Movie Review: Captain America: The First Avenger
Every summer, Hollywood redoubles its efforts to mine comic series and graphic novels for film franchises. And every year, people wring their hands and talk about how the superhero genre is played out, citing examples like The Green Hornet, The Spirit, and later entries in the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises as evidence of a decline in quality. A lot of this discussion seems to predict a superhero event horizon, when a movie will be so bad it sours Hollywood on adapting superhero titles all together. While the likelihood of that scenario is a separate discussion, Captain America: The First Avenger is most emphatically NOT that movie. In fact, it’s the best movie of the summer, and one of the best superhero movies of all time.
Captain America follows the journey of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a scrawny kid from Brooklyn, as he goes from experimental super soldier to propaganda symbol to full-fledged superhero. He makes this transformation by way of the super soldier program of the Strategic Scientific Reserve, headed by kindly Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and gruff Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones). With the aid of the alluring Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), father and apparent role model of Tony Stark, he wages war against the villainous Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) and his army of HYDRA soldiers.
Captain America’s back story in the comics is as messy as it is great. The film does a great job of synthesizing the modern version of his origin with elements of the original Timely Comics stories and the newer Ultimate series. Cap’s role as the star of a patriotic stage show echoes his origins as a propaganda symbol, and the development of his outfit, shield and skills pays tribute to the numerous variations of the character over the years. Red Skull’s simplified origin as a would-be super-soldier gone wrong is also clean and simple, and it sets up a clear contrast between thee two characters.
The cast is absolutely fantastic. Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers is devoid of machismo or “you think this A on my forehead stands for France” bullshit. He’s an inspiring figure precisely because he’s so unassuming, so consistently and wholly selfless. While Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth are great as the flawed, complex Iron Man and Thor, there’s something truly resonant and moving about Captain America and the honor and respect he has for those around him. Weaving goosesteps around maniacally, a titanic figure for Cap ro face off against. Stanley Tucci brings impressive warmth and humanity to Erskine, especially for someone who reportedly took the role as a chance to try a German accent. Atwell is great. Cooper is great. Tommy Lee Jones does the same schtick he’s been doing since The Fugitive (which is to say, he’s amazing). Every actor in this movie brightens the screen in every scene.
The biggest flaw with the film is that its villains, a rogue Nazi R&D unit, are a little too detached from the Third Reich, and they don’t feel quite as relevant as they could. While having Cap punch a bunch of Nazis in the jaw seems a bit trite in this day and age, the battles don’t carry the weight and relevance that a World War II period piece should. It’s a conscious effort to maintain some level of verisimilitude with WWII as we know it, by writing a kind of a “secret war,” and it does the job, but it still would’ve been nice to see Captain America smacking some genuine Nazis with his shield.
But for every minor problem, Captain America has three shining highlights. The costumes and set design are gorgeous, even as they switch between historically accurate New York streets and fantastic mad science bunkers. The movie features a USO showtune-style musical number written by Alan Menken, the smoking gun that Disney’s acquisition of Marvel was a good thing. There are Easter eggs and visual references to everything from Thor to the original Human Torch. Little grace notes like the way a senator removes his hat as Agent Carter enters and a British soldier’s “Mind the gap” joke elevate Captain America from a good summer action movie to a truly great film.
Captain America: The First Avenger is the perfect Captain America movie. It understands the character and distills elements of the mythos on the level of The Dark Knight and Superman II. It has laughs, tears, explosions, great performances and a great story. (And a Wilhelm Scream, which is more than can be said for a certain other big movie which just opened.) Even if you’re not a big Captain America fan, definitely, definitely go see this movie. It’s one for the ages.
RATING: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FOUR)
P.S. By now, I probably don’t need to remind you to stay after the credits, but they drop the goddamn mic on this one. Do NOT leave early.