Review: “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011)

Hollywood has its formulas for action flicks, screenwriters have their story beat quotas and Marvel Studios superhero films have to straddle the demands of savvy readers paying to see characters they love and the demands of audience members who have never heard of Captain America’s younger sidekick. This year, Marvel tasked Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor” with bringing Jack Kirby’s glowing, cosmic version of Norse mythology to the masses, and director Joe Johnston took on the task of interpreting World War II in the Marvel Universe for a modern audience in “Captain America: The First Avenger.”

Somehow he managed to do that and deliver punches to Hitler’s face in stereo while leaving the international audience-friendly scenes in this film sterilized of swastikas. Thus, like the Super Nintendo version of “Wolfenstein 3D” before it, “The First Avenger” told a hard-hitting WWII tale without Nazi flags and depicted massive pre-V-Day combat in Europe without any sign of the SS within miles.

Instead, the Red Skull’s (Hugo Weaving) forces act as stand-ins for the Nazis, breaking ranks from Hitler’s Third Reich and going rogue so that they can take over the world.

Yes, the story beats are predictable. Yes, there is a final video-game-plot-ready boss level (so to speak) at the end, and yes, a national hero injects himself with strength-boosting chemicals in order to physically perform better in combat without suffering any of the side effects that professional baseball players and wrestlers experience when they engage in similar practices.

If you can get beyond this awkward plot point (does Isaiah Bradley exist in this universe?), which is a long-standing part of the Captain America origin story, “The First Avenger” is a fine family film. It also does an impressive job of visualizing the WWII era with Cosmic Cube-powered technology without making any of the scenes feel like they’re taking place in the future. When Captain America (Chris Evans) awakens in the present, you really begin to understand how well Johnston and his team really did in this respect.

I’ve written before about my problems with past Marvel film endings, where huge, abstractly conceived villains gain vast amounts of power out of nowhere, yell incoherent, cheaply written things very loud, and then proceed to get robbed of their power like the Wizard of Oz being discovered behind his curtain. To Johnston’s credit once again, “The First Avenger” avoids this pitfall.

The film does, however, alter Cap’s fate slightly. In the comics, he was disarming a bomb; in the movie, he finds himself (SORRY, SPOILER HERE FOR THE REST OF THE PARAGRAH) onboard a bomb-loaded plane bound for the U.S. and decides that he has to crash it. The plane doesn’t seem to explode when it nose-dives into the ice, which makes me question: Why couldn’t he have attempted a water landing or hard landing in rural Greenland or something? Perhaps he just didn’t receive pilot training, or maybe the Red Skull mentioned something off-screen about having only sabotaged the plane’s ability to turn left and right. Whatever the case may be, a few extra seconds of dialogue would have gone a long way in explaining why Cap decided that his only option was to do a nose dive. It kind of the Bear Grylls meme where he sees that the sun is setting and decides that he has to drink his own urine. Sometimes extreme action is necessary, but was it really the only choice in this case?

Forced though it may be, the action does get our hero to where and when he needs to be for the setup leading to Joss Whedon’s “Avengers” movie. It’s funny, because until after the credits roll (SPOILER AGAIN HERE) you would never know that there had been a “Thor” movie tied into “The First Avenger,” save one quick reference to the Cosmic Cube when the Red Skull is pulling it out of its resting place.

Casting-wise, the film has a lot to be proud of. There are certainly no January Jones-caliber performances this time around. Chris Evans does exactly what he needs to, and so does the anatomy-altering CGI that gets used to may him seem scrawnier prior to his procedure. Hugo Weaving sounds eerily like Christopher Waltz from “Inglourious Basterds” at times, but it words for the role.

All in all, Johnston lands the film on its feet with an powerful jolt at the end, and Whedon now has an accessible, yet worthy bar of quality to shoot for when “The Avengers” arrives in 2012.

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