Captain America: The First Avenger,
directed by Joe Johnston
(Paramount, 2011)

Though it's lacking in a couple of areas, Captain America is a solid summer flick that does a better than average job at spinning a good comic-book yarn. Chris Evans was a good choice for the title role, fairly radiating sincerity, honesty and bravery. It isn't a masterpiece but it's pretty well-done, and lots of fun besides. In fact, it's exactly like the sort of movies that were made in the World War II era in which CA is set.

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had both patriotism and American intervention in WW2 in mind when Captain America made his debut with a cover that showed him socking Hitler in the jaw. Most superheroes' origins (from that period, anyway) coalesced around that ideal, of being a hero who possessed not merely godlike abilities but ironclad morals as well -- which is very understandable considering that it was a time when the nation was genuinely fearful about its future. It's because of that sensibility that Captain America was one of the most popular and important superheroes to emerge from that era.

In that sense, the movie is true to both the hero and the legend. Except for two bookend glimpses of the future, Cap's story is located solidly where it belongs, in the 1940s. Stylistically, it borrows heavily from Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow, a sepia-toned, moody gray world filmed in soft focus, which lends it the aura of authenticity that is one of the movie's strongest points.

Young Steve Rogers tries repeatedly to enlist in the war but is constantly rejected due to poor health. Scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) offers him the chance of a lifetime when he enlists him in the army's secret project to create an elite corps of super soldiers by injecting him with a rare serum while blasting him with Vita-Rays. Rogers is indeed transformed into something way beyond human, but Erskine unfortunately is killed by agents of the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), who happens to be the only other person who underwent that same treatment. In his case, however, every horrid attribute was enhanced, making him as evil as Rogers is good. During the doctor's assassination the only remaining vial of serum is destroyed, stranding Rogers as a literal army of one.

Unable to re-create the experiment without the serum or its author, the army -- afraid of putting its only super soldier on the front lines, puts Rogers to use on the stage, dancing with showgirls to sell government bonds for the war effort, a plan he goes gamely along with until the chance to prove himself on a rescue mission shows the world what he can really do. From that point on he hunts down Nazis, tipping the war decisively in America's favor -- until he encounters Red Skull himself.

Cap could easily have become a one-note hero, but Evans and director Joe Johnston add dimension to his character by making him a man who happens to be enhanced but who would have willingly given up his life for his country and his fellow soldiers even if he wasn't. He's true-blue, in the old-fashioned sense, and that keeps him from being an arrogant idiot in a mask. It's when he's just one of the men that he's most outstanding. His purpose is unshakable even when he's losing, and his courage is unwavering in the face of loss. That's what makes a champion a champion.

CA may be a bit simplistic in its right-vs-wrong philosophy, but heck, we did win the war against the Nazis precisely by maintaining the belief that freedom was worth fighting and dying for. The movie definitely plays on that sentiment by capitalizing on nostalgia, but its heart is so much in the right place that it's impossible not to like this love letter to the spirit of America. The action sequences are terrific, and the supporting performances from Tommy Lee Jones and Hayley Atwell are rib-ticklingly funny in their perfect ability to steal every single scene they are in.

CA's charming cheerfulness makes the movie seems a lot less than over two hours long. Marvel can chalk up another winner in what is beginning to be an incredible winning streak of well-produced, convincingly made movies, with CA as a more-than-competent installment. Bring the popcorn and enjoy. All in all, CA is a great set-up for next spring's heropalooza flick, The Avengers.

review by
Mary Harvey

6 August 2011

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