Director: Joe Johnston
Writers: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Starring: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, & Dominic Cooper
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The release of Captain America: The First Avenger marks the fifth Marvel Studios independent production. 2008 saw the release of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. Iron Man 2 hit the screens two years later in 2010, and this year we’ve had Thor released just a couple of months ago.
Now here are some very interesting figures. Since taking over their own productions, Marvel Studios have spent an average of between 140-150 million on each film (except for Iron Man 2 which was budgeted at between 170-200 million). Every film has made three to four times its budget back so far, except for Incredible Hulk, which still managed to bring in 113 million more than it took to make.
Which means that with one minor exception, every Marvel movie they’ve produced in-house, has done gangbusters thanks to low production costs and a combination of talented directors, high-profile actors, and excellent writing that has not only maintained a high standard of quality in general, but has also maintained a high level of faithfulness to the source materials. All while building a shared universe that will ultimately lead directly into next summer’s The Avengers.
That’s impressive as hell, in its own right.
What’s even more impressive to me is that each film has built on what’s come before, daring to tinker with the standard origin story structure and audience expectations. Granted, they’ve stuck to a fairly predictable plot structure with each of the films, but let’s be serious. It’s the same plot structure of most Marvel Comics adventures since 1962. And complaining about the troubled boys with father issues theme fails to take into consideration the source materials.
Marvel’s films are fundamentally Marvel stories, through and through. If you’ve got a problem with them, then you’ve got a problem with Marvel Comics in general.
Most fans of these films are fairly vocal in their declaration of Iron Man as the best of the bunch so far. What these people don’t seem to remember is that Iron Man, after a fantastic opening third or so, became bogged down in clichés and boring predictability. There were bright spots here and there, but if it wasn’t for Tony Stark revealing his identity as Iron Man to the world in the closing moments, the film would not have been as well-received.
At least not at my house.
I thought Iron Man 2 was a better production all-around, and until the release of Captain America this weekend, was the film to beat. Incredible Hulk was a solid little piece of work, if you ask me, and Thor was about on par with Iron Man. In fact, I’d say that all of these films are at the pinnacle of contemporary superhero film, with Batman Returns, Blade, Blade II, X2, and X-Men: First Class rounding out the list.
(I thought all of the Spider-Man films were cartoonish and silly. And I found Batman Begins and The Dark Knight to be tedious and bordering on self-parody at times in their attempts to take themselves seriously. And don’t go talking box-office as proof of their creative superiority. That just proves what a wide net they cast in their approach to telling their stories.
I’m mentioning the Marvel Studios grosses to make a point about their constancy and relative success, not as an example of their high quality. These things are relatively cheap to make, and practically ensure a profit.)
Captain America: The First Avenger is probably the best Marvel Studios independent production yet, and ranks high on the overall list of innovative and, more importantly, entertaining superhero movies ever made.
That’s a bold statement, but there’s no hyperbole behind it. Them’s just the cold, hard facts.
I won’t bore you with a recap of the story. If you’re on this site, reading this review, you already know what this film is about. The only thing you may not know is that the movie is framed with contemporary sequences that lock Captain America right into the heart of the Marvel Movie Universe.
Whereas all of the rest of the Marvel films have so far centered on that troubled boys with daddy issues character model I mentioned earlier, Captain America steers well clear of that, staying true to the comics with Steve Rogers being an exemplary man before he becomes a super man. He doesn’t go through a character arc where he has to learn humility, or come to peace with his father’s memory, or get over childhood trauma.
He’s a sickly, puny man who wants to do the right thing, the heroic thing, even though his country doesn’t value him in that way. His dedication to getting into the Army, even with the possible danger of being arrested for falsifying his application (he tries five times, using a different home town each time). But physically, he’s just not able to do the job. No matter how much heart or guts he may have.
The special effects at work putting Chris Evans’ head on a tiny, skinny body are seamless. There wasn’t a single shot that looked off to me. His face was even drawn and bonier before the transformation. If there was anything disconcerting about these scenes, it was just how small and frail his body-double appeared.
And Evans doesn’t overplay his hand. Steve Rogers isn’t a caricature of virtue and heroism. He hits exactly the right note in every scene, playing a man who desperately wants to fight for his country just like his parents did. Just like his best friend, Bucky (Sebastian Stan) is. Evans plays him as a hero from the very beginning.
As Doctor Erskine (Stanley Tucci, in a scene-stealing performance) tells him, he is a good man. And that’s what the Super-Soldier Formula amplifies. A good man becomes great. A bad man becomes worse.
Which brings us to what I thought was the only real weakness of the film. Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull.
Now, before you start moaning, let me say this. Weaving does a great job with what he’s given. But Weaving only rarely plays larger than life. His strength as an actor is making these fantastic roles believable. And his Red Skull is definitely believable.
But I want my Red Skull to be a raving lunatic behind it all, and I never really got that from Weaving’s performance. It needed a more manic energy than he brought to the table. I was also a little disappointed with the Skull make-up at times. I didn’t care for the texture, particularly around his mouth and on his neck. It was just too rubbery-looking.
I was much more impressed with Toby Jones’ performance as Dr. Arnim Zola and loved his debut on the screen, with his face projected on a large video monitor, referencing his comic book persona if only for a moment or two. Jones played the part as conflicted, rather than simply ev
il, and made Zola almost sympathetic at times. That was a hard thing to do and I hope that we see him again, preferably with a huge television screen for a torso.
