Quick Take: Jason finds Cap gets it right in ways other comic book movies do not.
Captain America: The First Avenger gets it right.
In one sentence, everything that’s great about Paramount and Marvel Studios’ adaptation of the classic Star-Spangled Avenger is laid out on the table.
The comic book superhero adventure has become a genre of film unto itself, and it’s produced some truly great movies, such as The Dark Knight and Iron Man. But in spite of how wonderful those films mentioned may be, Captain America: The First Avenger might be the first comic book adaptation yet to hit every mark for which it aims.
Where so many superhero flicks strive to spin dozens of plates at once and invariably drop more than half of them, Captain America keeps the plates spinning for its entire 124 minute runtime.
It strives to be a period movie while still maintaining the adrenaline of a modern actioner. It succeeds.
It wants to highlight a love story while never (literally – NEVER) placing its love interest into a “damsel in distress” situation. It succeeds.
It aims to deliver characters who are more than cardboard cutouts; characters who have clear motivations and who behave and make choices in the manner for which they have been constructed. And, again, it succeeds.
I pride myself on being a fair reviewer, of being level-headed about the films I love and respectful-yet-honest regarding the ones I loathe. Quite honestly, I can think of no criticisms of Captain America: The First Avenger.
The true test of whether or not a piece of art (be it film, book, television series, whatever) lies in whether it accomplishes what it sets out to do. And quite like the Captain’s mighty shield, it never misses.
Set in 1942, the film tells the story of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a 98-pound weakling with a history of asthma, chronic colds and just about every other common disease under the sun. Unfortunately for him, his greatest desire is to serve his country, and every recruiter he begs deems him unfit for service.
His fate (and the fate of the world) changes when he’s “drafted” into service by Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a scientist who has developed a compound (the Super Soldier Serum) that will transform an ordinary man into a superhuman fighting machine.
Among Rogers’ allies are his best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).
As the film progresses, it becomes clear that there’s a greater danger than the Nazis lurking in Eastern Europe, and it comes in the form of the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) an earlier test subject of Dr. Erskine who has proclaimed himself to be “walking in the footsteps of gods” and sets out on his own quest of world domination.
There are any number of different directions in which this movie could have gone. With its World War II setting, the writers and producers could very well have produced a campy satire of the era’s propaganda, ala Starship Troopers.
They could just as easily have followed in the footsteps of an earlier (and much … MUCH worse) Captain America film adaptation and brought the Captain into modern times.
Instead, director Joe Johnston and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely showed something that’s in very short supply among the people tasked to bring comic book superheroes to life: Restraint.
The film plays out more or less exactly as described above. There aren’t any bells and whistles or stupid one-liners. There’s a truth and honesty to it that calls to mind the verisimilitude of Richard Donner’s Superman – the movie presents us with what we (and the filmmakers) know is a ridiculous scenario but treats it as an absolute truth.
Another credit to the writers is the how genuine and fleshed-out the characterizations are. Steve Rogers is, and has always been, Marvel Comics’ most heroic superhero. He has a clearly-defined and utterly unshakable moral code. He’s selfless and committed to the battles he fights, and the writers have kept those ideals intact without making the character either hokey or campy.
Likewise, their treatment of the Red Skull deserves considerable praise. So many times throughout the history of the superhero genre, the villain has a tendency to completely take over the movie, making the hero a veritable afterthought.
The Red Skull is used more-or-less sparingly. He’s given just the right amount of screen-time, and his presence is felt even when the character is nowhere in sight.
And, as mentioned earlier, Peggy Carter never needs rescuing. She’s presented as tough-as-nails, fighting rifle-in-hand alongside the boys; there’s never a cliché moment where the villain demands the hero to stand down lest the girl be killed.
That alone puts this movie on a different level with its tights-wearing brethren. In all of the classic superhero films – Superman, Spider-Man 1 & 2, The Dark Knight, and Iron Man – the love interest always needs saving. I can’t sing the praises of the team that put this movie together loud enough to not only buck what’s an undeniably successful formula but doing it without so much as a second thought.
The work of the cast is also brilliant.
Chris Evans absolutely owns the role of Captain America. I admit to having reservations about his casting when it was first announced (hey, I saw those Fantastic Four movies… ugh… ), but those reservations melted away within the first five minutes of this movie.
Evans brings the toughness of some of cinema’s latest leading men. He’s a powerful leader, a strong moral compass, and an iron-clad warrior. And yet he also infuses the character with real humanity. I came into this movie dreading seeing Evans as Captain America.
I left it completely unable to wait to see him again in next summer’s The Avengers movie.
