Captain America: The First Avenger (United States, 2011)

July 22, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Captain America: The First Avenger Poster

It's fair to say that superhero saturation has set in. Not many years ago, every cinematic version of a comic book protagonist's adventures was awaited with baited breath. Now, because of an unceasing and sometimes careless flood of such titles, mainstream audiences have become apathetic, leaving it to die-hards to pack theaters on opening weekends. Captain America is the latest in a seemingly endless line of origin stories and the last of The Avengers prequels. Despite being the most venerable character in Marvel's line-up (he first appeared in 1941), Captain America is not a member of the vaunted A-list. In fact, were it not for his participation in The Avengers, one wonders whether the World War II patriot would have made it to the screen.

Although most of Captain America transpires in the 1940s, it is bookended by modern-day scenes that serve little purpose beyond setting up The Avengers. That's one thing that has been increasingly annoying about the recent batch of Marvel movies - The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor - they seem less like stand-alone motion pictures than advertisements for The Avengers. Captain America may be the worst offender. The whole purpose of telling Captain America's origin story is so that when he appears in The Avengers, he will have a background. (Joss Whedon, director of The Avengers, allegedly had limited input to the Captain America script.)

Captain America falls into the prevalent pitfalls of origin stories. So much time and effort is expended explaining how the protagonist gains his super-powers (and exploring his initial usage of them) that there's not enough opportunity to develop a compelling storyline beyond his "baptism." Then there's the issue of the main villain, Captain America's classic adversary Red Skull, who comes across as a James Bond-type take-over-the-world megalomaniac and isn't given a lot to do except exude over-the-top nastiness. The final confrontation is disappointing, lacking scope and energy. As bad as the Transformers movies are, at least Michael Bay thinks big.

The CGI work, it must be said, is at times exceptional, believably transforming actor Chris Evans into 90-pound weakling Steve Rogers. In fact, the computer enhancements are so good that I couldn't determine whether they were also used to "beef up" Rogers after he undergoes the treatment that transforms him into bulky, hunky Captain America. As best I can tell, no special effects are needed for Hayley Atwell (who plays Rogers' love interest, Agent Peggy Carter), Sebastian Stan (Rogers' best friend and later Captain America's sidekick, Bucky Barnes), or Tommy Lee Jones (Captain America's commanding officer, Col. Chester Phillips). Jones is as fun as ever, using his familiar crusty personality to its best advantage. Visual chicanery comes into play with Hugo Weaving, whose Red Skull looks like something out of the Star Wars cantina.

The thing that differentiates Captain America from the umpteen other superheroes who have trodden across screens this summer is that the action takes place neither on modern-day Earth nor in outer space. In this case, we get a period piece - a re-imagination of some of what went on behind the scenes in the struggle against the Nazis. Captain America, a super-soldier created by ex-German scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) using the "raw material" of Rogers' body, is initially employed as a propaganda figure for selling war bonds (he has a catchy theme song written by Alan Menken) before he is sent on a rescue mission behind enemy lines. However, instead of going after Hitler, Captain America gets sidetracked and ends up tangling with Red Skull and the secret society he has created. When it comes to re-writing World War II history, Quentin Tarantino did it better in Inglourious Basterds.

Director Joe Johnston uses a similar aesthetic here to the one he applied to The Rocketeer, another comic-inspired period piece. Despite the different characters and subject matter, the movies are peas in a pod. Having seen the movie in 2-D, I can't comment on whether the 3-D version compromises Johnson's use of slightly muted colors and carefully modulated lighting, but it's a good bet. 3-D is useful only when it comes to a "wow!" factor; it's putrid for subtleties like the ones employed by Johnston. (This is yet another post-production 3-D conversion.)

Comic book fans are likely to appreciate Captain America, which does a good job of consolidating the disparate origin aspects of the character into something easily digestible. Non-comic fans may have to fight the urge to stifle a yawn. There's nothing in Captain America worthy or praise or derision. It's a competently made, straightforward yarn that has little to offer those who are not already on the bandwagon. Anyone willing to sit through the lengthy end credits will be rewarded by a short, unrevealing teaser for The Avengers. It's a reminder of what Captain America is all about: getting audiences primed for one of 2012's big events rather than providing something memorable for 2011.

Captain America: The First Avenger (United States, 2011)

Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 2011-07-22
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1