Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) — This article originally appeared on on 22 July 2011.

As some of the greatest minds of our times once said “America… fuck yeah!” True, they said it in a marionette parody of ultra-reactive jingoism, but still: good sentiment. Whatever the reality of the country we live in, it’s pretty well recognized that we were founded on some very high-minded ideals that (hopefully) we still strive to live up to. Such was the idea that Joe Simon and comics legend Jack Kirby had when they created the ultimate personification of those ideals: Captain America. Essentially dressed in the American flag and ready to punch out Adolph Hitler, he pretty much fit the bill for the way the country likes to see itself.

So since Marvel has been putting all of its most popular superheroes on the big screen, Captain America seemed a pretty obvious choice. Plus, now that Marvel makes its own films, they got to incorporate him into their larger shared cinematic universe that they have been building with their last few movies. Iron Man 1 & 2, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor have all been building towards it and now Captain America: The First Avenger is the last film before next year’s The Avengers. (By the way, I’m not crazy about the clunky subtitle The First Avenger. Since the Avengers are never mentioned in the film [not pre-credits anyway] it doesn’t really fit. Furthermore it created the worry that this film is just prelude to that one. I think I read somewhere that the film is going to be marketed just as The First Avenger in foreign markets less likely to get riled up for a movie called Captain America but I don’t know if that’s true or not.) So does Captain America stand head-to-head with the previous Marvel films, which have been by my reckoning pretty damn good?

Dare I say better? I saw the movie barely over an hour ago so I suppose I haven’t had adequate time to ruminate or whatever on it before making such a bold claim but as it stands right now I like it better than the first Iron Man, my previous favorite in the franchise. It’s possible my opinion may cool down with time (I liked Iron Man 2 a whole hell of a lot when I first saw it but my opinion has tempered somewhat on repeat viewings) but I don’t think so. The film is directed by Joe Johnston, who did The Rocketeer (possibly my favorite movie when I was six). Of course he also did The Wolf Man and Jurassic Park III, so greatness was far from assured. The casting of Chris Evans, who has been really impressing me lately in movies like The Losers and Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, boded very well for the film.

Evans, with the assistance of a lot of seamless special effects, plays Steve Rogers. Steve is a short and skinny kid from Brooklyn who wants so very desperately to enlist in the Army and fight in World War II. He sees it as his patriotic duty and is disheartened every time he is turned down by recruiters due to his health problems. Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) decides to give him a chance by choosing him for a very special experience. With the support of Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), industrialist Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), and a British officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Erskine is developing a program to make an army of “super soldiers.” Steve is selected as the first recruit because he possesses many personal qualities that Erskine feels are desirable in a superhuman. By his reasoning “a weak man knows the value of strength.” The experiment turns Steve into a muscle-bound superhero, but due to some complications only one super-soldier is produced by the experiment.

Before coming to the United States, the German Erskine was forced to help a Nazi occultist named Johann Schmitt (the oft-villainous Hugo Weaving). Schmitt forced Erskine to give him an early version of the super soldier serum, but it had notable… side effects. Now Schmitt, called the Red Skull, has his own branch of the Nazi Intelligence called Hydra. It soon becomes clear though that the German military has no control over Schmitt and Hydra, and he has his own mad agenda. With the help of nazi scientist Armin Zola (Toby Jones, playing the human version of Zola and not the sentient torso that Zola becomes in the comics), he tries to harness the power of the Cosmic Cube teased in the post-credits sequence of Thor. Naturally Captain America needs to put a stop to this, with the help of the Howling Commandoes: his childhood friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough), Jim Morita (Kenneth Choi), Gabe Jones (Derek Luke), James Montgomery Falsworth (J.J. Field), and Jacques Dernier (Bruno Ricci).

As you might be able to tell from the insane amount of Wikipedia links in the above couple of paragraphs, the film takes a lot from the comics (especially Marvel’s old World War II comics). This is much appreciated by geeks like me. Also appreciated is that it doesn’t feel like it needs to be so slavishly devoted to the specifics of the comics. Seventy-some years of (frequently inconsistent) backstory would weigh any movie down. Moving past all the geek stuff (not easy for me), this is just a great movie. While I obviously can’t say with any definitive authority, I would venture to say it’s still a great film even if you’ve never picked up a comic book in your life. The action scenes are exciting, you care about the characters, and the story moves along at a good pace. Alan Silvestri’s music gives the whole thing an even greater epic feel (not surprising given some of his past iconic film scores). Johnston brings a great retro style to the film (as he did with The Rocketeer). The movie is just beautiful to look at. The actors, especially Stanley Tucci and Chris Evans, bring the movie its soul. Now, with the past several movies I’ve seen in 3D I’ve said more or less the same thing: the more CG on screen the better it looks. Asgard looked great in Thor, but Arizona looked flat. Captain America uses 3D fantastically. It is by far Marvel’s best use of the technology and if they keep it up at this level of quality, I whole-heartedly support their continuing use of it. I can see some people taking issue with the end, but I had no problem with it. That might be because we know it’s not really the end, don’t we? I don’t think I would change a thing about this flick. One last thing: being a Marvel movie this should go without saying, but stay through the credits. For the love of God, stay through the credits. Even if The Avengers wasn’t coming next year (though thank heaven it is) I would love this movie. I already want to see it again.

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