Review – Captain America: The First Avenger

Originally posted June 24th, 2011 at nerdpuddle.com

This was the year that JJ Abrams was supposed to inherit the crown: Spielberg’s crown, specifically. This was to be the year he harnessed the power of the beard, channeled his essence, and transported audiences back to the early 80’s. And most of the viewing public clambered on the S.S. Super 8 happily, leaving me on the dock to wave as they pulled away, jealous at their ability to take a ride I just wasn’t feeling.

This is not the year Abrams gets that crown.

Not while Joe Johnston is around. Not when he makes a Captain America movie like the one he just made. And if people liked the shot of nostalgia and emotion that JJ microwaved up in his mystery box, they’re going to lose their minds at how well Johnston upped the ante. Because this isn’t just a great set-up for The Avengers. It’s the best film to come out of Marvel Productions.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Johnston might have a more direct line to Spielberg’s brand of magic – he helped the man make that magic in the early 80’s as a member of ILM. Johnston helped storyboard Raiders of the Lost Ark, after all. A cursory look over his filmography (outside of Rocketeer and maybe parts of Jurassic Park III) doesn’t necessarily call attention to his ability to put on an adventure of that caliber.

But when asked to not only evoke the same mood and tap that same energy, all while adapting to film the real first adventure of an American icon, and while making that adaptation work as a de-facto prequel to next summer’s blockbuster tentpole? Johnston delivered the goods.

Like X-Men: First Class, the film is helped tremendously by the choice to make it a period piece. There’s an innocence and gee-golly-shucks-mister vibe to the period that Johnston and Chris Evans both nail perfectly. Evans begins the film as Steve Rogers, a 90 lb. weakling who just wants to join the Army and knock hell out of Hitler. Unfortunately for Steve, he looks like a mousefart would knock him over, and he’s lied on 5 different applications in the hopes someone will give him a break.

Professor Erskine (Stanley Tucci) overhears Rogers at a World’s Fair type expo, arguing with his best friend Bucky Barnes, (Sebastian Stan) about whether its time to just give this dream up. The passion in Steve’s voice causes Erskine to intervene, declare the kid 1A, and send him to boot camp for training at the hands of Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) a crusty, smartassed sack of wrinkles and stinkeye.

What Rogers doesn’t know is that the bootcamp experience is merely a test to see if he has the heart to become part of the Super Soldier experiment, Erskine’s attempt to create an army of superheroes with the help of Howard Stark, Tony’s dad, played with echoes of Robert Downey Jr’s slick-talking ease by Dominic Cooper.

Erskine’s serum is responsible for the creation of the film’s villain, The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) a psychotic Nazi who believes so firmly in the idea of harnessing the power of religious artifacts with which to rule the world, that he not only looks down on Hitler for digging holes in Egypt while chasing biblical rumors, he’s looking to murder and replace Hitler to create his own reich: Hydra. Weaving is essentially doing a lighter version of Christoph Waltz’s character from Inglorious Basterds, and he’s helped by Toby Jones as Dr. Zola, a bug-eyed toady who has his doubts about Skull’s abilities.

Rogers, now jacked to the eyeballs with 150cc’s of pure beefcake, still isn’t taken seriously in the slightest by Colonel Phillips, and is relegated to USO duty. He puts on a goofy (but pretty damned comics-accurate) flannel costume and tours the country trying to sell bonds. He feels he’s being wasted, but settles into his role and gains some swagger, so much so that I caught myself kinda hoping Evans would end up just rocking that flannel for the rest of the movie. Not since Christopher Reeve wore his spandex, has an actor so thoroughly made me forget how silly the costume was, totally selling the iconography through sheer confidence.

But after getting (rightfully) booed by actual soldiers during a stop in Europe, Rogers, supported by superior officer – and adorable love interest – Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) decides that its time to stop fronting at being a hero, and after learning of Hydra keeping American prisoners (including Bucky, and Dum-Dum Dugan’s Howling Commandos) 30 miles away from his location, he puts on a helmet, straps on his shield and goes to work.

Captain America is not a superhero film in the mold of most superhero films, which is to say, it doesn’t try to carbon copy Christopher Nolan’s approach on Batman Begins. Which, admittedly, worked great…on Batman. Captain America has more in common with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man: a hero who enjoys what he does, who has fun with his powers, and earns the goodwill of the audience via a charismatic lead performance, a performance that realizes the potential of a likable actor who never quite broke out the way he should have.

Except Captain America not only does all that origin story stuff better than Iron Man did it, but in half the time, leaving a full hour or so of Captain America getting to be Captain America, and save the world accordingly. And Chris Evans turns in a great performance. He tones down his smartass tendencies, and turns up the earnestness. He juts his jaw like a hero when he fights, and he grins like a little boy when he gets the win.

The film’s production design is nostalgic beauty; Plenty of warm sepia tones and vibrant colors laid over what appears to be a mostly CG-free film. Sure, there are moments here and there that can’t hide a more digital nature, but mostly, the film has a hand-painted, knocked-together charm that feels authentically retro. Alan Silvestri’s score, while missing a memorable theme, still manages to charge the film with that extra bit of “Hell Yeah,” pushing Johnston’s action scenes from “pretty decent” to “genuinely exciting”

That action rarely pulls punches, either. Cap doesn’t want to kill anybody, but when left with no option, neither side of the fight will hesitate to dust the opposition. And that’s not a euphemism: The Red Skull is harnessing alien power to create weapons that cause human beings in this film to explode, War of the Worlds style, into a pile of tattered clothes and ashes.

Johnston strikes a balance of beauty and kineticism, melded with a combination of melancholy longing and rousing heroism in the main character that leads to an ending that doesn’t go for the big crashing explosion of brass and low-angled iconography, but instead highlights the humanity of Steve Rogers. Captain America saves the day, but he had to sacrifice a lot to do so, and it’s that heart at the center of the film that transforms Captain America from just another superhero movie, to something other superhero movies will strain to measure against.

Published in: on 12/31/2010 at 2:32 pm  Comments Off on Review – Captain America: The First Avenger  
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