Captain America: The First Avenger (Review)

Joe Johnston returns to his Rocketeer roots for Captain America, delivering a fist-pumping action picture that fires on all cylinders.

The final piece of Marvel’s massive marketing campaign for the 2012 film The Avengers has arrived.  Following The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger lays the final groundwork leading up to next summer when the characters team up.  There have been some vauge and some not-so-vague lines drawn between the different Marvel films that are a part of the Avengers lineage, and as the ties become clearer, the sense that this is all part of a larger universe materializes in grand fashion.  Captain America feels like the most stand-alone film, save for the prologue and epilogue.  Appropriately, it serves as the bookend to this series of films leading up the The Avengers (and even sports a flashy-looking Avengers trailer after the credits).  Even as its own film, it’s a complete and total blast.

Captain America: The First Avenger opens with a scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) trying and failing, once again, to join the army.  Due to his tiny frame and long list of medical problems including asthma, Steve cannot join.  His sense of patriotism is unmatched, however: Steve is so devoted to his country his will apply any place he can.  His determination pays off, when an German scientist, Abraham Erskine, (Stanley Tucci) overhears Steve’s attempt to join yet again at a carnival, and enlists him.  What Steve does not realize is that he has just been shortlisted for Erskine’s Super Soldier program, the brainchild of Erskine and Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Tony Stark’s father.  Steve is chosen because, as Erskine tells him, he might not be a great soldier, but he is a good man.  Through the guidance of Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Steve, now known as Captain America, trains to face off against the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) and his Hydra regime before their mystical superweapons destroy the world.

Captain America marks another superhero film in which character development is actually a focus.  Great care is taken to give these characters heart and soul, and when the action slows down to establish more plot or further develop the characters, it never feels like the movie is being inconvenienced or like the filmmakers are trying to get the scene over with.  As a result, the relationships between these characters, particularly between Peggy and Steve, feel robust and genuine. In fact, Evans and Atwell have such good chemistry onscreen, it’s extremely easy to buy into their onscreen flirting and cautious romance.  It rarely feels forced or cheesy; they’re a couple that is engaging to watch interact with each other.  The supporting cast is equally excellent, with the delighfully wry Tommy Lee Jones throwing gruff zingers in every direction, and Toby Jones (as a reluctant Hydra scientist) and Stanley Tucci reliably giving it their all without coming across as cheesy.  Hugo Weaving is a man that oozes menace in everything he does; his face and line delivery simply screams “villain”, and his turn as the Red Skull is pitch-perfect.  It’s a little disappointing he doesn’t get more time in the film.

For all of the quality acting and meticulous characterization, there is still plenty of rah-rah action in Captain America that hits real hard and looks and feels great.  Even here, it feels like a comic book: bad guys getting hit by the Cap don’t just fall, they go flying.  Explosions are absurdly huge without being silly, and the ways in which characters are dispatched are endlessly inventive.  Thankfully, the action is shot in such a way that the camera is barely shaky at all; too many movies insist in getting extremely close to the characters and shaking to the point where the action is incomprehensible.  Here, the camera steps back a bit and stays focused.  It’s usually pretty easy to tell what is going on and the result is noticeably better fisticuffs.

The film boasts a distinct and exciting style, one that just feels retro.  The cinematography recalls that of old-school spy action movies, and the overall aesthetic, the WWII-era environment filled with futuristic imagery, just feels right. Joe Johnston, who directed the criminally underrated cult classic The Rocketeer back in the early 90s, shows that he was the unquestionably perfect choice for this film.  Johnston returns to what made The Rocketeer work so well, that is to say, legions of faceless bad guys getting their asses handed to them, massive action setpieces, a ridiculously evil villain, and an overall sense of relatively innocent fun.

That said, that particular style is not for everyone.  It’s distinctly 90s, in that sort of silly, schlocky way that is a delight for some (such as myself) and a complete turnoff for others.   The film’s logic doesn’t always hold up under close scrutiny: Hitler and the Nazis, while mentioned a few times, are nowhere to be found except for in one brief scene, and Red Skull’s scheming against them is a little ridiculous considering his mystical artifacts and ridiculous superweapons that can disintegrate a human body in seconds go almost completely unnoticed by the Nazis.  Early on in the movie, Red Skull proclaims that he plans to overthrow Hitler and take over the world.  It’s all very comic-booky, and the vibe works for the most part, but the balancing act between American propaganda, the solemnity of the times,  and comic book silliness isn’t perfect.

Captain America: The First Avenger is solidly entertaining, very exciting, and just a lot of fun to watch.  Unlike the disappointing Green Lantern, it completely delivers on what its trailer promises: a solid action-adventure.  The film’s look and feel is a complete delight, and it’s clear that Joe Johnston is having a blast returning to what he does best.  That sense of fun, again, carries over into the entertainment value of the film. It’s almost two hours of legions of anti-American soldiers getting destroyed by a man practically wearing the American flag.  It’s uplifting, thrilling, and completely entertaining.  Bring on The Avengers.

Score: **** 1/2 (out of 5)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action

 

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Posted on July 24, 2011, in Reviews. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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