While I would have loved to have seen Sgt. Fury leading his Howling Commandos in this film, I understand that it just wasn’t possible with the world they’ve already established. Be that as it may, I was thrilled to see the Howlers represented in any way possible. Neal McDonough as “Dum Dum” Dugan, Derek Luke as Gabe Jones, and JJ Feild as James Montgomery Falsworth provided excellent interpretations of the characters.
Tommy Lee Jones does his best Tommy Lee Jones, and the other Howlers, Kenneth Choi as Jim Morita, and Bruno Ricci as Jacques Dernier round out the group well. Of course, it’s Sebastian Stan as Bucky that really stands out.
I loved the way they switched around the Steve and Bucky dynamic during the first part of the film, with Bucky being the best friend who keeps getting Steve out of trouble when he refuses to back down from bullies. Building that relationship up from the very beginning makes for a more natural inclusion of Bucky as Steve’s sidekick once he becomes Captain America. It also allows for the film Bucky to be more like the Bucky of the Ed Brubaker Captain America comics, and hopefully opens up the opportunity for a Winter Soldier film or storyline somewhere down the line.
There are two more performances I want to mention before moving on: Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark and Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter. Cooper does a fantastic job channeling a logical and believable variation on Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark combined with the public persona of Howard Hughes. I can’t wait to see how Steve’s relationship with Howard translates to his interactions with Tony.
And Hayley Atwell is both stunning and strong as Agent Carter, Cap’s love interest. She plays the part with restraint and except for one scene (that’s the fault of the screenplay rather than anything she does with the scene – Peggy catching Steve in the arms of another woman – groan), nails every moment she’s on-camera. Peggy’s love affair with Steve is never consummated, peaking only with a single kiss as he goes off to stop the Red Skull, and I’m not ashamed to say that her final words with him as he crashes the Flying Wing had me tearing up. She just sells that sense of resigned loss and that did it for me.
The sadness of that scene wasn’t because Steve might die. We all know he’s not going to die. The sadness is in her eyes as she realizes she’s lost him. That’s the good stuff, right there.
Storywise, there’s also a lot to love here.
We spend a good portion of the film building up Steve Rogers as a character, before spending another good portion of the film building up Captain America. This is a long movie, but unlike something like, say The Dark Knight, it doesn’t feel like it. At 125 minutes, I can honestly say I was never bored. In fact, I barely moved during the whole second half of the film.
It hooked me with Steve and reeled me in with Cap.
Joe Johnston’s direction is sure-handed and sincere. I know it’s already been said a lot out there in Internet-Land, but the heart and affection he showed for the time period when he made The Rocketeer is amplified here by the larger budget and stronger script, making this film truly a love-letter to the Forties. It also includes a few nods to some of his other work, including a mention of Hitler digging in the desert for relics (Johnston was art director on Raiders of the Lost Ark) and the motorcycle chase between Hydra agents and Cap that eerily echoes the flying bike chase through the forest of Endor in Return of the Jedi (he was also the art director on that film).
There are probably more Easter Eggs that I didn’t notice, but hope to catch on my next viewing. I did notice the display for “The World’s First Synthetic Man” at the Stark Expo. That was a nice nod to the Original Human Torch that works as a double nod to Evans’ role as the Torch in the ill-fated Fantastic Four films. Call me crazy, but when I saw that red-suited figure in the air-tight container I got a distinct craving for an Invaders movie!
Speaking of the Expo, what a great way to make a visual connection to Iron Man 2 as well as give us a glimpse at a prototype flying car. I’m really hoping to see Fury (Sam Jackson) cruising through New York’s skyline in one of those someday.
The framing device, which allows the film to jump to the present-day in its final minutes, is extremely effective. Both the excavation of the Flying Wing in the Antarctic and Cap’s awakening in a room designed to look like it was still the Forties were almost perfect. I especially enjoyed seeing The Mentalist‘s Van Pelt, Amanda Righetti, show up in a Forties military uniform to try and help Cap deal with his awakening in a new time period. She’s only listed as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in the credits, but rumor has it she’s playing Agent Sharon Carter in The Avengers. Hmmmm.
What more can I say?
This film has everything I could ask for from a Captain America movie. Compared to the 1979 television versions and the unreleased 1990 film, this is like entering Captain America Nirvana. (Although, if you read my reviews of those films, they had more going for them than most fanboy reviewers might allow.)
This is, without question, the best film Marvel Studios has produced independently and easily takes home from me. Not only has it brought in the top-grossing superhero opening weekend of the summer, it’s the most satisfying and entertaining superhero movie we’ve gotten in years.
[EDIT: Captain America ended up faltering a bit across the finish line in its opening weekend, pulling in 65.1 million, making it the second-highest superhero opening of the summer. The crown goes to Thor, with 65.7 million, although Thor opened on 200 more screens than Cap. Just saying.]
Even though I’m ridiculously poor, I’m going to go see it again tomorrow.
It’s that good.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to What Looks Good and Shot for Shot. He currently has little spare time, but in what there is he continues to work on his first novel, tentatively titled Damaged Incorporated. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, sci-fi television, the original Deathlok, Nick Fury, and John Constantine. He can be summed up in three words: Postmodern Anarchist Misanthropy. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.