Sunday, July 24, 2011


Every comic book fan knows or has heard of the 1990 Captain America film starring Matt Salinger as Steve Rogers, with an Italian Fascist Red Skull. And that brings a sour taste to their mouths. Thankfully, Joe Johnston's Captain America: The First Avenger, starring former Johnny Storm Chris Evans, is not that movie. The latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe along with Iron Mans 1 & 2, The Incredible Hulk and most recently Thor, this was probably the most important film for Marvel to make, not just to build momentum for next year's second-best superhero epic, Marvel's The Avengers (sorry Marvel fans, but The Dark Knight Rises will rule all next year!) but as a viable stand-alone franchise. And for once, I have to give it to them: Marvel delivered.

The First Avenger is a joyous World War II action film with awesome pulp-scifi elements and only subtle ties to the other films in the MCU. Without going into spoilerific specifics, we begin in the modern-day Arctic before flashing back to 1942, when the story really kicks in. The period sets and costumes are fantastic, and though the film is NOT propagandically patriotic, the patriotism in this film is beautifully handled by blending it with nostalgia.

The most significant of thoseaforementioned MCU links is Johann Schmidt's search for the Tesseract (aka the Cosmic Cube for comic fans), an artifact that supposedly adorned Odin's throne room, and a source of nearly unlimited power. We're then introduced to Steve Rogers, a skinny asthmatic kid from Brooklyn desperately trying to enlist in the 107th. One thing I have to say is that the CGI used to make the super-ripped Evans into a short, skinny twerp is superbly well done. Steve's buddy James "Bucky" Barnes (his middle name is Buchanan, hence "Bucky") has already successfully enlisted, and is a real hit with the dames, contrasting with Rogers' introvertedness.

The story moves along at a brisk pace prior to all the popcorn-action elements, introducing us to the future Iron Man's old man Howard Stark (by the way, Dominic Cooper looks eerily like a younger Robert Downey Jr.), Hayley Atwell's Agent Peggy Carter, and who could forget the wonderfully aloof ex-German scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine, played by Stanley Tucci? Tucci is an actor I hugely admire for his talent, and this was one impeccable piece of casting. But that's nothing to say of the relationship that forms between Erskine and Rogers over the course of his training under Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones).

Once we see Rogers in full Cap glory post-enhancement, the ball really gets rolling. There's too much to say here, because there is a lot that happens, but the story moves along very satisfyingly and really invests viewers in Rogers as a person, not just a guy in a suit. Not an easy task, this is a comic-book adaptation after all. It's very easy to get lost in the action and the effects when you have a film of this scale, but Johnston proves that he can take those same elements and infuse them into a character-driven story. And when you take the audience on that kind of a ride, you can bet that they'll pay attention the whole way through to the bitter end.

It's a breath of fresh air that Captain America and the Red Skull aren't just arch-nemeses, they're antitheses of each other, very much like Batman and The Joker. However, unlike The Joker, Johann Schmidt has very clear goals, and very clear motives for those goals. One of the things that Dr. Erskine tells Rogers is that his serum doesn't just affect the subject's physical state, i.e. bring them to the peak of human perfection, but brings out and amplifies the subjects best or worst characteristics. Essentially, "Good becomes great, bad becomes worse." And that is exactly what we have, a psychological dynamic between hero and villain who have no personal history, but are drawn together by fate and choice.

Now, as for the romance that blossoms between Peggy and Steve, all I can say is that it is a love story both with and without an end, and is heartbreakingly good to see play out.

But the real treat here is the final setup to The Avengers, which is what this is really all about, bringing the four (five if you count Hawkeye's cameo in Thor, and I do) of Marvel's biggest heroes together along with Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. By the way, it's a real treat to see Evans and Jackson as Cap and Fury share a scene together.

I have to say that, even as a DC fan, Marvel took the cake this year with Thor and Captain America. Great action, on-the-ball casting, and smart directing gives these films some weight, and I'm positive I'll be seeing Captain America again before it hits Blu-Ray. Oh, and that shield is freaking sweet!

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