"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, July 29, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

The popular comic book superhero Captain America had his debut in March 1941 courtesy of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby who created him as a patriotic symbol in response to the actions of Nazi Germany in the years leading up to the United States’ involvement in World War II. Like any enduring comic book icon, Cap has undergone all kinds of changes over the years but as had few cinematic incarnations. He first appeared on film in a 1944 serial and then in a 1990 film that was so ill-conceived that it was released direct to home video in North America. One problem with the character is that his costume does not translate well to a live-action film. It didn’t help that at the time of the 1990 version, Marvel Comics, which owned the character, had little interest in cinematic adaptations of its titles until X-Men (2000) proved to be a surprise hit.

Since then, they’ve had a spotty track record with their properties. The Blade and Iron Man series were very successful but both Daredevil (2003) and Ghost Rider (2007) were box office and critical failures respectively. Part of the problem is the talent attached to these films. Getting the right director and cast that understand the characters and the worlds they inhabit is crucial and explains why the first two X-Men films were so good. For Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the powers that be wisely hired Joe Johnston to direct. Since it was decided that the film be set during World War II who better to recapture that old school action/adventure vibe then the man who helmed The Rocketeer (1991) and Hidalgo (2004)? For the pivotal role of Captain America, Chris Evans was cast. He already had experience with superhero films playing the Human Torch in the awful Fantastic Four films and, as a result, was understandably reluctant to take on another comic book adaptation. The question remained, how would such an earnest, idealistic character translate in our cynical times and would movie-going audiences be able to relate to him? Judging by its opening weekend box office haul, quite well indeed.

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a skinny weakling who just wants to do his part for his country during wartime but he’s wracked with too many health problems to join the army. So, he volunteers for a risky top-secret experimental program known as Project Rebirth run by Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones at his crusty, ornery best) and Peggy Carter (charmingly played by Hayley Atwell). Rogers may not be physically strong but he’s brave, determined and willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and playboy inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) conduct the actual procedure that transforms Rogers into the perfect physical specimen, a Super Soldier complete with superior strength and agility.

Instead of putting him on the front lines where he wants to be, Rogers dons a corny costume (that pokes fun at previous cinematic incarnations), dubbed Captain America, and ordered to sell war bonds to the American public in a lame dog and pony show. While entertaining American troops in Italy, he hears that his best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has been captured by Hydra, a research wing of the Nazis who are so ambitious that they split from the Germans for playing it too safe. With Peggy and Stark’s help, Rogers disobeys orders to rescue his friend and 400 prisoners of war. Meanwhile, Hydra leaders Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) and Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) have discovered the Tesseract, a cosmic cube endowed with powerful magical energy that they harness so that it can be used to not only win the war but also take over the world. Schmidt was the first recipient of the Super Soldier formula and it transformed him into the Red Skull, a hideous-looking evil genius.

Hugo Weaving brings a suitably creepy menace to the role of the power hungry Red Skull aided in large part by the impressive and appropriately garish makeup job. Hayley Atwell is downright delightful as the brassy dame Peggy Carter who is more than capable of taking care of herself. The chemistry between her character and Rogers is nicely realized with snappy, slyly flirty dialogue reminiscent of a Howard Hawks film. The screenplay, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, does a nice job of developing their relationship over time, keeping their romance simmering just under the surface for most of the film until its tragic conclusion that carries a surprising emotional resonance because we’ve become invested in them. After all kinds of supporting roles over the years, Chris Evans finally gets to prove that he has the chops to carry a big budget blockbuster. He brings a no-nonsense charisma to the role and conveys Cap’s idealism without coming across as forced or phony.

