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CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
(***½)
Reviewer:  Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Director:  Joe Johnston
Writers:
Christopher Markus. Stephen McFeely 
Starring:
Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan
Length:  125 minutes
Released:  072211
Rating:
PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action.
"In an era where we’re obsessed with dark and brooding superheroes, director Joe Johnston’s Captain America is a breath of fresh air." 

Marvel Studios’ ambitious, half-decade-in-the-making project to create a shared superhero universe to parallel the Marvel Comics universe (with, of course, major and minor tweaks) culminates next summer with "The Avengers," a massive, superhero team-up directed by Joss Whedon ("Serenity," "Firefly," "Angel," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"). "Iron Man I and Iron Man II," "The Incredible Hulk," "Thor", and now the big-screen adaptation of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s first-generation superhero, "Captain America: The First Avenger" have each, in turn, functioned both as franchise starters or, in the case of "The Incredible Hulk," a franchise reboot, and as entries in the shared superhero universe project, sometimes awkwardly ("Iron Man II"), sometimes organically ("Thor"). Of the five entries in the project, "Iron Man I" still holds the number 1 spot in terms of character, plot, and action, followed by Thor's grand mythology, but "Captain America" stands on nearly equal ground with the first 2.

Set in an alternate universe/comic book version of World War II, Captain America: The First Avenger centers on Steve Rogers (an earnest, affable and squeeky clean Chris Evans), a “90-pound weakling” (visual effects experts thinned out Evans across 250 shots via labor-intensive CG) who desperately wants to join the U.S. war effort. Rogers wants nothing more than to fight for America and American ideals (presumably democracy, self-determination, civil liberties, etc.) against the Nazis, stand-ins for the bullies he’s encountered regularly in the real world. After failing four different physicals in different cities or towns, breaking the law each time, the fifth physical proves to be the charm. Through a fortunate coincidence (maybe too fortunate, too coincidental), Rogers gets the opportunity to serve his country as part of a super-secret super soldier program thanks to a kind, considerate, German expatriate and scientist, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, in a very good performance).

Erskine sees something in Rogers Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, his usual grumpy but likeable self), the military head of the super-secret soldier program, doesn’t see. Erskine sees more than Rogers’ über-patriotism, he sees selflessness, even compassion. He sees beyond Rogers’ physical weaknesses to Rogers’ character strengths. Phillips almost becomes convinced when Rogers jumps on a “live” grenade (it’s not). The super-soldier program, a combination of Erskine’s super-secret serum and a mega-dose of “Vita-Rays” (per Captain America’s comic-book origin), transforms the sickly Rogers into a physically perfect specimen. It also gives Rogers enhanced speed, strength, and healing (though not at Wolverine levels). Rogers quickly adapts to his new abilities. However, before he can become the jingoistic figure that the country loves, he takes a gig with the USO. This leads to one of the films very best sequences. Rogers dons the familiar comic book version of the tights and hits the stage with a chorus of dancing girls to drum up support for the war. Yes, there even is a theme song for Cap. Before Erskine, Phillips, and several government dignitaries can celebrate their success, however, an assassin kills Erskine, leaving Rogers as the one-and-only super soldier (Erskine kept key information unwritten).

In a parallel storyline, Captain America: The First Avenger also follows Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving, obviously enjoying his role immensely), the head of Hitler’s ultra-secret scientific division, HYDRA (not an acronym as you might assume, but pace Marvel Comics, a reference to the mythical, multi-headed monster). As Erskine’s first test subject, Schmidt shares almost all of Rogers’ enhanced abilities, but the early version of the super soldier serum left him horribly disfigured (thus the “Red Skull” moniker). With scientist/lackey Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) at his side, Schmidt hopes to harness and adapt the Tesseract (a.k.a., the Cosmic Cube), an alien artifact connected to Asgard, into the power source for advanced weapons that could change the course of World War II. Schmidt’s vast, megalomaniacal ambitions leave little doubt that he wants to out-Hitler Hitler (i.e., conquer the world himself).

Given the over-earnest, unreflective, America-first (and last and always) tone, Captain America: The Last Avenger unsurprisingly sidesteps World War II-era social and cultural issues (e.g., race, gender). When Captain America, on tour to entertain the troops (he’s made a mini-career as a propaganda symbol of American freedom selling war bonds), learns that his best friend, Sergeant James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), has disappeared, captured by Schmidt and presumed dead, he springs into action (somewhat unconvincingly due to his lack of training), he emerges as a genuine war hero, complete with his own multi-ethnic squad, the Hownlin’ Commandoes. The Commandoes make, at best, fleeting impressions (subservient, as they are, to Rogers’ heroic arc), but not a single character comments on the racial composition of the Commandoes.

Then again, Captain America has exactly one and only significant female character, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), British liaison to the U.S. Army’s super-secret science division and obligatory romantic interest (she sees the good-hearted man before and after his transformation, but his newly hypertrophied musculature certainly doesn’t hurt), rarely encounters any gender-based obstacles, dispensing with the ones she does encounter easily. Her character arc unsurprisingly turns on the seemingly chaste romance with the inexperienced Rogers, the resolution or non-resolution of which gives Captain America: The Last Avenger a moment of poignancy, especially in the last shot before the modern-day set fadeout.

While the director, Joe Johnston (The Wolfman, Hidalgo, Jurassic Park III, October Sky, Jumanji, The Rocketeer), and his screenwriting team, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (with an uncredited script polish by Joss Whedon), makes subtle and not-so-subtle nods to Raiders of the Lost Ark (e.g., Hitler’s obsession with the occult, the Cosmic Cube as a game- and war-changer), Johnston and his screenwriters decided to push the Nazis into the background, making Schmidt and HYDRA Captain America’s enemies. With HYDRA as the enemy, Johnston and Marvel Studios hoped to avoid tired World War II tropes and/or treating the Nazis as ridicule-ready, entertainment fodder as, arguably, Raiders of the Lost Ark did thirty years ago. That, some critics have argued, would mock the very real sacrifices and lives lost during World War II.

On a lighter note, "Captain America: The First Avenger" unquestionably succeeds where "Iron Man II" failed, integrating macro, world-building components necessary for Marvel’s shared superhero project (a.k.a., "The Avengers") to succeed next summer, including, perhaps significantly, a prominent role for Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), none other than Anthony “Iron Man” Stark’s father. As depicted here, the elder stark resembles Howard Hughes. He’s an ultra-successful businessman with close ties to the U.S. government due to defense contracts. He’s borderline arrogant, always suave, and, suggested more than show, a ladies’ man, a combination, we can presume, that led to a lifetime of friction and disconnection with his only son. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) makes the obligatory appearance here, but only in one, exposition-tilted scene. We’ll see more of Fury and the other Avengers (e.g., Tony Stark/Iron Man, Thor, Bruce Banner/Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow) next summer. If "Captain America: The First Avenger" is any indication, "The Avengers" will be more than worth the wait.

In an era where we’re obsessed with dark and brooding superheroes, director Joe Johnston’s Captain America is a breath of fresh air. He reminds us that superheroes don’t have to be dark and disturbed to be interesting, they don’t need cracks and flaws to earn our affection, they don’t have to be alien gods or magic motorcycle riding demons. Captain America in his own simple way embodies much of what's noble and good about humanity. Joe Johnston has crafted a breathlessly entertaining popcorn movie that unambiguously embraces its hero’s old-fashioned sensibilities, and invites us to embrace them as well.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER © 2011 Paramount Pictures
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2011 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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