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Review: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Directed by: Joe Johnston

Premise: An adaptation of the Marvel comic. Set in World War II, a science division of the United States armed forces turns a fragile but earnest young recruit into a super soldier.

What Works: Captain America is a solid piece of action adventure entertainment. Director Joe Johnston has been a largely underrated director despite the fact that his filmography includes a few impressive credits for underappreciated films such as The Rocketeer and Jurassic Park III. Johnston is a protégé of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and it is shows in his filmmaking style. He has the same pulp sensibility and tells similar adventure stories but he has also adopted Spielberg’s understanding for how to balance spectacle with storytelling.  In Captain America, Johnston demonstrates his grasp of this balance between the character work and the action scenes. The film has plenty of fights and chases and although there is little about these scenes that is novel or even that creative, the scenes are entertaining and successfully build Captain America’s credibility as a superhero. But what really makes Captain America work is the film’s sincerity about its values and politics. In an age in which cynicism is hip and contemporary action heroes like Jason Bourne and Batman are psychologically damaged and face existential crises, Captain America risks coming across as an anachronism. But this film manages to convey its main character’s ideals of patriotism and duty without sentimentalizing them. The film accomplishes this first and foremost through the casting of Chris Evans as the title character. Mythical characters, whether they are superheroes, folk legends, or beauty queens, tend to come across as two-dimensional but Evans’ Captain America is much more human and he plays him not as a superhero but as a soldier going off to war and growing up in the process. The screenplay holds off on transforming the main character into a superhero and it uses his physical disadvantage to show off the character’s heroic fortitude. This is a smart storytelling decision that makes the character much more real and makes the audience believe that he is a hero even before he starts performing super feats. The film also has a convincing romantic subplot between Captain America and a military science officer played by Hayley Atwell. This relationship comes across credibly and it offers another level of human dimension for the main character.

What Doesn’t: Captain America is not without its flaws. The cast of soldiers who accompany the superhero on his adventures are very underwritten and underused, especially the commanding officer played by Tommy Lee Jones. Similarly underused is Hugo Weaving as the villain. Although Weaving is threatening, he is in stereotypical Hollywood Nazi mode and the film uses a conventional villain rather than providing an antagonist with a more compelling agenda. But where the film misses its biggest opportunity is in Captain America’s journey to the warfront. Before his transformation, the character dreams in a very vague sense of fulfilling his duty. This is a common theme of war films but usually the protagonist discovers the horror of war and the full implications what it means to fight for your country. Captain America never has this moment.  The movie just goes for the action and adventure and while it does that well, the film settles for average rollercoaster thrills that limit it from reaching the heights of intelligence and craft of better comic book films like The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and X-Men: First Class.

Bottom Line: Captain America is a good adventure film and much better than a lot of comic book adaptations made recently. Although it is fairly conventional and an obvious lead up to next year’s The Avengers, the film is enjoyable and stands on its own.

Episode: #350 (July 31, 2011)