(2011) Superhero (Paramount/Marvel) Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones, Toby Jones, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Stanley Tucci, Richard Armitage, Kenneth Choi, JJ Feild, Michael Brandon, Amanda Righetti, Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Joe Johnston
Part of the American character is to root for the underdog. There is something about someone beating the odds that capture the imagination of American audiences, particularly when it is someone less physically gifted that surpasses those with more natural talent.
It is World War II and Steve Rogers (Evans) wants nothing more than to enlist but his scrawny asthmatic physique gets rejected every time. His best buddy, James “Bucky” Barnes (Stan) is about to be shipped over and as he and Steve and a couple of dames visit the New York Fair of Tomorrow (think of the Stark fair from Iron Man 2) to celebrate Bucky’s last night before shipping out, Steve spies a recruiting station. He and Bucky have an impassioned discussion which catches the ear of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Tucci). Finally Steve leaves his friend to make one more fruitless attempt to enlist.
At least, Bucky thinks it’s going to be fruitless – heck, even Rogers thinks it’s going to be fruitless – but Erskine walks in and makes Steve an offer. At last, Steve Rogers is going to do his part. He is sent to boot camp, run by the crusty Colonel Phillips (T.L. Jones) and overseen by the lovely British agent Peggy Carter (Atwell). While there are better physical specimens there (which the Colonel appreciates), Erskine and Carter are drawn to less obvious characteristics that Steve possesses, much to Phillips’ chagrin.
Steve is eventually chosen to be the guinea pig in a “super soldier” program to be injected with a serum that will make him stronger, faster and a better fighter. Erskine will be assisted by Howard Stark (Cooper), a wealthy aviator who is one of America’s most brilliant weapon designers. The operation is a success but agents of the Nazi science group Hydra wreck any further thought of creating an army of super soldiers.
Hydra is led by Johann Schmidt (Weaving), better known to comic book fans as the Red Skull who was injected with a earlier version of the formula causing the visage that gave him his nickname, although it is never uttered at any time during the movie. He has stolen a power source once protected by Odin of the Norse Gods (see Thor) and is using it to power weapons designed by the brilliant Dr. Armin Zola (T. Jones) that will turn the tide of the war.
Of course, nobody on the Allied side knows that yet. Steve, whose exploits in corralling the Nazi agent that threw the monkey wrench into the super soldier works were done very publically, has become a war bonds spokesman as Captain America, a persona the shy and unassuming Steve is uncomfortable with but like a good soldier, he does what he’s told, even if the orders are odious to him. When he learns that his pal Bucky has been captured by Hydra (along with most of his battalion), Steve does something most un-Steve Rogers like – he defies orders and goes in to rescue his friend.
Captain America is in many ways the Superman of the Marvel Universe – the iconic hero tied to the American way. He is almost too good to be true, but in this movie he is good enough to be true. Evans plays him in the digitally enhanced 98-pound-weakling the same way he plays him cut and muscular – with a hint of humility and plenty of fight in the dog, although there are touches of doubt and disappointment.
Johnston, who has previously directed The Rocketeer, another period comic book-based movie (which gave us Jennifer Connolly, among other things) does a wonderful job of recreating the World War II era, from the art deco lines to the make-up of Peggy Carter. The war bonds shows that Cap undertakes complete with singers, dancers and a sneaky little Hitler are spot-on.
This is a superhero movie with character, literally. Johnston takes the time to bring Steve Rogers to life just as equally as Captain America. Like Sam Raimi before him, Johnston clearly understands that the alter ego is equally as important as the superhero. Humanizing the paragon of virtue makes him more accessible; giving him challenges that we can relate to brings us closer to him.
Still, he also gives several nods to the fanboy base, throwing in enough references to the comics and the Marvel universe circa WWII in particular to keep that segment of the audience picking through the DVD/Blu-Ray long into the night. Personally, I think that’s a good thing.
Of the main superhero movies that have been released this summer (and this was supposed to be the big triumphant superhero movie summer), this is the best and unexpectedly so. I wouldn’t have called that back in April when writing the Summer Preview. At that point, I would have given the nod to Green Lantern and Thor first but nonetheless I liked Captain America: The First Avenger more.
As for criticism that this is essentially a two hour trailer for the forthcoming Avengers movie, well I for one like that Marvel Studios is taking the model that works for their comic book universe and applying it to their motion picture division. I like the idea of event movies that will bring together the heroes from other franchises into a single film. To that end, certainly this movie is pointing to the next one but it stands on its own as well. That kind of criticism is, to my mind, ignorant of the medium and of the audience that follows it.
Be that as it may, this ranks right up there with the summer’s best films. It’s got great action sequences, terrific characters, wonderful special effects and a great heart at its center. This reminds me not only of the way movies used to be, but of the best movies being made now. There is certainly a place for that in summer blockbuster films.
REASONS TO GO: Captures the era perfectly, giving it a bit of a revisionist spin to fit the Marvel comics universe. Evans carries the movie nicely and gets support in every quarter.
REASONS TO STAY: Cap might be too goodie two-shoes for modern audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a smattering of wartime violence and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the seventh film based on a comic book that Evans has done.
HOME OR THEATER: Certainly the action sequences deserve a big canvas and huge sound system.
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
TOMORROW: The Dark Knight