Of all the Marvel superhero movies released thus far, none had me as eager to see it as Captain America: The First Avenger. Cap is one of my all-time favorite superheroes, and his Marvel film debut was the last necessary cog to put in place before next year’s Avengers film. Was Marvel truly saving the best for last? Partially. Captain America: The First Avenger is a fairly formulaic film, but it manages to entertain and hit all the right notes.
When we first meet Steve Rogers, he’s a scrawny, sickly kid from Brooklyn trying his hardest to enlist. He’s been denied several times on account of his health, and feels helpless and ashamed that he can’t do more. That is until he’s given the opportunity of a lifetime when Dr. Erskine recruits him for a special and secret operation that will turn him into a super soldier. Steve isn’t the first man to receive the treatment though. Before defecting to America, Dr. Erskine was forced by Nazi science officer Johann Schmidt to inject him with the secret serum. It wasn’t ready quite yet, and had some tremendously hazardous side effects. There are two super soldiers in the world, and they have diametrically opposed views on what to do with their power. That’s the one key theme in Captain America; it’s not what power does to a man, it’s what a man does with his power.
Chris Evans plays Steve Rogers with just the right amount of “aw shucks” and heart, and you actually do feel for this skinny little kid. The CG to de-bulkify Evans massive physique does look much better in the movie that it did in the trailers, though I still found it to be a little odd. Evans’ portrayal of Steve post-operation is right on the money as well, and you can really tell just how disappointed he is that his abilities are being so underutilized when travelling with the USO to promote war bonds. Captain America is a hero to 12 year-olds, but to the men fighting overseas, he’s a joke. It isn’t until he proves himself by going on a rescue mission that he earns any respect from the real soldiers, and it’s then that Steve’s confidence grows, allowing him to become Captain America on the frontlines instead of the homefront.
During the rescue mission, Rogers comes face to face with Schmidt for the first time, and gets a glimpse at what he’s really up against. Revealing himself as the Red Skull for the first time, we get to see that the German version also has a dual identity. Just as Captain America is really who Steve Rogers is, the Red Skull is the true persona of Johann Schmidt. Hugo Weaving plays him with just the right amount of genius and madness, though I didn’t find him to be all that menacing. Sure he was evil, and wanted to destroy everything and everyone that stood in his path, but I didn’t find his portrayal to be half as frightening as his personage. Thankfully, the effects team decided to go with physical make-up for the Red Skull rather than a CG face. Though there were a few shots where it looked a bit too fake, the way it formed to Weaving’s face made it that much more horrifying. I wish he had gotten more screentime to play against Evans other than when they were fighting, but the movie isn’t called Red Skull: The First Avenger Villain.
The rest of the cast is perfectly adequate, if unmemorable. Peggy Carter, played by Hayley Atwell, is the comic book definition of a strong woman. Other than the fact that she punches men, I’d be hard-pressed to explain what traits made her such a strong female character though. Dominic Cooper’s Howard Stark is actually the complete antithesis of what Howard Stark is portrayed as in previous Marvel movies, and comes off feeling a bit Tony Stark/Robert Downey-light. The Howling Commandos merely exist in this film, and provide no real substance. Stanley Tucci’s turn as Dr. Erskine is good, but it’s not really a meaty part of the film, so you only get but a glimpse of his acting chops. The real star of the supporting cast is without a doubt Tommy Lee Jones. His Colonel Chester Phillips is cantankerous and wise-cracking, and Jones seems perfectly content in not taking everything so seriously. That’s not a bad thing. He doesn’t ham it up like many actors are prone to doing when cast in a comic book movie, but his light-hearted approach is welcome.
Unfortunately, Bucky doesn’t get a whole lot of time to shine. In fact Bucky is probably the one thing from the movie that could have been cut. That’s not a condemnation of Sebastian Stan’s performance. He does well with what he’s given. It’s just other than providing the reason Steve Rogers needs to infiltrate a Hyrda base for a rescue mission, there’s no reason for him to be a character in this film. He’s merely a plot device, and after having so many brilliant Bucky Barnes stories told over the last few years in the comics, it’s a shame to see the character relegated to such an insignificant role. Speaking of the rescue mission, while nearly every other action sequence in this movie is decent, watching Steve Rogers sneak around a heavily fortified Hydra base dressed as Captain America was really awkward. It was shot and paced like a Laurel and Hardy movie, and you didn’t for one second belive that this absurdity would have worked.
For the most part, all of the effects work is pretty strong. There’s a heavy reliance on CG streets and skylines, but if you don’t look too closely it shouldn’t be an issue. While there was indeed a score for the movie, I couldn’t hum you a single bar. The soundtrack was so cliché and unmemorable that every time I try to recall it, all I do is start whistling the theme from Stripes. Sadly though, the same can be said of Thor and Green Lantern, so it appears that we may have entered an era of bland hero themes. It’s not surprising that it’s harder for a score to stand out, given that there are so many more superhero movies out now. It also drove me absolutely crazy that all the instruments and planes on the Red Skull’s super-bomber had English words instead of German ones. Minor gripe, I know, but annoying nonetheless.
It should also be noted that while the movie is called Captain America: The First Avenger, and does take place during World War II, there’s a surprising lack of “America! Yeah!” sentimentality. We’re rooting for Cap to succeed because we like him as a man, and not because he’s the super American here to save the day. The movie makes it a point to have the film be less about stopping Nazis to save America, and more about Cap’s growth from a meager man into a hero. I know there were a lot of people worried about the success of the film overseas because of the subject matter, but I think everyone involved did a great job in making this movie accessible to everyone without homogenizing the character too much.
Captain America: The First Avenger succeeds in bringing the character into the Marvel movie universe, and though the movie doesn’t quite reach the high bar set by Iron Man, it’s still incredibly enjoyable. As the final Marvel solo superhero movie being released this year, it was important for Cap to keep the momentum rolling. Fortunately for all of us, it does. Next year there are going to be some spectacularly huge superhero movies coming out, but none has my attention more than The Avengers. And it’s all thanks to Captain America.
78/100 – Above Average