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Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

| July 25, 2011 | 0 Comments

Finally, finally, at long last, after a summer of watered-down, middling, cookie-cutter superhero movies, we have finally arrived at a good one. After Thor thunked, Green Lantern fizzled, and X-Men proved that it wasn’t first class, it is refreshing to have arrived late in the summer with a superhero movie with some meat on it. Captain America is weighty, fun, original and doesn’t drown itself in special effects and noise.

Directed with care by Joe Johnston, Captain America: The First Avenger is more than just a series of overproduced special effects. Here is a movie that actually cares to build an origin story that we haven’t seen a dozen times. That story, in a wonderful script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is simple but not simple-minded. Taking place in the 1940s, it begins with a scrawy, 98-pound weakling named Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), who tries and fails five times to enlist in the army. He wants to help with the American war effort to get himself some respect and to beat up on some Nazis. Currently, he is invisible to women, but all-too visible to local bullies. Trying to enlist, his long list of health issues get him a rank of 4F.

Told by military brass to simply give up, Steve is spotted by the brassbound Colonel Philips (Tommy Lee Jones) and a German-Jewish scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, in a very nice performance) who induct Rogers into a military experiment designed to create a new Super Soldier. Scrawy Steve is strapped into an impressive looking sarcophagus and, after a lot of lights and impressive sounds, emerges from the pod, a buffer, taller Steve complete with impressive pecs and six-pack abs. He is told that his cells have been recalibrated to regenerate themselves. British officer Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell) sees Rogers’ new physique and has few complaints

Steve’s first assignment is not exactly a heroic one. He goes on tour as “Captain America”, dressed in a silly red, white and blue suit in order to sell war bonds. This endears him to the 12 year-olds back home but makes him a laughing stock to the troops in the field. No one, however, is laughing when Steve goes rogue on a one-man misson behind enemy lines to rescue his brother from a Nazi prison and comes back with 40 MIA soldiers.

I have only scratched the surface of this story. What I’ve decribed and what comes of this story has so much more weight and so much more meat than most films of this calibur. This is a really first-rate origin story and the movie doesn’t let us down. Nor does it let us down in the villian department. Captain America’s adversary is a doozy, a meglomaniacal Nazi commandant named Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) who wants to rise up and overpower Hitler with a private army of his own. He looks normal, but later reveals that his true face is a bright red skull, the result of a failed experiment to gain the same powers that Steve has. Schmidt is a major threat because he has his hands on a weapon that can turn a target to vapor in an instant, and intends to use it on various cities throughout the United States.

What sets Captain America: The First Avenger, apart from it’s contemporaries is the way in which it is told. It has a rich, beautiful sepiatone texture that evokes the 1940s without wringing out a lot of cliches. It has a flare for the period without making fun of it and it has characters who use their heads and not the standard boilerplate action movie requirements. The special effects here are not the star of the show. They are impressive but not overpowering. Most astonishing is the way in which special effects are used to make actor Chris Evans, a foot shorter and at least 60 pounds skinnier. I found myself trying to find flaws in those special effects but I gave up because it seems so seamless. Also impressive is The Red Skull, a nasty looking creature with no nose but a beautful row of pearly white teeth. The face doesn’t feel like a special effect or a mask, it feels organic and that makes it all the more unsettling.

Steve, both scrawny and buff, is a very smart, intuitive lad, not simply a gee-golly kid. He has his reasons for wanting to fight the Nazis and he is willing to prove his bravery and courage despite his limitations. Chris Evans’ performance is kind of a revelation here. I’ve seen him previously in films like The Fantastic Four and The Losers as the cocky, smirking ladies man, but here he pulls back on that persona, playing a character who is determined to do the right thing but not always sure of himself.

The whole cast is wonderful. The script allows each character to have their moment and not just spout of a lot of background requirement dialogue. Tommy Lee Jones gives the same kind of “what the hell” gruffness that he brings to all his performances. Haley Atwell is wonderful as Peggy Carter, a British officer who provides a sweet romance with Steve that blossoms into something really substancial. Dominic Cooper gives a good performance as industrialist Howard Stark, a Howard Hughes-type who, if he’s lucky, may father a son one day. Even Toby Jones (who was wonderful playing Truman Capote several years ago) exudes a kind of wicked nebbishness as Schmidt faithful right-hand man. All those elements make Captain America: The First Avenger into something better than the average. The film is something original and different. It has a story worth telling, with characters that we care about.

If I must point out one weakness in the film, it comes from the opening scene that shows the present day discovery of a downed airplane with Captain America’s familiar shield inside. I understand why the scene was necessary but, for me, it gives away the ending. We know that our hero must be around in the present day in order to be part of next summer’s Avengers movie, but I thought this misstep marred the suspense of the third act.

Still, I have little else to complain about. Here is an enjoyable summer entertainment that, for once, didn’t insult my intelligence. I see more bad superhero movies then good ones and that’s why this one is a breath of fresh air. Is it perfect? No. It is a good movie? Yes. It doesn’t quite sit on the same shelf as The Dark Knight or Watchmen or Iron Man, but I would rather see more movies like this then something tired and dull like Green Lantern.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.