Captain America: The First Avenger
based on characters by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
I’ve been excited for Captain America: The First Avenger since the first teaser trailer came out. Which surprised me because, while I’m growing ever fonder of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve never been a big fan of Cap in the comics. But the setting and the casting drew me in until I was waiting fervently for trailers and patiently avoiding as many spoilers as humanly possible in order to stave off overhyping myself. And now I’m completely sucked into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And it’s a beautiful thing.
Captain America: The First Avenger, set in the 1940s, tells the story of Steve Rogers, a pint-sized asthmatic who tries over and over to enlist, despite his many rejections and the advice of his best friend, James “Bucky” Barnes. When Rogers’ latest attempt to enlist is witnessed by Dr. Erskine, a German expatriate working with the government’s Strategic Scientific Reserve, the doctor decides to offer Rogers a chance at becoming the first in a new breed of supersoldiers. Under the command of Colonel Phillips and British agent Peggy Carter, Rogers is selected and becomes a flawless physical specimen; however, the project is sabotaged and Steve, instead of going to the front lines, is shunted into a USO song and dance routine to boost morale. But when Steve discovers that Bucky—along with four hundred other men—have been captured by HYDRA, the Nazis’ deep science division headed by the diabolical Johann Schmidt, Steve ditches the tights and becomes Captain America.
Even factoring in the casting, the costumes, and the setting, the best thing this film does is make you fall in love with Steve long before he becomes what Slate‘s Dana Stevens calls “a towering slab of manhood”. Unlike Iron Man and Thor, which are both, more or less, about manchildren discovering their humanity, this movie is about a good man. Steve doesn’t need superpowers to be heroic; an early scene has Steve calling out a heckler in a theater for not respecting war footage, which promptly turns into a fight in the alley outside, where Steve has to be rescued by Bucky. He’ll never give up doing the right thing or giving it his all (even in the cheesy USO show), because to do anything less would be disrespectful. It would be easy to mock Steve for this or turn him into a flat character, but Evans plays him slightly goofy in a way that doesn’t undercut his inherent dignity, making him endearing and uniquely charming. Steve’s goodness anchors the entire film. This character would be just as compelling without superpowers, and that’s what makes this such a good movie.
While Chris Evans deserves the lion’s share of the attention here, the rest of the cast is quite good. Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter is smart, efficient, and a remarkable shot—the tentative and respectful romance between the two is refreshing in a world where women are usually shoehorned into summer blockbusters as love interests and nothing else. Peggy and Steve bond over being underestimated in the military, and it’s clear Peggy is interested in him before the experiment turns him, well, hunky. Hugo Weaving’s Johann Schmidt is terrifying and hammy all at the same time, which is just delicious, and Tommy Lee Jones’ snarky Colonel Phillips is great—he got the bulk of the laughter at my screening. Dominic Cooper’s Howard Stark is an interesting blend of Howard Hughes and Tony Stark, even if his accent occasionally strains at the vowels; his friendship with Peggy and Steve is lovely. (There’s a half-hearted attempt at a romantic triangle, but everyone involved likes and respects each other too much for it to go anywhere nasty. Be still, my beating heart.) But the biggest surprise for me was Sebastian Stan as Bucky, Steve’s slick but good-hearted best friend. I think I was expecting Bucky to become extremely jealous of Steve, but he doesn’t—there’s definitely an adjustment period to Steve’s new status (and height), but the two bounce back to being thick as thieves in no time. The Marvel films usually have fantastic casting, and Captain America definitely delivers.
All of this praise doesn’t mean it’s perfect. After Steve infiltrates HYDRA and discovers the location of their secret bases, there’s a frankly goofy montage of Steve and the Howling Commandos—his own elite squadron—storming these bases. There are some great moments in this montage—after a fight, Peggy discovers Steve keeps a photo of her in his stopwatch watching news coverage and forgives him—but there’s an emphasis on CGI that makes it feel flimsy. Luckily, the other action set pieces feel a lot more grounded, especially the climactic battle which takes place on a futuristic ship. But the bittersweet and heartbreaking ending (oh, come on, you know he’s in The Avengers) makes me want to forgive all ills, as does the near-flawless casting. It’s definitely one of the better Marvel films.
Bottom line: Captain America: The First Avenger is a unique superhero film, and not just for its setting—the thorough decency of Steve Rogers makes him a hero long before he bulks up, the cast is near flawless, and the bittersweet ending gives it more of an emotional impact than your average superhero film. Very good.
I saw this film in theaters.