While it doesn’t quite reach the highwater mark set by 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel’s latest cinematic offering, Captain America: The First Avenger, has just the right amount of action, characterization, romance, and top-notch special effects to ensure two full hours of solid and satisfying entertainment.
Based on the classic comic-book character created by writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby during the early days of World War II, Captain America: The First Avenger tells the story of Steve Rogers, a kind, decent, good-hearted young man who just wants to serve his country and do whatever he can to help stop the Axis threat. But cursed with a weak, frail, scrawny body, he’s rejected by the military repeatedly… until he’s given the chance to take part in a special top-secret experimental procedure designed to turn him into America’s first super soldier.
For the most part, the film sticks closely to the comic-book lore. And despite having to cover Cap’s origin, his emergence as an important military figure during World War II at home and abroad, his missions with the small band of soldiers known as The Howling Commandos (never referred to as such in the film, but that’s who they are), his burgeoning relationship with a beautiful female British military agent, and his earliest encounters with the Red Skull, the power-hungry Nazi madman who will become his number-one arch-foe, the film never really drags or feels bogged down. The storytelling is straightforward and well paced.
Doing a comic-book-based film set in this time period is nothing new for director Joe Johnston, as he also directed 1991’s The Rocketeer. While not a major hit, The Rocketeer was a lot of fun, thoroughly enjoyable, and I consider it criminally underrated. With Captain America: The First Avenger, Johnston once again shows his fine eye for period detail, transporting his audience to the past and making it look and feel authentic. He directs with flair, never getting too melodramatic or too jokey. Johnston resists poking fun at or demeaning Cap’s image as a square-jawed, purely good, totally moral, even slightly naïve super hero. The easiest, most natural thing in the world, especially during this particularly cynical age we live in, would be to go the campy route, to portray Cap as corny and silly and to treat him with condescension or barely concealed contempt (a la the Adam West Batman TV series). But that’s not the case here. Cap is never shown as anything but brave (even before he gets his super-strength), heroic, and completely likable. He’s treated with the utmost respect and is hands-down the coolest character in the film, as well he should be.
Chris Evans, who as Johnny Storm/the Human Torch was the best thing about the two Fantastic Four movies from several years ago (both of which sucked big time), does a masterful job bringing Steve Rogers to life. He gets considerable help in the first half of the film from some amazing and thoroughly convincing CGI artistry, which is used to make him the short, scrawny, 90-pound weakling version of the character. But the decency, the earnestness, and the determination with which Evans imbues “puny Steve” carries over even after the character is “super-soldierized” and Evans gets to show off his impressive physique. You’re rooting for him right from the start, and when he’s finally fully embraced by the U.S. Army soldiers with whom he’s serving, and who initially regard him with skepticism and even scorn, you can’t help but smile. And I dare anyone to not get just the slightest bit choked up during the film’s dramatic climax.
The rest of the cast is equally good. Hayley Atwell brings a combination of beauty, brains, and (ahem) balls to the role of British agent Peggy Carter, who is definitely no damsel in distress. This lady can take care of herself, and isn’t intimidated by anyone. Atwell has great chemistry with Evans.
Tommy Lee Jones brings plenty of authority and strength to the role of U.S. Army Colonel Chester Phillips—and has some of the best, funniest lines. Dominic Cooper portrays Howard Stark, father of Tony (who’s played, of course, by Robert Downey Jr. in the Iron Man films), and you can definitely see an effort to both connect and contrast the two characters in terms of looks, attitude, and behavior. As a matter of fact, Cooper shows that he could play Tony Stark quite effectively. Sebastian Stan plays Steve Rogers’s best friend, James “Bucky” Buchanan, who emerges as one of the most likable characters in the film.
Speaking of Bucky, some of the biggest deviations from the comic-book lore involve him—specifically, his backstory and the details of his relationship with Cap. Purists may balk at the changes—they didn’t really bother me.
Toby Jones, perhaps best known for his spot-on portrayal of Truman Capote in 2006’s Infamous, is very effective in the role of Dr. Arnim Zola, a Nazi scientist aiding the Red Skull. (There’s a great visual in-joke involving Zola when he first appears that sharp-eyed comic-book fans should get a real kick out of.) As Dr. Abraham Erskine, the genius scientist who comes up with the super-soldier serum, Stanley Tucci displays gentle wisdom, humor, and warmth. And while Neal McDonough doesn’t have a lot of screen time as “Dum Dum” Dugan of the Howling Commandos (an important character in the Marvel Comics canon and a longtime Captain America ally), he looks like he’s having a great time and totally nails the part—bowler hat and all.
As for Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull… well, the performance is great. Very energetic, very committed, very entertaining. But there was something missing. In fact, for me, the Skull is probably the most disappointing element of the film, and the problem is in the writing. The character is just not developed enough, in my opinion. He’s a bit too one-dimensional—there’s not much depth to him, and therefore, he’s not quite as interesting as he should be. Don’t get me wrong, he’s an okay villain, and I’d certainly like to see him again, but he’s not nearly as complex as, say, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in the recent Marvel film Thor. I will say that the CGI artists did a great job depicting the Skull’s “true” appearance, which wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if it was Weaving simply wearing a red rubber skull mask. And I thought it was interesting that the filmmakers portrayed the Red Skull as not totally loyal to Hitler, as he was in the comics. Instead, the Skull is established as having his own little fiefdom within the Nazi regime, an organization called HYDRA, through which he secretly intends to expand his power, supplant the Fuehrer, and conquer the world for himself.
There are lots of subtle—and some not-so-subtle—references and allusions to all of the other Marvel-produced films. Within Captain America: The First Avenger, you’ll see direct links to Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor. In fact, if you’ve seen Thor—and you stayed to watch that movie’s somewhat ambiguous post-end-credits scene—you’ll see the payoff for it in a big way here. And the end of Captain America serves as a direct lead-in to next year’s The Avengers, in which Evans will return as Cap.
I saw Captain America: The First Avenger in 3D, and I’m afraid I’m going to have to repeat the same thing I wrote in my reviews of Thor and Green Lantern: I found it totally unnecessary. It doesn’t enhance the viewing experience one iota. Once again, I advise you to save yourself a few bucks and see the standard version, if that’s an option. You won’t be missing anything if you see it without the 3D.
The one thing I definitely was missing during the screening I attended was air conditioning. On an evening when it was 92 degrees outside. So shame on the Regal E-Walk, on 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenue in New York City, for making the audience watch the movie in a theater that felt increasingly like a frigging sweat lodge. Fortunately, the movie was enjoyable enough to just about make up for it. But I’d hesitate to see another film there during the summer. New Yorkers, you have been warned!