Monday, January 9, 2012

My Review of Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Out of the three Marvel movies to come out in 2011, Captain America is often considered a lesser film compared to Thor and X-Men First Class, which got better reviews and generally better reception from audiences. This is entirely understandable, as Captain America was the last superhero film to come out in the summer and by the time it came out, many were experiencing superhero fatigue and simply didn't want to see another Avengers buildup movie. I, however, was hyped up for this ever since I heard it was being made, and it moved to the top of my to-view list when a release date was set for The Avengers. For what it's worth, Captain America is a supremely entertaining and atmospheric period piece, capturing WWII very well. It also has excellent visuals, an array of fine performances, and some great action scenes (although they are kind of rushed in the second half).

The film starts out with a team of researchers in the Arctic coming across a huge aircraft (which will come into play later in the movie) and a shield frozen in a block of ice. After the foreshadowing, the story proper begins as we are introduced to our main character. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a patriotic young man who wants to enlist in the army but is constantly turned down due to his skinniness and poor health. However, he is able to make it in with the help of a kindly doctor named Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci). Erskine has a slightly alterior motive in that he wants Rogers to be the recipient for his super-soldier serum. Rogers is not faring well in the physical training, so it takes a lot of convincing for Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) to allow the program to go ahead with Rogers instead of any other soldiers.

Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark

After the procedure, Rogers is much larger, taller, and much stronger, capable of fighting in battle and doing what he always wanted to do. However, he is mostly used as a propaganda figure, doing stage shows in order to get people to buy more victory bonds. I like this part of the movie because it satirizes wartime propaganda with a montage of USO shows, as well as the silliness of the original costume design of Captain America. Steve is dissatisfied with this life and longs to actually be in battle, to do what he wanted to do when he signed on. He gets this chance when he is called to face the film's villain, Johann Schmidt (AKA Red Skull, played by Hugo Weaving). Schmidt was chief of Hitler's science and weapons division, and the super soldier serum was tested on him as well. Unfortunately, the serum only amplifies the ugliness of those who are not pure of heart, so while Rogers gets transformed into the epitome of human perfection, Schmidt gets...... well, I don't want to say for fear of spoilers. Oh, and he had an imperfect version of the procedure, so that makes his condition worse.

Schmidt is looking for a tesseract that is believed to have come from the gods. Possession of said tesseract would fulfill Schmidt's own plan of world domination. This is a relatively unoriginal motivation for a villain to have, and in any other movie, I would dismiss it as rote and silly. However, this film is a throwback to pulp-adventures and serials of the 1940's, so to have a villain with the objective of world domination is not at all out of place. The climax of the film is Rogers attempting to stop the launching of WMD's that Schmidt plans to use to destroy the major American cities. A relatively simple climax, but an exciting one nonetheless. Schmidt is an interesting villain, and despite the war effort against the Nazis being a huge part of the movie, you definitely get the message that Schmidt is a much larger threat. He is an interesting villain, despite being the typical rogue agent gone mad with power, and he is played awesomely (as per usual) by Hugo Weaving. Like I said, his characterization may have bothered me if he was in any other movie, but here, Red Skull is a great villain, one of the best non-Batman villains adapted to film.

The much less ridiculous-looking costume for Captain America

As for our hero, Steve Rogers is a very well-developed character and he is played brilliantly by Chris Evans. I enjoyed him in here much more than I did in the Fantastic Four movie and that says a lot because he was the only thing I liked in the Fantastic Four movie. Steve Rogers is a nice guy, and all he wants to do is serve his country, but his physical condition prevents him from doing so. It's nice to see that he remains his normal self after his transformation, showing that getting taller and more muscular doesn't have to make a person a jerk. The thing that makes Steve Rogers relatable is the exact same thing that makes Peter Parker relatable. It is that Steve Rogers is a huge dork. He's awkward, he's bullied, he's not good with girls, but he's a nice guy and we root for him. People like an underdog story, and this is an extremely well-played underdog story. In fact, since Captain America was published before Spiderman, it could be the first major underdog superhero and perhaps a prototype for some elements of Spiderman. Like I said, Evans' performance is pitch-perfect, one of my favourites in a superhero film. I would be blind if I didn't mention his fantastic body, and how much respect I have for the work he did to obtain it. In reality, all of those chorus girls in the victory-bond show montage would not be able to keep their hands off of him. Hell, nobody would be able to keep their hands off of him.

