Saturday, July 23, 2011

"Captain America: The First Avenger" (2011)

Starring Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving and Tommy Lee Jones
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Directed by Joe Johnston
Rated PG-13: Sci-fi violence and action
Running Time: 124 minutes

Marvel Studios presents the final piece of "The Avengers" puzzle that began with "Iron Man" and "The Incredible Hulk."  Next year, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, Hawkeye and Captain America will team up for what promises to be the biggest, baddest superhero film of all time.

"Captain America: The First Avenger," like those other films, presents the origin story of one member of the Avengers team.  Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a scrawny kid from Brooklyn, New York who feels an incredible sense of duty to fight for his country in World War II.  Unfortunately, his size and laundry list of health problems mean he can never serve in the military, even though is best friend "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is soon to ship out.

But young Rogers refuses to give up, applying again and again until he's noticed by Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) who works for a secret Super Soldier program under the command of Colonel Philips (Tommy Lee Jones).  Against Philips recommendations, Erskine chooses Rogers to be his first test subject, and Rogers is assigned to a unit under Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). 

Meanwhile, the evil and genius Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) has located an ancient power source known as the tesseract he believes will bestow him with the power of the gods.  Once it does so, he begins to unveil his own plan for world domination, making his Hydra forces an even bigger threat to the world than Hitler and the Nazis.  Schmidt, it is revealed, is Erskine's first attempt at creating a super-soldier.  The Nazis forced Erskine to experiment on Schmidt, but the results were unpredictable, turning Schmidt's skin red and deforming his face until he looks like ... the Red Skull.

Back in America, a Hydra agent manages to infiltrate the super-soldier program and destroys it, killing Erskine, and making Rogers the only viable test subject.  Now, "Captain America" can't be sent to the front, he's too valuable as a lab subject and a symbol for American troops.  He's sent to make propaganda films and push the sales of US War Bonds at USO shows across the country.  Eventually, he's sent to entertain troops in Italy where he discovers that Bucky's unit was taken prisoner by Hydra.  Against orders, Rogers, Carter and genius industrialist Howard Stark mount a dangerous rescue mission into German territory.  When Rogers returns successful having rescued some 400 prisoners of war, Philips realizes that Captain America can be a valuable asset in warfare.

Now, Rogers, leading "Dum Dum" Dugan (Neal McDonough) and his Howling Commandos, must find and destroy Hydra's other bases before the Red Skull uses his advanced technology to destroy the United States and take ovr the entire world.

"Captain America: The First Avenger" is a decent superhero film.  It gets a lot of points for the majority of its runtime being a period piece rather than set in the modern day, and it's a very good looking film for that.  But pacing issues deaden some of the emotional impact and lead to a film that is enjoyable, but rather lop-sided.

Much of "Captain America" simply wouldn't work without the cast, however.  First and foremost, Chris Evans owns this role.  When he was first cast, I was intrigued, but somewhat worried.  Evans, having previously played Johnny Storm aka the Human Torch in the thoroughly mediocre "Fantastic Four" films, never struck me as Captain America - a character who is not known for throwing out funny quips or acting in a particularly silly manner.  And those are roles Evans has flourished in throughout his career; he has excellent comic timing and his a very funny actor, and choosing a funny actor for a more serious role can be dangerous.

To my surprise and delight, however, Evans makes a perfect Captain America.  He can not only handle the physicality of the role (having gained some 20 lbs of muscle for it) but he gets the personality right.  Steve Rogers is a character whose heart is much bigger than his body would allow for; his sense of right and wrong, of justice, and of duty, is impeccable and it drives him beyond that which he's physically capable of on his own.  Given the strength and abilities of Captain America, he becomes more than just a great soldier - he's a hero, and he doesn't let it go to his head.  He never seeks out the women who will throw themselves at him, or encourages the men to worship his feats.  He's just out there, fighting for what he believes in and leading and inspiring others to do the same.

Whatever problems "Captain America" has, Chris Evans is not one of them.  His chemistry with the rest of the cast is impeccable, as well, especially Stanley Tucci who is great in his brief role as Erskine and with Hayley Atwell's Peggy Carter.  Tucci's role is almost fatherly, he's a warm presence that's missed when he's gone.

Unfortunately, this also leads me to the film's greatest failing: after the first half, much of the film loses its emotional resonance.  The film spends so much time building up the character of Steve Rogers that it's more than half over by the time he's actually out there fighting Hydra.  At one point, Rogers says that he's going to hunt down the Red Skull and not stop until he finds him... and then the next scene is essentially the climax of the film.  The second half feels so rushed that none of it has much weight, it's just a series of action sequences leading one into the next or in montage form as Cap leads the Howlin Commandos on raids against Hydra bases across Europe.

Thankfully, these are solid and competent action sequences, with some cool fights and special effects wizardry so that "Captain America" never loses its entertainment value.  But it does lose something halfway through, which is sad because the first half of it is quite remarkable.  It feels like the film needs another ten minutes of breathing room to give the events of the back half more heft.

The rivalry between Captain America and the Red Skull doesn't feel developed enough, since the two share so little screen time.  The two really are opposite sides of the same coin; Erskine says that his super-soldier serum enhances everything: "Good becomes great, bad becomes worse" which is an effective way to describe it.  But little is done to enforce this as a theme for the film, or as any kind of motivating force for the conflict between Red Skull and Cap.  Building a deeper antagonism between these two would have helped the film greatly, and seems like a missed opportunity.  But it all comes back to the fact that the first half of the film is given so much time to expand and explore while the second half races to the finish.

Also sacrificed are secondary characters.  Honestly, if I didn't know who DumDum Dugan or the Howlin Commandos were (and I'm barely aware of them) I would have no idea who any of the soldiers Cap recruits for his team are, aside from Bucky.  Here there's potential for a lot of fun, old-school derring-do, but the Commandos are only seen briefly and fight alongside Cap in a montage and then in a couple other scenes.  The film acts like their characters have weight... or names... but they don't. 

So while the cast is worthy and the action enjoyable, "Captain America" falters.  I don't believe Marvel has topped 2008's "Iron Man," and I quite enjoyed "Thor" earlier this year.  And be sure to stick around after the (lengthy) credits for a brief trailer of Joss Whedon's "The Avengers."

See Also
Iron Man 2