Joe Johnston brings the same old school Classic Hollywood vibe he brought to The Rocketeer complete with a refreshing lack of cynicism and irony as he delivers a straightforward action/adventure tale. And like with that previous film, he includes all sorts of nice comic book touches, like the introduction of the Howling Commandos, a ragtag group of soldiers that fought alongside Nick Fury in the comics and fight with Cap in the film. In particular, the actors who play Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough) and Gabe Jones (Derek Luke) bear an uncanny resemblance to their comic book counterparts right down to how they look and act. Unlike Zack Snyder (Watchmen, Sucker Punch), who imposes too much of his personal style, Johnston understands that the film’s style should service the story – anything else is a distraction. He even employs Snyder’s trademark “speed-ramping” technique but in a way that fits seamlessly with the action sequences, which are exciting and expertly choreographed, devoid of schizophrenic editing. You always know who is fighting whom and where. Captain America may not reinvent wheel in terms of the comic book superhero genre but it doesn’t have to. It is a crowd-pleasing popcorn movie with nothing else on its mind but to tell an entertaining story.


  1. It's hardly a perfect movie but I was really impressed with the level of resolute determination Evans was able to bring to the role in his pre-Vita Rays appearance.

    "I don't want to kill anybody. I just don't like bullies." is as much of a mission statement for Cap as "I'm loyal to nothing General. . . except the dream." Cap doesn't want to kill, but he is a soldier, and it's war. He'll do what has to be done.

    And to be perfectly honest, I was more focused on Evans than anything else, because now I can breathe easy about there being a weak link in the Avengers' big three. If next year's big adventure falls flat, it won't be because of bad casting.

  2. Oops. Forgot to mention that there should be more films with Neal McDonough in a handlebar mustache.

  3. This is an awesome superhero film because it never loses its retro touch even if the script may not make this an ultimately memorable ride. Good Review!

  4. Hi J.D.

    Of all the superhero films released this summer, Captain America is the one I'm most excited about seeing.

    In large part, this is because of director Joe Johnston: his The Rocketeer is a great, underrated film that really captured the WWII era with style and humor. It looks like he accomplishes the same thing here, and in a franchise where it is more likely to be lauded and appreciated.

    And secondly, since childhood, I've been a huge fan of Captain America. For me (and again, this is just a personal bias), he comes right after Superman in terms of affection and interest.

    It's encouraging to know that the filmmakers, and Evans, get the character right.

    Thanks for a great look at this one, J.D.

  5. Loved the film myself J.D.

    It was the one I most wanted to see. I saw it three days after release [to avoid the crowds and it was still busy].

    It's a terrific retro Marvel comic film. I thought Evans was great. I thought Weaving was great. The cast as a whole was perfect. The story was solid. A nice mix of character and action.

    Unlike some of the critics who quickly denounce enjoying the film for any patriotic reason. God forbid the reviewers align themselves with that kind of nonsense. I actually liked the pro-American slant and I liked Evans as a hero in the right. The whole thing was refreshing for its lack or irony and darkness and shooting for a straight up tale of good versus evil.

    I enjoyed the Marvel nods and the Stan Lee appearance. I thought Johnston did a heck of a great job. It was a satisfying day out and my fave comic film in awhile perhaps because of my affection for CA and Johnston's retro handling of the source.

    I would love a live action Invaders! Wouldn't that be something? Of course Evans would have to play Cap and the torch.

    Take care,

  6. Great write up. It was a very solid superhero movie that delivered what it promised remaining true to the difficut Captain AMerica premise. It really put the emphasis on the man himself as an inspiration versus the "powers" carrying the movie, although he certainly handled himself very well in the action scenes too. His line towards the end "I had a date" was quite affecting and really got the "man out of time" feeling to come through. Good set up for the future too.

  7. As passionate an essay as I've yet read on this film J.D.! Well, I saw it the week after HARRY POTTER, and while I wouldn't place it on that level, I surely do beliece everything came together to produce one of the very best and most nostalgic superhero movies. It's a sure candidate for repeat viewing, and it works on just about every level.

  8. Snackules:

    We are in total agreement. The casting of Evans was the one thing I was nervous about and he really stepped up on showed that he could carry a film of this magnitude. As you say, he was able convey the determination of Rogers before being transformed into Cap.

