Innovation is a buzzword. In the modern day we are bombarded by media that is trying to snare our attention, usually to get our dollars. Because of this fierce competition, so many ideas are repeated that novelty and innovation have become highly prized, in many cases the most highly prized goal in media. Critics often fall prey to this syndrome, where the greatest thing a film can do is tread new ground. Often they are so enchanted by the idea of seeing something truly different, that they do not care if that novelty comes at the expense of entertainment or quality. Captain America: The First Avenger is the antithesis of this trend. Much like the hero himself, this movie (directed by Joe Johnston who brought us the similar and excellent Rocketeer) exists to make us reflect on the adventurous and noble spirit of the Greatest Generation. Many critics have and will bemoan the lack of innovation or novelty at any cost, but as for me, I thoroughly appreciated this wistful and nostalgic look at a time and a hero that left the world diminished with its loss. So, on that note, let us look at Captain America: The First Avenger.
Captain America is the plucky and courageous young man Steve Rogers who wants to do his part for America. Unfortunately he suffers from a laundry list of physical defects, but makes up for his literal shortcomings with a can do attitude and inexhaustible resolve. Because of this he is chosen to test a super-soldier serum that turns him into the expression of human physical perfection. This movie chronicles his journey from a confused young man to an all-american hero.
One of the many things this film does right is to elapse time during WWII. Instead of following the typical path of most origin stories, and spending most of the movie giving Cap his powers and then not letting him really step up until near the end, this film shows some of his many heroic exploits during the war. We see Steve go from scrawny kid to walking propaganda poster to actual hero. It is through such a full journey that he really comes alive in a way that no other superhero besides Batman has really done on the big screen. For all that he seems to be a caricature of the ‘typical’ hero, Captain America has hidden and subtle depths that most superheroes lack.
This film is tightly plotted, and while it is not too short like Thor, I would not have minded a little more time spent with Cap and his Howling Commandos on their missions. It was just plain fun. I also want to give another nod to the writing in regards to the romance between Steve and his army liaison Peggy Carter, played by the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Hayley Atwell. Most movies have a lot of attractive girls in them, and this one is no different, but something about her character and style made Ms. Atwell’s character intensely distracting, in a good way. Their budding romance is emotionally realistic in a way that almost all action movie lack. I never felt that the Steve/Peggy romance was as rushed or forced as the one between the two leads in the earlier Marvel summer blockbuster Thor. It grows organically from their interactions and is well-written and handled in a way appropriate to the era.
All the actors really deliver in this outing. Chris Evans originally seemed like a reckless choice for the role and I had misgivings, but he grew on me as time passed. Now that I have actually seen his performance I truly cannot imagine anyone else playing the part. He is Captain America. Hugo Weaving brings over-the-top menace to the Red Skull, which is appropriate. I was pleasantly surprised to see that he did not bring his Agent Smith-ness to this movie. Again, Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter manages to portray a capable woman in the 40’s with the perfect mix of empowerment and femininity that fits the role. As for the supporting cast, the amazing supporting cast, I really wish they gave out group Oscars for supporting roles because they bring so much vibrancy it really makes the world of Captain America come alive. Dominic Cooper deserves special mention for his role as Howard Stark, the father of Tony Stark (Iron Man). He plays the Howard Hughes-esque role with the perfect mix of smarmy goodness and earnest 40’s sensibilities. Sebastian Stan as Steve’s best friend Bucky Barnes, Stanley Tucci as Dr. Erskine the inventor of the formula, all the Howling Commandos, and everyone else is just excellent.
Director Joe Johnston channels his earlier work The Rocketeer as well as the first three Indiana Jones films into his work on Captain America. His world comes alive in a way that feels larger than life, it does not look so much like the actual 1940’s we had, but more like the 1940’s that we might have wished for. His action sequences are engaging and fun, in a very old-school sort of way. He does not resort to choppy camera work to make a fight look more frenetic, but instead shows wide angles that bring to mind fight scenes before the Hong Kong invasion of Hollywood. On that note, it is also really refreshing to see a hero that fights effectively and cool, without resorting to chop sockey moves. Cap is supposed to be a superhuman fighter, and he certainly is, but his style is more boxing and street fighting than wire-fu, a stylistic choice that was spot on.
The music is wonderful! Alan Silvestri did the score, and it echoes some of his best work on previous films. For those who might not know, he did the scores for Back to the Future and Predator among many others. With his fanfares and uplifting elements of the score, Silvestri echoes Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”. During the moments of creeping dread leading into action, something Silvestri does very well, I was reminded of Predator, one of the best examples of that transition in film to the day. The only song not written by Silvestri was the USO tune “Star Spangled Man” which was written by Alan Menken, the man who did tons of famous Disney scores and “Little Shop of Horrors”. This song and dance number is one of the highlights of the film, and also contributes to one of my favorite lines in the film from Chris Evans, “Don’t worry, I’ve punched out Hitler over two-hundred times”.
Okay, so the movie was good. That is the simple truth. Now, that being said, how does it stack up against the other superhero movies, particularly those this summer. Basically it blows them all away, with the only competition coming from X-Men: First Class. Captain America is better than Thor and Green Lantern is no competition. As for whether it is better than X-Men is up for debate, I personally thought it was a bigger film and because it was about one hero rather than a group, it had better characterization. Some might launch a counter argument with the excellent work of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Xavier and Magneto respectively. That argument does have merit, so it falls to each viewer to decide on their own which they prefer. Overall, it ranks among the best superhero movies, and along with the first Iron Man should set the standard for Marvel films. Comparisons with The Dark Knight are pointless, it’s like apples and oranges.
Speaking of pointless comparisons, I have seen a trend among other reviewers to measure Captain America against Inglourious Basterds. Honestly speaking I like Basterds, but do tend to think it dragged a lot during the sequences with the girl who owned the movie theater. Tarantino is a little too in love with his own dialogue, and let it run away with him. Luckily not to Death Proof levels of folly, but it does get long winded. Anyway, just because they both take place during WWII some critics feel that Captain America has failed if it does not tread in Tarantino’s shoes. Beware when reading other reviews, if the writer tries to make such a comparison do yourself a favor and run away. It is like comparing apples and granite.
Captain America: The First Avenger was an wonderful movie and deserves your patronage. Much like Super 8 it evokes a type of storytelling that is different from what we typically see in theaters. It is also essential viewing for The Avengers coming out next summer. Speaking of that film, stay after the credits for a teaser, it was enough to make me very eager for summer 2012. If the world does not end I look forward to seeing it. Anyway, try to restrain yourself from seeing Harry Potter for the fifth time and go see Captain America, you will not regret it.