Captain America: The First Avenger
What It Is
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants to go to war. It’s 1942, and he’s a scrawny kid from Brooklyn, too scrawny, according to army doctors, to join up. And indeed, the early images of Steve in Captain America: The First Avenger, emphasize his slender build and visible ribs, as he’s standing shirtless before a doctor, who marks his form “4F.”
A few scenes later, Steve’s been recruited by another doctor, Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), German-born and determined to fight Hitler with his serum, which will turn even Steve, the “90-pound asthmatic,” into a super-soldier. With the help of the U.S. government, beautiful Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), and the inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) (not incidentally, the father of Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, another of Marvel Comics’ Avengers), Erskine puts together a doozy of an experiment — called Project Rebirth. He injects Steve with glowing blue liquid and blowing a few fuses, before an audience full of men in suits.
When things go wrong (a Nazi spy intervenes, destroying the remaining serum), Steve is left as the one and only super-soldier — with a huge chest, super-speed and strength, and still, his good inner self intact (he doesn’t so much want to kill Nazis, he explains to Erskine, as he dislikes bullies, having been their victim throughout his life). The man who would command Steve in his new form, Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), dismisses him as an “experiment,” and then heads off to Europe where the real fighting is going on. A senator decides that Steve will serve very nicely as a PR tool, dressing him up in red, white, and blue and parading him (with scantily dressed dancing girls) before audience after audience, in order to sell war bonds. Frustrated by performing as “Captain America,” Steve soon learns that his best friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has been lost in a battle, and so he sets off in search of him.
This brings Captain America into direct confrontation with the man who most wants to destroy him, a rogue Nazi officer named Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), who has conducted his own experiment — on himself — with the help of Dr. Zola (Toby Jones). Because Schmidt’s experiment didn’t go so well, he’s left looking like a monster, with his skull visible and scarlet (hence his super-villain’s name, the Red Skull). He’s also insane, determined to rule the world, or at least destroy it, via his own military and scientific organization, which he calls Hydra. As he captures prisoners of war in order to conduct more experiments and also serve as slave labor in his weapons-building facility, Schmidt is also waiting to meet up with Captain America, whose reputation precedes him.
The two super-strong men — or “freaks,” as Schmidt labels himself and Steve, two men who have — eventually clash, more than once. While Schmidt has an army of black-helmeted storm troopers, Steve assembles a multi-culti team, including Gabe Jones (Derek Luke), Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough), and Morita (Kenneth Choi), loyal to one another and the national ideals they believe in — freedom and the American way. The film includes multiple battle scenes, many in montage-style and showing Captain America leaping in front of explosions in slow motion, lots of fires, cars flipping, and men shot and killed. Amid the ruckus, Steve discovers his earnest true love for Peggy. And of course, he saves America.
Why It’s Fun
Steve is the sort of hero who used to show up in World War II movies. The Captain America comics were first published during the war, in 1940. The film maintains an old-fashioned sensibility. Steve is earnestly patriotic, Schmidt is earnestly evil and deserving of all bad things that happen to him, and Peggy is earnestly vavoomy, with the bright red lipstick and curvy figure typical of movie stars back then.
The comedy is also clear, sometimes in one-liners, and most often in Steve’s self-awareness. He’s not so self-loving and clever as Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark; he’s more like Chris Hemsworth as Thor: he gets that the suit is silly, but he also likes the American flag decoration on his shield. He sees he’s been made into a “monkey” to sell bonds. He wants to be a real hero. But he also says he doesn’t want to fight, necessarily, only when he must to defend others, who are powerless the way he used to be. So, he’s full of contradictions, which is actually good, a bit of a twist on the film’s generally black-and-white moral formula.
Who’s Going To Love It
Fans of the Captain America comics may like it.
Fans of the Marvel Avengers film franchise — including the Iron Man movies and this summer’s Thor — may like it more, as it is yet another step toward The Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon and due in theaters in 2012. (Samuel L. Jackson fans will also appreciate that, as at the end of the first Iron Man, he shows up as Nick Fury to set up the mega-film, which will also feature a whole new Hulk, the David Banner part played by Mark Ruffalo.)
More broad-based aficionados of super-hero comics movies may feel less impressed, as the film is very straight-laced. As charming as Evans is as Steve, the delineations of good and evil are not very nuanced. Similarly, the technologies and scientific ideas are both rudimentary and unbelievable.
The political and cultural ideas are also simplistic. The patriotism here might be read variously: it’s a little contagious and a little too adamant, it’s admirable and corny, and it’s treated with a mix of commitment and ironic distance. Evans helps this complication of tone, to his credit.
What To Be Aware Of
Lots of violence, an amount that seems to be pushing the PG-13 edge. Most is of the anonymous sort, with wide shots of explosions, tanks and guns firing, or men yelling as they run into the fiery fray. Some is more personal, as a villain takes a child hostage, points a gun at his head, then dumps him into the New York Harbor. (The kid is fine, he assures Steve, because he can swim, one of the film’s nicely comic turns of plot.)
Two other more personal scenes include the loss of Bucky (a sad Steve’s point of view shot shows him falling a very far distance as Steve blinks back tears) and also the loss of Steve; this time Peggy’s eyes water, as she listens to his last transmission from the villain’s super-plane, which he’s commandeered and has stopped from bombing New York and Chicago. You won’t be surprised to know that Steve survives, in part because you know he’s the “first Avenger” and will show up in subsequent films in the series, and in part because at the beginning of this movie, Steve is discovered frozen in ice by U.S. government men in our present (Steve’s future).
When Steve tries to entertain the U.S. troops as Captain America (during his bonds tour), they make fun of him, and one man drops his pants and moons him. You don’t see much, as the scene cuts to Steve’s reaction (not surprised, but not happy either).
The CG technology that makes Steve skinny at the start is rather like the technology that aged Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, more or less photo-shopping a digitized version of his face onto someone else’s body. It’s not always convincing.
Some drinking, by soldiers, in bars. A couple of mild displays of drunkenness. Steve complains, after he’s been made into Captain America, that the genetic changes mean he cannot “get drunk.”
Some mild language includes “ass” and “hell.” (This is as crusty as Colonel Phillips gets.)
6 out of 10
Captain America: The First Avenger
Director: Joe Johnston
Cast: Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper, Toby Jones, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Stanley Tucci
Studio: Paramount Pictures
US Premiere: July 22, 2011
UK Premiere: July 29, 2011