Also great in the movie is Hayley Atwell as Peggy. Cliche or not, the lead actress in a comic book movie has to display a certain amount of femininity, and Atwell is more than up to the task. She’s gorgeous and charming.
But you absolutely believe it when Atwell picks up a gun and heads into battle.
And, as he is in everything, Hugo Weaving is astonishing. He’s menacing and threatening, all without ever going over-the-top. It would have been easy for Weaving to simply show up for work and add another notch to his sci-fi/fantasy belt.
Instead, he owns the role and provides a great nemesis for Evans.
In terms of the direction, there’s no one on Earth who could have done a better job at the helm of this movie than Joe Johnston.
For one thing, he has a good track record when it comes to WWII-era action flicks with the eternally-underrated The Rocketeer, and he has an excellent sense for both action and visual effects.
Speaking of visual effects, the work done in this film is incredible. It’s not as obviously-dazzling as an X-Men flick or an Iron Man picture, but the fact that it’s not immediately noticeable is a testament to just how great the effects truly are.
It’s a magnificent blending of practical and optical effects on par (and in some ways above and beyond) the work from Chrstopher Nolan’s Batman epics.
Paramount Pictures presents Captain America: The First Avenger with a brilliant 1080p AVC-4 transfer. There is no cloth, structure, or weapon in this movie that isn’t brought to absolutely glorious life. And despite being set in the middle of a war (not exactly the most colorful of settings), the Captain’s trademark red, white, and blue uniform stands out beautifully.
Every detail gets its due attention with this transfer right down to every wrinkle, dimple, and goosebump in the actors’ skin.
The sound is equally amazing, as Paramount has given this movie the treatment it richly deserves: a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio lossless soundtrack. Dialogue is crisp and clear, even in the midst of deafening explosions. Every shot fired and every punch landed leaves a great impact.
The real joy is listening to the sound of Cap’s ever-present shield. Whether flying through the air or smacking the Red Skull in the face, the shield’s distinctive sound is an absolute treat for the ears.
Beyond the Feature
Despite delivering such great audio and video, Paramount and Marvel by no means skimped on the extras.
Audio Commentary with Director Joe Johnston, Cinematographer Shelly Johnson, and Editor Jeffery Ford – This is an insightful and entertaining commentary and proof positive that the crew was committed to producing a quality motion picture.
Marvel One-Shot: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer (4:03) – SHIELD agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), a fixture of Marvel’s super-secret agency, has a mini-adventure en route to the New Mexico desert. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s almost worth the price of the Blu-ray alone just to see Coulson in action.
Outfitting a Hero (10:52) – This featurette looks at the journey of Cap’s uniform from the page to the screen and details some of the difficulties in turning an iconic comic book image into an iconic screen image.
Howling Commandos (6:07) – Here, we get a closer look at Captain America’s hand-picked squadron.
Heightened Technology (5:43) – The challenges faced by the production design department of constructing out-of-this-world technology and making it look like it could have existed in 1942 are covered in this featurette.
The Transformation (8:50) – The talents of the film’s visual effects department are put on full display in this feature, which explains how the filmmakers managed to turn big, buff Chris Evans into a 98-pound weakling.
Behind the Skull (10:24) – Get a closer look at the origins of the Star-Spangled Avenger’s arch nemesis and how he was brought to life on the silver screen.
Captain America’s Origin (3:50) – A brief interview with Captain America co-creator Joe Simon.
The Assembly Begins (1:46) – If the folks at Marvel had waited until next week to unveil the theatrical trailer for next summer’s The Avengers, then this disc would probably be the most sought-after commodity for every comic book geek on the planet. As it stands, it’s still a neat little preview of what we can expect in the 2012 superhero team-up epic.
Deleted Scenes – The disc contains four deleted scenes: Attack at Norway, The Battle of Azzaro, Steve Rogers Gets His Medal, and Steve Rogers Meets Nick Fury. The scenes total 5:33, and all deleted scenes (except the Nick Fury one) have optional commentary from Johnston, Johnson, and Ford.
Trailers – Paramount has also included two theatrical trailers, a preview of the Captain America: The First Avenger video game from Sega, as well as a trailer for the animated Avengers series.
Disc 2 of the two-disc set contains a DVD and Digital Copy of the film.
I’m not sure what more I can say. Whether you’re a comic book fan or not, this Blu-ray belongs in your collection.
It’s one of the best action movies I’ve seen in years, and it may very well be the best comic book adaptation to hit the screen yet.
It’s like I said.
Captain America: The First Avenger gets it right. In a big, bad way.
Shop for Captain America: The First Avenger on Blu-ray for a discounted price at Amazon.com (October 25, 2011 release date).