By Arlene R. Weiss
The iconic comic superhero and freedom fighter, whose 1941 debut initially served as an inspiring symbol to rally America’s patriotism during World War II, celebrates his 70th birthday by finally getting his due in this evocative, rousing silver screen adaptation.
Director Joe Johnston, who helmed the disastrous The Rocketeer, takes a more thoughtful, subdued approach with Captain America: The First Avenger, crafting a faithful realization with a keen eye for attention to detail.
Rich in emotional storytelling, with affectionate tips of the hat to plot devices from Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi, Johnston’s vision is a loving homage to the heroic serials and World War II movies of the ‘40s.
Striking visual effects abound throughout Captain America, but with far less emphasis and spectacle than this summer’s previous blockbuster offerings. Instead, the film embraces well drawn, fleshed-out characters imbued with emotional depth, subtly textured nuances and shadings, and intricate character driven narratives, set among emblematic depictions of good and evil.
Beginning in the present day, the film’s opening introduces us to a team of U.S. scientists who are called to the Arctic, when what appears to be the wreckage of an enormous aircraft is discovered beneath the snow. But wait! An even more startling discovery comes to light when they find a mysterious object with a red, white, and blue insignia.
Then, we are transported via flashback to March 1942, to a castle in Tonsberg, Norway. There, the evil Nazi Johann Schmidt, aka The Red Skull, (the masterful Hugo Weaving deliciously chewing up the scenery in a top notch performance and full on villain mode), and leader of research organization HYDRA with designs on world domination, steals a glowing cube artifact with the ability to make him all powerful and rule the world.
It’s here at this juncture, in Brooklyn, New York, that we first meet our hero, the future Captain America, in sweet faced, plucky kid, Steve Rogers, (the wonderful, underrated Chris Evans in a particularly affecting and charming performance).
This origins story that kick starts The Avengers epic, speaks to all of us with an everyman story for the ages. Steve isn’t endowed with the alien or genetic super powers of Superman, Thor, or the X-Men. His power lies within. It may be a little harder to see or recognize, but it is one that is very special indeed.
Steve is a sickly, scrawny 98 pound weakling who takes his licks from neighborhood bullies who revel in delivering back alley beatings to the diminutive boy from Brooklyn. This doesn’t matter to Steve though. No matter how many whippings Steve suffers, he always just keeps getting back up, determinedly exclaiming, “I can do this all day.”
What Steve lacks in physical height and strength, cannot compare to the tremendous measure of the courageous, kind, and good man within. Even five, 4F Army rejections can’t deter Steve from yearning to yet try again, to enlist in the noble, selfless fight to defend his country from Hitler and the Nazis.
Bidding a fond farewell to his friend, Sgt. James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), on the night before Bucky leaves with the 107th Infantry for overseas, Steve, grows ever disheartened telling Bucky, “There are men laying down their lives. I’ve got no right to do any less than them.”
He earnestly wants to protect the citizens of America, but instead he’s benched on the sidelines, unable to stand aside his fellow countrymen doing his very best duty for his country.
That is until the U. S. Government’s Strategic Scientific Reserve’s Dr. Abraham Erskine (the always marvelous Stanley Tucci in a truly understated, resonant performance), overhears Steve’s impassioned words to Bucky. Erskine is in the midst of conducting a medical experiment with a super soldier serum he’s invented. One that enhances physical strength, height, and endurance, yet also amplifies the inner character traits. Dr. Erskine wisely sees the most purposeful qualities in Steve, who may be small in physique, but is so very large in courage, indomitable spirit, and heart.
The doctor approves Steve’s military enlistment at last and chooses Steve as the recipient of the serum, much to the humorous dismay of Steve’s Commanding Officer, Col. Chester Phillips (the gruff yet stalwart Tommy Lee Jones), and the encouragement of Steve’s crush, SSR Agent Peggy Carter, (the radiant Hayley Atwell in a beautifully enchanting performance).
Steve receives the serum, along with a blasting of vita-rays administered by inventor Howard Stark, (Dominic Cooper), better known as father to future Iron Man, Tony Stark. Steve emerges from the experiment as a buff, muscled Adonis with the ability to regenerate his own cells and heal himself, now more than fit for active duty and able to fight the good fight.
The newly dubbed Captain America is then off on his thrilling adventures as the patriotic face promoting War Bonds, rescuing the captured Bucky and the 107th Infantry while in hot pursuit of the dreaded Red Skull, and falling in love with Agent Carter.
