The films of Marvel Studios have come full circle, and not a moment too soon. What began with a flurry of excitement over Iron Man, their opening salvo into the world of being an independent studio, has lately been listless in its Avenger-assembling agenda. In their last two outings — Iron Man 2 and Thor — they’ve spent more time focused on the future of the heroes than the heroes themselves. With Captain America: The First Avenger, they take full advantage of the ability to leave all the distractions out of it, allowing them to deliver their most confidently crafted, complete film yet.
Sure, the story of Captain America feels bookended by his role in Marvel’s forthcoming team-up movie, and from what we’ve been told, The Avengers is your reason for sticking around after the credits. But in between all that, director Joe Johnston has set out to tell the simple story of a hero named Steve Rogers. The year is 1942, and after five unsuccessful attempts to join the fight against Adolf Hitler, a scrawny Rogers isn’t ready to give up. Luckily his heart and determination catches the eye of a government scientist whose work includes making a Super Soldier serum that will turn an ordinary man into a super-human fighting machine. Desperate to get in on the action, the young patriot from Brooklyn signs on the dotted line. A few doses of steroids later and this scrawny little dude, created with brilliant CG-enhanced, Benjamin Button style effect that allows star Chris Evans to look like a 100 lb. wuss, is transformed into a beefy, blonde-haired slab of all-American symbolism. And so begins the story of Captain America.
The story isn’t one of great complications, but it is one that finds ways to effortlessly transition between the key moments in the life of Captain America, forged from 70-years of comic book tales. Before he can become a warrior, Rogers becomes a publicity stunt at the behest of a Senator trying to ensure the government gets its money’s worth. There’s even a musical number from Oscar winner Alan Menken. But at some point, the fight that is so clearly locked away within Rogers must come out. Guided by the steadiest hand Joe Johnston has shown in years, Captain America explodes into the action movie you’ve been waiting all summer to see.
What makes it so much fun is the aesthetic created by Johnson and his art department. They embrace the bright reds and blues that bleed from the Cap comics and paste them into a cool retro aesthetic. This is every bit a period piece, meticulously crafted to evoke an era while simultaneously showing us a few things that are out of this world. It has a vibrant, pulpy style that feels ripped from the comic books and dashed with enough realism to keep it away from being cartoony. It creates a stage worthy of a great hero story, worthy of the performances that bring that story to life.
Not the least impressive is the work of Chris Evans as Steve Rogers. In his performance, he delivers Rogers’ most important character trait perfectly. He is an earnest hero. There’s no daddy issues to work out, he’s not been guilted into fighting and he’s not struggling with God-given gifts. Steve Rogers is a kid who simply wants to fight injustice, and he’s found himself in a position to do just that. The pinnacle of the great American boy scout. Evans is cut perfectly for such a role. He’s charismatic, but most of all he’s genuine. We believe that Steve Rogers is every bit the man this film tells us he is.
But what would a great hero be without a great villain, or a great love? On the side of evil is Hugo Weaving. And boy, they couldn’t have picked a better actor for Red Skull. He brings a weight to the character that transcends the potential silliness of his outward appearance. Using his best Werner Herzog impersonation to give voice to pure evil, Weaving is exactly right as a super-human baddie for such a powerful hero. His performance, alone, is worth the price of admission. Similar can be said for Hayley Atwell, who brings strength and poise to the role of Peggy Carter. Finally, a big summer action film gets a tough female lead — not to say that she doesn’t shine in her “red dress” moment — who is a pivotal part of the story. Not just because Steve Rogers wants to get the girl, but because she’s integral to the success of the good guys. Even the smaller players, like Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine (the man who creates the super-soldier serum), Dominic Cooper as the odd young Howard Stark or Toby Jones as Red Skull’s number two, have their moments. It’s as well-cast a film as we’ve seen from the Marvel Studios folks, and it pays off well in the end.
The film moves in and out of big set pieces — from Brooklyn to the Alps — with ease, utilizing news reels and black and white archival footage brilliantly to carry us from one important moment to the next. The result is a 125 minute film paced just right. When it needs to give us some character work, it does so efficiently. When we need a little wit, the script from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely delivers moments of humor. And most importantly, when it comes time to blow stuff up, Captain America rides in on his custom-built motorcycle, flings his shield and delivers a double-fisted fury of exciting action. He uses the might of the human body, not technology or mystical powers, to give his enemies an all-American knuckle sandwich. With an escalating series of action pieces, Captain America consistently leaves its audience impressed with what has just transpired and excited about what is to come, right up to the last frame.
The only thing left hanging is the seemingly obligatory 3D conversion. Captain America is an excellent film, with or without the assistance of the third dimension. The conversion to 3D doesn’t do anything for the film, other than perhaps mute was seems to be such a colorful palette. If this reviewer had the choice, the next viewing — and there will be a next viewing — would be in 2D.
It all comes back to confidence. Producer Kevin Feige and his team have showed unwavering confidence in their choice of Joe Johnston from day one. And while fans focused on his past missteps, Johnston focused on the plan laid out for him. A solid script was delivered, an excellent cast was signed and everyone delivered a workman like effort in creating this super-cool super soldier story. They kept it simple and delivered a faithful big screen debut for the star-spangled man. It’s the most complete effort we’ve seen from the Marvel Studios crew and easily the most fun I’ve had in a theater all year. And that’s quite the feat, because this story’s hero isn’t anything special. He’s just a kid from Brooklyn, after all.
The Upside: A solid script, a meticulously crafted aesthetic, charismatic performances and a film delivered with great confidence and a sense of fun. It embodies everything we love about superhero films and big summer action.
The Downside: You’d probably be better off seeing it in 2D, as the 3D doesn’t add anything to the mix. It doesn’t necessarily hurt the experience, it’s just not something necessary to your enjoyment of the film.
On the Side: In describing the character of Peggy Carter, Hayley Atwell said that she’s a woman who “can do everything Captain America can do, but backwards and in high heels.”