    And hell yes, to Neal McDonough and his mustache! Someone's gotta make a Howling Commandos spinoff movie, now!

    Dan O.:

    Thank you! Yeah, the script isn't anything to write home about but it is functional, which is good enough.

    John Kenneth Muir:

    CAPTAIN AMERICA is definitely my fave summer film so far. Loads of fun and quite faithful to the spirit of its source material.

    I would say that the hiring of Johnston as director is a large part of why this film is so good. He brings a lot to the table.

    We are definitely simpatico. Cap was my fave comic book when I was a kid, used to read it all the time and so I was wondering if they would be able to do it justice but the end result is a delight.

    And secondly, since childhood, I've been a huge fan of Captain America. For me (and again, this is just a personal bias), he comes right after Superman in terms of affection and interest.

    Thank you for the kind words, my friend.

    The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    I figured you would dig this film.

    And wasn't Weaving excellent? I like that they allowed him some time without the Red Skull makeup and he really breathed life into the character.

    You say;

    "The whole thing was refreshing for its lack or irony and darkness and shooting for a straight up tale of good versus evil."

    Exactly! This is what I enjoyed about it as well.

    Wow, the Invaders! Wouldn't that be cool? I would be totally down with that. I haven't thought about that comic book in ages. Love to see Union Jack realized in a live-action film.


    "It really put the emphasis on the man himself as an inspiration versus the "powers" carrying the movie, although he certainly handled himself very well in the action scenes too. His line towards the end "I had a date" was quite affecting and really got the "man out of time" feeling to come through."

    Agreed! Well said. There was a poignant pathos at the end when he realizes how much time has passed and that Peggy is probably gone, just when they were finally connecting on a meaningful level back in the past.

    Sam Juliano:

    Thanks for your wonderful comments, Sam! Still haven't seen HARRY POTTER but I really want to. Good to see that you're a fan of CAPTAIN AMERICA as well. I can't wait for this to come out on DVD and be able to revisit it again!

  9. This is one superhero film I am actually looking forward to. These posters look awesome!

  10. I thought Evans was perfect and I liked the film's sincerity and theme of going after the bullies. Tucci was particularly impressive and Weaving WAS the Red Skull...

    But. The action scenes were lacking, and I thought the montage action beats were disastrous. The intro scene with Captain America and His Howlin' Commandos should have been a real scene not montage. The CGI was fairly awful towards the end. Johnston gets the vibe but I don't think he's a good directer - he lacks rhythm, scope. And I really did not like that ending.

  11. christian:

    I thought that the action sequences were good. Not great but certainly exciting enough but I could've done without the montages, esp., as you point out, the intro of the Howling Commandos.

    Honestly, the CGI didn't bother me at all. Maybe I wasn't paying attention to it at the end. I do agree with you about the ending. They should've ended with his crashing into the ice but I know Hollywood films don't want to end on a downer.

    As for Johnston, I like him as a diretor. I think he's good but it really depends on the subject matter. When he connects with it, like THE ROCKETEER and OCTOBER SKY, he's excellent, but when he doesn't, like THE WOLFMAN, the results are awful.

  12. This was the Marvel property I had the most trepidation about - even more so than 'Thor' - but the producers nailed it with the choice of Johnson as director. Evans utterly surprised me, playing it straight (and eminently likeable) and million miles away from his annoying smartarse persona in the 'Fantastic Four' movies. The filmmakers were also very canny in their supporting cast - and if this isn't the movie that turns Hayley Atwell into a star then something's very wrong!

  13. Neil Fulwood:

    I was also afraid that this film was going to be a disaster but once I heard Johnston was going to be at the helm, it made me feel better but I was still not sure about Chris Evans, but man, did he ever do a good job!

    And I also agree wholeheartedly with you about Hayley Atwell. So good in this film and if this role isn't a launching pad for a bigger things, then her agent needs to be fired!

  14. Awesome movie...I was also afraid that this film was going to be a disaster but once I heard Johnston was going to be at the helm...

    Captain America Leather Jacket