Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America may not possess the persistent appeal of Spider-Man, the intriguing inner demons of Wolverine or the unbeatable brand of Batman. Truth be told, I was skeptical about his odds at big screen success. Yes, the Marvel machine’s been on a roll. “Iron Man” was good fun. Hulk has his winning history. Even “Thor” was a pleasant surprise. Modernizing and globalizing Cap just seemed a harder sell. But this revitalized hero shows strength and wit to match his Avenger friends. Enough to make “Captain America: The First Avenger” a charming underdog entertainment – rooted not in our real world but his comic one.
We begin with Steve Rogers, a 90-pound asthmatic from Brooklyn. His father died of mustard gas. His mother was a nurse in a tuberculosis ward until she caught it herself. It is 1942, America is at war and Steve has no reason to stay home. The way Rogers sees it, he’s no different than any other man his age: ready, willing, able. The doctors disagree. He applies five times under five aliases. He gets five rejection stamps.
Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) takes notices – and reacts in an unexpected way. He’s an outsider, too; a German scientist working for the U.S. government to find a solider with a heart worth super-sizing. He’s created a serum capable of enhancing every quality in the man who receives it. But the successful candidate must demonstrate he is more human than hard-bodied. This boy still itching to fight after five failed attempts holds promise. Erskine is Rogers’ first ally.
The military requires more convincing. Rogers is sent to a boot camp run by Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and his fetching first officer, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), a Brit. On sight, they nearly dismiss Rogers as a novelty. Some new motivational tool for the alpha monkeys in the platoon. We sense he can persuade them to look past his physical limitations.
Erskine fled the Reich after discovering that his serum could also amplify an evil heart’s intentions. In Hitler’s science division, he worked alongside Dr. Hugo Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a rival scientist more interested in the usual supervillian stuff than Hitler’s march to homogeny. So long as their pursuits run parallel, Schmidt is content to run alongside the Führer. The fight for Berlin, we presume, can wait.
That’s all the plot I dare share here. On the whole, it’s fairly pedestrian stuff. But the film finds magic in small moments along the way. “Captain America” succeeds because notes it hits resonate with us long after the few it doesn’t.
It is features inspired ensemble casting as director Joe Johnston surrounds his young leads with one of the deepest supporting casts you’ll find. Stanley Tucci. Tommy Lee Jones. Hugo Weaving. Dominic Cooper. All play familiar characters. All find new ways to surprise us. Somehow, Toby Jones stands tallest, imbuing the effete ramblings of his mad German scientist with a welcome streak of absurdist humour. One-liners fly, and most of them land, too, but it’s up to these actors to elevate what would otherwise be forgettable roles. They nail it.
As the lone female presence in “Captain America,” Hayley Atwell is an intoxicating new talent. Her Peggy Carter is a resourceful heroine who won’t take a handout even when her life depends on it. Only if someone else’s did. Plucky, smart and madly sexy, Atwell steals scene after scene. That she makes this impression mostly in military issue field gear is all the more impressive. Her Carter doesn’t need Rogers; won’t throw herself at him the way a lesser character might. But she understands his path. They share a mutual respect.
At the centre of it all, Chris Evans. He of “Not Another Teen Movie” and the “Fantastic Four” films. This may be the first role of his career that actually requires Evans to act – and he exceeds expectations. He could fill Cap’s suit on jaw line and rippling muscle alone. But Evans shows depth. He is required to wear a sophisticated motion capture system, allowing the film effects specialist to shrink him by half, through the film’s early scenes. Evans, 6’3″, 180 pounds at the time of filming, is convincing in either form.
Director Johnston hinges the film on his decisions to honour the era Captain America was conceived for (I laughed out loud when one character calls Carter “Queen Victoria”) and to start Rogers small. Tracking his evolution from eager shrimp to superficial sideshow allows the screenwriters to establish the character and endear him to the audience. Johnston’s technical virtuosity doesn’t hurt, either. The director began his career as an effects illustrator 35 years ago and is well-suited to this material. Lavish attention is paid to every costume decision, stage design and light filter.
Of course, there are some glaring imperfections. Subplots fall flat. The action scenes are all preposterous. Hell, there’s even an establishing shot of Schmidt’s laboratory revealing that it’s carved in the side of a mountain like Dr. Evil’s. Ridiculous. But no matter. The picture’s got character. Charisma. And, happily, charm.
Captain America is a man of heightened muscle and strength. But he boasts no true superpower. He’s got gumption. So does this film.
Chris Evans – Steve Rogers
Hayley Atwell – Peggy Carter
Hugo Weaving – Johann Schmidt
Stanley Tucci – Dr. Abraham Erskine
Tommy Lee Jones – Colonel Chester Phillips
Toby Jones – Dr. Armin Zola
Dominic Cooper – Howard Stark
Directed by Joe Johnston
Written by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and Joss Whedon (uncredited)
Running Time: 124 Minutes.