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Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)

Starring: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Dominic Cooper

Written By: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely Directed By: Joe Johnston

The Short Version

Captain America: The First Avenger contains one surprise after another.

This is a comic book movie that is also a great standalone adventure.

The cast is brilliant across the board.

This is one of the five best comic book hero movies ever, and one of Marvel’s top two.

Captain America: The First Avenger is a movie worth owning.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

WISCONSIN CHEDDAR.

Captain America deserves the good stuff, and one supposes that it had better actually be from America.


Pairs Well With...

SAM ADAMS BOSTON LAGER.

A decent American beer named for an American patriot.

“I'm going to need a rain check on that dance.”

“All right.  A week from next Saturday, at The Stork Club.”

“You've got it.”

“Eight o'clock on the dot.  Don't you dare be late.  Understood?”

“You know, I still don't know how to dance.”

“I'll show you how.  Just be there.”


I’ll admit that I was expecting very little from Captain America: The First Avenger when I stepped into the theatre on its opening day.  As far as comic book heroes go, Captain America was never one of my favorites, and I can generally do without “rah-rah” type movies, which this was inevitably going to be.  I’d almost considered skipping it altogether.

I’m very glad that I didn’t.  Everything that I had expected to go wrong went right instead, and when it was all over, I came away feeling I’d just watched one of the five best comic book movies I’d ever seen, and either Marvel’s best or second best.  Having just watched it again at home, I still think that.

First and foremost, Captain America: The First Avenger holds together as a standalone feature film.  Too often over the past decade, character adaptations have gone the route of putting together a light show and letting the audience fill in the plot holes (the Transformers franchise) or assuming that the audience knows the back stories involved and again letting them fill in the plot holes (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen).  While both strategies can indeed work, an adaptation that actually bothers to flesh itself out in the way that audiences would expect of any other type of film is incredibly refreshing.  Captain America: The First Avenger accomplishes this on two broad fronts.

First, it takes the time to fully flesh out all of the major components of its story: the setting, the characters, the plot.  The often-ignored home front of World War II America is beautifully realized, from the physical sets to the “buy bonds” musical numbers.  The battle front, while stylized, is also wonderfully rendered, with a wonderful in-between highlight being a London pub that’s been abandoned after being bombed out during the Blitz. 

Meanwhile, the audience gets a lot of time to meet and get to know the character of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, Fantastic Four) before he even starts to become Captain America, allowing for a much richer character to develop, which in turn makes the resulting hero into something beyond the shallow stereotype that he could have become (and which to the popular perception of many he was before this film).  Indeed, Rogers doesn’t just “suddenly” become Captain America: Superhero; rather, Captain America evolves in stages.  First he’s an unrepeatable experiment without a home, and then a half-willing war bond pitchman (in essence, the “rah rah” recruiting and patriotic sales/spin tool of certain popular perception).  It’s not until more than halfway through the film that Steve Rogers makes a personal choice that allows him to become something more than the tool of others and finally evolve into being Captain America: Superhero.  The neat trick pulled here is that he does it by becoming the ideal American soldier… in a completely non-obnoxious way that doesn’t feel like overt propaganda.  (Really, folks, this is an extremely difficult trick, especially in the 21st Century.)  How does he do it?  He does it by viewing his enemies not as sub-humans or demons or anything of the sort, but rather, as bullies.  They’re not bad because they’re born bad; they’re bad because they hurt people.  It’s a universally agreeable perspective that too many “good vs. evil” and “us vs. them” stories miss, and it helps raise Captain America: The First Avenger up to the next level; one which, frankly, I’d thought it incapable of attaining going in.

