Yes, I consider Captain America: The First Avenger the best pre-Avengers Marvel film, as does my dad. Director Joe Johnston had already attempted a retro superhero flick in 1991’s The Rocketeer, and his treatment of Cap’s origins feels both familiar and fresh. The cinematography and the recreation of 1940s New York have the faded nostalgia of an old photograph, and the spectacular explosions and stunts set against this background (plus an Alan Menken musical number) make it uniquely entertaining.
Plus, the film boasts the unexpected star power of Chris Evans, whose gung-ho patriotism and intrinsic goodness are surprisingly convincing following his bad-boy impudence as the Human Torch in the lackluster Fantastic Four films. His goody two-shoes persona could easily have been boring, yet another hero we ought to cheer for just because, but the ways in which his character displays his selflessness gain the audience’s sympathy even before the famed experiment that transforms him into a beefcake. The effects used to diminish Evans’s physique are impressively seamless. Supporting players are alternately amusing and poignant, including Stanley Tucci as the Yinsen-esque motivator Dr. Erskine, Tommy Lee Jones as swift-tongued Colonel Phillips, Hayley Atwell as love interest Peggy Carter (who will soon have her own mini-series appropriately titled Agent Carter), Dominic Cooper as Iron Man’s father Howard Stark, Toby Jones as HYDRA scientist Dr. Zola, and Sebastian Stan as fallen friend Bucky Barnes. As far as comic book villains go, Hugo Weaving excels as the Red Skull, whose makeup could easily have become absurdly cartoonish but succeeds as an outward manifestation of his sanguinary intentions. The Matrix proved Weaving’s talent for villainy, but here his German accent and Nazi origins enhance his malevolence. The film also features an assassin played by Richard Armitage, who would go on to play Thorin Oakenshield in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy.
In addition to Barnes’s sorrowful fall from the train, the thrilling climax aboard the Red Skull’s plane is deftly imagined. The villain’s “death” from the Tesseract is sufficiently ambiguous to make one wonder if he was really killed or perhaps transported elsewhere (you never know), and the film ends with one of the most credible instances of the he’s-dead-no-wait-never-mind cliché. I’ve mentioned this cliché before: used in countless films, many animated, it milks often contrived pathos from a character’s apparent death before resurrecting him, sometimes right away for a cheer, sometimes near the end as a deus ex machina. This doesn’t necessarily hurt a film overall; it just hampers its originality. The reason Captain America’s version of it works so heartbreakingly well is that, from the perspective of everyone he knew, Cap really did die, just as most of them had died by the time he was awoken. The final scene brings him up to speed with S.H.I.E.L.D. and the contemporary Avengers, but his sense of loss provides a somber conclusion to an otherwise rousing adventure. As the last film in Phase One of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, Captain America: The First Avenger completed the cast for the subsequent Avengers team-up (even though Cap was not a founding member in the comics; just sayin’).
Best line: (Colonel Phillips, after Cap kisses Agent Carter and glances at him) “I’m not kissin’ ya!”Artistry: 8 Characters/Actors: 8 Entertainment: 9 Visual Effects: 10 Originality: 7 Watchability: 9 TOTAL: 51 out of 60
Next: #106 – Air Force One
© 2014 S. G. Liput
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