The rest of the cast is rounded out by Haley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones, Dominic Cooper, and Sebastian Stan, who play Agent Carter, Col. Phillips, Howard Stark and Bucky respectively. Atwell gives a good tough performance as both a military woman and a love interest for Rogers. Although in reality, a woman likely would not have been in that high standing in the military. She was a decently developed character instead of just being a damsel in distress (like Mary Jane Watson in the Spiderman movies) and she is played by a pretty good actress. Tommy Lee Jones is awesome and cynical as always, and I find that he gives his best performances when he plays authority figures (like in The Fugitive or Men in Black). He definitely has the voice and deadpan delivery for it. That was what made his turn as Agent K so great and that is what makes his performance in this great. Dominic Cooper was amazing as Howard Stark (who draws parallels from his fairly obvious namesake Howard Hughes), and his performance is obviously meant to be very similar to Robert Downey Jr's in Iron Man, seeing as they are father and son. He is enjoyable, snarky, and fun, and it seems like a love triangle is going to be set up between him, Captain America, and Agent Carter. I won't tell you how that plays out, but I will say that Cooper's performance was probably my second favourite besides that of the Cap himself. As for Stan, I appreciated the change of the character of Bucky from kid sidekick of Captain America to loyal friend and fellow soldier. Stan's performance was pretty good for how little he is in the movie, and I was definitely surprised by the quality of his performance considering that he is most well known for Gossip Girl.
Atwell and Evans as Peggy Carter and Steve Rogers/Captain America

The film is also solid visually, and the excellent art direction gives the film a real atmosphere to it. The sets are excellent and the visual effects (for how little they are used) are excellent. 2011 was the year the blockbuster went retro, with Super 8, X-Men First Class, and especially Captain America. I love films about this time period and this one is no exception. Each set is highly evocative of the time period and although it takes extreme license with history, you feel sucked into the time period. Most of the film's effects were done through practical means and not through CG (sparing for the shrinking down of Evans, which was obviously CGI). I could actually see this picking up a nod for art direction, although not for visual effects, because it is more dependent on the set details rather than flashy special effects. I love films that suck you into their time period and make you feel like you are there, and Captain America is certainly one of those films.

Now I know I have heaped undying praise on this film without giving it a perfect score. I should definitely explain why. The main problem with this film comes with the pacing. Like The Matrix, the first two thirds of this film are set up brilliantly. However, in the last act, they seem to forget that this is supposed to be a summer blockbuster and they cram all the action into one act, making the action scenes confused and repetitive. Some are good, but I could not keep up with most because they were too poorly paced and too close together. This would only be a minor problem if it weren't for the fact that the first two thirds are set up so well. After such fine buildup to a mediocre payoff, I couldn't help but be disappointed. However, the buildup is still great, and the second half doesn't make the movie unwatchable, it just makes it flawed. There is one action scene worth paying attention to in the second half, but after that it's just a flurry of action where it is acceptable to just turn your brain off because the action scenes are still well-choreographed and fun to watch, just not well paced.

Hugo Weaving as Johann Schmidt/Red Skull.  Don't worry, I'm not spoiling anything.

Flaws in the second half aside, Captain America: The First Avenger is one of my favourite films of last year. The film has impeccable visuals with lots of atmospheric retro touches, as well as excellent costume design. I definitely give credit to anyone who can make a better costume for Captain America while satirizing the one from the comics at the same time. The direction from Joe Johnston is solid, and the film offers a different interpretation of Steve Rogers/Captain America, making him a sweet and sympathetic protagonist, as well as one with an absolutely fantastic body (sorry, I had to point that out again). I can see those who wouldn't like it and that is entirely cool, I don't laud it as a masterpiece or anything. However, the film is entirely worth watching and essential to watch if you want to bone up on your knowledge before The Avengers, because this film has a ton of sly references to the other buildup films, from the obligatory Nick Fury appearance down to the fact that Howard Stark speaks at an expo very similar to the one Tony speaks at, except obviously retro. In fact, just the presence of Howard Stark  Fans of WWII movies might like it, and fans of the superhero will definitely like it because after numerous crappy adaptations, Captain America has finally gotten the movie he deserves. One of the best of 2011 and it has one of the best first halves I have seen in any movie.

8.5/10- Strong Recommendation

Maybe its just the teenage girl in me talking, but DAMN.


  1. terrific review, Rachel. I really liked this one, I don't see why many people didn't like it. Good stuff

  2. It was midly entertaing, that is the best I can say. I though the villian was dull, and Chris Evans' was meh and it slowed down in the final act.

    Good review