Sunday, July 24, 2011


Yes, here I am with another of my infamous movie takes, this time on the film Captain America: The First Avenger, based on the classic Marvel Comics character.  As always, if you haven't seen the movie yet and you don't want it spoiled for you, then please step back from your computer or whatever electronic device you're reading this on and stop reading now.  If, however, you're wise enough to know that movie reviews with spoilers are always more interesting than the ones without them...well...carry on, soldier...

It's been a pretty entertaining summer for fans of superhero flicks, with mostly favorable results.  We started off with Thor, one of the prime components to Marvel's upcoming film The Avengers, saw the X-Men franchise reboot with X-Men: First Class, and watched DC Comics and Warner Brothers dare to step outside their snuggly and warm comfort zone of Batman and Superman films with Green Lantern.  Sadly, Green Lantern underperformed at the box office with only $147 million worldwide, but even though several media outlets are giddily declaring the end of Hollywood's love of superhero movies, Thor pulled in $445 million worldwide while X-Men: First Class earned $347 million worldwide.  And since that's before DVD, Blu-Ray and digital video sales, something tells me that movie studios are going to keep viewing superheroes as a viable product for the foreseeable future.

Now it's Captain America's turn, which should prove interesting to see how the film does internationally.  Originally, it was awkwardly titled The First Avenger: Captain America, with talk of simply retitling it The First Avenger in foreign markets less fond of overt American patriotism.  Somewhere along the way, though, some Paramount studio exec apparently woke up and realized they might get a bit of negative PR by downplaying the America in Captain America, so they flipped the title around to Captain America: The First Avenger.  However, as shown in international posters here, the film is still being marketed as just The First Avenger in countries such as Russia.

As for the film itself, Joe Johnston was brought in as director even though his track record has been fairly hit-or-miss.  Although successful with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Jumanji, Johnston was also responsible for disappointing films such as Jurassic Park III and the recent version of The Wolfman.  Presumably though, it was his work on the fan-favorite but box-office-fail adaptation of Dave Stevens' comic The Rocketeer that got him the Captain America gig.  That film showed Johnston had a great grasp of period superheroics, making them fun, adventurous and exciting as they needed to be.  The problem here is that apart from the Indiana Jones films and X-Men: First Class, audiences have been reluctant to embrace heroes set in the past.  The Rocketeer, The Shadow, Dick Tracy, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow -- All of them tanked at the box office, failing to earn sequels, so Johnston certainly had his work cut out for him.

And sure enough, Johnston brought a healthy dose of old-school filmmaking to Captain America.  Not a lot of flashy quick-cut editing, or lens flares, or shakycam here, just some solid storytelling to convey the journey of a 98-pound weakling named Steve Rogers into a one-man army named Captain America.  And with Alan Silvestri, who did the scores to the Back to the Future films, actually providing the first hummable superhero theme in far too long, there's a very classic feel to this movie even with modern CGI effects. Essentially, Captain America comes off as if you put The Rocketeer, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and the first Spider-Man movie into a blender and poured it into an Avengers 7-11 Slurpee cup.  Okay, maybe that's not the best description...

The good news here is, Captain America is a really entertaining movie.  A good portion of the first act is devoted to seeing Chris Evans CGIed into the scrawny Steve Rogers and getting to first know him as someone determined to do his part for the war effort but can't due to his physical limitations that keep him being classified as 4-F.  Even after he gets his mega-dose of Human Growth Hormone--errrr, Vita-Rays and Super-Soldier Serum, Steve still falls into the trappings of a U.S. Senator's USO show promotion for war bonds.  It's only when he goes off on his own to rescue his friend Bucky and other soldiers held captive in a Hydra prison that the real Captain America emerges.

There are also plenty of fun easter eggs for the diehard comics fans.  The original costume design appears as Cap's USO costume, right down to the extended wings and pirate boots, and even includes the original triangular shield that Cap uses when rescuing Bucky and the Howling Commandos.  The Cosmic Cube appears once again, having been last seen in the Thor post-credits Avengers teaser, but is again referred to simply as "The Tesseract."  There's also a very sly nod to the future monstrous incarnation of Arnim Zola when Zola is introduced with his face looking directly at us through a large magnifying screen.  Possibly as an in-joke nod to Chris Evans, or perhaps a nod to Cap's original team the Invaders, a brief shot of the android Golden Age Human Torch is shown at the World Expo attended by Steve and Bucky.  And of course, there's even the inclusion of Captain America Comics #1, which featured Cap's first appearance with the cover showing him punching out Adolf Hitler.  Even this punch gets a nod during the USO show scene as Cap pretends to sock an actor garbed as Hitler squarely on the jaw.

Ultimately though, the story belongs to Steve Rogers and establishing him as the hero America needs him to become.  For someone who's "just a kid from Brooklyn," Steve proves he deserves to have that Super-Soldier serum coursing through his bloodstream and Johnston ably makes both the character and his saga work in this mostly faithful adaptation.  There are occasional missteps by the script from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, such as high proliferation of Hydra's Tesseract-powered energy weapons that could easily give them combat superiority over the allied forces, but thankfully they're kept to a minimum.  Also, with the third act becoming one nearly continuous action sequence, you're so busy charging ahead with Cap and the Howling Commandos that you don't think about such nitpicky things until long after the movie has ended.

So what about the performances from the cast and the characters they portrayed?  Well, as you might expect, I have a few thoughts about that...

CAPTAIN AMERICA/STEVE ROGERS -- Like many comics fans, I had some initial reservations about Chris Evans in the role of Cap after being such a perfect Human Torch in the two somewhat unfantastic Fantastic Four films.  However, these reservations were quickly put to rest because Evans plays the role of Steve Rogers as straight as he possibly can and certainly does it justice.  The early scenes of skinny and scrawny Steve could've been unintentionally humorous, but Evans makes you root for Steve to succeed and become the hero you want him to be.

