My Review of Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First AvengerI realize I’m a couple of months late, but I wanted to post my review/thoughts on the recent Captain America movie. Part of Marvel’s new “cohesive movie universe” strategy – this film is meant to fit within the same continuity as other recent Marvel films Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor. In fact, the “movie universe” (or, at least, the Avengers-related one) has even gotten its own designation within the comics multiverse now – Earth-199999 – which is about as official as it gets in comics continuity. Because the Avenger-related movies are in a different continuity than the Fantastic Four movies from a few years back (that’s Earth-121698), Marvel decided to use actor Chris Evans – who previously portrayed Johnny Storm in the F4 films – as Steve Rogers, aka Captain America. Whether or not that was a good decision is something I’ll discuss further down.

Anyway, the film itself is a pretty nice showing for Cap fans. Due to a slight bout of unemployment, I wasn’t able to see it when it initially came out in July, but was finally able to go see it a couple of weeks ago thanks to that beautiful thing called a paycheck. So, without further ado… here we go:

The Plot

Like any other comic-based movie, the plot of Captain America loosely follows the story of the comics, but with numerous details changed or updated so that it’s not exact. For the most part, however, Captain America stays fairly faithful to what we all know and love – a frail and skinny (and short!) Steve Rogers wants nothing more than to serve his country in WWII, only to find that the military refuses to sign him up. When immigrant scientist Dr. Erskine discovers his burning courage and patriotism, he invites Steve to participate in a top-secret “Super-Soldier” program that seeks to create the perfect soldier against the Nazis. The program represents the life-long work of Erskine, who fled Germany after a Nazi officer named Johann Schmidt stole and used his original formula. Ultimately successful, the project comes to an abrupt end when Erskine is assassinated by a hidden Nazi agent. From here, the plot begins to deviate from what we’ve seen in the comics, even though Steve eventually finds his place as the symbol of courage & patriotism we all know.

After Erskine’s assassination, the government decides that Steve is too valuable to place on the front line and plans on tucking him away at Los Alamos. Desperate to somehow serve his country, Steve instead opts to join the USO as a “mascot” of sorts for the US military. Over the course of several months, he tours the country as the star attraction in a roadshow which promotes the military and the defeat of Hitler. During this time, the costume he is given to wear very closely resembles what he wore in the comics for forty years. Although glad to be of service somehow, the newly-dubbed “Captain America” does not enjoy his celebrity status and instead longs to serve in combat where he feels he can make a much larger contribution.  While performing for troops at a forward base, he finds that the soldiers don’t take him seriously and is booed off the stage. Afterwards, he finds that the battalion is where his best friend Bucky serves, and that numerous soldiers (including Bucky) have been captured by a branch of the Nazis called Hydra. Dismayed at the Army’s lack of rescue plans, Steve sneaks off on his own and single-handedly rescues all of the soldiers including Bucky. During the rescue, he meets the Nazi agent mentioned by Erskine – a man now known as The Red Skull (as a side effect of the unperfected serum, his face was disfigured into the form of a red skull) who is trying to harness the power of an Asgardian artifact that fans will recognize as the Cosmic Cube.

Having successfully proven his worth, the Captain is placed in charge of his own squad who undertake numerous missions against Hydra throughout the next several months. Eventually losing Bucky on one of the missions, Cap finds himself on a final mission to stop his Nazi counterpart from destroying Washington (and other US cities). After facing the Skull in personal combat and winning, Cap finds that the only way he can stop the warplane from reaching US airspace is to crash it into the icy waters off of Newfoundland.

The Acting

As one of the many fans who was unsure of Marvel’s decision to use Chris Evans in both roles, I was pleasantly surprised. He played Steve Rogers with enough seriousness and subtlety that I only found myself reminded of Johnny Storm once. Stanley Tucci was great as the humble Erskine, and Hugo Weaving absolutely stole every scene he was in as Johann Schmidt (aka The Red Skull). As for everyone else, not every casting choice was perfect, but I have no reasonable complaints – only minor quibbles. Tommy Lee Jones seemed a little like he was coasting through his role as the general in charge of the Super-Soldier project, but with Mr. Jones even so-so acting is good acting, so the film didn’t suffer.

Special Effects/Costumes

Here is where most of my qualms come in, unfortunately. Marvel spent a ton of money on this movie, and it shows in most places. In numerous scenes, however, the CGI used to speed up or manipulate Cap’s movements is terrible and very obvious. I don’t understand this, since they had it dead-on when doing Emil Blonsky’s fight against the Hulk in that movie (the scene at the college campus mid-way through). While sitting through the credits, I noticed at least a dozen different studios used for CGI – none of which I’d heard of even once, and it was obvious that whichever one did the fight scene CGI isn’t at the top of their game. Perhaps I’m just jaded from the excellent quality we expect nowadays on big-budget, blockbuster-type films. The CGI used to make Chris Evans look skinny and frail, though – that was close to amazing. I don’t know whether they did it all by computer or just put his face on someone else’s body, but either way the end result was pretty believable.

