Some say superhero movies are getting old. Some say movies about World War II got old a long time ago. So of course it’s natural that eventually the two would meet. They meet in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” a movie starring Marvel’s (and one of comics generally) most patriotic heroes. Considering how American’s could really use a symbol of hope these days, I’m sort of surprised it took Marvel so long to get this one out the door. But here it is, portraying a version of WWII you likely didn’t read about in the history books. In this movie Adolf Hitler is not the main threat of the world. Instead it is his general Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), who is a general gone rogue who wants to (you guessed it) take over the world.
But America has a secret weapon: Captain America. Once a timid and scrawny young man named Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), he is picked by a scientist named Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tuci, in a wonderfully eccentric performance) and given an experimental drug that turns him into…well, a living action hero that becomes a one man army. Once in this form you’d think the government would use him to help fight Nazi’s, but instead they have him sing Broadway show tunes to help save war bonds. Actually, in real life, it was fictional heroes like Captain America that encouraged kids to buy war bonds and recycle valuable materials for the war effort, so this isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Problem is, Dr. Erskine also created Red Skull, so the two men are almost equally matched in strength.
So as with any other superhero movie we have a simple set up that exists largely to pit good and evil together in an epic (and expensive) battle. Of all the superhero movies I’ve seen this year, this one sits in the middle somewhere. The WWII setting is more captivating than the Cuban Missile Crisis setting of “X-Men: First Class,” but it doesn’t quite match the uniqueness of “Thor’s” story. Regardless though, “Captain America: The First Avenger” makes for a solid action movie that is very entertaining. The one advantage to having the movie set during WWII is that it presents lots of opportunities for the title character to have life and death battles that are way over his head. It may be cliche, but Nazi’s just make for fun bad guys to kill (the movie sort of side steps the issues with Japan at the time).
Add in some clever use of 3D, and there’s no reason not to recommend this as a solid action film. However, as with the best superhero movies, it’s the intimate character moments that make these movies shine. In this case we have Rogers with not one, but two dilemmas. The first is that he is originally a weak person who wants to help his country but can’t. The second is that once he’s capable of helping his country, his country is more interested in turning him into a puppet show to sell war bonds. When he’s sent overseas to cheer up the troops, he publicly told by them that he has no idea what they’re going through, and what would really cheer them up are some pretty girls. He also has a love interest in Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), a British woman who see’s the strong man in him before he gains his muscles.
Hugo Weaving also does a great job at turning one of comic books most threatening villains into a terrifying presence here. Red Skull may command an army, but you get the sense they’re meant to be more of a distraction for Captain America. By far the best character though is Col. Chester Philips (Tommy Lee Jones), a man who originally see’s little value in Steve Rogers, but slowly comes to like the man and even respect him. It’s the sort of movie changing performance that won Jones so many awards years ago for “The Fugitive,” and he pulls it off again here. I know it might be hard to get him back for sequels, but it would be nice.
I guess the only real problem I have with the film is that it’s ending is abrupt and vague because it’s being set up for next years “The Avengers,” so this is essentially an incomplete movie (hey, there’s a reason this movie is subtitled “The First Avenger”). Even so, it would be a bad reason to skip this movie just because the film makers are trying to sell you a ticket for a second movie right off the bat. Because this is still a solid action movie with heart, one that works on multiple levels and is likely to entertain all sorts of people. And by golly, this is one of the few movies that wears it’s patriotism on it’s sleeve without a hint of irony or cynicism.
Grade: **** Stars
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