Captain America: The First Avenger, ultimately is a film that is a triumph of the human spirit. In that respect, it just soars thanks to Evans who effortlessly carries the film on his shoulders with the resolute exuberance and sparkle of Steve himself.
The more character driven, first part of the film where we first get to know Steve, who is flush with unbreakable resolve and valor, is the emotional highlight of the film. Evans just shines in the role in a breakout performance. One that showcases Evan’s deft grasp at inhabiting and elevating warm hearted, likeable characters, much as he’s done so flawlessly before in The Losers and both Fantastic Four films.
Wonderfully notable as well, the scenes and exchanges between Dr. Erskine and Steve are the most emotionally moving, meaningful, and touching. Especially the night before Steve is to be injected with the super soldier serum, when Dr. Erskine relates to Steve, why he was chosen by the doctor.
Dr Erskine expounds that he actually first administered the, at the time, untried serum, to Johann Schmidt. But since Schmidt was an inherently bad man, it only accentuated Schmidt’s nefarious nature.
But, in the most profound line in the film, Dr. Erskine says that Steve is a compassion person and so he tells Steve, “Whatever happens, stay who you are, not just a soldier…but a good man.”
It’s when the action kicks in during the second half of the film that things actually fall flat and bog down. Captain America isn’t really endowed with any of the awe inspiring super powers of other super heroes. He just transitions from being a weakling to being strong and fit. So the plot and pacing gets kind of ho hum boring.
There’s just nothing all that impressive about seeing a mostly typical World War II movie with the Army fighting the bad guys. Johnston’s tendency to lose momentum when the narrative focus veers from the actors to the action doesn’t help matters either.
What elevates and makes this film are the beautifully, well written, multi-dimensional characters. Moreover, and delightfully, Captain America: The First Avenger is also at heart, a very touching, old fashioned romance, framed in a beautifully nostalgic period piece motion picture.
Evans and Atwell generate much glowing chemistry in their tender feelings for one another. Not the sexual kind, but the sweet romantic kind, born of true love. Just their knowing glances and touching words to one another evoke their love and mutual respect for one another. Watching the luminous Evans and Atwell together is just dazzling, conjuring such classic World War II, romance films as Casablanca and Hanover Street.
The film’s most poignant and wrenching moments come when Steve and Peggy schedule a date over her air traffic controller, radio tower transmission to Steve as he braces to crash land the Red Skull’s jet before it can reach and annihilate New York. An elegiac Steve offers the film’s tear invoking, bittersweet closing line at missing that much anticipated date with his girl.
Kudos to Johnston and screen writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely not only for their smart writing and story, but also for their portrait of Agent Carter. Rarely has a female character in recent cinema been so thoughtfully and intelligently written, or been depicted as such a sterling role model for women to aspire to.
Atwell makes Agent Carter just captivating and all her own. Intelligent, compassionate, brave, she’s as physically strong and adept at fighting as any of her fellow infantrymen. She can sharp shoot a gun at any range and make her target with finesse, handily dispatching of HYDRA infiltrates.
And Agent Carter throws a powerful left hook at a sexist insubordinate while putting him in his place, all while knocking Steve’s socks off with her sophistication, beauty, and grace.
The fabulous Ann B. Sheppard’s stunning Costume Design, Rick Heinrichs’ stellar Production Design, along with the film crew’s glorious Art Direction and Set Decoration all beautifully drop us right into vintage, World War II era 1942 via their imaginative, atmospheric, craftwork.
The always phenomenal composer Alan Silvestri’s anthemic, richly textured, epic and lyrical score further elevates the storyline in evoking the many emotional moods, colors, and period atmosphere of the film with enigmatic and breathtaking conviction.
The eloquent string motifs and themes that play during Steve’s tender moments with Dr. Erskine, Bucky, and Peggy, and the sweeping, majestic orchestral fanfares that compellingly drive the action, beautifully convey the spirited essence of this remarkable little film with a big heart, much like its central character.
Captain America: The First Avenger isn’t so much a super hero film. It’s a film that shows us that real heroes, are everyday ordinary people, taking a stand and doing the right thing, people whose most extraordinary qualities are the great depth of integrity, moral fiber, strength of character, and wonderfully virtuous heart within them.
Be sure to stay until after the closing credits finish rolling for the highly anticipated, spectacular, Official Motion Picture Trailer for the phenomenal The Avengers, featuring clips of Captain America in his next film adventure, and a glittering galaxy of other Marvel® super heroes including Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Iron Man and Nick Fury!
© Copyright July 25, 2011 By Arlene R. Weiss-All Rights Reserved