Avenge Me!: A Captain America Review
Ah, the 1940s…a simpler time when a gallon of gas was 11 cents, the moon was still a distant, unknown world made of green cheese, and Nazis were so damn easy to kill! And even 70 years later, we can’t get enough Nazi killing, so if someone were to ask for a bare-bones mathematical equation for why Captain America: The First Avenger is worth watching, I’d tell them: Superhero + Nazi killing = awesome! And that is exactly what Captain America is, awesome!
To be fair, it’s not technically “Nazis” that we’re dealing with but HYDRA, the occult/science division of Hitler’s Third Reich led by one Johann Schmidt, a.k.a. The Red Skull, played deftly by Hugo Weaving. Schmidt takes Hitler’s belief in the occult one step further, destroying a temple in Norway to get a hold of the Tesseract, the “prize of Odin’s treasure room,” a cube of immeasurable power that could potentially turn the tide of the war and change the course of history.
In response to the powerful threat of HYDRA, the United States military pushes through with the Super Soldier program, looking for a viable candidate to test the latest version of the serum. The man chosen: 90-pound weakling Steve Rogers, brought to life beautifully by Chris Evans. After numerous attempts to join the army and fight in the war, Steve catches the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (the wonderfully understated Stanley Tucci) after an argument between Steve and his best friend James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) over Steve’s desire to serve his country in battle despite his lack of physical prowess. Inspired by Steve’s patriotism and dislike of bullies, Erskine recruits Steve and selects him to be the project’s human test subject, ultimately creating Captain America.
BEWARE! SPOILERS AHEAD!
I’ll be honest, I was skeptical of how Marvel was going to make this movie without saturating it with the gung-ho attitude of American patriotism during WWII. While it would be consistent with the time period, international audiences may not appreciate such a pro-America, fuck everyone else, tone that could have easily been the result in the hands of less experienced filmmakers. But screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and director Joe Johnston maintain the style and sensibility of WWII America by making the film a fairly consistent homage to WWII movies that happens to include a superhero origin story.
Johnston in particular knows what he’s doing with this time period. Best known for directing The Rocketeer, Johnston has had a great deal of experience dealing with stylized period pieces including The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, October Sky, Hidalgo, and as art director for Raiders of the Lost Ark. With the challenge of directing a movie about a nationalistic hero, Johnston aptly keeps the film moving between action and adventure, superhero origin, and war movie while simultaneously reminding you, whether subtly or outright in your face, that this story takes place during the 1940s. One of my favorite sequences is Johnston’s montage devoted to classic 1940s Cap including chorus girls, theme music, and Hitler-punching in all its glory! Not only is it entertaining, but it moves the story along, giving us yet more insight into Steve Rogers. Though he’s physically capable of fighting, Steve would willingly play the part of a dancing monkey dressed as the character of Captain America in order to serve his country.
The action sequences are fantastic! From a rousing chase scene through the streets of Brooklyn to the end fight between Steve and Red Skull, Johnston makes you feel every punch and keeps the fighting grounded and believable. No karate for Cap! Just elbows, knees, and gut punches! The many ways in which the shield is used serves to emphasize Cap as a strategist. Each time the shield is thrown is exciting and with purpose and it’s amazing how the simple act of throwing a shield can be so engaging without becoming tiresome or overused.
Markus and McFeely also deserve praise for constructing a superhero origin story that is freshly entertaining and does the job of actually making you care about the main character. By spending the first quarter of the movie with 90-pound weakling Steve Rogers, the audience is privy to a man without power, but brimming with immense conviction and courage. Steve embodies the sensibilities of a 40s man, one who wants to do what’s right because he is inherently good. It’s the reason he wants to go to war and the reason Dr. Erskine chooses Steve above all other physically capable soldiers. If, by the time Steve becomes a super soldier with rippling pectorals, you’re not rooting for him, then you, my friend, are without a soul!
The cast itself deserves just as much praise for delivering solid performances throughout the film. Chris Evans carries this film on the back of his bulked out shoulders. Compared to his previous foray into superhero movies as The Fantastic Four’s Human Torch/Johnny Storm, Evans is downright subtle in his portrayal of Steve Rogers. A lot of this stems from Evans setting the tone of Steve Rogers as a somewhat socially awkward weakling and maintaining that awkwardness even when he becomes an Adonis-like figure. The ever-present “aw shucks” grins coupled with frequent apologies for his inability to talk to women are endearing and make Steve more relatable. Compared to Robert Downey, Jr.’s charismatic performance in Iron Man, Evans charisma is far more understated without being bland. Whereas Tony Stark is all bombast and cynicism, Steve Rogers is an idealist with the ability to crack a joke and their eventual interaction in The Avengers already has me excited!
