'Captain America: The First Avenger' wins, period
The bar for comic book adaptations has effectively been raised. “Captain America: The First Avenger” does so many things right that it seems virtually churlish to nitpick about the substandard 3D post-conversion.
Chris Evans successfully humanizes one of Marvel's pricklier heroes. Evans is so good as Steve Rogers that the audience is going to love him even before the Frankenstein-like experiment that turns him into a superhero. Evans bulked up for the role, and in fact was too muscular to play Rogers as a 98-pound weakling who’s been classified “4F,” and unfit for military service several times. Digital technology has again reared its head, shrinking to Evans to fit the earlier scenes, before he’s given a battery of experimental serums and “Vita-Rays” that act like steroids on steroids.
“Captain America: The First Avenger” never engages in a moral debate over the ethics of this type of scientific experimentation, no matter that the transformation scene, which is undeniably riveting, is also right out of a James Whale “Frankenstein” movie, complete with electrical devices shorting out and blowing up before it’s all over. We’re even told that The Red Skull’s distinctive facial features are the result of an earlier experiment with the same technology, but that’s actually blamed on his impatience. Stanley Tucci, as the fatherly Dr. Abraham Erskine, who created the whole thing, doesn’t seem much like a mad scientist, and wants to make sure that Captain America is a nice guy. There’s a breeziness and brashness here that’s reminiscent of thirties and forties movie serials, where what the good guys did was good and what the bad guys did was bad, and we didn’t look for gray areas in between.
And needless to say, “Captain America: The First Avenger” plays fast and loose with history. In an interview I conducted with Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige in 2009, I asked him if “Captain America,” which had not yet started production, would take place during World War II. Feige acknowledged that the movie would be set “the Marvel version of that time period.” Alternative history is big these days. Abraham Lincoln is hunting vampires. Let’s be fair: we called Quentin Tarantino a genius when he did the same thing in “Inglourious Basterds” and he changed the ending of the war. “Captain America” doesn’t quite go that far, although unnamed characters who bear remarkable resemblances to Goebbels and Himmler are vaporized when they get in The Red Skull’s way, and The Red Skull’s HYDRA forces are armed with technology we don’t have yet, let alone in the forties.
Tommy Lee Jones could have phoned Col. Chester Phillips in, but they cast him because he owns roles like these. Dominic Cooper plays Howard Stark, the father of “Iron Man” Tony Stark as if to prove the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The character is also obviously at least modeled in part on Howard Hughes, who, played by Terry O’Quinn, featured prominently in Johnston’s cult movie “The Rocketeer.” Toby Jones as Dr. Arnim Zola, is all but playing Ronald Lacey’s Maj. Toht in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the movie that first popularized raising holy hell with recorded history.
Hayley Atwell, a lovely young British actress, isn’t extremely well-known to American audiences, although she may be by the time this movie plays out. Her character is addressed as “Agent Peggy Carter,” which would imply that she’s a spy, although she’s in uniform most of the time. A chaste romantic interest for the movie’s hero, Peggy Carter is nonetheless a gun-toting field agent, not a damsel in distress. She is not the only character to defy cliché. Sebastian Stan’s “Bucky” Barnes, in the comic books a youthful sidekick with alarming resemblances to Robin the Boy Wonder, is here a boyhood friend and protector of Steve Rogers, who is flipflopped into a sidekick role when the two re-encounter each other during the war.
The big supporting role here is the movie’s villain, The Red Skull, played by the redoubtable Hugo Weaving, whose fanboy cred is already through the roof based on his recurrent roles in the “Lord of the Rings” and “Matrix” movies alone. (Less his turn as a Scotland Yard inspector in last year’s “Wolfman” remake, also helmed by “Captain America’s” Joe Johnston.) Comic book adaptations can absolutely rise or fall on the strength of their villains. For some reason, that’s been a problem for several. Witness “Fantastic Four,” which also co-starred Chris Evans, in which Julian McMahon was completely unable to generate any real menace as Dr. Doom, one of Marvel’s A-List villains.
That is not the problem here. Weaving is simply sensational as Johann Schmidt, aka The Red Skull, an unrepentant bad guy hell-bent on world domination and looking to use ancient, occult artifacts to achieve it. Of course he’s aided by superb makeup prosthetics (although not in every scene, and as in “Jaws,” where the shark wasn’t seen until the second half of the movie, we have to wait awhile to see it), but that only enhances and already good performance.
The production values are dizzying. The entire movie seems to be on the same serums and Vita-Rays as its hero. Everything is huge. Johnston is a damn good action director and the big action set pieces are as good as they come. Sometimes Johnston reverts to slow motion, giving the audience motion picture equivalents of comic book splash panels. There are visual nods to movie serials (the control room of The Red Skull’s really big plane that looks like a Stealth Bomber seems to have flown in from “Flash Gordon”), “The Guns of Navarone” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” It didn’t need 3D, the post-conversion isn’t that good and has that pop-up book look that audiences are quickly learning to identify.
Captain America is the only major character to predate the Stan Lee era at Marvel Comics. (Lee does make one of this trademark cameo appearances in this movie, after being missed in Fox’s “X-Men: First Class.”) Created during the lead-up to World War II, the character was conceived of as a patriotically-themed hero who spent most of his time combating Germany and Japan during the war. A huge seller during the war, the character’s popularity tailed off sharply afterwards. A Red Scare-era attempt to re-market the character as a “Commie Smasher” was a failure. In the early sixties a new tactic was tried, explaining that Captain America had been in suspended animation for ages after crashing an experimental aircraft into the North Atlantic during the last days of the war. Cap joined the new superhero group, the Avengers, along with Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk.
And of course that’s partly the point here. Chris Evans is returning as Captain America in Marvel Studios’ “The Avengers,” which is now shooting, along with Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Marvel newbie Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, aka The Hulk. Audiences, now well-trained by Marvel to expect a final scene after the end credits, should be aware that the not-too-surprising epilogue, complete with a not-too-surprising guest appearance, right before the credits roll, is the last scene this time around.