Given the glut of disappointing superhero movies in recent years, Captain America: The First Avenger is a refreshing, though by no means groundbreaking, diversion into a more nostalgic take on superheroes. This movie also deserves credit for its ability to stand alone, even though it is one of a series of “prequels” to the summer 2012 The Avengers uber-event movie. While it’s true that this movie is bookended by scenes that help set up The Avengers film, everything in between works well all by itself.
Directed by Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer, and Jurassic Park III ), Captain America takes us back to 1942 where a gutsy-but-puny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) tries repeatedly to enlist in the US Army to join the battle against Hitler’s Axis forces. Despite weighing only 90 pounds, Rogers refuses to give up and relays a charming “aw shucks” patriotic determination that captures the flavor of the original comic books started in 1940 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.
Rogers’ pluck gets him noticed by genius scientist Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German scientist who defected to the Allies after refusing to hand over his secrets to the Nazis. He believes that Steve, despite a laundry list of ailments, has the moral fiber that makes him the right choice to become the first biochemically-enhanced super soldier— pitting him against Tommy Lee Jones’s Colonel Phillips, who wants a he-man soldier in the experiment. Also included in the mix is British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who puts in a good performance but is obviously spackled in to the script as a romantic interest.
And why does the US want to create a super-soldier? To do battle with a rogue Nazi maniac named Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), aka the Red Skull, who wants to take over the world by way of a diabolical plot that he explains in great detail in the tradition of countless chatty super villains. Weaving nails the Red Skull character perfectly and chews the scenery only enough to satisfy.
The movie looks great. The production design by the Rick Heinrichs is bold and interesting, the period-specific monochromatic palette complements the storyline and mood perfectly, and the shooting style evokes World War II newsreels. This is NOT a dark, gritty, bleak superhero movie a la Christian Bale in the Batman franchise. One of the most impressive special effects is the least noticeable. During the first part of the movie, Chris Evan’s head is digitally attached to a scrawny actors body to simulate his per-transformation self. It’s really quite amazing for its seamlessness.
As mentioned previously, the storyline is nothing we haven’t seen before, but it’s got a lot of fun built into it and moves along at a good clip. While we don’t get really deep into any of the characters, there’s enough development for us to care during the more poignant, quieter scenes. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely did a nice job with the script, and it should be noted that Joss Whedon performed an uncredited polish. Like the story overall, the action scenes are fun and engaging, but far from groundbreaking. I saw the movie while sitting next to a group of (well-behaved) young boys, and the action seemed to keep them focused and non-fidgety. So, I’ll call that a success.
Ultimately, I’d give Captain America: The First Avenger a solid B grade, perhaps even a B+. The movie knows its audience and does right by them, while being enjoyed independent of its Avengers franchise. If you’re looking for a fun, feel-good action film, then this is a pretty good pick.
Oh … and as it is with all of these movies, wait until after the credits at the end of the film. There’s bonus footage from The Avengers.