Well, they actually pulled it off. Despite any and all odds, Marvel found the right set of directors, (Letterier, Favreau, Branagh, and Johnston) to bring their biggest heroes (Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, respectively) to the big screen. Iron Man and Hulk were simple enough, and with the respectively challenging Thor and Cap pulled off remarkably well, the stage is set for next year’s “The Avengers”, the biggest film in Marvel’s history with 5 films, billions of dollars, and millions of fanboys’ expectations all riding on the line. It would have been disastrous if Captain America hadn’t turned out as well as it did under Joe Johnston’s care, but fortunately through a slew of strong performances and a focus on the campy, nostalgic fun Captain America represents, all delivered in a nostalgic manner that serves Captain America in a beautiful way. It’s not Marvel’s best pre-Avengers effort, but a strong-headed cast and director to keep fans like me happy carry it well enough. The film whisks us back to 1942, where young, scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is turned down from joining the army for the umpteenth time. However because he has a great heart, he’s selected to be a part of a new program to breed an entire army of super soldiers. But because of some unforeseen Nazi-related interference, the program is halted and Steve’s going to be all they get for the time being. Pretty soon our hero Captain America fully takes shape, and is off to face off against Hitler’s worst nightmare, Johann Schmidt, a patient to a program similar to Super Soldier that morphed him into the Red Skull. Basically all you really should know is Schmidt wants to destroy the world (it was original for the 40s, back off) and Rogers is just a naturally awesome guy, he doesn’t really need a character arc or a lesson to be learned like Thor or Tony Stark. It’s actually really refreshing to see a hero who’s not tormented by fear and childhood anguish like Batman or battling how much he hates his powers like Bruce Banner, Steve’s just a guy who loves his country and is more than happy to take on the Captain America persona to help win the war. The movie actually got its subtitle “The First Avenger” to help market it overseas so it felt more like a superhero flick and less like an infomercial for America’s military and how awesome our country is. I can’t say how happy I am that Captain America: The First Avenger never crosses the line as “arrogant”. The film straddles a fine line between telling a distinct story about the character that is Steve Rogers and making the film about what his superheroic tendencies that just so happen to involve the U.S. military, and even the patriotic stuff is very subtle. The movie’s proud to be American, but it shows that love for America in a respectful way for both other countries and us as an audience. It would have been a perfect 4th of July release had it not been for Transformers 3 hogging the spot. Director Johnston also clearly has a clear eye for how a film set in World War II should look and feel. The costumes and uniforms of Peggy, Steve, and the countless other soldiers are as authentic as it gets, and the sets themselves achieve a great balance between nostalgic and gorgeous. Throughout the whole movie I kept thinking that the film reminded me a lot of Spielberg’s classic “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, and that’s by far one of the best compliments you can give to a movie both thematically and aesthetically. The way characters behave and interact with each other, the overall “bigger picture” of the film’s theme and the way scenes are just set up and executed is classic cinema. It’s also worth noting that Captain America probably has the most costume changes in a single film. There’s a solid 15 minute stretch of the film where Steve works as an actor playing “Captain America” in shows to help sell bonds for the war, and while it’s obviously his cheesiest costume, it’s almost a self-referential wink to the character as we see “Captain America” become this huge figure in the public’s eye. We see him on posters like Uncle Sam, on newspapers, and even on comic books (get it?). Overall it’s just a brilliant idea by Johnston and the other writers, and helps realistically ground that character even more. Later on we get the more “improvised”, practical costume (my personal favorite) and then the final costume we see in all of the trailers, which still manages to keep a sensible yet faithful aesthetic. But it’s not enough just for a hero to look good, but much like Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Erskine would say; it’s the man behind the mask, in this case being Chris Evans. I wasn’t a huge fan of Evans being cast as Rogers back in 2009 when filming started, but I’m pleasantly surprised with his representation of Rogers. For a character as “simple” as Steve Rogers, Evans brings a level-headed, pure and clean portrayal to the part. Hugo Weaving does a nice job as Red Skull, although it’s not particularly good enough to make him memorable or formidable enough to stand in the long list of fantastic Marvel villain performances, especially in this summer (mostly) filled with awesome villain performances. Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter fits her part well enough, and even Tommy Lee Jones brings a few laughs to what could have been a flat stereotype. It’s Stanley Tucci though as Dr. Erskine (Steve’s mentor of sorts) that brings the film’s best performance, although I expected no less from the marvelous Tucci.
