Captain America: The First Avenger

In 1943 ninety-eight pound weakling Steve Rogers, played by Chris Evans, is eager to join the war effort.  So eager, he has tried to enlist five times.  Every time the doctor administering the physicals takes one look at Rogers’ scrawny chest and reaches for the 4F stamp.  But Steve doesn’t know when to quit.  He stands up to the bullies in his tough Brooklyn neighborhood, even though they beat him to a pulp every time and he keeps going to recruitment centers hoping it will be different.   This tenacity and willingness to fight for his principles is what eventually gets Steve Rogers his wish.  German émigré scientist Abraham Erskine, played by Stanley Tucci is working for a top secret department of the military called the Strategic Scientific Reserve.  It is an organization dedicated to developing high tech weapons and in this case they are funding Erskine’s research into a super soldier, actually a continuation of a program that he started in Germany under duress.  His first subject was a man named Johann Schmidt, played by Hugo Weaving.  It worked but with some unfortunate side effects.  Schmidt, also known as Red Skull, runs Hydra, Hitler’s own super-secret science division.

Erskine’s theory is that Schmidt’s innate arrogance and lack of morality is what caused the first experiment to backfire.  So now he is looking more for a certain personality rather than a physical type.   And he finds it in Steve Rogers.

The serum is a success, but Erskine is killed by a Hydra agent after the demonstration, thus ensuring that Steve and Johann will be the only super soldiers.  The doctor apparently didn’t keep very good notes.  Steve Rogers is now the ultimate solder.  His physique and reflexes are developed right to the edge of human potential.  He doesn’t tire.  His metabolism can process any poison, which unfortunately means he can’t get drunk.  And he’s very strong.

At first he is put on PR duty, going on Bond tours and doing USO shows, where they give him the iconic costume.  But eventually he works his way into the fight.  The military commander of the SSR, Colonel Chester Phillips, played by Tommy Lee Jones, allows Rogers to assemble a squad of commandos to go after Hydra and Red Skull.

Captain America: The First Avenger is one of the best superhero films produced by Marvel’s film division.  It is right up there with the first Iron Man movie.  The script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is well written with moments of humor and passion.  Together with the director, Joe Johnston, they strike the perfect tone for the subject.  This is an old fashioned type of film with traditional values, not jingoism, but the value of standing up to bullies like Hitler and fighting for what you believe in.  There are shades of gray but we’re not going to worry about them until after we defeat the Axis.

Johnston deserves special recognition.  In 1991 he directed Rocketeer, another film about a square-jawed hero, being given the power to stand up and do the right thing.  Since then he hasn’t worked much but the few items on his resume are pretty impressive.  And yet until now, he really hasn’t fulfilled the promise he showed with Rocketeer.  Hopefully he’ll direct more of these.

Chris Evans, even though I had my doubts about him, turned out to be a good choice for Steve Rogers.  Unlike fellow pretty boy in a superhero role, Ryan Reynolds, Evans has depths and easily handles the emotional side of the role.  You can see his innate decency and thoughtful leadership.  He bulked up and looks the part too.  At the beginning of the movie they use computer graphics to put his head on a puny body.  I knew they did it but the effect was so good that I quickly forgot I was watching an effect.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Tommy Lee Jones and I would not have it any other way.  Hayley Atwell plays British agent Peggy Carter with tough girl charm.  And the great Hugo Weaving shines as Red Skull.  He doesn’t resort to theatrics.  His menace is understated and calm, even when Cap is ruining his plans.  During a climactic scene where he explains his motivations, he matter of factly states that the super solder serum has given him abilities beyond the average man and that makes him better.  It’s perfectly logical.

Captain America: The First Avenger is a terrific, almost perfect summer movie.


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July 2011
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