I felt like I needed to watch something a bit more uplifting after yesterday’s viewing of Boyz N The Hood, and it seemed like the right time to go see Captain America: The First Avenger. One advantage of being late to the game is that by this time, word of mouth has gotten around and I had reason to think I wouldn’t be disappointed. The early promotional material — blurbs from the director, hints from the writers — before the trailers hit gave me some mild concerns, but I held onto my optimism for once. Captain America’s been subjected to some very bad movies in the past, but I felt that, handled correctly, a Captain America movie could and should be one of the best of the superhero genre.
I was not disappointed.
The movie recounts Captain America’s origin story, with Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, a literal 98-pound weakling, short, and with a whole host of health issues. He desperately wants to enlist in the army and aid in World War II, but as the enlistment officer states, his asthma alone would keep him out (this is especially true since many of the other issues I could see on his form are related to asthma in one way or another). When his best friend, James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) receives his deployment orders, he and Steve go on a trip to the World’s Fair with a couple of girls in tow. There, Steve makes one more attempt at enlisting, and his earnestness (and multiple attempts) catch the attention of army scientist Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci). Erskine gets Steve into the army, and a training camp run by Colonel Phillips, played very naturally by Tommy Lee Jones. Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), on loan from Britain, is assisting Col. Phillips and Dr. Erskine on their project.
The goal, of course, is to create a super soldier. Before fleeing Nazi Germany, Dr. Erskine had been working on a formula, and had been forced to administer it to Johann Schmidt, leader of Hydra, Nazi Germany’s science department (and quickly a splinter group in the movie). Now in the United States, Erskine wants to create super soldiers for the good guys, assisted with technology from Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), in a tie-in with the Iron Man movies. While Col. Phillips is hoping to improve his already-strong soldiers, Erskine has a different candidate in mind; Steve, of course.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Johann Schmidt, the Red Skull, is carrying out his own agenda. The Red Skull is played by one of Hollywood’s favorite bad guys, Hugo Weaving, and is as appropriately creepy as any of Weaving’s villainous roles, without being as hammy as the role could have been. (Toby Jones’s Dr. Arnim Zola was just a bit hammy as the submissive evil scientist, but it worked.) Just as the development of Captain America tied in with Iron Man in preparation for next summer’s The Avengers, the Red Skull’s plot has a subtle tie-in with Thor. Schmidt has found a power source from the Norse Gods, a tesseract in cube form capable of emitting tremendous amounts of energy. (This is based on the Cosmic Cube from the comics, but it is never named such in the movie; it’s probably a good thing, as “Cosmic Cube” is a bit goofy-sounding, and the concept is one that, while it was handled well here, is always just a little bit at risk of goofiness by default.) With the cube, Schmidt is developing super-weapons years ahead of the technology of today, let alone the 1940s, and plans to use these weapons to take over the world.
Though initially Captain America is relegated to the rather humiliating position of a USO mascot, due to the army not knowing what to do with just one super soldier, circumstances eventually conspire to bring him into a position to take up the fight against the Red Skull. What follows is a series of battles that are among the better fights in a superhero movie because this movie remembers what it is and doesn’t go over-the-top with it. It’s a bit subdued in places, and I can see how some movie-goers may have expected more traditional superhero action scenes, a la Thor or Iron Man. But genres are a fuzzy thing. All three are superhero movies, but they’re not quite the same type. Thor‘s genre is on the border of fantasy, Iron Man‘s is on the border of science-fiction. Captain America: The First Avenger is on the border of war movies, and appropriately doesn’t call on us to shout out loud for every punch the hero throws while other soldiers are literally being vaporized before our eyes.
But we do root for the hero, which Chris Evans plays with a quiet, and even polite, determination. He doesn’t give any big inspirational speeches here, but that’s OK; this is, after all, Cap’s origin story. This is Steve Rogers, the determined kid; Captain America, the novice soldier; not Captain America, the living legend and icon to all heroes that came after. (But if he doesn’t do some inspiring in The Avengers, then I might be just a bit disappointed.) I’ve read a few complaints that he was too much of a “goody goody”. To that, I can only shake my head. There are some characters who should be righteous and noble through and through, and Captain America more than most.
Visually, this movie always looks good, and always looks appropriate. The backstreets of Brooklyn look like the back alleys of urban cities from 1940s films. The different advanced technology used looks like something out of science fiction, but not today’s science fiction; it’s a very well-crafted rendition of 1940s science fiction technology. The scenery is always shot well, and some of it is breathtaking when viewed in 3D. This is a great-looking movie.
Captain America: The First Avenger is the last film that Marvel Studios needed to set up The Avengers, their big superhero team movie. And while it may not be the best — I’d probably still give that to Iron Man — it’s not far behind.