Review: Captain America

Let’s be honest: director Joe Johnston is a hit-and-miss director at best, but it’s not his style that sullies his reputation, it’s the script he’s handed to work with.  Visually and stylistically, the man excels, doing the best he can with what he’s given.  It probably comes from his days as a storyboarder on films like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Such experience translates to his directorial style, and combined with his obvious knowledge and love of the 1930s and 40s period films, all that is required of him to knock one out of the park is a superb script.

Based on the comic book origin story by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely delivered such a script to Johnston in Captain America: The First Avenger.  Those who know me know that I am horribly disappointed when it comes to modern superhero flicks.  Movies like Batman Begins and Green Lantern do not impress me in the least.  They seem empty and soulless, and they quite often get so close to the mark and yet miss it completely on the character level.  It’s like there’s a formula that DC / Warner Bros. doesn’t seem to understand anymore.  Their movies pull in all kinds of cash, and yet they just seem… wrong.  Marvel, on the other hand, seems to be pulling out all the stops.  Iron Man is off to a great start, and while Thor and Hulk seem to be missing a little something, the road to The Avengers suddenly seems bright indeed now that Captain America has thrown his mighty shield.

Admittedly, I’m a little biased, and as such I had high expectations going into this one.  Of all the Marvel heroes out there, Captain America is my absolute favorite.  Being of the World War II generation, he’s the only one of the Avengers that seems to be able to stand toe-to-toe with DC’s Justice League / Justice Society big guns.  He’s of that era, which is a far different mold than the likes of the Punisher or Spider-Man.  And then when you drop the character smack in the middle of his WWII roots, what unfolds is a super-patriotic feast that’s unashamed of showing the world what it used to be (and could be again?) to be a true American hero.  Captain America gives us the flag-wrapped ideals of that era, a taste of the horrors of war (both in the USO and in combat), a villain whose goals and tactics overshadow those of Hitler himself, a family-friendly experience without being overly sappy, and a positive message about what it takes to overcome the bullies of the world.

After 70 years, it would be easy to believe that capturing a very specific and overly cartoonish origin story would be difficult for a modern movie.  Back on Superman, Richard Donner used the term “verisimilitude,” meaning that the story and characters should be treated as though they were real.  This is clearly the approach Johnston used for Captain America, and the payoff for this fanboy is off the charts.  It captures the look and feel of WWII era comic books, but at the same time, it’s most assuredly a modern movie, with all the grand spectacle and science-fictiony goodness that we’ve come to expect over the years.  Add in a score by soundtrack veteran Alan Silvestri, and it all just comes together seamlessly.  So again, I wonder why it’s so hard to capture this level of quality on the side of DC and WB, whose heroes are tailor-made to shine on this level.  Until they figure out, for my film experience, make mine Marvel.

I had some reservations early on that I hoped would be overcome.  The first was the casting of Chris Evans as Cap.  After his run as the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies, I admit that I had him typecast.  That kind of approach would have been completely wrong for a character like Steve Rogers.  Add to that, I questioned the uniform a bit.  It looked great, but I wondered how it would play within the context of the film.  I needn’t have worried.  Evans pulled stepped into Cap’s boots the same way Christopher Reeve stepped into Superman’s.  He’s that convincing in the role, and he makes the uniform – every version of it - come alive on screen.  Needless to say, when the Avengers assemble, they now have someone who will lead them into battle.  Likewise, Hugo Weaving brought the Red Skull to life the same way Ian McKellan gave us Magneto; he chewed the scenes as a professional without being over-the-top about it like a Batman villain.  Another reservation I had was the use of Hydra instead of traditional Nazis.  Again, I shouldn’t have worried.  The Nazi menace is there, and Hydra is played up to be a far greater threat from within those ranks.  The rest of the ensemble cast just seemed to fit right in like the pieces of a puzzle.  Special props from me go to Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), Stanley Tucci (Dr. Erskine), and Dominic Cooper (Howard Stark), though I don’t have a single negative word to say about any of the cast on this one.

To those who fussed about the overseas name change, all I can say is that the character, the story, and the uniform itself will do the talking.  If a name change gets foreign crowds into the theater, then it did its job.  The rest is pure propoganda that our own government and citizenry could take a few hints from… or not, if you’d rather sit back and enjoy it for what it is. 

On the whole, I give Captain America a near-perfect rating on whatever scale you choose to measure it.  Future superhero films will have to measure up to this one for the next generation or so as it completely raises the bar in my mind.