Captain America – The First Avenger (***)

Fantastic and visually accomplished, "Captain America" concludes the prelude to 2012's "The Avengers" in terrific fashion...

Delivering the final cinematic chapter before the upcoming “Avengers” blockbuster in 2012, “Captain America: The First Avenger” is an entertaining and visual marvel, aiming for a story more straightforward and classic in tone than its predecessors “The Hulk”, “Thor”, or “Iron Man”. Featuring a solid performance by Chris Evans in the title role, “Captain America: The First Avenger” may lose its focus at times, but is a well made and entertaining ride from start to finish.

I acknowledge that going into “Captain America: The First Avenger”, I knew very little about the story, while a number of my friends were kind enough to fill me in with their knowledge and memories from the comic books of their younger days. For me, the story felt fresh and fairly original and I came in with some anticipation in learning how Steve Rogers not only fit into the “Avengers” storyline, but also how he transformed into the superhero who sets out to save the world during the heyday of World War II and Nazi supremacy.

Told almost entirely in flashback to the early-to-mid 1940s, we are first introduced to Adolf Hitler’s head of weaponry, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), who has long been seeking the Tesseract, an energy source that will enable Schmidt to design and develop weapons that will virtually guarantee the Nazis the winning of the War. The discovery also gives Schmidt designs on what may ultimately lead to his own opportunity to takeover the world.

Seeing all of his friends enlist to fight for their country, a New York City kid named Steve Rogers has a simple desire to join the military and aid in the war effort. Unfortunately for Rogers, he is maybe 5 1/2 feet tall, gaunt, and weighs on the southside of 100 pounds. His desire and patriotism does not comport with his physical attributes and he is rejected time and time again as being unfit to fight. On the eve of his deployment, Rogers’ best friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), takes Rogers to an exhibit showcasing the latest inventions and innovations. After witnessing inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) unveil a sneak peek at his new flying car technology, Rogers sees another opportunity to enlist in the military at the exhibition hall. Readying for his examination, the doctor departs and in walks a mysterious man named Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who informs Rogers that he might be able to help him realize his dream of becoming a soldier for the United States Military.

Joining in with a select group of soldiers, Rogers struggles mightily in training and draws scorn and derision from Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and a curious eye from the lone female soldier in camp, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). After surprising everyone with a simple act of selflessness, Rogers is selected by Erskine and Phillips to take part in a top-secret “Super Soldier” experimental program. Infused with a liberal set of serum injections and the use of “Vita-Rays”, Rogers enters a chamber as a waif of a man and emerges as a ripped, large and grown, full-size man. Additionally, every ability Steve has is heightened to an incredible degree – he can run extraordinarily fast, can jump great heights, punch with deadly force, and has unspeakable strength and agility. When the experiment falls victim to a spy, events lead to Rogers saving a child and soon Rogers is front page news. He sells war bonds. He goes on USO tours and is dubbed “Captain America”. When the backlash inevitably arrives, Rogers returns to duty, attempting to rescue captured soldiers held by Schmidt. On the recovery mission, Rogers learns a great deal more about Schmidt and troubling details of the war he so enthusiastically wanted to fight in. A great deal more is at stake than Rogers or Captain America could have ever anticipated.

Aligned next to the preceding “Avengers” films, “Captain America: The First Avenger” looks and feels much different in tone, pacing, and feel. The result is that the film is simply a joy to watch. Director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer) has cast his film in the hues and colors familiar to the time period and the throwback approach is refreshing for a superhero film of this context. Chris Evans is a fine addition to the Thors, Tony Starks, and Bruce Banners of the series and makes a great deal more out of the role than may have been written. He tackles the role with an enthusiasm and drive that allows you to buy in to the 90-pound Rogers as easily as you can believe in his mega-buff 0% body fat look of his superhero alterego.

The film is rather witty at times, with great stabs of humor provided by the predictably gruff and humorless Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci is typically terrific as the kind-hearted Dr. Erskine, perhaps my favorite supporting character from all of these adaptations thus far. Hayley Atwell holds up ably well as Rogers’ love interest amidst all of the male actors in the film. Hugo Weaving is wickedly nasty in playing the nasty Johann Schmidt, who has a sinister secret he is hiding from everyone, including his loyal assistant, Armin Zola (Toby Jones).

The presentation is quite impressive, especially with the visual effects work on Chris Evans. In reading through the end credits, I counted no less than a dozen different Visual FX teams which worked on the project and the film looks impressive whether it is in the downsizing of Evans or the elaborate action sequences which take place on the ground, on a train, or in the air. Makeup work is strong as well and the sound mix and other below-the-line work is top notch.

Problematically, the film struggles to hold the narrative together at times, eschewing character development for more and more action. One issue difficult to overcome with all of this is that as the “First Avenger”, Captain America has no connection to any of the other “Avengers”, except Tony Stark, the future son of Howard Stark, who does play a significant hand in Captain America’s success. Perhaps “The Avengers” epic will tie these loose threads together, and certainly years of comic book stories have likely interwoven these characters and their stories together. On film however, the connection to the other characters is made in a tedious throwaway 2-minute exchange near the end of the movie. I found that disappointing, because it would have been nice to bridge the significant gap between Rogers’ era in the 1940s to the present day in a more distinctive and impactful manner. Perhaps, that comes next summer.

Flaws aside, I liked “Captain America: The First Avenger” a great deal. In looking back at everything we have been given, it ramps up my enthusiasm for next summer’s “Avengers” significantly. Perhaps, I may even deepen my knowledge and try to get on par with those who have a working knowledge of all of these characters and their sub-stories and supporting characters. But then again, I have never been a comic book fan, so maybe it serves me best to simply wait and see what this upcoming rock concert of a movie has in store for us in the summer of 2012.

Based on the set up thus far though…I cannot wait.

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My love of film began at the age of 7 when my parents not only gave me a television, but HBO to boot. My first theatrical experience was "E.T." My first movie cry came with "Old Yeller". "The Usual Suspects" made me decide to make movies and film writing a priority in life, even knowing the twist beforehand. My passion for film, music, and pop culture in general can be isolated to my youth. My love for film took root in high school. Above all else, movies and art, in any form, exist to entertain and I remain much more interested in how art affects others, more than with myself. But I love the conversation and to have a chance to share my thoughts and be a part of the community here is a unique and enriching experience.