I cannot fully express how elated I am by the fact that we have finally reached a point where filmmakers are treating comic books like the modern myths they are. I wholeheartedly stand behind the notion that these stories are the 21st century equivalent of Greek myths – it wouldn’t take much digging to unearth the latter day stand-ins for Hercules, Achilles, Theseus, et al – and should be held at the same level of literary importance. We are truly in the “Golden Age” of comic book films, which makes perfect sense, since we have the technical know-how to create literally anything we can imagine onscreen and fully do these stories justice. Nowadays, it’s very easy to leave us in awe of these superheroes by visualizing their epic feats with CGI magic; however, it’s even more important to cushion the powers that make them “cool” with the qualities and themes that make them human. When this genre is good, it’s really good, and the comic book films that truly resonate are the ones that deftly balance the larger-than-life with the intimate.
Marvel Studios obviously realizes how important it is to achieve this balance, since they do it all the time on the page, and the best thing that happened to the comic book movie landscape is the fact that they became directly involved with the cinematic development of their properties. With “Captain America: The First Avenger,” Marvel has given us one of the best superhero movies yet, which fittingly features one of their flagship characters.
Set during WWII, the story follows the physically weak but spiritually strong Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). A short, skinny waif of a man, Rogers wants nothing more than to enlist and fight for what is right. Once Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), and British Intelligence Officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) see the greatness within Rogers, he is chosen for a top secret government experiment. Injected with a “Super Soldier” serum, Rogers grows in size and strength and begins the long fight for his country, with his best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) and a team of warriors known as the Howling Commandos at his side. Over the course of the war, Rogers clashes with Germany’s own demonic Super Soldier, an insane man with a crimson-colored visage and a God complex known as the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).
Right off the bat, I can tell you that the strongest aspect of this film is definitely its scope. Most cinematic superhero stories take place over a limited time frame and within limited locations. “Captain America” follows the titular hero’s entire globe-hopping World War II career, and as such, we see this man evolve from weakling to superman to wartime icon to fully fledged fighting hero, culminating in a gut punch of an ending wherein Cap finds himself stuck in the modern world. We’re right there with Rogers through every stage of his development, and we walk away with a true sense of having seen someone grow into their destiny. Despite a few patches here and there late in the film that seemed a tad rushed, the story thankfully takes its time to unfold and trace this man’s journey, and most importantly, endear him to us.
The action scenes are top notch; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that these might be the best action sequences I’ve ever seen in a superhero film. With a combination of sweeping camera angles and spectacular choreography, we are given plentiful chases, shootouts, and fist fights that literally take place on land, sea, and air (and they make great use of Cap’s signature shield). Director Joe Johnston taps into his “Rocketeer” roots and imbues the film with a palpable sense of swashbuckling adventure. Despite a few blips on his filmography, I always knew that if you gave Johnston the right script he could knock it out of the park, and he has certainly done so here from a visual standpoint. There was only one action-oriented moment that disappointed me – an iconic shot wherein Cap bursts into an enemy stronghold with the Howling Commandos at his back, guns blazing. In the trailer, it looked amazing; in the film, Johnston inexplicably chose a less-than-stellar alternate angle and added a jarring ramp-up effect to the shot, thus sucking some of the power from the moment. Nevertheless, the film downright soars in the action department. In addition, the production design, costumes, pulp sci-fi flourishes, and vivid color palette are absolutely pristine, resulting in a heightened 1940s setting that makes this story feel like it’s perched somewhere between fantasy and reality. The look and tone of this thing are absolutely what the material required, and I could not love those aspects of the film more.
Now, I will say that there is a slight lack of depth to the characters here. We pretty much learn three things about Steve Rogers: he is brave, he has an unshakable moral resolve, and he is awkward around women. Don’t get me wrong, Rogers is given a few quiet scenes with every significant character, as well as numerous introspective moments that illustrate his dominant qualities in interesting ways. Plus, the fact that he is a goof around girls, despite his physical superiority, is just as endearing as his sense of duty and earnestness. I simply would’ve liked to have learned more about him – his upbringing, his family life, more of his flaws, etc.
That said, Chris Evans puts his natural charisma to good use and admirably brings the quintessential Steve Rogers to life. Playing the role in a grounded manner, with no smarm or winks to the camera and with just the right amount of light humor, Evans truly gives us a star-making performance (much like Chris Hemsworth did earlier this summer in “Thor”). Chemistry is the key to any great cast, and Evans is the anchor here – he clicks with whoever is on screen next to him. As a result, we WANT to see Rogers kick butt and hang out with the Howling Commandos; we want to see him and Peggy have that dance they often talk about; we want to see him confront Red Skull again. Basically, we want to see more of everyone, because they all elevate each other in the best of ways.
Although the same lack of depth can be said of the supporting characters, the rest of the cast nonetheless fills out their roles nicely. Tommy Lee Jones serves as perfectly craggy comic relief. Stanley Tucci’s warmth helps him make a strong impact during his limited screen time. Sebastian Stan brings the required energy and bravado to the table for Bucky. Hugo Weaving instills Red Skull (whose makeup looks fantastic, by the way) with the appropriate amount of menace and intelligence, while managing to play the character in a very different way than his iconic Agent Smith from the “Matrix” films. Most importantly, Weaving deftly manages to make a one-dimensional villain seem like a layered, credible threat.
And, since these movies always have a girl, it’s fitting that Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter was crafted to be the perfect match for Cap – feisty, sweet, smart, and tough. She is quite the damsel who is never really in distress, which is refreshing to see in a comic book film. Another benefit of the movie’s epic timeline is that we are presented with a love story subplot in which two people end up getting to know each other over a long while. We truly believe that, over time, their attraction has only strengthened, and that Peggy unabashedly loves the man beneath the muscle. This only serves to make the ending even more heartbreaking and effective.
And so, we come to the elephant in the room: now that Cap’s story has been told, now that we’ve seen him attain the experience needed to be a credible leader, are we ready for “The Avengers”? Yes, I would say. Resoundingly so.
Marvel Studios has raised the bar for the genre by spending the last few years crafting an interconnected cinematic world (starting with 2008’s “Iron Man”), leading up to the combination of all their superheroes in a 2012 team up film called “The Avengers.” It’s probably an understatement to say that they truly took on a mammoth task by attempting to craft a series of superhero movies that are not only GOOD, that can not only stand on their own, but can also serve as an effective build up to “The Avengers” when viewed as a whole, and the main reason they’ve pulled it off is because they have made us care about these super-powered beings. The only real misstep on the road to “The Avengers” was “Iron Man 2,” whose wasted potential has only grown the more I reflect upon it. Regardless, I’m 100% sold on the characters Marvel has given us – including Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Cap of course – and the world around them, and it’ll be truly amazing to see all of those charismatic actors once again inhabit their roles and interact onscreen next summer. It’s also quite fun to speculate about the story and character arcs, especially when you consider the thematic connections between all the films. These men are hamstrung by love, for example, and they are all born leaders, so it’ll be interesting to see how they butt heads and bond.
In the quiet before the storm that will be “The Avengers” next summer, it is quite comforting to look back and see that Marvel has finished laying its foundation in a satisfying way by concocting a potent mix of humor, action, romance, and poignancy. With “Captain America: The First Avenger,” they’ve given us the final building block to what is essentially the most ambitious undertaking in superhero cinema history, and thankfully, they also saved the best for last.