Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

[My fourth Captain America movie review in four days. Think I’m finished? Look out for How To Do It: Captain America II next week.]

Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume director Joe Johnston is a talented man. If this is the case, he’s talented in the same way George Lucas is talented lately. With Captain America: The First Avenger, the man who once helmed Honey, I Shrunk the Kids oversees all of the clever little details with sensible judgment, and then decides to make a movie around them as an afterthought. Well-cast actors, finely cut costumes, and breathtaking vistas are left to fight a war against neglect, ultimately losing to the movie’s nonstop sizzle reel sensibility.

You’re reading the words of someone who understands this character as well as anybody working at Marvel, and an unabashed fan of actor Chris Evans, but I’m not blinded by the light of what works well in Captain America because I know movies too, and I saw this one when it was called The Rocketeer. I regret saying before that if The First Avenger is as good as that film, I’ll be satisfied. Turns out, I’m really not. I ended up disliking Captain America for the same reason I failed to rewatch The Rocketeer in preparation for it. I knew, deep down, that if I were to see it again from the eyes of an adult, my memory of it would prove… gracious.

Movies can aim for the kid at heart. I’m not suggesting light, airy adventure has no place in the modern blockbuster. 40’s Cap is a reasonable counterpoint to the kind of pretentious antics that banked The Dark Knight a billion dollars. People may also relish the opportunity to take the young ones to see Captain America where, in the recent past, the genre has been decidedly too adult to do so.

What would the Merry Marvel Marching Society think of Mickey Rourke? The safer bet is definitely Jumanji under a certain age, but does that mean the rest of us need to be subjected to it? Rather than pay homage to the sensitivity of Steven Spielberg, as J.J. Abrams can, Johnston only knows how to emulate the visual style while laying his fluffernutter thick. Every unearned moment is accompanied by a repetitious musical score better suited to the cruising spaceship graphic in Star Trek: The Next Generation (also trapped in the 90’s), while instructing his actors to speak half to the camera.

Heap on the expectations of a franchise tentpole and welcome to a scenario where The Red Skull is every bit as contemptible a villain as Eric Forman. Only here can you have a mask that looks like a cheap rubber Halloween purchase made doubly daffy by computer graphics jiggering his facial expressions. The more-Dutch-than-Deutsch accent isn’t working either, particularly when intercut with Stanley Tucci being so on-key that he might as well be singing Springtime for Hitler.

Practically the only thing that works about Skull is the decision to borrow elements from another Cap villain, Flag Smasher. The Skull has no character arc to support a world-without-borders ideology. Instead, “Some people just want to watch the world burn” (to quote Alfred Pennyworth). Ignoring that, Skull/Hydra being in direct opposition with both America (U.S. soldiers have accents, but curiously no allies) and the Nazi party goes a very long way. His one line to this effect dovetails well in the final showdown. “You could have the power of the Gods, yet you wear a flag to fight a battle of nations” (delivered with juicy contempt).

But who cares about The Skull, right? The lynchpin of Captain America isn’t the opposition anymore than it’s the title role. Get Steve Rogers right, and the Sentinel of Liberty should follow. Evans is superb as the alter ego when the material is there. His heart wrenching need to please bursts from his more-bone-than-body digital skinnification, but it comes from a place of responsibility rather than self involvement. It would be enough to leave it at that, but a well placed line about his disinterest in dating speaks volumes (he doesn’t know how to dance, but he’s waiting for the right partner). Even in the retro, his attitude is one-in-a-million. This is Requiem for a Dreamboat.

Between his iconic transformation and dropping into combat, The Captain is relegated to USO tours. Pushing war bonds isn’t what he signed on for, and his reaction to this makes for a near perfect intermission. It’s seems the apprehension that Chris Evans had in accepting the roll (he passed on it three times) has been digested and turned into a self-aware energy. We’re watching a great young actor lose his relative anonymity to the Marvel marketing machine just as much as we’re seeing Rogers held back from the frontlines. Comicbooks depicting victories are sold before he’s even set foot near the war. He wants to do good work, but that kind of spotlight makes him uneasy. Steve’s just too humble to buy into his own hype machine.