The costumes are pretty good throughout, and mostly period-accurate as far as I could tell… with the glaring exception of Captain America himself. The costume he dons halfway into the movie (his “functional” costume after the rescue) looks way too futuristic and complex for something from that era. At least the Skull’s technology had the excuse that it was based on otherworldly premises – the uniform for Cap is supposed to be a functional, albeit symbolic, soldier’s uniform. I would have preferred something closer to what he wore in the WWII segments of the Ultimate comics, which was a major source of  inspiration for these Avengers-related films. As for Hydra, their soldiers looked almost silly in the all-black, plasticized, futuristic “Stormtrooper” armor they wore. WWII had some really great uniforms to choose from, so I think this is an opportunity missed by Marvel to have a very stylistic look to the film. An example of how WWII style was applied effectively to a bad-guy is Kroenen from the first Hellboy flick. Everything about Kroenen’s look said “Nazi”, “Do Not Touch”, and “Dangerous” – it was very well done. In fact, the Skull’s costume was very reminiscent of Kroenen’s early costume (during the scene where Hellboy is found), and suits him nicely.

Continuity & Differences

My favorite part of watching these Marvel films is finding all the changes and modifications they made to characters & storylines. It’s a love/hate relationship, because I love trying to spot ’em all but still want to fuss and gripe about ’em too. Like the other movies from the “Marvel Movie-verse”, Captain America is heavily influenced by the Ultimate line of comics, with the end result being a hybrid of what we read for decades and what The Ultimates introduced back in 2002.  For those fans who haven’t read The Ultimates, or haven’t read the comics at all in a while, here is a list of major changes you may notice:

  • Cap’s Initial Role: In the film, the Army wants to shelve the Super-Soldier program along with Rogers himself after Erskine is assassinated.  Instead, the US Senator who is present puts Rogers to work touring the country as “Captain America”. Only after Rogers disobeys orders and single-handedly rescues the missing 107th does the military take him seriously as a field soldier. In the mainstream version, there was no question about whether or not to use Cap as a weapon in the field – that was the whole point of the program. After it was determined that he would be the only one of his kind, the uniform and “Captain America” moniker were designed to inspire the troops he led into battle, not the civilians back home.
  • Bucky’s Role: In the Ultimate continuity, Steve Rogers was often assisted on his missions by Army photographer & childhood friend Bucky Barnes. Rather than the young, “Robin-like” costumed sidekick role he undertook in the mainstream continuity, here Bucky was an Army Corporal who was nearly the same age as Cap. In The Ultimates, Bucky witnessed the mission that left Cap frozen, then eventually went on with his life and married Cap’s girlfriend Gail Richards. The film uses the first aspect while dropping the latter. Based on Bucky’s fate in the film, it is most likely he will reappear in a form similar to that of the mainstream continuity (i.e. – as The Winter Soldier or some variation thereof).
  • The Red Skull: In the film there is a scene where three Nazi officers — all apparently of higher rank than the Skull — arrive for a demonstration of his technology and make ridiculing comments amounting to how Hydra and the Skull in general are a waste of effort. This is a far cry from the mainstream continuity, in which Schmidt was not only the Nazi’s only super-soldier (and an extremely dangerous individual), but also the favored pupil and heir of Hitler himself.
  • The Howling Commandos: When Cap rescues the soldiers from the Hydra facility half-way through the film, we are introduced to a group of soldiers who later become Cap’s “anti-Hydra” squad for the duration of the movie. Although not mentioned in the film, older fans may recognize this group as being the film-version of The Howling Commandos, a squad originally led by Sgt. Nick Fury in their own comic. Here it is Cap who forms the squad, and the roster is different from mainstream continuity as well. Observant fans may also notice that Dum-Dum Dugan (the one with the mustache) is not much taller than anyone else, whereas in the comics he possesses an impressive physique that makes him tower over most normal-sized characters, giving him a very intimidating presence.
  • Nick Fury/S.H.I.E.L.D.: These films use the Ultimate version of both Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D., meaning that neither were around in WWII. Nick Fury is African-American, bald, and dresses like Shaft – which is exactly how he was portrayed in the Ultimate comics (designed, ironically, after Samuel Jackson). And rather than a world-wide intelligence agency conceived by Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D. is here portrayed as The Department of Homeland Security on steroids.
  • Formation of the Avengers: Also from the Ultimate continuity, the Avengers is portrayed here as an initiative started by S.H.I.E.L.D. in present times, rather than the original team-up of independent heroes as depicted in mainstream comics. No mention of the original Avengers group from WWII (which included Captain America) is made.

Overall

Despite what may sound like gripes above, overall I have to say I enjoyed Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s a fun action movie, a pretty good rendition of one of my favorite heroes, a nice period piece, and it’s something I can watch with my kids. I can honestly give it my highest compliment, which is to say that I’ll definitely add it to my DVD library when it comes out.

My Rating: 9/10

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