Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

If there is one well-known comic book character that largely doesn't translate to the modern day it is Captain America.  Conceived in the Golden Age of comics, he did his job well: fought Nazis, provided a more youthful anthropomorphic incarnation of the United States than Uncle Sam and embodied much of what people at the time believed in.  When Stan Lee revived him during the Silver Age, it was still before we got too deep into Vietnam, and to his credit he did a lot to overcome a character that, even at the time, had become quite corny.

As usual, I don't really follow comics.  I know that some writer have tried to add a bit more angst the character and update it as much as possible, but even as a young kid Captain America was not one of my favorite super heroes.  Previous attempts to bring him to both the small and big screen had been abysmal, and at the time the first movie came out featuring him, the Marvel movies themselves had been of uneven quality.  I know the first time I saw it was after it was already either streaming or on cable so I didn't specifically pay for it which, after Thor, I really wasn't too interested in running out and seeing any more of them.

Two things still surprise me about this movie: how unlike other Marvel films it is, and in this I mean it seems more like a comic-book style adventure film than many of the others, and how much people seem to dislike it.  In fact, I didn't really learn about the dislike until recently when it appeared on a list of worst Marvel films.  For me, other than the first two Iron Man movies, this was finally where the series briefly hit its stride.  Personally, I found it to be the best Marvel movie prior to The Avengers, and I am happy to say my opinion really hasn't changed.

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants nothing more that to fight for his country, just like his best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan).  Problem is, he's short, rail-thin, asthmatic and has had a long list of illnesses.  When offered a chance to join a secret military program run by German defector Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), he jumps at it.  While basic training doesn't go as well as it could, Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who heads the Army's science division, is convinced that Rogers is their man.

With technology provided by Erskine and Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Rogers becomes a changed man: taller, muscular and with superhuman abilities.  Still, after Nazi spies infiltrate the program leaving Rogers the only result, he is relegated to entertaining the folks at home and selling War Bonds.  An attempted tour of Germany does nothing to impress the real troops, but he finally sees an opportunity to put his powers to the test when he learns that Bucky's division has been captured by a rogue German agency called Hydra, headed by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), also known as the Red Skull due to his body rejecting the same serum that enhanced Rogers.  He and Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) have managed to get their hands on the Tesseract, one of the Infinity Stones left on Earth by the Asgardians.  They use the power to build advanced weapons and a new army, hoping to conquer the world themselves, including his fellow Nazis. 

Steve Rogers embraces his original fictional role as Captain America and, leading the men he rescued, work to bring down Hydra.

I find it no surprise that many elements from Captain America: The First Avenger made it into the later half of Wonder Woman.  She was, after all, as blatant a patriotic figure as Captain America at her inception.  There is a lot that Captain America got right, and Wonder Woman was one of the few DC movies that rose above mediocrity.  Still, the Captain does it better, despite director Joe Johnston deciding to add a sepia filter over much of it to remind us that we are in the "black and white" era.  It is something I really wish all directors and cinematographers would stop doing; in fact, if someone could find some way to confiscate all their filters, it would be wonderful.  Despite that mistake, it is still not a washed-out, desaturated eyesore that Wonder Woman is.

What I particularly liked about Captain America is, despite the fact he gets to chase down a Hydra spy early on, a good portion of his origin is putting his more hokey aspects into perspective.  Rather than ignoring them and making a dark, brooding character out of Steve Rogers, the writers wisely embraced it.  Despite his dreams of serving, even after he becomes physically able, he spends a good part of the war as a cheerleader or, as Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) puts it, a "chorus girl."  To the people really doing the fighting he is no more than a joke in tights. Despite all his abilities he still, in the end, has to prove himself, which he does by rescuing Bucky and the rest of his unit.  It was a subtle way of also proving to the audience that they weren't going to get a character 70 years past his prime.

This is also one of the few Marvel films with a truly good villain.  It was nice that they got an actor the caliber of Hugo Weaving to portray him, and in doing so actually gave him something to do.  While his final fight with Captain America is woefully short, we still see enough of him to understand what and who he is.  He is an effective and frightening figure, the kind that would have a mountain lair in the Alps.

While a good portion of the film is focusing on Rogers growing as a person and as a hero, the action scenes here are some of the best since the first Iron Man.  The Tesseract allows the development of the equivalent of blasters, so the combination of steampunk, '50s-style rayguns and World War II technology offers a sense of fun.  This seems to be missing from many of the current comic book films.  While I am glad as movies they have made many of them more serious, too often writers and directors move the dial too far and forget that escapism is at the heart of the project.  While I wish the Howling Commandos were a bit more than just demolition guy, tough guy, etc., adding a G.I. Joe-like component helped take some of the burden off of Captain America to be a jack-of-all-trades.  He gets his sad moments, but the movie is by and large an adventure film in its second half, and it doesn't really let up on the pace.

Chris Evans does a great job here, and it is a shame that as the movies went on Captain America became more of a background character.  Luckily he had The Avengers and two more movies of his own before they really started to put him out to pasture.  I especially like one of the biggest sci-fi tricks in making Evans look like tiny weakling.  It's still seamless, and a good use of CGI for once.  Sebastian Stan isn't given as much to do here as he is in the later films, but Bucky at this point is more to give Rogers purpose and goals.  Hayley Atwell isn't bad, but once again an anomalous "strong woman" is awkwardly thrust into another era, rather than instead working to make her forward looking for the time period.  Even with the efforts to make her what she is there is still little done with her, although I understand that her character was fleshed out later on in a television series.

I think what I like best about Captain America: The First Avenger is that it feels like a fully-formed story, while also feeling like the first of the movies leading up to The Avengers that feels like part of a real universe.  The attempt was made in the previous movies to link them both through Tony Stark and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and there is once again a mid-credits scene to do so, but it doesn't feel forced in this case.  It's a movie that can be enjoyed all on its own, not relying on the usual Marvel formula of angsty origin story followed by a fight with a paper tiger villain, but also truly a movie that would make one who had been on the fence with the previous films look forward to The Avengers, especially with Captain America being one of the main characters.  It achieves what it needs to do and more, and even watching it now it does so wonderfully. 

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Time: 124 minutes
Starring: Chris Evans, Haylewy Atwell, Hugo Seaving, Sebastian Stan
Director: Joe Johnston


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