Ironically, Captain America: The First Avenger is the last of the three main Avengers to be introduced into the movie world. Marvel saved the most dramatic and tragic of the introductions for last and aside from a few key scenes not resonating emotionally, the Captain doesn’t disappoint.
Unlike Thor and Iron Man, Captain America has very humble origins that lead him to being the heart of the Avengers. The biggest idea The First Avenger has is to establish is Captain America as a believably sympathetic, self-less and honorable everyman that’s put into a position to make a change. Aside from not screwing up the origin story, that’s really the only big responsibility Joe Johnston and team had when developing the direction of the movie. This, they get right on every level.
Chris Evans, A.K.A. generic white actor #14, is tapped to play the Capt. He previously played Johnny Storm in the Fantastic 4 movies, so going into production fans have reason to be nervous about Evans’ Captain. Not that he was bad as Johnny Storm, it was quite the opposite, Evans’ performance as The Human Torch helps make those movies watchable. Its just once an actor is established in a universe as a character, if the actor isn’t good enough and can’t adapt with the new character both the actor and the movies can be damaged.
I am happy to report that the Chris Evans that was in Fantastic 4 is not the same Evans that is in Captain America. He did an amazing job embodying the character and, for an actor that typically takes heavily comedic roles, does a great job disappearing into the drama of the story. Going in as a huge skeptic, I was very surprised at the effort I saw to let Captain America be Captain America.
Its wasn’t Chris Evans’ interpretation of the character (I.E. Seth Rogen in Green Hornet, Ryan Reynolds in Green Lantern), it was Captain America using Chris Evans as his Avatar for the production of the movie. The CG used to make Evans scrawny in the first act of the film wasn’t annoying like I originally imagined it being and enough screen time was given to the pre-Captain Steve Rodgers, for the transformation to be impactful.
The other casting choices were golden as well: Hugo Weaving as Red Skull, Tommy Lee Jones as Col. Chester Phillips, Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine and strangely enough Neal McDonough as Dum Dum Dugan are the standouts. Weaving as Red Skull works really well, especially prior to the dramatic reveal of the skull. Unlike Natalie Portman in Thor, Hayley Atwell is an actress whose level of stardom matches the significance of her character, Peggy Carter.
Despite being a period piece, the movie buries no leads when tying itself to the Avengers. The movie is bookended by scenes in present day and while I wouldn’t call the ending a cliffhanger, I would say it ties directly into the beginning of the upcoming Avenger’s movie. Set during WWII, Captain America was to be the first of an army of Super Soldiers created by the US government to fight the Nazis. Most specifically they were to fight HYDRA, the quickly-becoming-rogue German research group growing in power.
This is a curious angle for the movie to take. The world’s greatest war, and the world’s most notorious enemy, are almost a footnote in the film. Having Captain America fight HYDRA detaches the story from history a bit. I’m not sure when it became unacceptable to fight Nazis in PG-13 movie, but I do see it being hard to sell toys with Swastikas one them. We also don’t need a repeat of the notoriously bad Nazi scene in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.
Like any good summer movie, there’s a fair amount of comedy included. Tasteful one liners are spouted by nearly every character. In a smart move, Captain America typically plays the straight man, leaving the comedy to peripheral characters. The most satisfying humor comes from Tommy Lee Jones in a way that only he can provide. A few spots in the film didn’t carry the emotional queues they were probably supposed to. Both the death of Bucky Barnes and the climactic finale that leaves the Captain frozen are emotionally dead, but I can’t point to anything tangible in the movie to blame.
The problem with Captain America releasing last is that the formula in Thor is visible in The First Avenger. The Warriors Three and Sif were used in Thor as a way of throwing the comic readers a bone. Its worked really well there, but in Captain American, when he’s choosing his soldiers to take into battle (Dum Dum Dugan, Gabe Jones, Jim Morita, Jacques Dernier, and James Montgomery Falsworth) the scene and characters seemed forced. All of them are minor established characters in the greater Marvel Universe but they hold zero significance to the story in the movie. I don’t know if this fell short because of it being the second attempt to wink at the core audience or if the characters should have been disposable extras, but it will probably go unnoticed by most of the audience.
Captain America has good pacing and it balances action and story extremely well. The entire movie feels very carefully crafted to hit all of the necessary plot points, visual queues and humorous quips. Obviously alot of hands were in the pot when making Captain America, and while most movies would feel watered down or seem like there are playing it too safe, The First Avenger feels genuine. It comes off as patriotic, but not in the obnoxious way that everyone is accustomed to these days. By the end, you want the Captain to run down that plane on foot, even though you know its not possible. Stick around after the credits, you will not be disappointed.
Verdict: Rediculously satisfying shield-play.