Of course, it’s that much easier to do when your villains are Nazis and associates of Nazis, because as has often been pointed out in critical circles, when it comes to choosing bad guys, you just can’t top Nazis as a selection.  (Though, interestingly enough, there is never an unobstructed view of a swastika in the film; the insignia of focus is that of the Hydra splinter organization.)  But the script does more than just rest on the Nazis as an archetype; instead, it fleshes out the character of the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, The Matrix), and makes him into his own force to be reckoned with.   It also makes sure that his evil plan makes sense, and even though having seen Thor and even Raiders of the Lost Ark beforehand will help, no prerequisites are actually necessary.  Incredibly, when all is said and done, the audience is treated to a comic book superhero script with fully realized characters and a plot with no holes in it.

It’s almost enough to make one faint.

Bolstering the characters and their story is a cast that’s truly wonderful across the board.  Steve Rogers goes beyond being a mere goody two shoes and crosses into the realm of being a goody shoe closet, but Chris Evans plays him in such a way that he’s never too saccharine or obnoxious.  Hugo Weaving could play an evil genius in his sleep, but here, the audience has the benefit of him being fully awake and playing the Red Skull for all he’s worth while managing to stop just short of becoming a ham sandwich.  Hayley Atwell (The Return of Captain Nemo) is transcendently marvelous as Peggy Carter, perfectly tuning the love interest piano wire while also making sure that Carter holds her own as an independent character.  And Tommy Lee Jones (Under Siege)… Let’s face it: no one but R. Lee Ermey can come even close to what he brings to the role of the gruff military man, and I like what Jones does better.

But returning to Agent Carter for a moment…

One thing I hate about most comic book movies since the late 1980s: the hero and the person the hero’s obviously in love with always get shoved apart, either by the villain’s weapon of choice or at the insistence of the hero because of some insane rationalization or other.  Just about everyone walking into Captain America: The First Avenger knew exactly how it had to end, including me, and so I waited for the inevitable moment of doom to see just how this script was going to annoy me on the score that so many of its predecessors had before it.

Again, Captain America: The First Avenger surprised me.  If it had to happen – which there’s no question it did in this story – then this is the way it should happen: a way that doesn’t feel like a cheat, and a way that feels true to the characters being established.  I still hate that it happens, but at least it’s not a cop out, and that’s something so rare and that’s such a sore point with me as both a critic and a fan that I just had to give credit for it.

And as for the second broad front mentioned up top…

It is a major trend – and a major failing – of many films that involve heavy use of special effects to let the special effects overshadow the characters and the story, if not for the entire movie (though that happens a lot), then at least for enormous chunks of time.  It doesn’t even need to be done on purpose to occur in fact; Ang Lee’s Hulk is a great example, wherein the Green Smurf, Piñata Dogs, and the Electric Atrocity trumped any type of dramatic story that Lee had been hoping to tell.  Captain America: The First Avenger is loaded with special effects, most of them CGI… and they’re often unnoticeable.  (Every time you see the 90 pound Steve Rogers, that’s a full body overlay CG effect.  Wow.  The real Chris Evans is the tall, bulked-up Captain America.)  I promise that you’ll think there are far fewer massive effects shots in this film than there really are.  Even when they are obvious, they never trump the story.  Veteran director Joe Johnston has refused to compromise, and the results speak for themselves.  He already knows that he’s got a great film on his hands if he can just make sure that no one screws it up, and unlike so many of his contemporaries, he succeeds at this mission.  Characters and a story taking precedence over effects in a comic book flick… who’d’ve thought?

I know I didn’t think it possible when I walked into that theatre last year, but I walked out a believer.  In the space of two hours and change, Captain America: The First Avenger went from being the Marvel superhero flick that I was least excited about seeing to being in a dead heat with Iron Man for me as Marvel’s best.  (It’s so close to call that I’ll probably give different answers depending on the day.  In any case, yes, it’s that good.)

Bottom line, if you’re a comic book movie fan or an adventure hero movie fan of any kind, you’ve got to own Captain America: The First Avenger.  This is a film that transcends the standards of its genre and stands as an All Around Great Movie: a flick that’s not only fun for everyone, but that makes for a damn good story, too.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, May, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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