I have to say, critically-speaking at least, this has been quite the summer for Marvel, hasn’t it? Granted, none of their 2011 summer releases has enjoyed the kind of spectacular box-office success that flicks in the Spider-Man and Iron Man series have, and even X-Men : First Class has underperformed a bit compared to previous incarnations/installments in that franchise’s run, but between that, Thor, and the subject of our review today, veteran Hollywood blockbuster director Joe Johnston’s Captain America : The First Avenger, it’s fair to say that properties from the so-called “House of Ideas” have become absolute critics’ darlings.
And hell, why not? The fact is that as far as mass-marketed mega-budget studio marketing tools go, these films have all been pretty damn good. Sure, they’re still more about selling toys and hyping the next big thing to come from Stan Lee’s commercial empire (in this case, as with Thor, the object that pre-publicity-hype being 2012’s forthcoming The Avengers) than they are about the actual movies themselves per se, but damn if they haven’t all featured a lot better characterization, acting, plotting, and what have you than most massively-ballyhooed, massively-distributed, massively-seen, and massively-budgeted Hollywood fare.
Okay, fair enough, in this case more than most the film is almost pure set-up for the sequel-and-spin-off machine, and from start to finish the whole thing feels more like a prequel for an actual movie that hasn’t happened yet than a self-contained story designed to stand or fall on its own merits, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t do just that anyway. The giveaway comes in right at the start when the remains of Cap’s doomed flight are found in the Antarctic in the present day, but once we shift back in time to World War II and get into the story proper, it’s eminently gripping and satisfying from start to finish even if you never do quite escape the feeling that it’s two hours of pure backstory.
The strongest element has to be the superb performance of Chris Evans in the title role — with an honorable mention going to the CGI effects team. For the first third or so of the film, as we meet Steve Rogers in his early incarnation of heart-of-gold super-wimp, Evans’ typical-Hollywood steroid-enhanced-looking-frame is digitally manipulated to appear thin and lanky, and while the effect is impressive enough in and of itself, it’s Evans’ performance that really sells it, and when he gets injected with Tony Stark’s dad’s super-goo to become the Nazi menace’s worst living nightmare, the subtle changes Evans uses to convey the fact that he’s still the same good-natured kid, albeit one now almost trapped in a body he doesn’t fully comprehend, are astounding. It’s easily the best acting job ever turned in by a leading man in a superhero flick.
Beyond that, everyone else is solid, too. As Cap’s arch-nemesis The Red Skull, Hugo Weaving is coolly menacing when he needs to be, outright unhinged when it’s called for, and a righteously callous bastard throughout. Tommy Lee Jones is right at home in a military-hard-ass role he was born to play, and he seems to be soaking up most of the acting accolades from the media for his turn here. What the hell, it’s been a long career and he’s earned it. And Hayley Atwell, besides being drop-dead gorgeous, is convincingly endearing as our guy Steve’s love interest, Peggy Carter. You really believe she’d take a shine to this guy even if he’d stayed a a scrawny wuss forever.
Johnston keeps the film moving at a pace that heightens one’s interest throughout without resorting to being a breakneck thriller, and there’s certainly no harm in that — more Hollywood directors could take a cue from this and learn that there’s much to be gained from keeping a person in their seat at all times rather than on the edge of it from the word go. The pacing here is pretty much pitch-perfect and the screenplay from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is so exceptionally loyal in tone, if not exactly in content (although it’s plenty close there for a modern audience), to the Joe Simon-Jack Kirby comics of the 1940s that it’s sure to please even the most die-hard “Golden Age” purist.
And I think that’s the secret to Captain America : The First Avenger‘s success more than anything else, truth be told. As was the case with Thor, the folks behind the camera have finally figured out that while Stan Lee gave us the hype and the melodrama, it’s Jack Kirby’s vision and boundless creativity that was actually the heart and soul of these marvel characters in their earliest, and best, incarnations. It took Hollywood a long time, but they’ve finally figured out who the real genius at Marvel was, and by faithfully translating “The Kings”‘s vision to the silver screen, Kenneth Branagh and Joe Johnston have delivered a couple of the best superhero movies ever made.
I realize this review is pretty late in coming and that most folks who have any interest in this flick have probably already seen it, but on the off chance that you’re one of the few who’s intrigued by this and hasn’t made it out to the theater yet, do yourself a favor and check it out while you still can. You’ll be mightily impressed at best, pleasantly surprised at worst.