The second half of his performance leaves a lot to be desired. The transition from Steve to Star Spangled is incomplete. Why wait until The Avengers to show Cap coming into his own? It’s the director’s fault, but also the actor’s for not researching enough outside of the script. Only rare opportunities for Steve to assert himself over authority exist, allowing him to embrace the self-symbol as something beyond rank, but they’re squandered by fractional screen time and line readings that don’t sound informed.

A lot of people cited the character of Mace from the film Sunshine as the direct approach that Chris Evans would bring to this, but if anything that performance was too militarily minded to work here. Mace is a realist, sharing more in common with Iron Man. If you’ve seen that movie, recall the discussion of whether it’s acceptable to kill a crew member to complete a planet saving mission. The voice of Captain America in this scenario would be Cassie’s, not Mace’s. “I know the argument” she says, “I know the logic. You’re saying you need my vote. I’m saying you can’t have it.” Cap has this dynamic with Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) when he embarks on a rogue mission and later demands that the Howling Commandos be assigned to his unit. Even if this were applied I’m not convinced Evans would have owned it without more guidance.

As Dum Dum Dugan and Dr. Erskine, Neal McDonough and Stanley Tucci are both whimsically satisfied by the “Extra cheese, please” order that’s being served. There are also dozens of winks to the mythology and inspired lines of dialogue but appreciating them is like trying to read signs on the side of a moving train. The flick kicks into a higher quality for its last third, with an effects budget that looks ten times that of the movie we’ve been watching. It also takes on the final moments with creativity, coming close to that punch in the gut that is his destiny.

Like the costume redesign and the dedicated physique of Chris Evans, this film is cool, but cumbersome. Had I viewed Captain America: The First Avenger in the 1990’s, I would have measured it on the same scale as Super 8, but if this movie has anything to say about the modern age of Summer satisfaction, it’s “You’ve come a long way, baby!”

Sean Walsh: If Iron Man is the brains of the Avengers and Thor is the muscle, then Captain America is certainly the heart. I was so thoroughly impressed by this movie that before Steve Rogers even gets doused in vita-rays I knew this was the best super hero movie of the year (although pickings were unfortunately slim). While not as true to the comics as Iron Man, Captain America very rarely missteps as it gives the Nazis what for, and the little fan service-y nods (keep your eyes peeled for the original Human Torch) were executed masterfully. I was thoroughly captivated by the performances of Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving, and Toby Jones, as well as the (sadly limited) performances of the more minor characters like the Howling Commandos, and really can’t find a bad egg in the bunch. All-in-all, Captain America is a terrific movie and a stellar addition to the greater Marvel mythos. If you’re worn out from Comic Movie Fatigue, this film will cure what ails ya. 84 – Great.

Josh Parker: Captain America is by far the best superhero movie of the year, and arguably the best Marvel Comics movie you will ever see. Chris Evans oozes Steve Rogers from every pore, capturing the man’s unwavering bravery and patriotism with every word he speaks and every punch he throws. Stanley Tucci, Sebastian Stan, and Haley Atwell turn in impressive performances of their own as Dr. Erskine, Bucky Barnes and Peggy Carter respectively, and Tommy Lee Jones’ Colonel Phillips steals nearly every scene he’s in. Captain America is a film bursting with amazing performances, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on the film’s primary villain, Red Skull, played to perfection by Hugo Weaving. You almost feel bad for Toby Jones, who plays H.Y.D.R.A. scientist Arnim Zola, because he’s overshadowed by Weaving’s scenery chewing awesomeness. Of course, there’s plenty of fisticuffs, shootouts and shield tossing in the movie too, resulting in some of the best superhero action I can remember seeing on film. Captain America is absolutely worth paying to see, and the perfect prologue for next year’s The Avengers86 – Spectacular.