Backing Evans up is an amazing roster of characters and actors. Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes (thankfully updated from teen sidekick to Steve’s best friend) is both protector and soldier. His friendship with Steve drives most of the movie and provides the impetus for Steve’s rise as Captain America when he finds out Bucky’s regiment has been taken captive. Hopefully, we’ll get to see more of Bucky in future installments and with Joe Johnston teasing a desire to adapt the Winter Soldier storyline from the comics, it’s fair to say that Bucky’s “death” is far from permanent. Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine is wonderfully playful, but carries the weight of a German defector searching for an end to the war. Scenes between Erskine and Steve are especially poignant when Erskine reveals his reasons for choosing Steve for the experiment. On par with Uncle Ben’s advice to Peter Parker, Erskine’s “a weak man knows the value of strength” is just as powerful an adage.
On the military side of things, Tommy Lee Jones plays Tommy Lee Jones Colonel Chester Phillips, the no-nonsense, take-charge kind of military leader that shows up in most war and/or superhero movies. But Jones still manages to bring in an entertaining performance. How could you honestly hate Tommy Lee Jones? How? Backing Cap up in the field are the Howling Commandos: ‘Dum Dum’ Dugan (Neal McDonough, complete with bowler-hat helmet), Gabe Jones (Derek Luke), Jim Morita (Kenneth Choi), James Montgomery Falsworth (JJ Field), and Jacques Dernier (Bruno Ricci). Though they don’t get a lot of time on screen, their presence emphasizes Cap’s ability to be a team player and the camaraderie he developed with the soldiers that solidified his legend.
As the lone female character, Hayley Atwell’s Agent Peggy Carter exudes strength and sexiness without being exploited. Her romance with Steve builds throughout the movie and tragically ends in a moving sequence that pushes the audience to mourn what could have been for Steve and Peggy, especially at the end of the movie. And special mention goes to Dominic Cooper for his fantastic portrayal of Howard Stark, Tony Stark’s father. As a Howard Hughes-type mogul, Stark is as affably arrogant as his future son, which can only lead to more interactions between Tony and Steve!
And as far as the villains go, it’s impossible not to praise Hugo Weaving as Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull. From the first moment he’s on screen, Weaving is a presence to be reckoned with. His insanity and desire for perfection as a God among humans inject just enough instability to leave a question mark on what his next move will be. And Toby Jones as Dr. Arnim Zola is the rare cowardly villain under the thumb of The Red Skull, but still creepily evil in his own right.
The movie, however, is far from perfect. Some of the special effects are a little dodgy, especially during the first part of the movie with skinny Steve Rogers. Though the filmmakers did a lot of forced perspective tricks to make Chris Evans look shorter, they ultimately relied on digitally shrinking and shaving in the finished product. Don’t get me wrong, in the some of the scenes it’s seamless and really well done, but there’s the odd scene or two where it’s just really obvious that the scene was messed with digitally.
There are very few interactions between Red Skull and Captain America for my liking. Though the characters are talked about by the other and the actions of Red Skull drive Cap to the finale of the movie, I wish there had been more scenes between the two that allowed them to build up just why Red Skull seems to hate Steve Rogers so much. Throughout the movie it just feels like he hates him because it’s in the script. At least Steve’s got a reason! And then there’s the HYDRA soldiers running around with guns that are just a little too futuristic. A little nitpicky, I know, but I would expect more 1940s sci-fi guns instead of weapons that look like they belong in modernly futuristic setting.
Overall, Captain America is a fun and well made superhero movie. Though it’s yet another origin story, it’s one I was happy to see made. And if you stick around for the end credit sequence, you will not be disappointed!
But what did you think? Did Cap inspire you? Ready to go out and punch Hitler in the face?
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About Sam (68 posts)
I'm the lead writer for Noise Shark and I handle the creative content as well. And that voice of anger you'll hear emitting from the podcast? Oh, yeah, that's me. I'm so full of opinions it's ridiculous! My interests include movies, television, music, history, comic books...pretty much everything! No stone will be unturned, so expect a wide variety of articles from yours truly.
Have fun and enjoy!