Movie Review: Oh Captain, My Captain

Chris Evans IS Captain America. That sentence sounds really good if you use your best vintage movie trailer voice. It’s also true.

Film: Captain America: The First Avenger
Starring: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Hayley Atwell
Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Directed by: Joe Johnston
Genre: Action, superhero, Avengers-coming-in-2012
Rating: 7 out of 10 / B


It’s 1942 and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a weakling weighing 98 pounds who would get sand in his face if kicked to the ground, desperately wants to join the Army and help with the war effort. However, his determination is overshadowed by his slight stature and weak physical attributes. His spirit catches the eye of scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) who enlists Steve into a program to create a “super-soldier” under the purview of Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and British Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell). Steve is transformed into a physical powerhouse and dubbed Captain America. He’s almost immediately tasked with bringing down the villainous Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), also known as the Red Skull, a man so consumed with lust for power that even the Nazis don’t want to be associated with him.

For being one of Marvel’s longest-running and most iconic characters, it’s taken Cap a long, long time to make it to the big screen. There have been several aborted attempts at making a Captain America franchise—including a pair of TV movies from the 70s and a disastrous straight-to-video attempt in 1992—but aside from guest appearances in animated series and video games, Cap’s long been absent from the cinema. It seems it was worth the wait, however, even if the film was only put in place as part of the never-ending build-up to 2012’s The Avengers. It’s more than just another superhero property getting its inevitable film adaptation: it’s also a helluva lot of fun, a solid action film with a great cast and a highly appealing retro vibe.

Director Joe Johnston has dipped into this kind of thing before. He made the under-appreciated film version of The Rocketeer, as well as retro-informed Jumanji. Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are responsible for the first three films in the Narnia franchise, but don’t hold that against them. On paper, the combination of names doesn’t immediately inspire confidence. It’s not the same as seeing “written and directed by Joss Whedon.” Perhaps it’s the blessing of lowered expectations, but the direction and script are very well-handled. The screenplay rarely veers into melodrama, and it walks a very confident path between campy and cool. Johnston’s action sequences are well-staged and clearly and cleanly edited. The film was retro-fitted to 3D, but it has absolutely no need for it since it has plenty of excitement on its own.  There’s no “learning to use his power” montage here: Johnston goes from Steve’s transformation immediately into the first big action sequence and rarely lets up after.

A superhero film often lives or dies by its casting. Imagine if Dougray Scott had kept the part of Wolverine in the X-Men franchise or if Christian Bale had been cast as Batman (oh…whoops…too late). At first, Chris Evans didn’t seem like the clear choice for the role. He was best known for playing the wisecracking and “charmingly irresponsible” Johnny Storm/Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies. However, Evans emerges as the perfect candidate to bring Cap to life. For the first 30 minutes, the film focuses on the pre-transformation Steve Rogers, and Evans gives him a huge amount of personality and presence despite Steve’s emaciated appearance. After the transformation, Steve is still the same good-hearted but humble guy, constantly trying to prove himself, and Cap doesn’t turn in to the blustering caricature that Cap’s so often portrayed as. Cap isn’t a one-liner-spouting kind of hero, and Evans never makes Steve too sarcastic or flippant. Evans establishes Steve’s character early on, and that character continues through the film. It helps that Evans portrays Steve as both a 98-pound weakling AND a huge slab of grade A beef: his body was digitally reduced to make him appear smaller in the early scenes, allowing Evans’ performance to run throughout the course of the film.

You can’t have Captain America without the Red Skull (well you could, but what would be the point in that?). It’s a good thing that Hugo Weaving is on hand, then. Weaving’s intense face and commanding voice have made iconic portrayals of Agent Smith in the Matrix films, Elrond in the Lord of the Rings series, and a drag queen named Mitzi Del Bra. Johann Schmidt, oddly enough, contains elements of all those characters. Schmidt was the actual first subject of the super-soldier project, but the results left him inclined to chronic bouts of megalomania (i.e., crazy). However, Schmidt has a strange kind of dark magnetism that Weaving knows how to play effortlessly. The clashes between Cap and Schmidt are great because of how differently each man handles his new abilities: Cap sees them as a gift to use responsibly while Schmidt sees them as a weapon to use for global domination. It’s a shame that the two don’t share more screen time together than they do, because Evans and Weaving play well off of each other.

The rest of the cast all comes off well, especially Hayley Atwell and Tommy Lee Jones. Agent Carter is a tough-as-nails woman who also just happens to look like a fetching 1940s pin-up. She establishes her credentials in her first scene, easily punching out an impertinent recruit. She’s a crack shot with a pistol and also completely rocks a tight red dress. It’s to the film’s credit that it never makes her a victim, a hostage, or anything less than Cap’s equal. Tommy Lee Jones steals every one of his scenes, even though he’s played the gruff military man a dozen times before. He’s the comic relief without being ridiculous, easily handling the funniest lines in the film. None of the rest of the supporting cast does poorly, with Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark (father of Tony “Iron Man” Stark) and Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes (here a strapping young man and not a plucky teenager) making particularly good with their roles.

The film can be a bit predictable at times, which is to be expected. Nazis make some of the best and most effective bad guys, but their motives rarely stray from a total devotion to global conquest. A number of issues that are briefly touched upon are frustratingly left vague and unexplored, like how the super-soldier project shares a very close relation with the Nazi eugenics program, or Steve’s frustration when he’s initially relegated to being a propaganda tool for war bond sales and not a soldier. However, the scenes of Cap doing propaganda—which make a number of meta-textual commentaries on the nature of the Captain America comic itself—are still highly entertaining. The film also gives Cap a multi-ethnic, multi-national support team for his missions in the last half of the film, but aside from Bucky, none of them are given names, and only one of them (Neil McDonough as Dum Dum Dugan) are instantly recognizable to comic fans. And, of course, the film lacks a bit of tension since everybody knows that Captain America will be around for the Avengers move in 2012, which is an omnipresent (although mild) dampener to the film’s dramatic energy.

Captain America is a film that could very easily have been bungled, either by being too much of a revision or too beholden to its roots. The film sits squarely in the middle and is nothing less than an action-packed good time with a great cast, a great lead (with great pecs), a great score and great action sequences. In case you haven’t guessed by now, it’s great. You might even be inspired to say, “F**k, yeah!”

One last thing: it probably goes without saying for a Marvel film at this point, but YOU DO NOT WANT TO LEAVE UNTIL AFTER THE CREDITS ARE DONE. Trust me (and you’re welcome).

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