Atwell gives one of the better leading lady performances in a superhero film period. Her classic figure and beauty makes her a perfect physical fit for Peggy Carter, but she comes packaged with equal parts fearlessness and charisma, which make her a truly likable character. Individually, she and Evans have such strong characters, so together their relationship, built mostly on a truly mutual admiration, feels meaningful unlike most of Marvel’s films thus far.

On the other end of the spectrum, Hugo Weaving could not be a better choice for Johann Schmidt, a.k.a. Red Skull. A rogue Nazi with a God complex, Red Skull earns our respect as a nasty dude. The script also develops him more as Johann Schmidt at first, which makes the reveal of Red Skull more effective.  His presence makes the big fight sequences work, because he captures our attention as any great villain does. As long as he’s around, the fight’s never over, so the stakes of the action sequences hold up well throughout the film.

The period garb will initially evoke the comparisons to “Indiana Jones,” but the story earns these comparisons as well. The various action sequences in or on moving vehicles is highly reminiscent of that franchise, but the focus on the main characters does it too. Sure, there are many peripheral characters that don’t feel important and other weaknesses crop up, namely in the build to the action sequences, but that character focus helps give us blinders to the flaws (as any good action film accomplishes) and helps us get lost in the story and the action.

Unlike the best superhero films of today, “Captain America” doesn’t quite hit on the themes as well as it could, which would have helped it ascend to that upper echelon, but it has heart and character in the literal and more internal sense. Other films that did the same thing? “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” and to give a recent example, “Avatar.” If good storytelling with characters we care about truly counts above all else, then praise should be heaped on this film. It might do it the old-fashioned way, but there’s a reason those films still entertain years later.

4/5 Stars

Captain America: The First Avenger
Directed by Joe Johnston
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (comics)
Starring: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones

2 Comments

  1. Mrs Perfect says:

    Like Superman, Cap is yet another superhero who should’ve stayed on the printed page. Marvel are to be admired for their adherance to continuity with the other movies, but a major bloke in a bright red white and blue costume – in a combat scenario – just looks daft, no matter how they try to spin it. Soldiers wear camouflage for a reason y’know.

  2. UNF says:

    “A rogue Nazi with a God complex” ~ does this movie also feature GWB in a cameo? Looks like Capt. Amerika failed to nail a few of them suckers and they have managed to infiltrate Warshington D.C.

    A very crap movie, whose recycled propaganda amply demonstrates the busted banana Empire of U$a(downgraded) has run out of ideological steam.

    Goodbye and won’t be missed!

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