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Captain America (2011)
Reviewed by David Medinnus, © 2011

Format: Movie
By:   Joe Johnston
Genre:   Superhero / war movie
Review Date:   August 10, 2011

At this writing, Captain America: The First Avenger is in its third week, with a box office take of a tad over $130 million. Not too shabby. Given that I'm a old Captain America fan, with the scars of the 1970s' made-for-TV movies and the 1991 non-theatrical release version, I was somewhat apprehensive about the Captain America movie. All previous attempts to bring Captain America to live-action goodness crashed and burned explosively.

I shouldn't have worried.

The film is as true to the spirit of the modern mythology as I could want; while there are details that are either omitted or glossed over (an inevitability when translating a comic book property to a different format), the essentials of what make the character of Captain America the living legend he has become since his creation in 1941 are all there.

The film opens in the modern era, where scientists in the frozen North find a red, white, and blue artifact. From there, we step back to Norway in 1942, where the Red Skull and his Hydra goons steal the Cosmic Cube.

Steve Rogers, the 98 lb. weakling, has been repeatedly rejected in his attempts to join the army. His best friend, James "Bucky" Barnes, has been accepted. Rogers attempts to enlist again, and due to the influence of Dr. Abraham Erskine, succeeds and is assigned as a candidate for Operation: Rebirth.

Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) thinks Rogers is an utter waste of time, but officer Peggy Carter, disagrees; not being much in the physical arena but unwilling to give up, Rogers has developed a quick mind to think his way through problems without brute force (he has no brute force to use). Evidence of his courage comes in a scene where Phillips tosses a dummy grenade in the middle of the trainees.

Elsewhere, the Red Skull and his pet scientist Arnim Zola learn to harness the Cosmic Cube to power Arnim Zola's weapon designs. The Red Skull plans to use Hydra and the advanced weapons to conquer anyone who stands before his dreams of global domination.

Erskine tells Rogers that it was important to find a test subject with integrity and courage, as those traits would be magnified as well as his body. Operation: Rebirth is a success, but Dr. Erskine is fatally shot by a Nazi agent. Rogers, Peggy Carter and Howard Stark free an imprisoned Bucky, and the "Howling Commandos" then proceed to destroy Hydra bases.

At the end of the movie, Rogers awakes in a room designed to look like the 1940s, but the vintage radio tips him off by replaying a baseball game Rogers himself attended. Rogers escapes the facility, but is confronted by Nick Fury.

Roll credits.

After the credits is the Avengers movie trailer, which is almost worth the cost of admission all by itself for fans of the extended franchise.

The origins of Captain America have been re-told several times in the modern Marvel Universe. There are many differences between the classical canon of the Marvel Universe-616 and the movie, although frankly I was impressed they included as much as they did.

Any of the omissions were far overshadowed by what they got right; the spirit of Captain America was perfectly portrayed.

Stanley Tucci was an excellent Abraham Erskine as the "father" to Captain America. One of the things which endeared this film to me was the relationship they set up between Erskine and Steve Rogers. In the comics, there really wasn't one, except for the inventor/lab specimen dynamic. But here Dr. Erskine is personalized, a complex character who loves his homeland-that-was before the Nazi conquest, but recognizes that the Nazi regime in general, and his inadvertent creation of the Red Skull, are an evil that must be defeated. Erskine champions Steve Rogers through the candidate selection process, even though there are other candidates more physically adept.

Dr. Erskine doesn't just want to make a super-soldier; he wants to make a champion, who values virtues more intangible that mere physicality. The unofficial test with the dummy grenade was a brilliant, telling scene. Only one man steps forward to throw himself around the grenade.

Chris Evans and the writers nailed the character of Steve Rogers without making him a wisecracking parody or an arrogant asshole. Evans sells us the character as someone worth our emotional investment. Anyone could have been Captain America, but not everyone would keep applying to enlist after coming up 4-F many times before. Not many 98-lb weaklings would have stood up to the bully in the theater, knowing that calling him out meant a beating. Steve Rogers puts his money where his mouth is, so to speak; he doesn't flinch from doing the right thing, even if he can't possibly win, and he doesn't give up; if he can't go through the door, he'll find another entrance, dig a hole to the basement, or poke a hole in the ceiling. But he doesn't give up.

During "Operation: Rebirth", the scientists are ready to call it off and stand down when Rogers is subjected to agonizing pain. Rogers calls for them to continue, dedicated to the task at hand.

Hugo Weaving's Red Skull was the letter-perfect portrayal of the Red Skull; arrogant, sadistic, snarling, and ruthlessly ambitious. What a dream role for an actor, being able to chew up the scenery with such panache! He's the villain we love to hate, all of his negative traits reinforced by an earlier version of Erskine's formula. I'd be willing to bet the Red Skull wasn't destroyed, but rather his disintegration by the Cosmic Cube will be a mechanism to bring him back later.

The character of Peggy Carter was well developed, and well played by the stunning Hayley Atwell. You could see the initial attraction between Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter form and develop prior to the procedure. You can see that underneath the tough Special Agent there is a woman who understands how hard it is to make the grade; she had to overcome her sex and prove her worth, while Rogers has to overcome his physical frailty.

When Operation: Rebirth is successful, she's as thrown by it as Rogers is, and you can tell that only the knowledge that their war -- hers and Rogers -- will be even more dangerous than the war is for others holds her back from Steve.

Unlike most films, the romance in Captain America: The First Avenger is pure romance; there are no steamy scenes between missions. This is the 1940s, and both the characters are busy fighting the war.

For fans of the larger franchise, there are a lot of "cookies" for one to find and devour; just as we see Howard Stark's shield designs in the Iron Man movies, here we get to see the precursor of Howard's son Tony's technology, with a prototype flying car.

The Human Torch android on display at the World's Fair. The Howling Commandos, and in particular Dum Dum Dugan, yelling "WaaHooooo!".

One of the biggest changes is the origin and death of James "Bucky" Barnes. I'm ambivalent about that, although the way he's presented rang truer than some other rationalizations I've seen for explaining a teenage sidekick to a modern audience. As with so many things, the essential parts (the close friendship with Steve, the tragic death for which Steve blames himself) are present, and so is the important part of the character in how he affects Steve moving forward.

It still amazes me when people who have seen Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and Thor still walk out of the theater while the credits are rolling.

Have they not learned anything from the previous films? There is always a scene or two after the credits; in this case, it's a sneak peek of the coming Avengers film, with the Avengers "Big Three". I can't wait for the next chapter in the franchise, and the next Captain America movie.

For more Captain America reviews, check out this review and this Thor / Cap comparison.


David Medinnus is the shield slinging curator of The Star-Spangled Site.

 
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