Posted: July 23, 2011 in Comics, Film, Reviews
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Thoughts on The Sixth–err, First Avenger

If you had asked me fifteen or so years ago—after the Superman and Batman film franchises had been run into the ground, but before Bryan Singer’s X-MEN kick-started the comic book movie boom in 2000—what other superheroes I wanted to see get the studio franchise treatment, I would’ve said Spidey, the aforementioned mutants from Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, and Captain America. Actually, if you asked me at that exact time, my answer may truthfully have been: a “Man Without Fear”-style Daredevil and a fourth wall-breaking Deadpool romp. But I’m talking about the big guns, the icons. And the star-spangled shield slinger is most certainly a comic AND American icon.

The good captain, however, is the only one of the foregoing characters who has not been brought to life on the big screen in that time—an era when even C-listers like Blade, Steel, and Jonah Hex got film adaptations. In fact, the only live-action outing Cap has had, save a 1944 movie serial, was a 1990 movie that was so lousy it didn’t even get distribution in the States (though it was released on VHS a couple years later). It featured an Italian, piano-playing Red Skull and visual effects on the laughable level of Roger Corman’s also-never-released Fantastic Four. So, needless to say, a proper, i.e. big budget and at-least-partially set in World War II version has been a long time coming. And I’m glad to say, that time has indeed come.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, Marvel Studios’ fifth chapter in their build toward next summer’s ambitious Avengers film, might be the coolest and, quite possibly, best of them to date.

Director Joe Johnston, one of Spielberg and Lucas’ trusted underlings, has no doubt had a few missteps in his directorial career [see: THE WOLFMAN], but the guy gets the benefit of the doubt from me for lensing one of my personal favorite superhero movies, THE ROCKETEER. The atmosphere and tone of that film, and other Johnston-helmed fare like OCTOBER SKY were rather pitch perfect, giving me hope that he could strike that balance with Cap. And I think he did so quite successfully. CAPTAIN AMERICA has a lighthearted, adventurous, almost Indiana Jones vibe to it. It never gets too bleak, but also doesn’t cross the line of preposterousness—a hard thing to say about a 1940s revisionist story involving weaponry beyond our current technology and an all-powerful Cosmic Cube.

As outlandish as that may sound, the film does stay (mostly) grounded. It somehow manages to be earnest without being ironic. Cynics should check themselves at the door. There’s a clear white hat versus black hat dynamic, a rare thing in comic book movies these days [see: Raimi’s never-truly-bad Spider-Man villains], but it doesn’t come across as flag-waiving propaganda.

Chris Evans brings all the charm but none of the smarm to the titular role (the record 5th** comic character he’s played to date). He absolutely gets Cap. The young actor is more than self-aware of his wise-cracking typecasting and was determined not to let this interpretation of the world’s first avenger play like other smart-ass heroes such as Spidey and Iron Man. From Benjamin Button’d scrawniness to super-syrum’d military legend-in-the-making, he plays the humble yet headstrong captain so convincingly well that now I can’t imagine another actor portraying him.

If I have a complaint it’s that, as good as the supporting cast is, no one other than the sentinel of liberty gets any real character development. I would’ve loved to have seen a bit more of The Howling Commandos, maybe a snippet about Peggy Carter’s past and/or motivations. But I know that this is the story of Captain America. About that supporting cast: Hugo Weaving and Tommy Lee Jones are rock-solid as always and the latter’s Colonel Phillips provides a good amount of the flick’s comic relief. Haley Atwell is sound as the strong female lead who the story thankfully never called on to be a damsel in distress. And Stanley Tucci did the most with little as Dr. Abraham Erskine.

Overall, I think the movie accomplished a great deal—streamlining decades worth of lore into 2 hours and change, thanks to a few effective montages, a coherent script, and strong performances all around. And the practical explosions, stunt work, and easy-to-follow action sequences lend to the period piece’s old-fashioned feel, even against the many CGI-rendered backgrounds. The film’s epilogue, which jumps our hero to modern day, is surprisingly stirring. But the post-credits teaser quickly showcasing what’s to come in the Marvel Universe will have you exiting the theater on a high note. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER is not without flaw and a few bumps in the narrative, but I enjoyed the hell out of it. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to call this the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK of comic films. And I adore that film and this medium if that tells you anything.

** Evans has also portrayed Johnny Storm/The Human Torch in two FANTASTIC FOUR films, the voice of Casey Jones in TMNT, Jensen in THE LOSERS, Lucas Lee in SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, and now Captain America.


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