PEGGY CARTER -- Hayley Atwell gets the role of Steve's would-be love interest as Peggy, but for all her talk of looking for the right dance partner, she still doesn't express her true feelings until Steve's tragic crash at the end.  She's allowed to punch obnoxious army privates and shoot at Steve's new shield in a huff of jealousy, but her essentially unimportant character sadly remains a solid example of the period she inhabits.

JAMES BUCHANAN "BUCKY" BARNES -- As Cap's sidekick Bucky, Sebastian Stan has to understandably play second fiddle here.  It was an interesting move to age Bucky so that he and Steve are similar and therefore avoid the strangeness of a young teen serving in the miitary.  Even though another change eliminated the presumed death of Bucky at the hands of Baron Zemo, the shot of Bucky falling from a train bridge into a river far, far below still sets up his potential return in a sequel as the Winter Soldier.

THE RED SKULL/JOHANN SCHMIDT -- Hugo Weaving does what Hugo Weaving does, namely turn on the creepy, smooth-talking villainy as he did as Agent Smith in the three Matrix films.  Once the far too perfect "mask" comes off and the Skull's true form is revealed, though, he becomes far more interesting even if you're not quite sure about this "attack everything" plan of his.

COLONEL CHESTER PHILLIPS -- After trying way too hard to be Jack Nicholson's take on the Joker as Two-Face in Batman Forever, Tommy Lee Jones returns to the world of superhero movies with a much more memorable performance.  Showing a snappier edge than he has in a good long while, Jones thankfully delivers his lines with the tone that made him so fun to watch in films like The Fugitive.  Welcome back, Tommy...We missed you.

DR. ABRAHAM ERSKINE -- Stanley Tucci essentially gets the "Uncle Ben" role of the mentor who dies tragically, but Tucci's terrific subdued performance as a German scientist who fled the Nazis and began working for the allies becomes one of this film's most interesting characters.  Before pumping Steve full of Vita-Ray goodness, Erskine imparts the necessary amount of wisdom, secure in the belief that he made the right choice.

HOWARD STARK -- As the father of Iron Man's Tony Stark, Dominic Cooper gets to display some of the flashy and glib brilliance Robert Downey, Jr. gets to bring to Tony, right down to the same moustache.  It's another great example of how well these recent Marvel films weave in and out of one another in an actual shared film universe.  Shame we didn't get to see Howard's wife Maria, though.

DR. ARNIM ZOLA -- Being something of a Doctor Who fan (No, really), Toby Jones first tripped my geek radar with his great performance last year as the Dream Lord.  Jones (Toby, not Tommy Lee) brings much of the unsettling strangeness here as the Red Skull's hench-scientist, although he's all-too-willing to give up the goods when interrogated while Phillips dines on a slab of steak.  Here's hoping Zola returns in a sequel, presumably sporting his current form of having his face displayed on a TV screen mounted in his chest.  That might sell a few more Zola action figures.

TIMOTHY "DUM-DUM" DUGAN -- Although I didn't notice his character being named in the film, Neal McDonough brings an entertaining bit of lightheartedness to Dugan.  He even gets to unleash a classic Howling Commandos "WA-HOOOO!" but I would've really liked to have seen him palling around with Nick Fury as he did in the classic Sgt. Fury comics.

OBLIGATORY NICK FURY CAMEO -- And while I'm on the subject of Nick, Samuel L. Jackson doesn't appear in the film until the very end when Steve wakes up in the 21st century and to keep setting up The Avengers.  I realize the idea of a black sargeant in World War II was rare, but it wasn't completely unheard of, so I have to wonder why the WW II aspect of Nick Fury's character was ignored here.  It certainly would make Steve's transition to the 21st century much easier if he was greeted by someone he knew from WW II, wouldn't it?

OBLIGATORY STAN LEE CAMEO -- Stan turns up this time as an army general sitting in the audience at a ceremony honoring Captain America. Even though Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Cap, Stan "The Man" did write Cap's adventures during the sixties so he certainly deserves a shout-out in this film.

Overall, Captain America: The First Avenger is a solid debut for Captain America into the shared Marvel movie universe and successfully establishes the final key component for The Avengers in 2012.  With the reported $66 million opening weekend box office, it seems more than likely that we'll get to see additional Cap films after The Avengers, especially with Chris Evans already signed for two more of each film.  The Winter Soldier seems like a natural bet for the sequel, and here's hoping they bring in Steve's current love interest (and niece of Peggy), Sharon Carter.

And for those who might be wondering, here's the updated and revised list of my Top 20 Comic Book Films:

1. Superman (1978)
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
3. Watchmen (2009)
4. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
5. Spider-Man (2002)
6. Batman Begins (2005)
7. Iron Man (2008)
8. X-Men: First Class (2011)
9. X2: X-Men United (2003)
10. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
11. X-Men (2000)
12. Thor (2011)
13. Green Lantern (2011)
14. Batman (1989)
15. Superman II (1981)
16. Iron Man 2 (2010)
17. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
18. Hellboy (2004)
19. Superman Returns (2006)
20. Sin City (2005)

Your friendly neighborhood movie reviewer,



  1. I think the Nick Fury age issue is why he wasn't in any WWII scenes. It was one of my favorite movies from Marvel so far.

  2. Fury's age issue was addressed in the comics by explaining that he ingested a serum called the Infinity Formula that slowed his aging. I don't think it would've taken much to add that bit in and let him appear with Cap and the Howling Commandos in WW II.