MOVIE REVIEW – ‘CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER’

As we near the end of Summer Blockbuster season 2011, superhero movies are teetering on the edge of a deadly precipice. One more misstep like the dismal Green Lantern, and public backlash to a glut of capes in the cinema could send an entire genre careening into the abyss. Thankfully, a film has come along that rights the ship and restores faith in the superhero movie – a shining symbol of hope in a morass of mediocrity. Captain America: The First Avenger more than lives up to expectations and is everything you could want in a rollicking Saturday afternoon popcorn adventure.  Not only is it the best comic-book adaptation out of the four  this year, but it just might be the best overall film of the Summer.

Set in the midst of World War II, the film follows “Scrawny” Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a frail 90-lb. weakling who repeatedly fails to gain entrance into the armed forces on account of his sickly physical condition. Meanwhile The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), evil head of the Nazi’s “Deep Science” division known as HYDRA, searches for and discovers the Tesseract (Marvel’s famed Cosmic Cube), an ancient artifact belonging to Thor’s Asgardian Gods. With the aid of creepy Nazi scientist Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), he uses the Tesseract to power invincible Sci-fi-influenced weaponry that will turn the tide of the war.

Back at home, Scrawny Steve hangs out with his soon to be deployed best friend Sgt. James “Bucky” Barnes at the World Expo and gets shot down trying to enlist again. But Steve’s sense of honor and big heart garners the attention of Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German Scientist now working for the Allies on a super-soldier serum that can transform American troops into Nazi-crushing super-warriors. Steve goes through the candidate training under the command of ornery (and very funny) Sgt. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and the gorgeous British officer Peggy Carter(Hayley Atwell). Steve proves his mettle and wins the chance to become the first test subject, which is a complete success, transforming him into the perfect physical specimen and the ultimate hand-to –hand fighting machine known as CaptainAmerica.

The First Avenger successfully combines a heroic World War II tale with elements of Science-Fiction and Nazi relic-hunting adventures like Raiders of the Lost Ark. The result is a pulpy, thrilling superhero romp that also knows when to slow down for comedic moments and character development.  Sure the action here is spectacular, but none of it would make a difference if you didn’t care about who Captain America was and what was at stake. Some of the best moments in the film occur when we are learning about Steve’s sense of responsibility and duty to his country and his fellow man, or when Dr. Erskine counsels Steve before his procedure, telling him, “Whatever  happens, stay a good man.”

I had my doubts about Chris Evans when it was announced that he landed the role of Cap, but he completely won me over with his performance. Evans is Captain America, imbuing Steve Rogers with an unapologetic sense of nobility and innocence. It’s so refreshing to see an actor portray a true hero in every sense of the word, without an affected smugness or irony. Chris Evan’s Cap is a man of honor; an everyday Joe just looking to serve his country and do the right thing.  As a longtime comic book fan, it was downright gleeful to see Evans in full Captain America attire in action on the big screen doing things that I had read in countless comic books through the years – throwing his shield at HYDRA goons, jumping through the air off of exploding German war machines,  performing daredevil escapes on a motorcycle, fighting alongside the Howling Commandos, and going toe-to-toe with his arch-nemesis the Red Skull with the fate of the world at stake.

The rest of the film’s cast affords itself well, especially Hayley Atwell as the badass Brit Peggy Carter. She and Steve don’t get to share a drawn-out clichéd romance, but her blossoming affection towards him evolves naturally over the course of events and never feels forced or dull (unlike Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds snoozefest in Green Lantern). Their chemistry is genuine, as is Atwell’s stunning screen presence. Tommy Lee Jones as the gruff Sgt. Phillips is terrific as always; getting the lion’s share of the snappy one-liners.

Comic films often fail or succeed on the quality of their antagonists though, and Weaving as The Red Skull provides a truly menacing villain that’s a classic combination of terrifying appearance and megalomaniacal fervor. The makeup and CGI crew who created the Red Skull’s horrific crimson visage should be commended for pulling the character directly off of the comic page and into the screen. It’s an absolutely perfect translation.

There was some concern that director Joe Johnston, with less-than stellar films like Jurassic Park 3 and the recent Wolfman debacle on his resume, wasn’t a suitable fit to bring the grandeur and glory of Captain America to the big screen. But, as he proved with 1990 cult favorite The Rocketeer, his background in production design (he designed Boba Fett and many iconic starships for George Lucas’ Star Wars saga) makes him a master at capturing a lavish, 1940’s design aesthetic. Every frame of this film is beautifully shot and captures the era perfectly, from the colorful USO propaganda shows, to the grainy newsreel footage, to the secret government science labs complete with old-fashioned dials and electrodes. It’s clear that Johnston just “gets it”. He absolutely nails the visual dynamic and sets just the right tone. All of it is nicely complimented by a triumphant military fanfare-like score by composer Alan Silvestri.

Certainly in this political climate, a Captain America film might have fallen prey to political-minded filmmakers looking to exploit the perceived jingoistic aspects of the character, but Johnston and his screenwriters never let the film get bogged down in heavy handed political metaphor;  instead they embrace Cap’s earnest, flag-waving sensibilities and play everything very straightforward. This is a cut-and-dry good vs. evil story, and a wildly entertaining one…you’d be hard pressed to find a better piece of Summertime escapism at the theater this year.

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