Mania Grade: B-
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- Starring: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Toby Jones, Dominic Cooper, Stanley Tucci and Samuel L. Jackson
- Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
- Directed by: Joe Johnston
- Studio: Paramount Pictures
- Rating: PG-13
- Run Time: 121 minutes
Mania Review: Captain America
Does the first Avenger stand tall?
By Rob Vaux
July 21, 2011
Despite some significant problems, Captain America earns a thumbs up because of… well, because of Captain America. Director Joe Johnston devotes himself to delivering a well-rounded and sympathetic hero: someone more than just a generic good guy, with quirks and foibles that justify an entire movie about him. It pushes the film past more than its share of dodgy spots and avoids the two-hour Avengers trailer it might have easily become.
Cap has come so far from his World War II roots that it’s easy to forget about them: depicting a scrawny recruit willing to volunteer for a super-secret super soldier program just to get into the fight. Captain America delves deeply into the motivations behind such a decision, and explores how such a recruit might respond to suddenly becoming Adonis. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has the physique of a ten-year-old girl and a host of debilitating conditions that make him wheeze every time he climbs the stairs. That doesn’t stop him from calling out the local hoodlum for talking too loudly at the movies, even though it’s guaranteed to earn him a black eye. His friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) is already in the Army, and admonishes him to accept his lot quietly. But there’s a lot of fight in that little dog, and his repeated applications finally earn him some attention.
Specifically, he catches the eye of Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German ex-patriot developing a serum to expedite those “Before/After” pictures on the side of Charles Atlas products. His first efforts back in Germany turned an ambitious scientist into the horrifying Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), but he thinks he has the bugs worked out. Rogers’ innate decency stands out in his mind – a man who understands the responsibilities of power – and with the help of techmaster Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), he transforms Rogers into the living equivalent of a Michelangelo sculpture.
Stark’s appearance is an obvious nod to the greater Marvel universe, as is the Red Skull’s quest to obtain the power of the Norse gods. When he finds it, he ramps up a series of high tech gadgets with the intent of conquering the world. Cap, of course, needs to stop him, and their inevitable conflict shows a considerable amount of superhero fatigue. We’ve been there too many times before – the fights in the warehouses, the do-or-die rescues, the stand-offs in crippled airships – and despite Weaving’s wonderful work as the Skull, it never grabs us the way the action in Thor or X-Men:First Class did.
So too does the notion of Avengers preparation dog the film from beginning to end. Captain America hustles to get a huge amount of backstory out of the way so that the later film won’t have to, truncating present gratification for a presumed future payoff. It grows increasingly exasperating, especially when the episodic structure struggles to crank up the energy.
Johnston rebounds, however, every time he goes back to Cap. We feel for the guy’s various dilemmas – from squaring off with the Skull to chaffing under his early duties as a USO pitchman – as deeply as his optimism and bravery. He and Bucky play off of each other marvelously (with the initial big brother suddenly finding himself on the sidekick side of the equation) and Rogers’ halting romance with a sharpshooting officer (Hayley Atwell) attains a gentle sweetness that befits the film’s overall tone well.
Speaking of which, Johnston also does wonders in evoking a strong sense of nostalgia: the can-do determination of the 1940s given a slightly distorted comic book sheen. It hearkens back to the director’s underrated The Rocketeer, and along with the hero himself, delivers a distinctiveness that it desperately needs. The other cast members help out as well, starting with Weaving and heading straight down the line. Tommy Lee Jones’ irascible colonel ups the ante every time he appears on screen, and the film’s surprising high point arrives with him and Toby Jones’ rodent-like baddie facing off in a British interrogation room. Tucci anchors the film’s early scenes with a knowing, melancholy presence, while Neal McDonough’s Dum Dum Dugan comes dangerously close to sneaking off with the whole damn show.
They all contribute to a very mixed bag – lagging behind Marvel’s earlier efforts this summer, though miles ahead of the misbegotten Green Lantern. Thankfully, their contributions are uniformly positive, aided by Johnston’s innate sensibilities and Evans’ stalwart heroics. Cap has suffered greatly at the hands of past filmmakers, with three earlier live action films that rank as the worst things ever put on screen. How gratifying it is, then, to see somebody finally care about doing him right: imperfectly perhaps, but with an enthusiasm missing from its misbegotten progenitors. After watching this, I’m really looking forward to seeing him in The Avengers: the surest sign that what’s going on here is worth a few hours of your time.