CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER – review

Published July 25, 2011

As far as summertime movie entertainment is concerned, 2011 is turning out to be MARVELous.  (As opposed to DClicious – Green Lantern is apparently a stinker, though I have not seen it.)  X-Men: First Class was far better than it had any right to be; THOR accomplished two things: setting up next year’s Avengers movie and turning Chris Hemsworth into a star; and the latest entry, Captain America, is a rousing return to the type of Hollywood movies that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore, and hasn’t for decades.

While this origin story could have been a by-the-numbers cheese-fest, Marvel Studios wisely chose its director with the same care they took in choosing Kenneth Branaugh to helm THOR, thereby giving that film an appropriate Shakespearean grandeur.  Joe Johnston (who won an Academy Award for his special effects work on Raiders of the Lost Ark, and who would go on to direct such effects-laden films as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer, Jumanji, and Jurassic Park III), is the PERFECT person to bring the story of sickly Steve Rogers and his transformation into Captain America to the Big Screen.  Why?  His association with two of those aforementioned titles, Raiders and The Rocketeer (both of which I will make comparisons to throughout this review) makes him indeed the only person who could have pulled off what this film achieves.  Namely, an understanding of what makes an adventure set in the 1930s or 40s WORK.

While Captain America could have been (and by all rights should have been) a corny, embarrassing, CGI-heavy yawn-fest, Johnston does the unexpected, he EMBRACES those cornpone ideas and runs with them.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For those that don’t know the story (and I will try to be as spoiler-free here as possible), Captain America starts out as a 98-pound weakling named Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), who, while having the physique of a kitten, has the heart of a tiger.  That physique, as you have probably seen in the trailers, is something worth mentioning.  I’m not sure what kind of digital trickery enables the filmmakers to make Evans so short and skinny (reports say it is NOT Benjamin-Button-like head replacement), but the effect is seamless … save for one thing: Evans VOICE is still that of a hearty man.  They should upped the tone of it a bit, or shaved some pounds off his larynx while they were at it.  Other than that, the effect is astonishing, and Evans spend a good portion of the film looking this way.

Rogers wants nothing more than to join the Army and defend his country against the Nazis.  (Is there a more perfect brand of villain for this type of story?  Indiana Jones is not the only person who “hates these guys.”)  Unfortunately, his size makes him unfit for service.  At least to everyone except Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci in a touching performance), who is developing a Super Soldier serum, and who is looking for an ideal candidate upon which to test his concoction.  Said perfect candidate is someone who truly appreciates power and strength, and who considers compassion and kindness the greatest of virtues.  This movie does indeed champion the little guy.

After Rogers is selected for these experiments, and becomes the tall, buff, super-powered, titular character, the Army decides that he is still better suited to work as an enlistment figure than to work on the battlefield.  And it is in THIS section of the film that the unexpected takes over.  Adorned in an early (read corny and cheap) red, white, and blue costume, Rogers struts across USO stages replete with dancing girls to the strains of an Alan Menken-penned tune entitled Star Spangled Man.  Nobody BUT director Johnston would have dared to stage these sequences with such corny aplomb, but that is precisely what makes them work.  The corniness is not only acknowledged, but embraced.  It works brilliantly in not only setting the tone of this film, but in setting it apart from other comic book movies.  Only the director of 1991’s similarly-set The Rocketeer could make this work so well.

It is said that heroes are only as good as their villains, and this film boasts a good one.  (Or should I say a BAD one?)  Hugo Weaving is Johann Schmidt, the soldier in charge of Hitler’s weapons division, who had much earlier also been subject to the same Super Soldier serum as Rogers.  The serum had not yet been perfected when he used it on himself, and thus turned him into Captain America’s nemesis, Red Skull.  Weaving chews the scenery with the best of them, and his crimson-headed make-up is remarkable.

Offering fine support here is Tommy Lee Jones as Col. Chester Phillips, who is understandably suspicious of Rogers, but eventually won over by the young man’s courage.  The grenade scene changes everything.  Jones can do this kind of role in his sleep, though he is quite awake here, and the character does bring to mind his Oscar-winning role from The Fugitive.

English actress Hayley Atwell plays US Officer Peggy Carter, the woman who wins Rogers heart.  Carter is much more than just a bimbo who needs rescuing, and the fact that she is British is just one more unexpected plot point in a story filled with them.

Dominick Cooper plays Howard Stark (Tony’s father), an engineer and inventor, who, like Howard Hughes, is all about flying machines and the ladies.  (Howard Hughes was also a featured character in The Rocketeer.)

But this is Chris Evans’ show, and while some may have been concerned that the actor was too much of a wisecracking hipster to play a nerdy-but-sincere soldier who is more of a cornfed boy scout than Clark Kent (see, or DON’T see, his performance as Johnny Storm in The Fantastic Four), Evans SELLS this story with sincerity and aw shucks charm.

The production design is beautiful, and the costumes, especially Captain America’s red, white, and blue duds, look fantastic.  That latter could have been a disaster, but the suit looks great (the grayish dusting helps a lot), and Evans looks great in it.

It is also worth mentioning that the score by Alan Silvestri (who has done the music for all of Robert Zemekis’ films, including the Back to the Future series) is a rousing, patriotic, fist pumping, boot stomping success – John Philip Sousa on steroids.

We have seen so many comic book origin stories over the last few years, that most have a caul of been-there, done-that hung over them.  Director Johnston is quite aware of this, and tries to change things up at every opportunity.  He mostly succeeds in this.  Mostly.  Oddly enough, frequent-but-subtle nods to the film’s nostalgic forbearers (The Rocketeer and the Indy films, especially Raiders and The Last Crusade) help greatly with this problem.  Go figure.

The film ends in a manner that sets up the final domino for next summer’s The Avengers, which, according to the teaser trailer for it that appears after this film’s credits, looks terrific.  I am only disappointed that Captain America’s further exploits will not take place during World War II, but here in our present.  (I would explain, but I promised no spoilers.)  If Marvel Studios can truly pull off teaming up Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and The Hulk for The Avengers (loved the tagline during the teaser trailer: Some Assembly Required), then we are all in for a supersized treat next year.

Captain America could SO have been bad, but in embracing the corniness of the story, the cliffhanger thrills of the 1930s, and the big band music of the 1940s, director Johnston gives us one of the most enjoyable films of the summer.

GRADE: B+