Captain America: The First Avenger (Review)

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (7/22/11; Action, 3D)
Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Stanley Tucci
SCR: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely; based on Captain America by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
DIR: Joe Johnston
MPAA: PG-13 For intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action.
2 hours 4 mins
BOX: $173,520,394

Big-budget introduction of Marvel Comics’ WWII-era do-gooder could have gone astray at almost any point: from the earnestness of patriotic Steve Rogers (Evans), to the evil villain Red Skull (Weaving) bent on world domination; from the trappings of the obligatory origin story beats, to the action-packed finale, which is where most films of this type fall apart.

But Johnston (following up the ill-fated remake of The Wolfman) nails the tone early by placing the emphasis squarely on the bony shoulders of his big-hearted protagonist. Rogers is a 96-pound weakling that stands a head shorter than most of his contemporaries, but desperately wants to serve his country, not to impress women or overcompensate for his physical shortcomings, but because he’s inherently decent and wants to do the right thing.

After five rejections, a German scientist (Tucci) working for the US Army notices his repeated attempts to enlist and decides he is the perfect specimen for a top-secret program that would create an army of super soldiers with great speed, enhanced strength and healing abilities. After bulking up, he becomes a symbol – literally – as Captain America, a costumed hero meant to beef up morale and sell War Bonds.

But that’s not enough, and Rogers eventually ends up leading a mission to rescue POWs and his best friend Bucky (Shaw). That’s what’s so refreshing about this film: for once, the story of a big-budget comic book opus is dictated solely by the central character and not by the need to have an action scene every few moments. It’s not a perfect film, but it does go to some surprising places because of this organic flow.

That means the finale isn’t as world-threatening or explosive as it would otherwise be, and the emotional catharsis is downbeat. These choices strengthen the movie. Jones, typically, steals all his scenes as a gruff arm colonel; Atwell is fetching as a tough officer Peggy Carter who emerges as a potential love interest.

But it all comes down to Evans, who has been smarmy and slick in previous roles. He not only pulls off the square-jawed hero bit, but do so with a degree of awkwardness about his new physique and abilities that never quite diminishes. Captain America is also another chapter in the interlocking saga of movies leading up to the all-star superhero epic The Avengers (2012).

Hence, we get to spend some more quality time with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and learn more about the Cosmic Cube introduced in Thor (2012). It’s nice to get to know a young Howard Stark (Cooper), the crazy inventor that would bequeath his weapons-building empire to smart-alec son Tony (aka Iron Man).

In 1991, Johnston directed The Rocketeer, a similarly-retro adventure about a hero who wears a rocket-enabled backpack. That would-be franchise-starter flopped, but devoted fans have debated the sequel potentials ever since. It’s not hard to imagine, after seeing this film. (Paramount)
(Paramount)

— DENNIS WILLIS

Author: Dennis Willis

Dennis Willis is an award-winning producer, TV host, producer, director, editor (he preferred Avid until a torrid affair with Adobe Premiere, and the rest is history), author and film critic (print and radio). Dennis produced and hosted the TV programs Reel Life, FilmTrip, Soundwaves (1983-2008) and produces the annual Soundwaves Xmas program. He is currently the film critic on KGO Radio in San Francisco, and a member of both the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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