Captain America: The First Avenger  (2011)

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In 2011, when Marvel fans saw Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger were coming to theaters within a few months of each other, opinion was pretty clearly divided. There were those who were stoked as all get-out at the thought of seeing Cap in WWII but said “Meh” to Thor, and an equal number of people were excited about Thor but relatively disinterested in Cap. The two directors — Kenneth Brannagh and Joe Johnston — were certainly very different, and each had a style that could be polarizing. What both groups agreed on was the likelihood that with any luck, one movie would rule, but the other was probably doomed to be much less fun and interesting.

What nobody anticipated was how similar the two movies would turn out to be.

Both have quite similar strengths and weaknesses. For instance, both have a surprisingly rich portrayal of the hero, with plenty of depth to it, while making the villain comparatively simplistic and boring — not to mention unfrightening. Both excel at capturing the exciting feel of a distant time or place, while going a little bit flat in sustaining the excitement of the action scenes. Both are cluttered with side characters mandated by Marvel continuity, which weigh down the story a bit. (This is true of almost every film in the Avengers universe.) And in the end, I can’t rate them very far apart in quality.

The main reason this surprises me is that Joe Johnston was best known, before this film, for The Rocketeer — another cartoony action movie set in the Nazi era. I found that movie to be a groaner, but a lot of the fans in the Cap camp just adored it. This was one of the biggest reasons why I was on Team Thor. Johnston’s “hero” in The Rocketeer hardly deserved the name: he was basically a 180 lb child, and so dense of noggin that if the bad guy had just been a little bit more slick, he probably could have talked the guy into handing over the flying suit doodad to Hitler.

Another reason was that I suspected that this film might amount to just a checklist item: they just needed to establish the WWII background of Cap before they could use him in modern times. Thankfully, this is much more than just an obligatory placeholder film.

One of the best things about this flick, surprisingly, is Chris Evans. He hasn’t had a distinguished acting career before this point, though in hindsight there were flashes of talent in mediocre roles. For us, he’s best known for having played The Human Torch. I am glad to say that there is very little resemblance between that role and this one. I am forced to conclude that far from just being a dumb jock, Evans can truly act. Let’s just thank the Lord that he’s not tied to that awful Tim Story series anymore. Now that he’s got this film on his resume... he may be ready to be a breakout star.

As I’ve mentioned, the character of Steve Rogers, who becomes Captain America, is given a good amount of depth, and Evans gets to show a solid range of acting. He’s working against a couple of handicaps here... first of all, his face is naturally not very expressive, and second, for much of the early going in the film, his face is processed through a computer to make it looks like it belongs on the body of a 97 pound weakling. This process is not entirely without side effects... though they do an amazing job of digitally making Chris Evans look like a runt, it still leaves a bit of uncanny valley in his face.

So his acting shines better after the transformation. But you know what? I’d always thought that Cap is supposed to be a generally cheerful and optimistic guy, in keeping with the zeitgeist of WWII “greatest generation” spunk and can-do-itude, but somehow... Chris Evans’ version of Rogers sometimes comes off as rather morose. To be sure, at times he’s dealing with the trauma of losing a friend, plus the general horror of war, and in the background, there’s the angst of trying to be a big damn hero while having no life experience to back it up with — for instance, he has no idea how to talk to women. Now in the role of Cliff Secord in The Rocketeer, ineptitude with women just makes the character into a lame chump, but in the case of this film’s Steve Rogers, it’s an integral and inevitable part of his story. The very minute he got hero-ified, he immediately had to start chasing nazis; fighting WWII comes first, learning to be smooth has to wait.

The transformation of Steve Rogers’ body is the film’s major special effects showpiece. We’re past the days now when something like a spaceship or raygun or cosmic portal or gigantic retro-styled airplane counts as a special effects spectacle. Even a giant reptilian monster doesn’t really impress anymore. But the transformation of Evans’ hulking physique, accomplished through a mixture of body-doubling, face-splicing, and by-hand digital resculpting, is really impressive, despite being low-key.

Less impressive is Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull. The makeup is okay, I guess, and the digital removal of his nose is seamless... but he’s just not a very well developed villain. He doesn’t have a twentieth of the depth or importance as a character that Cap gets. And in the second half of the movie, they have him go rogue, turning against his former masters in the Nazi party, becoming a threat to both sides... this, I think, was a mistake; you could say it actually cheapens World War Two.

Steve Rogers is actually so well developed as a character, in fact, that they had to skimp on action as a result! Once he goes on his first unauthorized mission behind enemy lines, and thereby matures as a working hero with actual deeds under his belt, the film is past its midpoint. And then, when it’s time for him to hone his skills in combat and become an experienced fighter... we get a montage! There’s definitely a hole here. It’s a justifiable choice, but you still definitely feel like you missed something.

The closing act has a shit-ton of action, naturally, but better than that, it has heroism. And it is in this that this Captain America film stands above most of its contemporaries. Steve Rogers is not some invulnerable grinning super-douche, he’s a regular guy who has been entrusted with a great gift, and he was chosen precisely because he didn’t need super muscles to have courage and strength. This is someone who never forgets that in the larger picture, he’s not that important — that if it comes to a choice between his life and others, he’s expendable.

Joe Johnston is known for his lovingly glamorous and kitchy vision of the thirties and forties. But in this film, he’s gone straight to the core of what is best and most admirable about the spirit of those times. By making the story of a character who is truly and purely heroic in the best sense of the word, set in what is perhaps the last time period when that could be carried off utterly straight without the least hint of irony, he’s fashioned a perfect critique of all the crappy bullying “heroes” we’ve been saddled with in modern action movies. And made it pretty darn entertaining. If Cap had only been matched with an equally impressive villain, this could have been a top-drawer superhero movie.