Although Johnston’s had a thing in the past for coordinating solid action and as I said it carries a vibe of one of the best and most iconic action films of all time, I had just a small problem with Captain America’s action in the film. Let me get this out of the way, I think there are some incredible action sequences in Captain America. They utilize a lot of different locations to keep it fresh (one sequence in the snow-capped mountains and another on the streets of Brooklyn are particularly fantastic), and even the more standard, otherwise-boring set-pieces just between Cap and the Hydra soldiers are a blast thanks to some great shield-play, plenty of flashy explosions, and Johnston’s keen eye for great action staging. It was a great idea to incorporate Captain America, a hero that essentially just uses a gun and a boomerang-shield, into a war setting like WW2, mainly b/c he’s essentially just a buffed-up soldier and a regular guy. I found myself enjoying the bits with the Howling Commandos by far the most, giving the film an old-school “Dirty Dozen” type vibe. In case you’re not familiar, the Howling Commandos were the “best of the best” of the Captain’s military squad, the toughest, gruffest, manliest men they could find. There’s a really cool, fun sequence in the film that introduces the characters and every following scene afterward just seemed to have more and more fun with that crew. However, it’s around that aspect of the film that I also have my biggest problem with Johnston’s superhero epic. While the first act that’s mainly pre-buff Steve Rogers and him approaching the idea of becoming Captain America and the second act is really Steve coming to grips with becoming this hero and finding his place in the military along with discovering the Howling Commandos, the third act is really where I felt Captain America: The First Avenger had trouble finding its place. Being as the first and second acts are largely exposition with a few great action scenes thrown in, I got the feeling there was a little bit of pressure to make the final 40 minutes crammed with action. Not that I didn’t enjoy any of those moments, it’s just there’s a good bit of building up of this huge threat known as Hydra and Red Skull in the first two acts and when they finally take it on in the end, it seems a little too easy. Once we were finished with our final battle between Captain America and Red Skull (which is quite frankly a little underwhelming), I couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t going to be an actual, far bigger battle to follow. I can understand the reasoning behind not wanting to make the film too long (it stands at a comfortable 2 hours 5 min), but I felt like some approach of trimming off some of the exposition at the front of the film, spending more time with the Howling Commandos in the middle, or padding on an extra 20 minutes of “now we’re accomplishing this goal” exposition at the end, it would have been a considerably stronger movie. There’s a huge montage during the middle of the film of the Captain and the Howling Commandos kicking all sorts of butt across Europe in a huge variety of locales, and while that does give us a great sense of elapsed time and progress and it’s more than likely a result of a smaller budget, that sequence could have been easily replaced with 2 or 3 big action setpieces towards the end with equally great effect. Also, as it’s revealed in the opening of the film, the way they handle Captain America having to be frozen at the end of the film in order to be able to fight with the Avengers was far different than what I was expecting. So it came as a bit of a surprise to me that the film ended the way that it did. It connects fairly well, but it still comes off a little emotionally distant in how it discards a few storylines in a cold way. As I said, an extra 30 minutes of padding would have done the film wonders. Also, much like this year’s earlier Marvel film Thor and much unlike last year’s Marvel film Iron Man 2, Captain America: The First Avenger works incredibly well as a teaser/lead-in for next year’s mega-blockbuster The Avengers but more importantly as a stand-alone film. Whereas Iron Man 2’s mistake was shoe-horning in as much Avengers info as they could at the compromise of that script’s original message, Captain America: The First Avenger doesn’t even mention the Avengers until the last 5 minutes. Plus, just as it should be, there are plenty of winks and nods to the Avengers world including Howard Stark’s huge involvement in the film and as always a great Stan Lee cameo. There’s also a greet feeling that comes from addressing Captain America as the first Avenger. After seeing all these other heroes get their own films and get established, Captain America almost functions as a prequel being the last Marvel film before the big meet-up next May. There is no Nick Fury, there is no Black Widow, you’re seeing the birth of this amazing organization and super-heroic fighting team, and it gives some really cool perspective. Also, it’s worth mentioning that there is an Avengers trailer with tons of footage after the credits, and it’s almost a little unfair to have to judge Captain America without taking into account how amazing that trailer is along with how excited it makes me for that finished project. Sitting through Captain America there were several moments I wasn’t able to contain my excitement whether it was the trailer or just a little wink-wink-nudge-nudge action in the film. The last time I remember being so excited in a film was first hearing about the Avengers project from Nick Fury himself after Iron Man 1. Overall, Captain America: The First Avenger may not be the best of Marvel’s current slate, but it’s the most entertainingly authentic, if that makes any sense. Captain America: The First Avenger is going to be a ton of fun for kids and even for somewhat misguided history buffs, but despite some awkward pacing issues and some unimpressive performances, it’s a film I greatly enjoyed for a director’s great eye for style and action, not to mention seeing this expansive Marvel universe come to life.
4 out of 5