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Saturday, July 23, 2011

'Captain America’ Has A Star-Spangled Adventure



Captain America: The First Avenger = 4 out of 5
Col. Chester Phillips: General Patton has said that wars are fought with weapons but are won by men. Our goal is to create the greatest army in history. But every army begins with one man. He will be the first in a new breed of super-soldier. We are going to win this war because we have the best men. And they, personally, will escort Adolf Hitler to the gates of Hell.
2011 has been a great year for Marvel characters.  Thor turned out to be a lot more fun than many thought and X-Men: First Class was a slick return to form for the mutant lot.  Now it is time for the first Avenger to get his due, as Marvel Studios, director Joe Johnston, and star Chris Evans have all worked hard to introduce the shield wielding super-soldier, first created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby back in 1941.  With a lot of credit going to the retro look and feel of the film, Captain America has turned out to be an incredibly fun action film and a suitable lead in to The Avengers, which will bring many of these Marvel characters together in one film in summer 2012.  Still, for the time being, it is a safe bet to join Captain America in the fight against the Axis powers and the dreaded Hydra.


The film is bookended by modern day business involving the Avengers Initiative, which is good enough as a way to bridge the different films (and be sure to stay after the credits), but the bulk of the film is set during 1941.  We meet scrawny Steve Rogers (a digitally altered Chris Evans), a kid from Brooklyn, who is trying his hardest to get enlisted in the army.  Unfortunately, he has too many health and size problems to allow him to be eligible.  This does not stop Steve from standing up to bullies, and despite being beaten down on occasion, it will never be in him to run away from his aggressors.

It is Steve's courageous heart that brings him to the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci).  Erskine decides to recruit Steve, among a group of other, more physically fit, men to be a part of a special recruitment assignment.  There, under Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and SSR officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), one will be chosen to become the first "super-soldier", thanks to an experiment co-designed by famous inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper).


Based on Steve's qualities as a true soldier, regardless of physical ability, he is chosen for the experiment, and undergoes the process.  The result has Steve looking like a remarkably well built man, now better, faster, and stronger, while still carrying the right kind of heart to be all he can be.  While not initially embraced by the other troops, it takes some of his initiative to bring them around to his side, after he goes it alone to break a squad of American troops out of a German prison.  Dubbed "Captain America", Steve soon becomes a major forced to be reckoned with, as he does battle against Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), Hitler's ruthless head of weaponry and leader of the terrorist organization known as Hydra.

I think a lot of what I liked about this film was how cut and dry it was in having good guys taking on bad guys.  This is basically a hybrid of a superhero movie and a WWII film, which keeps the stakes incredibly simple and makes way for a lot of wonderfully over-the-top sequences involving Captain America and the Howling Commandos fighting Hydra soldiers and taking down Hydra bases.  As a character film, 'The First Avenger' is strongest in its first act, as we learn about who Steve is, but the rest of the film manages to hold up thanks to its desire to be a straight-forward adventure film.


Director Joe Johnston has made many adventure films of sorts over the course of his career, with The Rocketeer being the most notable in regards to this film.  Johnston's sensibilities have constantly led to most of his films evoking an old fashioned serial quality and that seems to be very much the case for Captain America as well.  Regardless of the special effects, which are both very well done in some cases and incredibly stylized in others, the film has a timeless sense to its story, which is balanced well with its connection to a much larger comic universe.  After seeing Johnston stumble a few times before this film, I was very happy to see him find his footing with material that he obviously feels close to.  It easily helps to have had Alan Silvestri compose the score as well, which continues to keep the film within its retro styling.

As far as the cast goes, Chris Evans does fine work as Steve Rogers.  I got a ton out of whatever sort of work he did when it came to the early, scrawny Steve segments, as well as after he was transformed into Cap.  For having a character that is lacking in much complexity beyond the desire to do what is right for his country, I thought that Evans did a lot of good at portraying this character effectively.  He has the charm, the looks, and the physicality to appropriately bring Captain America to life.  As for the supporting cast, the film provides a very likable one.  Tucci sneaks into this film as the "Obi-Wan" of the film, being very likable and giving Steve some inspiring advice, before checking out.  Tommy Lee Jones is having a lot of fun, doing a lot with some exposition and some great one-liners.  And Hayley Atwell does little to be more than the obligatory love interest, but still gets to be in on the fun of this film.  Additionally, Dominic Cooper (who I just watched as an entirely different character(s) in The Devil's Double) is enjoyable in his brief moments as the father of Tony Stark, as are the Howling Commando characters that include Steve's best friend, Bucky (Sebastian Stan) and "Dum Dum" Dougan (Neal McDonough).


To single out one key cast member, I really found Hugo Weaving to be quite menacing as Red Skull.  As this is a character that literally has a red skull in place of a normal face, it could have easily come off as a very silly villain; however, the look he has seems very fitting for the film and comes off in an effectively villainous manner.  It is truly the kind of thing that comic books are made of, as are the plans that Red Skull has in his efforts to achieve ultimate power, via the power of a mysterious cube.  The confrontations he has with Cap are enjoyable enough, helped out a lot by what Weaving has to offer for the role.

The action in this film is a lot of fun.  Getting to see a montage of Cap doing a lot of heroic things, including watching his weapon of choice – the shield, in action was a very enjoyable aspect of the film.  It is over-the-top, but made in a manner that feels well suited to the film that has been made to best handle Captain America.  There are some key sequences that worked very well, including the initial moments after Steve’s transformation, which leads to a chase through city streets, as Steve begins to learn of his new, enhanced abilities.  There are many more moments, as Cap finds himself in the midst of the war over in Europe as well, but suffice it to say that this is a very satisfying adventure film that gets away with having plenty of explosions and shield tosses.


With Captain America now in theaters, the pieces have finally been set for The Avengers next year.  Given how pleased I have been with the films that have come out of Marvel Studios lately, I am excited to see how all of this goes down.  As Captain America came to a close, I was also very pleased with how well balanced I found the film to be.  It does start stronger than it finishes, but I really enjoyed the look and tone of the film, admired the action that took place, and was very satisfied with what Chris Evans gave to the role.  As far as creating cinematic universes go, Iron Man and Thor will be in good company when it comes to dealing with the first Avenger.
Red Skull:  What do you think made you so special?
Captain America:  Nothing.  I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.

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