Review by Bob Ignizio
In this summer of big budget super-hero movie overload, it's easy to forget the indignity comic book films often suffered in the past. It would be hard to find a better example of that than Captain America. One of Marvel's most iconic characters, Cap was the subject of two laughable made for TV movies in the late seventies, and a low budget feature film from schlockmeister Albert Pyun in 1990. Now that Marvel Comics is producing their own movie adaptations, they finally get a chance to do right by their star-spangled hero.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER starts with a brief present-day sequence before flashing back to 1942. Johann Schmidt aka The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), head of a secret Nazi division called Hydra, is running around in Norway obtaining a glowing cube. Meanwhile the scrawny but persistent Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) finally manages to join the U.S military despite his 4F status.
Rogers gets put in a special program designed to create “super soldiers” using a process invented by Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci). The kindly German expatriate sees potential in Rogers, who explains to the good doctor that he doesn't want to kill anyone, he just can't stand bullies. So with the help of a little forties-era pulp fiction science, Erskine and his assistant Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) set out to turn Rogers into Captain America.
Evans, who showed super heroic potential as the Human Torch in the ho-hum FANTASTIC FOUR movies, makes a great Captain America. Cap's comic book kid sidekick James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is wisely re-envisioned here as Steve Roger's best friend and a fellow soldier (kid sidekicks are a dubious enough concpet as it is, but throwing one into the middle of a World War II battlefield would be a pretty hard sell for modern audiences). Beautiful but tough British officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) provides something in the ballpark of a love interest, and Tommy Lee Jones gets most of the best lines as Cap's CO, Colonel Phillips.
Much of the film has the feel of a late thirties/early forties serial (or for those who have no idea what such things are, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK) crossed with a classic fifties WWII movie, right down to the multi-cultural squad of soldiers who help Cap battle the Nazis and Hydra. Like the other Marvel produced films to date, a fair amount of CAPTAIN AMERICA's running time is devoted to plot development, and the tone is frequently lightened with humor that never condescends to the material.
Director Joe Johnston is no stranger to period super-hero films, having previously helmed the unjustly neglected THE ROCKETEER. Johnston started out as an art director (one early job in that position was, in fact, on RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK), so he knows how to get the look he's going for. Here that's the covers of old forties pulp magazines more than the comic books Cap appeared in. All that's missing is a scene where the Red Skull stands leering over a beautiful girl strapped to an operating table.
While the look of the film is marginally more realistic than the comics, the spirit of the source material is absolutely here. Unlike most modern super hero films which feel the need to be dark and edgy, CAPTAIN AMERICA is completely unambiguous. Cap is a hero through and through; the Red Skull and Hydra aren't just Nazis, they're the absolute worst, most psychotic Nazis around. It's okay to cheer when they get their just deserts. Sure, there's a little bit of propaganda, but that's kind of inherent in the character.
While I've enjoyed all the Marvel productions to date, I've always felt each film was lacking to one degree or another. Even the first IRON MAN, which was an incredibly fun movie, came up a bit short for me due to the lack of a compelling and formidable villain. With CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, Marvel finally gets everything right. Not only is this about as perfect a film version of the comic book character as anyone could hope for, it's great fun even if you've never heard of Cap before. 4 out of 4 stars.